Sunday, November 05, 2006

Bible Stories

So I awoke this morning to the sound of bells from the churches of Duesseldorf. I've been left to my own devices today, and while I had planned a laundry day, the autowashes were shut, so I ended up walking into the Altstadt (old town), cruising a farmer's market, and the museum kunst palast (art museum), which was doing a show of the art of Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610)).

An early Baroque painter, Caravaggio was a rebel in this time for using ordinary people for his paintings, choosing non-standard presentations for traditional works (mostly religious paintings), and reducing or sometimes subverting religious iconography within the work. His life was that of a hot-tempered brawler, guilty of murder in one case and on the lam, but his art appealed as often as it shocked the sentiments of the day.

The paintings themselves are mostly on biblical subjects: the Holy Family with an infant John the Baptist (an early team-up before either was a superhero), the Death of Mary. The Taking of Christ, the Dinner at Emmaus, and a passel of saints - Jermone, Sebastian, and Francis. Yet his working from life models and choosing non-standard presentations creates very different appearances for these then-traditional stories.

Another thing the show did was, surprisingly, open up the entire old question of "What is Art". Most of the pieces displayed were not originals in the traditional sense. Rather many were duplicate studies worked up by Caravaggio or copies made by later artists, duplicating his work in detail, though not his exact artistic style (and historians rely on that physical style of working to identify Caravggio's work, though others might have used that style as well). A plethora of copies (indeed, we are confronted with a wall of St. Francises contemplating skulls) makes figuring out who painted what and when a mess.

The point the curators worked towards, however, is that concepts and presentation that Caravaggio used were what was important, so it does not matter if you are viewing the original of a work or the third-hand rendition of that work, provided that those concepts remain true. The Death of Mary is not the original (that is in the Louvre and is too delicate to travel), but the copy (by another hand) contains the same work, while another piece, which might be a preliminary drawing, appears nearby.

The idea that art can only be by the hand of the original artist is pretty important, but may in the end be a blind alley. Warhol did all the prelimiary work, but left his silkscreening to others. Rodan, though shown in a newsreel with a big block of stone and a mallet and chisel, really worked in clay and plaster, and had others make the transfer to stone and metal. Even the idea of restoration involves removing the pieces of paint and fresco laid down by the original artist and replacing them with exact duplicates (a Steven Wright joke goes here, but I will pass). So I am looking at copies of Caravaggio's work in a museum - does that mean I don't see Caravaggio's meaning and intent?

Maybe this is it: Art exists solely to be created. Everything that happens afterwards is merely marketing.

More later,