A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF THE OPTICS OF PAIN/PLEASURE PRINCIPAL IN CARAVAGGIO
Throughout the 20th and 21st Century, there has long been a tradition in which academians engage with Caravaggio through the gaze and posturing of Caravaggioâ€™s oeuvre though gay/queer contextualisation. This has not been a one off occurrence, articles have been included within open university, various academic institutions, positioned by
acclaimed queer historians such as Ric Norton and intellectuals by proxy such as Susan Sontag and relatively liberal media such as the Guardian or New York post.
What many fail to articulate is the anachronistic manner in which they position these depictions; what they fully articulate, and the problematic nature of all these.
This short thesis is an examination of the pleasure/pain principle within select works - how the psycho-analytic conflation between the death-drive and erotic drive merge or conspire against represented bodies, and as seen as part of a queer inheritance what it means for these bodies that accumulate within these criterion.
Caravaggio has been speculated largely to have been a gay man, part of which is speculative -and some interpretations have a potentiality of being historical. What we fail to recognise is what constitutes a gay man - if gay in this sense is a mutual compendium of both love and desire, this he was not - or not exclusively.
For all the models in his paintings appear to be positioned within both an age range, of adolescence and/or androgynous to the degree in which their tangible sex is distorted. If we are to believe, even, that the age in which some of his models and rendering of self are age appropriate - and that we could even in modernity conceive them as consensual does it still classify him as gay?
Within the context of Italy, and particularly within the rural outsets of city life their has long been a tradition of man, or male sex bodies existing within a feminine social sphere deemed anything between “Vasetto” (Jar, vessel, receptacle) and” effeminate/mezzafeminina”(LITTLE MAN WOMAN/Little half-woman) their sex is determined as liminal; in that they are not deemed to be either or. Even through epochs which punished sodomy as a capital offence this social positioning existed long into the early twentieth century. Like many societies in history, what constitutes as homosexual or more accurately was the the receptive partner - and although In Carravaggio’s lifetime it would become any non-procreative sex act - it did not exclusively posit the active partner as either a) sodomite, or b) enacting sodomy. It is also tentatively useful to then say for those that were “gay”, they adopted practices much more akin to pederastic historical traditions in which a younger, sexually submissive body would be adopted as sexual partner - for then at least it could be spun or viewed (even if it was a denial of sorts) that these bodies were essentially not male - as they had yet to become “man”.
What we see then in a historical contextualisation is that when bodies fail to meet criterion by both active partner and society either at large - or within certain spheres; their bodies are positioned as lesser or to some meet the performative criterion of the other sex (I.e. woman).
It is then in this case we come to understand that models and representation of this kind are not intrinsically gay, for to position them as such is both historically inaccurate and inarticulate.
Even still, we do have to address that in a time-frame of sorts we know that the majority of his paintings of youths were manufactured whilst he too was a youth, or at least young. And ultimately this will come not to set an intrinsic narrative but a set of paradigms in which we are able to gauge
representations and their meaning and cumulative effect in terms of visual inheritance.
MONSTERS AND NON-HUMANS; THE HISTORICAL POSITIONING OF EFFEMINATE MALE AS BEING SUB-HUMAN. AMOR VITORIUS, MEDUSA ETC.
BOYS, BOYS BOYS
(HOLDING BASKET OF FRUIT / THE
LUTE PLAYER/ BITTEN BY LIZARD)THE MUSICIANS
REMOVING A PART OF ME FROM ALL OF ME, REMOVING A PART THE S
E RO TIC X
C ON OTATI ON S N
ME: O T
There has been a long tradition of representing and female or feminine essence as being sub-human - it was eve’s proximity to Satan in some cases that instituted this, or perhaps Satan’s proximity to Eve. In terms of mythic narratives we see that women are frequently and most likely, consciously positioned as monsters when they do not meet the conditions of utilisation of heterosexual males (Harpies, unable to produce offspring abduct children within the night), Aged women (incapable of offspring are often removed of their perceived one useful attribute (beauty) - the myth collapses into numerous models and means when it comes to “effeminate men”; narcissus unwilling to engage in procreative sex either a) drowns and their body is substituted with a flower (fruit) or b) (the intelligibility of Hermaphroditus) merges and becomes imbued with a female, reflecting what could be posited as bodily reflection of inner-self. We see time and again the conflation between the feminine or androgynous male and over and over, it useful to state the
evolution of an angel which was historically viewed as something more sphynxian in nature evolves
anthropomorphically to become somewhat human (Hugo Van Der goes :Vienna Diptych) or become intrinsically positioned as objects which oscillate and perform between the erotic and sublime (Jan Van Eyck: Ghent altarpiece) The narrative was ultimately set up by canonical promulgation; if union between â€œmonstersâ€? in this case effeminate beings, male and female alike
ultimately produce a threat, or possibility of
turning over - or effectively levying layers of social dominance their offspring like them are ultimately monsters to be annihilated: Gorgons, Monsters, Giants.
It is this that is articulated by the following paintings; Medusa, David & Goliath, Amor Victorious & â€Ś We acknowledge like some of his predecessors and later followers Caravaggio adopted the classical aesthetic and
narrative as a means of aestheticising the body, including all of those narrative tropes. For those confused, or unable to understand why I reference David & Goliath in this capacity it is for the simple reason that: Christian and near eastern
narrative do not distinctly differ from either classical mythologies,
we see the same structure within Petronius’
Satyricon as we do with the Biblical “Paul & Thecla”.
So thus I begin:
MONSTERS AND NON-HUMANS; THE HISTORICAL POSITIONING OF EF FE MI N A TE MA LE A S B EI NG SUB-HUMAN. AMOR VITORIUS, G O L I A T H
M E D U S A
What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a man postured as a woman or another kind of man- in the case of Caravaggio it most always pertains if not directly relates it to
death. Death in this case becomes an operatic act which levels good (john the baptist, Christ) with either evil ( Holfernes) or an embodiment of non-human (Amor/Eros) as equal - it levies a proposition in which viewers come to equate representations of bodily acts and positions them (acts) as fated gesture - or in some instances as a reviled proposition of being - one in which similar bodies should then enact.
In the case of Medusa, a painted shield which features a solitary severed head painted on a convex shield. Medusa is a rendered portrait based on the artist himself. Hopefully I have established a pattern in which figures failing to meet the performative conditions of masculinity - but what does it mean to be rendered as a sub-human? And what are the
quantitative affects of this. An analytic reading cannot work without the primary notation of a mythos-or mythology in which Medusa herself exists. Medusa exists in formats 1) as a figure both beautiful and terrifying, 2) as a genesised
punished for being protector of a raped body, 3)
and suffering rape as opposed to consenting. 4) a mirroring of castration/ an embodiment of what could happen to an oppressive force/institution and to counteract this measure mirror this upon a feminine postured body.
So Medusa as a spectrum exists as several archetypes, ultimately that represent a the fall of a body. In terms of Caravaggio, it is his Medusa that becomes the representation in which decapitation then becomes a synonym of symbolic annihilation; for the body of a young or effeminate man, the proximity to femininity or female ontological status is then played through decapitation - the primary methodology in which the dis-allegiance to a masculinised social structure is performed - whom is the body most betrayed by: the phallus(snake) and perhaps the inability to perform a
sexualised beauty? Perhaps it is the perceived risk that this or his body is capable of actual bodily penetration. how does one
in this case come to castration as being then synonymous with a self induced execution? For the bodily act of execution in this case exists only to serve, most probably as something beautiful rather than being apotropaic, Medusa exists like a head on a pole - a symbolic gesture of fates which can be enacted upon bodies that fail to meet either gendered or sexual consignment or categorisation. It is in this case, if Caravaggio is in fact gay as opposed to Pederastic - annihilation is self-imposed through the failure to truly perform masculinity - whilst performing femininity in a masculine oriented dominant society - his body is not for consumption of the like minded but for those whom wish to supersede an actualisaed democratic position (I.e. the historical Mediciâ€™s). So in surmising a fate to befall a body what is the actuality in formulating and propagating a sexual phenom(ena) of an effeminate being.
A M O R
V I C T O R I O U S
If Medusa was a mirrored fate - Amor Victorious is the postured embodiment of desire - described often through terminology that would deemed sexual in nature; desire is a seminal vessel or receptacle.
What often most would talk
about is the potentiality of sexual connotation, a “wry” or “knowing” smile (one cannot forget that in christian biblical teaching tree of/apple of eternal life permuted into the tree knowledge - as in carnal knowledge), the posture of a straddling body - as in - if you were to remove this head from
this avatar it could be someone straddling in a sex act. The explicit connotation though reflects rather than an idyllic eroticism from a feminine or female view - any autonomy or implication of autonomy of body is postured in the perception that AMOR or LOVE, performs exclusively for one (as in you/ man). Love is constituted as as sexually male, but rather than being virile or active - even if they seem to be actively engaging seducing or performing the rites of sex AMOR is performing the subjective conditions in which the subjugated or submissive is equally expected through
- conditioning and allowed to perform the gesture of love, through the erotic. Love is not the fraternal in this instance, it does not posit two bodies as equals, although the title would merit a reading that as implied love is victorious - but LOVE appears as a sexualised non-human entity - non human in that they appear to be close to human - but have an unexpected appendage or addage much like Medusa.
If the prospect or intimation that sodomy itself is the heinous act in which one executes themselves, is the repetition of self-annihilation in a different age still equally meaningful, and then does the body equate or perpetuate the same status quo?
Goliath was a monster, in times in which angels had bred with humanity they had created a multiplicity of beings, whomâ€™s very being contested or at least existed contrary to all decency bestowed upon humanity by the divine. If monsters in this instance whether giants, gorgons, angels or the like had an implicit connotation with the divine it was that they had not been chosen, that their physical characteristics had manifested in demeanor and phenotype; they were essentially corrupt.
David and Goliath is a self-portrait of the artist, executed by the young biblical character of David. Similar to that of the Medusa portrait it articulates only a severed head - bereft of itâ€™s own body - rendered somewhat impotent in that the gaze that could be at least attested to in his self-portrait as Medusa is gone.
Caravaggio is now seen in old-age bearded,
beheaded impotent - although potentially orgasaming or ecstatic with this imposition.
If one in this instance can acknowledge the equation that Caravaggio made between self and abomination then, one has to acknowledge other attributions between self and the subject of desire. It is common knowledge that the association between David & Goliath has long maintained pederastic implications. It is less to do with the manner in which David execution but by the proximity that one whom is beautiful has slain a body by this very merit. If we acknowledge that beauty in this case like that of Salome or Jezebel has offered a vehicle or mechanism in which the subject or object is able to manifest behaviour which ultimately will allow them to supersede especially imposed structures. The implication of this with David exists within visual or iconographic sphere through representation - whether it be Donatello (where David becomes increasingly androgynous or with the sculpture by Raphael where he becomes a dominant presence
in height; yet remains bound classically to the trope of beautiful youth.
Where castration or self annihilation may have been the cumulative outcome of the Medusa painting David & Goliath potentially posits a different interpretive representation. It is one in which Caravaggio himself dies - perhaps more like that of the fin-de-siecle phrase ofâ€? Le petite Mortâ€?. The proximity of both head and mouth to the shadowed crotch of David is an indicator of this, it is the only or one commonly identifiable body parts. Where if Caravaggio acknowledges he perhaps services a lover, or object of desire - he no longer is the autonomous masculine figure - but that other man, one whom cannot be in a historical sense: Man. painting maybe acts as
It is this then, that the
an acknowledgement of although
socially progressing, the inability to truly autonomise self - or
person-hood from sexual desire, and ultimately this in itself will lead to death in two manners.
As previously stated; the proposition that female, feminine and other offers a threat to institutional(ised) power and structure. In the case of body Caravaggio if rather the penetrated body he removes his body or area of sin; proof of his proximity to womanhood.
The implication of being an abomination cannot end, that regardless - repentance cannot be removed through ritual and that the sexual body only can be redeemed when meeting the implication of masculine performance. If man needs to penetrate - the body which receives then inevitable is subhuman, meaning a death without heaven or subsequently removed from Divine acknowledgement - other than judgement is fated to the same end.
B O Y S ,
B O Y S
B O Y S :
BOY(HOLDING BASKET OF FRUIT & BOY WITH FINGER BITTEN BY L
If the Object of desire within the oeuvre of Caravaggio is acknowledged as being commonly
perceived as a boy - it
is useful to preface this similarly in the way in which a body is designated with attributed sex. And the way in which the obvious sexual connotation in which desire is situated within representation, and how the site in which sexual desire and how stigma attributes into the occurrence and transforms the male body into the female or third sex.
The head tilts to the left, weighing heavily on an ornate neck as the model uses the most rigour trying to uphold or maintain holding a basket of fruit. With pursed lips, and bedroom eyes “Boy holding basket of fruit” since the 1970’s
has commonly been understood as erotic, if not explicitly homo erotic. As the blouse of the model (it has been attributed as feminine garb specifically within other paintings such as boy playing lute and a number of other paintings, boy in this case perhaps clutches the fruit basket in order to halt the exposing of breast. Whilst most
openly state the erotic implication of the
paintings (cropping of particular ares would render them as same or similar to a number of soft-core porn from the 1920â€™s onwards the sex of this model has come into constant contention. Is it: boy, man, male? Is it girl, woman, female or is the figure lowly: the Vasetto, castrati? Similarly styled self-portraits of Caravaggio â€œSick Bacchusâ€? or Bacchus himself, always render the object of desire typically as gender non-conforming - even by standards of the age. Reasons for contesting attributed sex in these instances comes via the manner in which the figure or model is both ornamented and openly eroticised.
European Classical Enlightenment rhetoric posed the statement of male bodily superiority though mass reproduction whether autographic or semi-mechanicalised. This epithet of the body and implication of the representation of the bodily could be surmised in the quotation that man is the measure of all things.
This is not to retroject the misogynistic, and potentially femme-negating stance positioned as both visual and literary narrative as featured within Derek Jarmanâ€™s Caravaggio. But that the contingency of sexual desire in this instance requires both nuance and historical appropriate referencing. Iâ€™ve referred previously to the Vasetto as an archetype, and perhaps this is the way in which we must engender the bodily presence of Caravaggioâ€™s young self and muses. That they are not explicitly male, yet they are not female.
The proximity to the erotic gaze has lead to the transmutation though of XY - XX in the instances of boy playing lute - this has been noted through mechanical reproduction in postal stamps of fraternal ordered cultures during explicit times of cultural and religious persecutions of homosexuals (I.e. Russian and Arab countries) Boy was transmuted to the state of female to avoid any direct conflation of idealised masculine prowess and genius; and the outright sexual gaze implicated upon a male sexed body.
Sex and sexuality in this case cannot be seen as mutually intelligible, they become complex in their remediation between being.
Best expressed in â€œ BOY
WITH FINGER BITTEN BY A
LIZARDâ€? sex, sexuality and gender determination are equally parts in which one cannot remove the other from either of the other easily.
The Boy in â€œBoy with finger bitten by a lizardâ€? has long been attested as the studio assistant/hand of Caravaggio, some have posed that he was a hustler or street urchin, perhaps trying to unexplicitly refer to the figure as a sex worker crudely.
Whether it be the primary or the latter, the direct implication is that through his rendering, that the relationship itself was explicitly sexual in nature.
The erotification of the figure has been equated through the syntax of bodily gesture, that the pain in the models face displays a feminine lack of vigour, perhaps similar to the pain or pleasurable face of being penetrated - and that his finger and body remain limp - slender - even languid. The way people perceive sex in this instance is not traditionally male, the boy is politely being implicated as passive or at least un-virile in their rendition of both pain and pleasure.
His body has never been truly perceived as female, feminine yes, but female - no. Iâ€™ve found it interesting that sex in this case has a mutual intelligibility with the willingness to engage or participate in the sexual act - man aspires to heavenly love but engages with sin through the seduction of the vessel, receptacle slut or bottom. He is seen as sexual, potentially promiscuous yet remains and had remained male. It perhaps useful to gauge Caravaggioâ€™s portrayal of self and other as part of a grandiose cyclic meta-narrative in which the body is rendered sexual, and then within the context of
Catholic Italy is transmuted into religious parable or narrative itself switching between being rendered obsolete: through physical stasis or annihilated literally: through death. Bodies in this instance become part of a vicious cycle, their bodies remain intelligible - but their fate is not. Like Bacchus: live in excess, fuck, and be desired or worship OR adopt sin, engage with these practices and in doing so die
REMOVING A PART OF ME FROM ALL OF ME, REMOVING A PART OF YOU FROM INSIDE OF ME
Frequently referenced in queer readings or interpretations is the openness of sex and sexuality as being a radical act breaking from normative institutionally approved/mandated behaviour. What many fail to see is the irony in which many forms of “transgressive” sex acts and practices mirror annihilating, humiliating and subjugating sex practices endemic within heterosexual relationships.
To this extent Caravaggio’s depictions offer no salvation or liberation from institutions, nor are their relationship problematic or collapsible explicitly into modernity. For a long time the failure to even point out characteristic flaws and damaging bodily and social flaws through conditioning that what is “ours” has no verity or rights to be criticised by
the heterosexual institution. But what about love? And in this case Iâ€™m not meaning EROS or AMOR, one questioning the merit or means in which we seek both affection and care in the images we consume? Caravaggio poses the question of truly decolonising what is ours from what history and them (generally heterosexuals, or men whom perform within that sphere) dictate as being our inheritance of what it means to be gay.
If Caravaggio was in fact gay, what does it mean that the common object of desire is just that: and Object. To be utilised and then brutalised, they do not exist ever truly in circumstances of love - only in brief ellipsis where their bodies are static within the sexual gaze.
If he was a pederast - why do we insist on conflating boy with man, that this body has even the agency to consent let
alone determine any self-autonomy. The boy is lesser than and thus is explicitly treated so.
If the body is liminal, there is no refuge from the gaze. Let alone any salvation from the impeding depiction of death, how are we to envision the potentiality of life if all we can do is reoccurring position the body within a spectacle of sexual and bodily harm.
What we fail to see in viewing these bodies, even in terms of these sets of binaries is that the body could exist in all of these binaries a body can be considered but not identifiable as male vice versa; although the contingency of death as the great equaliser levies all null.
If erotic drive is equally imbued with the death drive, desire seeks to render pain as pleasure ultimately until the final lash, beating or pain. Bodies in this manner masquerade a willingness to engage with the optics of death as sexual, as much in that in doing so they engage at a larger social discourse - that in some sense that by performing a
- reactionary masculinity they are seen to be able to perform gesture or likeness so then perceive themselves as such, even if it leads to their demise.Optics cannot be removed from the gaze, and equally with Caravaggio sex cannot be removed from death