November 2008

Death of the Caravaggio

I am probably the only person who thinks that the title of this post is clever.

On Thanksgiving evening, the family was gathered around B’s iPhone, answering questions to online geography quizzes. J and I vied to do an art quiz, and I found myself stumped on one of the questions:

Caravaggio died of what disease?

I was embarrassed that I didn’t know the answer to this question, since I’m an art historian who claims Caravaggio as my favorite painter. However, after doing some research, it looks like the circumstances surrounding Caravaggio’s death are uncertain. The art history quiz cited “malaria” as the correct answer, but a relatively recent discovery of Caravaggio’s death certificate has led an Italian researcher to propose that the artist died of typhus. Taking into consideration the change in calendar, this certificate places Caravaggio’s death as July 18, 1610. Therefore, the period between Caravaggio’s arrival at malaria-infested Porto Ercole and his death would not have allowed time for malaria to sufficiently incubate. It appears that typhus is a more logical cause for the recorded “illness” that caused Caravaggio’s death.

Note: The cause of Caravaggio’s death is something completely different from the Caravaggio disease, something that I’m pretty sure I have contracted.


Kershisnik and the Primary Experience

Last week I went to a couple of sessions of an art symposium. The invited guest speaker was the artist Brian Kershisnik, a local artist whom I find to be quite talented. During his speech, Kershisnik mentioned that he finds it important for painting to be self-aware. In other words, the painting should manifest awareness that it is a painting, awareness that it is a flat canvas which contains representations of objects with the medium of paint. This self-awareness of painting can especially be observed in Kershisnik’s style, since his figures are very flat. In this painting, Gardening in the Rain, the flatness of the figure (and subsequently, the flatness of the canvas) is further emphasized by the pattern on the woman’s dress and the stylized depiction of falling rain.

During a Q & A session, I asked Kershisnik to further discuss his ideas regarding the self-awareness of painting. He said something interesting, which I can’t quote verbatim (my notes are already packed away!) but it went something like this:

I am interested in one having a primary experience with painting and not a surrogate experience.

In other words, Kershisnik aims to have a viewer of his work aware that he/she is standing in front of a canvas that is covered with paint. In my opinion, this aim is in contrast to many realist painters who hope that the viewer is able to place himself/herself within the painting and have a surrogate experience with the work of art (“I feel like I’m actually there!” kind of idea). With a primary experience, however, I think that one is completely external to the painting and aware of his/her present surroundings.

I think that this escapist/surrogate experience has its own place within the world of art, but I think that I generally prefer the primary experience. I love looking at the tactility of the paint (hooray for impasto!) and observing the artist’s “hand” through the movement of the brushstrokes.

What do you prefer? A primary experience? A surrogate experience? A mixture of the two? In some ways, I like having a mixture of the two paradigms (I love to be swept away in the drama of Baroque subject matter), but I think I lean a little bit more heavily on the primary experience over the surrogate.

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Michael Fried Lecture

Last night J and I went to a lecture by Michael Fried, one of the most influential art critics/historians of the 20th century. We showed up to the lecture early, just to make sure that we could get a seat. One of the members of the museum staff noticed me there and asked me to help adjust and fix the two slide projectors for the program. I guess all my work as a TA for 201 and 202 has finally paid off – I got to meet Michael Fried and fix the slide projectors that he used! I was in art historian celebrity heaven! I wish that my friend Kiersten could have been there; she had to read everything that Fried has written (hundreds and hundreds of pages) for a graduate seminar two years ago.

I think that I understood some of Fried’s theories (and distastes!) for Minimalism better from listening to this lecture than I ever gathered from reading his seminal article, “Art and Objecthood.” Fried explained that Minimalist sculpture wants to activate the exhibition space. For example, the visitor to the gallery automatic has a relationship with the Minimalist sculpture in regards to a bodily relationship with the sculpture size (“the sculpture is bigger than me” or “the sculpture is smaller than me”) and the way the sculpture fills the exhibition space and the viewer’s space (“I can walk around this sculpture,” “The sculpture is in front of me” or “The sculpture is behind me”). Fried explained last night feels that the contrived relationship between Minimalist art and viewer is too easy and too automatic. This explanation of “easiness” and “automatic-ness” makes a lot of sense to me, especially when one contrasts the art that Fried loves (Greenbergian Abstract Expressionism and High Modernism) with Minimalism. Abstract expressionism does not easily and automatically create a relationship with the gallery visitor or surrounding space like Minimalist sculpture.

Fried also showed some paintings by one his favorite painters, Jules Olitski. He explained that the “all over intensity” throughout the canvas is what he meant when he wrote about “presentness” in “Art and Objecthood.” This made so much sense to me – I only partially grasped what he meant by “presentness” in this article. Now I’ll need to re-read the article to see if things make better sense.
Fried also promoted his new book (scheduled for January 2009), which involves the theme of absorption (a theme he has examined over and over in his work) and photography. Fried is particularly interested in how subjects in 17th and 18th century paintings seem to be completely involved (absorbed) in whatever they are doing; they are “self-forgetting” and completely unaware of the viewer. Just like paintings, photography follow this same theme of absorption. It sounds like it will be an interesting book.


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.