Caravaggio’s echidna: Touring America’s art museums

The promise of cultural tourism is that by gazing on great works of art you will be transformed.

Off I set, filled with expectation of what a month of flaneuring through a brace of east coast USA A-list art museums would deliver. But, back home, with all the fresh insights that looking at exceptional art delivers, the glue that held everything together at the time begins to dissolve. Very quickly this sum of experiences is reduced to fragments. The challenge now is how to hang on to the immediacy of moments when aspects of works spoke directly to the mind and senses. My advice is that if you are left with fragments then start with them. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far. Definitely a work in progress.

Peter looks into space (The Denial of Saint Peter, 1610, Caravaggio, The Met, New York). He knows he has run his race. The cock hath crowed. The woman’s gimlet eyes drill into the face of the soldier. His head casts a shadow across her lower features, leaving the eyes spot lit. The red of the soldier’s cloak runs like a river of blood linking the two. The bile of betrayal has never been more compellingly captured. Blood flows freely in the Delacroix paintings in the same room. “Lake of blood, haunted by evil angels,” was Baudelaire’s comment on Delacroix. In another Delacroix painting, a woman mops up blood as St Stephen’s stone-crushed body is carried away. A hard day at black rock all round.

An usherette (New York Movie, 1939, Edward Hopper, MoMA, New York) leans against the wall of a movie theatre. An overhead lamp catches the side of her face. Her attitude may be one of boredom or simply reverie. Who knows and, with Hopper’s imagery, who really wants to know? It is sufficient that a small moment in life has been inserted into our world and it refuses to be deleted. A lone figure set apart from a parallel world of viewers gazing at the silver screen may say something about the divide between individual and collective experience. But it’s the art that matters – the play of light across the hair, the curve of a cheek, and the hilt of the knuckled hand supporting the chin. That’s enough.

Caravaggio’s The Denial of Saint Peter, 1610 (Photo: Wikimedia)

What thoughts are playing across the mind of a maid (Kitchen Scene, 1680/20, Diego Velázquez, Art Institute of Chicago)? She holds a jug in one hand. The other hand rests on a bench top with fingers pressed down flat and hard as if providing support. Like St Peter’s bunched fists holding back a scream. As with Hopper’s usherette, the action of the maid’s head, shadow-bruised and turned away from the viewer, suggests some introspection which gives this anonymous worker the honour of individual identity. Quite a gift.

Camille Pissarro’s maid Rosa (Woman Mending, 1895, Art Institute of Chicago) is also at work. The cropping of the composition draws the viewer in close, so that the intent focus of the eyes on the hands becomes a vortex into which the richly textured layers of paint are drawn. Why has the artist built this image like a plasterer rendering a wall? “Some paint comes across directly onto the nervous system,” Francis Bacon said, “and other paint tells you the story in a long diatribe through the brain.” This stitcher is hardwired.

It used to be a room, (Ghost, 1990, Rachel Whiteread Survey, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC). It once ‘lived’ at 486 Archway Road in North London, near the artist’s childhood home. It stands in a white cube gallery space. White plaster and white space – except for the soot from the fireplace which gives a kiss from the grave to an otherwise whitened sepulcher. The interior of an entire Victorian parlour was cast in sections, in plaster, entirely by hand, and reassembled. As the reverse of this space, (“mummified air”) as Whiteread calls it, “the viewer has become the wall.” Now there’s a thought.

Rachel Whiteread’s Ghost, 1990, National Gallery of Art, Washington

Crazy time. Crazy face. (Whats the Coinfusion I Can’t Make Heads or Tails of it? Sum One Flipped! Now That Makes Cents, 1974, Karl Wirsum, Hairy Who? 1966 – 1969, Art Institute Chicago). This guy’s got the runaway train looks of a Katzenjammer Kamakazi Kid – Toys ‘R’ Us dumpster samples run through a Poplawski blender. You have to hand it to them. When it came to shake ‘n’ bake mashups hurling iconoclastic madness at Chicago and the rest of the goddam world for that matter, in the 60s, these six artists had the armpit rubber for the job. At a stretch this one mixed-up face is a composite of a generation’s gesture of defiance to a mixed-up world. Or maybe it’s simply about having fun. The world needs lots of Hairy Whos if Screaming Jay Hawkins is to be believed.

Is that it? Do a few weeks of solid viewing just deliver a Halloween candy bag of visual fragments? The memory of an echidna curled up beside a tree in the Flinders, observed a few weeks earlier, may hold some clues. Self-contained within a prickly compound of curious quills.

That’s us. That’s art.

Adelaide In-depth

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