Change of Art History Approaches to the Interpretation of Caravaggio’s Painting Boy Bitten

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‘Out of studies and observations of his own features – laughing, terrified, grimacing – and of his torso, which he apparently saw in three-quarter length in his mirror, Caravaggio invented his imaginary portrait…of the frightened effeminate boy bitten by a lizard’

In 1955 Walter Friedländer published his seminal work, Caravaggio Studies; a monograph that included comments on the life and works of Caravaggio, a catalogue raisonné listing all paintings attributed to the artist, and reprints of biographies and documents relating to his life and works. In the introduction Friedländer commented that, ‘most art critics and academicians condemned the “vulgarity” of Caravaggio’s paintings… being themselves committed to a standard of ideal beauty, they found his work no more than a base “imitation of nature” and charged him with having destroyed “good taste”. Connoisseurial art history was the province of gentlemen, and while they concentrated on aesthetics Friedländer noted that the intention and meaning of Caravaggio’s paintings had been neglected, and that the impression that the works made on the contemporary viewers was difficult to estimate as it, ‘is not only an art-historical problem, but a psychological and interpretive one’, too.

This essay will review how established approaches to the interpretation of Caravaggio’s painting Boy Bitten by a Lizard [1] have been challenged since the 1970s, with particular reference to Donald Posner’s, ‘Caravaggio’s Homo-erotic Early Works’ from 1971 and Michael Fried’s ‘Thoughts on Caravaggio’ written in 1997.

Friedländer’s studies on Boy Bitten by a Lizard concentrate on dating and attribution using a connoisseur’s judgement on brushstrokes and extensive knowledge of Caravaggio’s oeuvre together with references to Bellori’s biography and to classical sculpture. The reliance on biography is problematic, as Philip Sohm showed, ‘Caravaggio’s biographers adjusted their stories of his death in order to characterize his life and personal style’ and biographies cannot be treated as unbiased sources, as they can be ‘an artful construction of embellished or even invented ‘facts’ that explain why paintings look the way they do’. Additionally, although interpretation is mentioned in the introduction to Caravaggio Studies, Friedländer has not followed this through in his analysis of this particular painting, and he has concentrated instead on description and mapping of formal influences that reveal no new information on the meaning of the work or of its intention. The biographical and connoisseurial approach to art history taken by Friedländer was extremely useful for recording primary sources and identifying works by particular artists; and his monograph on Caravaggio is still referenced by art historians today. However, as Nicos Hadjinicolaou outlined in 1973, the ‘history of art as a history of artists’ was a ‘blockage’ to serious art history. For art to be relevant in the modern world it had to be interrogated in a way that integrated it with the wider social sphere.

The tumultuous events of 1968 changed the social and political landscape globally, and the effects were both long lasting and far reaching. The 1970s and 1980s saw the start of a move away from the traditional approach to art history; the new art history drew on many wider social concerns to interrogate art through the lenses of not just history but also politics, gender and psychoanalysis. Donald Posner’s paper ‘Caravaggio’s Homo-erotic Early Works’ uses contextual historical knowledge to inform interpretation and he quotes Michael Kitson’s statement that Caravaggio’s early works were, ‘by an artist of homosexual inclinations for patrons of similar tastes’. Posner uses this supposition as a key to interpreting works such as Boy Bitten by a Lizard as homo-erotic solicitation, with the image revealing a transactional relationship between the subject of the painting and both the artist and the intended viewers of the work. Posner’s take on the sexuality of both the subject and the proposed spectators of the Boy Bitten by a Lizard includes such adjectives as ‘depraved’, ‘indecent’ and ‘outrageous’, distasteful to today’s readers, but perhaps a reflection on the illegal status of homosexuality in New York in 1971; which adds to the idea that the art historians main interpretative insight is to the ‘prejudices and preoccupations of their own era’. However, a ‘vigorous argument’ against Posner’s ‘homosexual interpretation’ is quoted by Fried, ‘Gilbert is particularly effective in refuting the modern assumption that Caravaggio’s early patron Cardinal Del Monte was the centre of a homosexual circle’ and this refutation negates much of Posner’s argument. Additionally, Mancini, a contemporaneous writer on Caravaggio, described him painting ‘a boy who cries out at being bitten by a lizard that he holds in his hand’ while living at the house of Monsignor Pandolfi Pucci, and he further adds that the painting was produced for ‘sale on the open market’. With the underlying premise of a prominent homosexual patron removed, Posner’s paper today seems obsessive and homophobic.

In addition to reliance on contextual information, Posner briefly engages in a Panofskian-style iconographical interpretation of the Boy Bitten by a Lizard. He states that the meaning of the painting relates to love as the ,‘rose and cherries for which the youth reaches are a flower and fruit dear to Venus’, and that the ‘lizard must allude to the disappointments of love’, leading to an overall reading of ‘beauty sometimes conceals a cold heart, and that the young lover will find this a painful discovery’. The brevity of this analysis, one paragraph from a paper of seventeen pages evidences Posner’s over-reliance on Kitson’s context for the direction of his interpretation. Looking at the painting it is clear that the boy was reaching only for the cherries, and not the rose which is in a vase; additionally alternative meanings for cherries in sixteenth century art include, ‘the Fruit of Paradise, given as a reward for virtuousness’ and ‘symbolizes heaven’. The Lizard was an impresa of the first Duke of Mantua with an accompanying motto ‘That in which she is wanting torments me,’ and was also said to personify Logic. It is possible to synthesize several meanings with more traditional religious overtones, such as the pain of striving for virtue yet failing to achieve it; or alternatively, logic or argument will put heaven out of reach. This exposes one of the problems of iconographical analysis, it aims to expose the true meaning of a work of art in an almost scientific fashion, but rather than revealing one truth, the interpretation depends on the beholder’s awareness of and familiarity with texts available to the artist. The existence of a written work during the lifetime of the painter is no guarantee that he was familiar with it. At the same time the idea that iconography reveals a fixed meaning, inherent in the work of art from the moment of its completion is refuted by later theories of spectatorship.

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In his Thoughts on Caravaggio, Michael Fried dismisses Posner’s treatment of Caravaggio’s early works as, ‘crude and ahistorical’. His paper begins with a thorough literature review, from Baglione’s 1625 biography onward, and initially he focuses on the question of a symbolic meaning for Boy Bitten by a Lizard; the variety of options put forward, ranging from ‘an allusion to love and eternity’ to ‘touch’ or a ‘vanitas allegory’ again discredits the thesis of a single true meaning inherent in the work. Instead we can see that meaning is ‘constructed in the interaction between the work of art and its beholder’ and it varies with the knowledge the viewer brings to the work, and the circumstances of the encounter. When reviewing Fried’s work it is important to be aware of his beholder’s share; he is ‘a critic of twentieth century art and a historian of eighteenth and nineteenth-century French painting’ and this knowledge informs his Thoughts on Caravaggio.

As Friedländer did before him Fried picks up on Baglione’s comment that the young Caravaggio, ‘painted some portraits of himself in the mirror’ and he is clear that he himself, ‘takes the Boy Bitten by a Lizard to be essentially a self-portrait made with the help of a mirror’. However, rather than depending on the biography to support his hypothesis, Fried interrogates, ‘the painted image for clues as to the circumstances under which it was made’. Much of Fried’s study, rather than searching for iconographical meaning, attempts to reconstruct these circumstances of the paintings construction; and using formal analysis and a comparison with Henri Matisse’s Self-Portrait of 1918 he makes a convincing case for his argument that Boy Bitten by a Lizard is a ‘disguised mirror image of the artist-model’. This makes Caravaggio the painter, the subject and the first beholder and Fried discusses the ‘immersion’ of the painter in the first ‘moment’ of the painting; the period of self-portraiture. The second ‘moment’, the dramatization of self-portrait as the Boy Bitten by a Lizard ‘enforced’ the separation of ‘the painted image…from both painter and beholder Caravaggio’. We as viewers are then free to take the artists place in front of the completed canvas. Fried likens this to ‘Freudian psychoanalytic scenarios’, where narcissism forces the artist’s separation from the image so as not to have to share his self-love with the painted likeness; and we can see how changing social and intellectual norms have resulted in art being interrogated in a completely new way. Rather than looking for meaning in the artwork, Fried is attempting to understand both the artist’s and the viewer’s interaction with it.

As an aside, Fried has noted that Caravaggio has ‘represented himself staring…at his image in the mirror’ and that this is why the boy appears to be ‘looking more or less directly at the viewer standing before the picture’. I tend to agree with Fried that Caravaggio painted himself staring in the mirror, and that the image is looking in the direction of the viewer; but in the same way that the subject in a photographic selfie often looks to the general vicinity of the camera rather than directly at it, Boy Bitten by a Lizard looks at the viewer, but does not meet their gaze. It does not feel as though the boy is confronting the viewer, the body language reads as recoil rather than encounter and unlike in Fried’s ‘literalist art’ the ‘act of looking and being seen’ does not become the subject of the work. However, ideas of spectatorship and gaze are implied by the notion of self-portraiture, we are looking at Caravaggio through his own eyes; but the disguise and exaggerated recoil also suggest theatre.

Fried describes a ‘structural core’ in Caravaggio’s art that ‘comprise a pair of constitutive distinctions’, as well as the immersive and specular ‘moments’ mentioned earlier in this essay he describes the distinction between ‘painting and reflecting’. Fried sees the interaction of these two sets of terms as being ‘unpredictable’ and this uncertainty as the reason Caravaggio’s art has ‘proven so resistant to sustained pictorial analysis’. This argument echo’s Jones’ discussion of the ‘Body Origin/Body Interface’ in negative photography, where a ‘special irony’ is introduced in the search for the original subject meaning.

The practice of Art history changed in the 1970s and 1980s in the same way that art production itself has changed; rather than being viewed as something separate from life it was seen as an integral part of it, not just a mirror reflection of the culture that produced it but also a torch to shed light back onto the problems of society. While in the 1950s art history was still seen as a task for gentlemen of taste, using connoisseurism and biography to fix art in terms of attribution and the life of the artist, by the 1970s the new art history saw the context of production being investigated. Friedländer’s 1955 monograph was very much in the style of ‘artist as genius’ as evidenced by the comment on ‘invention’ quoted at the start of this essay, and although iconography and iconology were current at the time he wrote Caravaggio Studies he did not use them in the analysis of Boy Bitten by a Lizard. In 1971 Posner attempted to analyse the same painting using iconography and through the lens of sexuality, and although we may now disagree with his interpretation we can see that instead of being seen in purely aesthetic terms art was now interrogated for meaning using ideas prevalent in society at the time and viewed through the lens of queer studies. The focus of study had moved on from aesthetics to the meaning of art using iconology and semiology; and then to reception and the beholders of art. By 1997 when Fried addressed Boy Bitten by a Lizard his analysis was more holistic; he used both historical and pictorial analysis to re-imagine the circumstances of production of the painting, and then psychoanalysis and structuralism to interrogate its meaning. The meaning of art is now understood to be fluid, dependant on not only the beholder and what they bring to the painting, but also on the physical circumstances and historical conditions of the encounter.

Caravaggio’s invented, ‘frightened, effeminate boy bitten by a lizard’ will no doubt be subject to further investigations and interpretation in future when these conditions change.

Visual Examples

  1. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Boy Bitten by a Lizard, 1594-5, Oil on canvas, The National Gallery, London ©The National Gallery, London. https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/michelangelo-merisi-da-caravaggio-boy-bitten-by-a-lizard [accessed 16 March 2019].

Bibliography

  1. Barker, Emma. 2019. ‘Reception’, in Interpretation and reception, A843 Block 3, Section 2, 2.1 https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1311844 [accessed 17 March 2019].
  2. CNN. 2019, ‘LGBT Rights Milestones Fast Facts’ [accessed 15 March 2019].
  3. Christian, Kathleen. 2018. ‘Problems with Panofsky’s method’, in Interpretation and reception, A843 Block 3, Section 1, 1.2.5 https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1311843§ion=2.5 [accessed 17 March 2019].
  4. Edwards, Steve. 2018. ‘Methodological transformations: 1970s and 1980s’, in Artists and authorship, A843 Block 1, section 1, 1.3 < https://learn2.open.ac.uk/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1311827§ion=3> [accessed 19 March 2019].
  5. Fried, Michael. 1997. ‘Thoughts on Caravaggio.’ Critical Inquiry, Vol.24. No. 1, pp. 13-56 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) https://www.jstor.org/stable/1344158 (accessed 10 March 2019).
  6. Friedländer, Walter. 1955. Caravaggio Studies (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
  7. Glueck, Grace. 2005. ‘Donald Posner Art Historian and Baroque Scholar Dies at 73’ in The New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/28/arts/donald-posner-art-historian-and-baroque-scholar-dies-at-73.html [accessed 15 March 2019].
  8. Goscilo, Helena. 2010 ‘Vision, Vanitas, and Veritas: the mirror in art.’ Studies in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Literature, vol. 34, no. 2, pp. 282+. Academic OneFile, http://link.galegroup.com.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/apps/doc/A276136098/AONE?u=tou&sid=AONE&xid=9f0af749 (accessed 16 March 2019).
  9. Hall, James. 1974. Hall’s Dictionary of Subjects & Symbols in Art (London: John Murray).
  10. History.com editors. 2018. ‘1968 Events’ In History [accessed 21 March 2019].
  11. Jones, Amelia. 2003. ‘Body’ in Critical Terms for Art History in Robert S. Nelson and Richard Shiff eds. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) [accessed 19 March 2019].
  12. Olin, Margaret. 2003. ‘Gaze’ in Critical Terms for Art History in Robert S. Nelson and Richard Shiff eds. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) < https://search-credoreference-com.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/content/entry/uchicagoah/gaze/0> [accessed 19 March 2019].
  13. Posner, Donald. 1971. ‘Caravaggio’s Homo-Erotic Early Works’, Art Quarterly 34 pp.201 – 324 (Michigan: University of Michigan).
  14. Sohm, Philip. 2002. ‘Caravaggio's Deaths.’ The Art Bulletin, vol. 84, no. 3 pp. 449-68. www.jstor.org/stable/3177308 [accessed 17 March 2019].
  15. Taylor, Christopher. 2001. ‘Fried, Michael’ in V. E. Taylor, & C. E. Winquist (Eds.), Encyclopedia of postmodernism. (London: Routledge) http://libezproxy.open.ac.uk/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/routpostm/fried_michael/0?institutionId=292 [accessed 15 March 2019].
  16. Treves, Letizia. 2016. Beyond Caravaggio (London: National Gallery Company Ltd.).
  17. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Boy Bitten by a Lizard, 1594-5, Oil on canvas, 66 x 49.5 cm, The National Gallery, London.
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