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Giving Offense

Clemente 1999-January 9, 2000.

an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, October 8,, Catalog of the exhibition by Lisa Dennison
Guggenheim/Abrams, 502 pp., $45.00 (paper)

Saul Steinberg: Drawing into Being 1-October 30, 1999.

an exhibition at the PaceWildenstein Gallery, New York, October, Catalog of the exhibition by Bernice Rose, by Arne Glimcher
PaceWildenstein, 79 pp., $25.00 (paper)


Shown on the spiral ramp of the New York Guggenheim, the paintings of Francesco Clemente come across as the work of a prolific artist with a fruitfully unstable temperament. Surprisingly Austrian, for a Neapolitan, he seems to alternate between his Klimt days and his Schiele days. On his Klimt days, an erotic obsession is channeled into the production of gorgeous effects with attractive materials: a double panel executed in gold leaf and oil on linen and called in the catalog Usary [presumably Usury] of Love (cat. no. 43) has a shower of coins falling on the prostrate lovers, or falling past them perhaps, if the lovers are conceived as floating in space. This is pure Vienna Secession.

In a darkened room that forms the upper limit of the show, hangings made of Pondicherry paper joined by hand-woven cotton strips are stained with indigo. Along the top of the walls (though lit so as to be almost illegible) runs a frieze of animals and humans, suggestive of mythical copulations. The room provides a total ambiente, much like the white ambiente that has been re-created for the Lucio Fontana show currently at the Hayward Gallery in London, in which a white space within a white space shows off a black slash, like the slashed canvases for which the late Italian artist became famous. Clemente’s ambiente is a space within which to experience a supersaturation of indigo. Elsewhere, good, thick paper has been soaked to receive fine colored inks, watercolors, and gouaches. Linen has been primed to receive tempera and oil, and a technique has been devised to create portable frescoes. The work is on every scale from wall-size to miniature. On all of these scales, Klimt-Clemente is out to enchant and, if possible, to ravish.

Schiele-Clemente, on the days when it is he who gets out of bed, is the one who wishes to shock, disturb, provoke. He is the artist of the self-portraits, whose head (like John the Baptist’s) is served up on a plate, whose limbs are torn apart (like those of Orpheus) by baroque putti, who grows multiple breasts (like Diana of Ephesus), whose severed head is seen in an act of fellation, who has a hole in the head, who has birds converging on his shoulders, who weeps. A soul sometimes in torment, it would seem, but this “sometimes” distinguishes Schiele-Clemente from the original Egon Schiele. However great the torment, the self-love has survived the self-disgust.

The orifices of the body are an obsession here. If men are to fight, it will be by sticking fingers in each other’s nostrils, eye sockets, anuses. There are flying vaginas with butterfly wings. Orifices open up in unexpected places, such as the soles of the feet, and there are continual reminders of the interior of the body, of excretions, of bodily fluids. Among various mutilations, a painting called Signature (cat. no. 98) shows a man making a slit in his scrotal sack.

With some artists, courage comes from anger. With others, fearlessness seems to be based on a deep conviction that, whatever they get up to, in the end they will be forgiven. Allen Ginsberg, one of the poets with whom Clemente has worked and formed a friendship, seems to have had that conviction. How could he not be loved? “There is so much of me, all of it gorgeous.” And it turns out that such narcissism can be infectious. I can enjoy the immodesty of Whitman or Ginsberg for a few pages at a time, skipping the odd section, without feeling obliged to give equal attention to every phrase, content with the general drift.

As long as I feel able to pick and choose at will, I can get along well enough with the art of Francesco Clemente. As long as I can treat the assembled works of art as a series of proposals, any one of which I am free to turn down, that is fine. After all, there is copiousness here—we are not talking of Vermeers. But if I am mistaken in awarding myself the right to reject at will, if the art can only be viewed in its totality, if every one of these proposals is interdependent, so that to query one is to query them all, then I am in a quandary. Then the vulgarity of his portraiture in his New York Muses series (cat. nos. 30-32) with their facile exaggerations of the eyes and lips must be held against him. The stylistic uncertainties of the original Expressionists, their repeated lapses from grace, their unexpected vulnerability to the sentimental, the feeble sweetness of their religiosity—it all gets a replay somewhere here. The self-portrait (cat. no. 166) in which the artist’s features are superimposed upon the image of a crucified frog may stand as an example of a doomed attempt to elicit spiritual sympathy.


Crucified frog? Did someone say crucified frog? Is this another artist hell-bent on outraging the religious values of the innocent taxpayer? Everywhere I went in New York I saw opportunities for outrage: the flying vaginas at the Guggenheim had their predecessor in the flying vagina of Rodin’s Iris, Messenger of the Gods, on show at the Metropolitan Museum. Rodin’s Balzac was masturbating in both the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Modern Art (or as the catalog to the MOMA exhibition “Modern Starts” puts it, “his virility [was] candidly indicated by an autoerotic gesture.”1 It would not have been hard to synthesize enough outrage to close down most of the city’s institutions.

But who needs the synthetic outrage of Mayor Giuliani, when there is so much outrage in the world waiting to happen? A school board in South Carolina is currently considering restricting the use by children of the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling, on the grounds that they promote an unhealthy interest in the occult. The Edinburgh publishers Canongate, who had the idea of publishing various books of the Bible separately, with introductions by literary figures, caused outrage with their New Testament series, and even more outrage with a forthcoming volume of the Books of Jonah, Micah, and Nahum. Alasdair Gray, the Scottish novelist, has described Abraham and Isaac as “polygamous nomads who get cattle or revenge by prostituting their wives or cheating foreigners or relatives,” and he describes Jonah as a “cowardly or childish man.”

This has provoked the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Muslim Council of Britain, whose secretary-general said: “I have read the foreword and it is insulting to the Islamic faith. To mock prophets like Abraham and Isaac is not only irresponsible, but totally insensitive. Freedom of expression does not mean freedom to insult with impunity.” One has to counter this last argument frankly. Freedom of expression does indeed mean freedom to insult with impunity. Indeed, there are cases where freedom of religion means freedom to insult with impunity—a point which can easily be illustrated with reference to the depiction of the Virgin Mary.

There are two definitions of an insult: one is set by the insulter, one by the insulted. If I were to call the Virgin Mary a whore, I would clearly be intending an insult. If, on the other hand, I made myself an image of the Virgin, and set it upon an altar, with candlesticks and flowers, I would clearly be intending devotion—except to the kind of Protestant who views such devotions with utter horror, to whom such practices are an insult to the true faith. The worshiping of the image might be an insult. The very making of the image might be an insult. Or it might be the candles or the flowers that give off that whiff of paganism and brimstone. Yet none of these insults are intended by me. If I am entitled to my devotions, I must be entitled to offend those who view my devotions with horror.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Caravaggio was commissioned to paint the Death of the Virgin for an altarpiece in Santa Maria della Scala, in Trastevere in Rome. The donor of the altarpiece was creating his own memorial chapel. But the Discalced Carmelite fathers, in whose church the painting appears to have been placed in around 1603, found the painting offensive and (clearly at risk of insulting and alienating the donor) ordered it to be removed. According to early (but not exactly contemporary) sources, Caravaggio had used as a model for the Virgin “a dirty prostitute from the Ortaccio” (a red-light district of Rome), a courtesan whom he himself had loved.

The painting was removed but not destroyed. Rubens admired it and persuaded the Duke of Mantua to buy it. From Mantua it made its way to the collection of Charles I in England, and thence to France to the collection of the banker Jabach, and to Louis XIV. It arrived in the Louvre in 1793, where it is still to be found. Opinions have differed over why this majestic work was found offensive. Certainly the Virgin looks very dead—a poor, dead woman lying on a bier. But this image can be construed as a reference to the good works done by the order to which the church of Santa Maria della Scala belonged: they were involved in the taking up and burying of the corpses of the poor. Pamela Askew wrote a book about this one painting,2 trying to tease out of history the real nature of the offense that it caused, which she tentatively ascribed to the developing theology of the Discalced Carmelites: the depiction of the Virgin is offensive because it fails to acknowledge sufficiently her nature as Queen of Heaven. The offense given was to local theologians. The painting gave no offense in the Catholic courts to which it traveled.

The scene Caravaggio depicted, in which Mary Magdalen has just readmitted the apostles to the presence of the dead Virgin, after the body-washing, is nonbiblical. Of course the Virgin must have died but the Bible says nothing of the matter. That the Virgin died surrounded by the apostles (all except Saint Thomas, who arrived too late) is an apocryphal tradition; by the time the Virgin was on her deathbed, several apostles had already died, and the rest were dispersed. According to legend, the Holy Spirit went around gathering them up, dead or alive, lifting them by their hair, and bringing them to the deathbed. In the Byzantine tradition Christ, too, appears at the deathbed, and he holds the soul of the Virgin in his lap, just as she once held him. Caravaggio, eliminating the Christ figure but including Peter and Paul and Mary Magdalen, gives a realistic appearance to what is in tradition a miraculous reunion.

The closer one looks at the tradition, the more potentially offensive it becomes: offensive to Protestants, because Mary (by dying without sin, and by resurrecting) usurps the unique character of Christ; offensive to Jews, because Mary (in order the more closely to resemble Christ) has to suffer persecution at the hands of the Jews. In one version, Mary is whisked away from Jerusalem by the Holy Spirit, because the Jews are planning to stone her to death. Wrapped in a cloud of invisibility, she arrives home in Bethlehem, where she tells the apostles that the Jews are planning to burn her body, and so forth.3

  1. 1

    Modern Starts: People, Places, Things, catalog by John Elderfield, Peter Reed, Mary Chan, and Maria del Carmen González (Abrams, 1999), p. 69.

  2. 2

    Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin (Princeton University Press, 1990).

  3. 3

    See Marina Warner, Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (Vintage, 1983), Chapter 6.

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