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
One would say of the Surrealists that they, certainly, were prepared to give offense, and there is a famously transgressive image by Max Ernst entitled The Virgin spanking the Infant Jesus before three witnesses André Breton, Paul Eluard and the artist. The naked Jesus is spreadeagled over the Virgin’s lap, his halo has fallen off, and she gives him a real walloping while the Surrealists observe the scene through a window. No doubt it seemed very shocking to some, in 1928. Interestingly enough, although presumably Max Ernst could not have known this, it would have seemed to the rural folk of Herefordshire like an illustration of a traditional carol, “The Bitter Withy Carol,” not the sort of carol ever heard in churches but one collected by A.L. Lloyd in the 1930s. Because the text is unfamiliar I give it here in full:
As it befell on a bright holiday,
small hail from the sky did fall.
Our Saviour asked his mother dear
if he might go and play at ball.
At ball, at ball, my own dear son,
’tis time that you were gone.
But don’t let me hear of any doings
at night when you come home.
So up the hill and down the hill
our sweetest Saviour run
until he met three rich young lords
a-walking in the sun.
Good morn, good morn, good morn said they,
Good morning all, said he,
and which of you three rich young lords
will play at ball with me?
We are all lords’ and ladies’ sons
born in our bower and hall,
and you are nothing but aJewess’ child
born in an ox’s stall.
If you’re all lords’ and ladies’ sons
born in your bower and hall,
I’ll make you believe in your latter end,
I’m an angel above you all.
So he made him a bridge of the beams of the sun
and over the river danced he.
The rich young lords chased after him
and drowned they were all three.
Then up the hill and down the hill
three rich young mothers run
Saying: Mary mild, fetch home your child,
For ours he’s drowned each one.
So Mary mild fetched home her child,
and laid him across her knee,
and with a handful of withy twigs
she gave him slashes three.
Ay, bitter withy! Ay, bitter withy!
You’ve causéd me to smart.
And the withy shall be the very first tree
to perish at the heart!
I came across this carol in an old Surrealist magazine, Roger Roughton’s admirable Contemporary Poetry and Prose (Autumn 1937, page 2), and you can see why it would appeal to a Surrealist. Nevertheless, there is no question of its having been handed down in anything other than a traditional Christian rural community. Those who sang it may have known that it would not do in church. But it would seem that their piety could accommodate a piece of invention of this kind. What the Surrealists guessed would be shocking was already part of Christian tradition—the idea that the Christ child might misbehave to the extent of earning himself a thrashing. In fact this idea is very old indeed, as old as the apocryphal books of the New Testament. Here is a more vicious version of the same idea, from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas:
After this he again went through the village, and a child ran and knocked against his shoulder. Jesus was angered and said to him, “You shall not go further on your way,” and immediately he fell down and died. But some, who saw what took place, said, “From where was this child born, since his every word is an accomplished deed?” And the parents of the dead child came to Joseph and blamed him and said, “Since you have such a child, you cannot dwell with us in the village; teach him to bless and not to curse. For he is killing our children.”
And Joseph called the child to him privately and admonished him saying, “Why do you do such things? These people suffer and hate us and persecute us.” But Jesus replied, “I know that these words are not yours; nevertheless for your sake I will be silent. But these people shall bear their punishment.” And immediately those who had accused him became blind…. And when they saw that Jesus had done this, Joseph arose and took him by the ear and pulled it violently.4
All this is a part, even if a peripheral part, of the Christian tradition.
Chris Ofili’s depiction of the Virgin, a sweet, sentimental image such as one sometimes finds on charity Christmas cards, was decorated with what, when closely examined, turned out to be cut-out pornographic images—another set of flying vaginas, hips, buttocks, and so forth. In the Brooklyn Museum, a note beside the painting (which is displayed behind thick glass) tells us that the artist, a Catholic, had trouble during adolescence in understanding the idea of Virgin Birth. The pornographic images might be taken to represent the young man’s impure thoughts: purity is contrasted with pornography, sanctity with prostitution.
This is not an iconography one would have suggested to the artist had he been fashioning an altarpiece for the Discalced Carmelite fathers, and yet its juxtaposition of innocence and experience is implied wherever (as in Caravaggio’s painting) the Virgin is associated with Mary Magdalen, who was traditionally believed to have been a penitent whore. It was Mary Magdalen’s ill luck to have this legend grow up around her at the same time that the Catholic Church was developing its ideas about the Virgin’s sinlessness.
Not every Christian shares the belief in the Immaculate Conception. In fact to many it is obnoxious. If the Virgin was fully a human being, she was conceived carnally and therefore conceived in sin. Only Christ was not conceived in sin. Saint Anselm, a devotee of the Virgin, wrote that “the Virgin herself…was conceived in iniquity, and in sin did her mother conceive her, and with original sin was she born, because she too sinned in Adam in whom all sinned.”
Supposing Chris Ofili had entitled his painting Saint Mary Magdalen, it might still have been hard for a Catholic to take, but the meaning of its iconography would not have been difficult to read. The pornographic images would be a reference to the saint’s past life as a prostitute. But it is only too easy to imagine a devotee of one of the Eastern churches, a church which had never heard of this prostitute business (which is never mentioned in the Bible), being utterly scandalized both by the painting and by the Catholic reading of it. After all, Mary Magdalen was a distinguished figure, to whom Christ revealed himself after the Resurrection (which is more than he did for the Virgin Mary). Our Eastern zealot would have every reason to be angry.
In such a case, the same constitutional right, which has been successfully invoked to protect the Brooklyn Museum in displaying Chris Ofili’s work, protects the Catholic in his desire to call Mary Magdalen a whore (albeit a penitent one).
In a recent obituary in these pages, John Updike quoted Saul Steinberg as saying that “drawing is a way of reasoning on paper.” It is always interesting to see what the work of cartoonists or caricaturists, best known through reproductions, look like in the original, what the original reasoning looks like on the original paper. Some artists are so aware of what will disappear in the process of reproduction that they leave prominent pentimenti in Whiteout. Others rely on the reduction of the image for the tightening up of the effect. Often there are office instructions in the margin, and other accidentals.
Steinberg—or what was shown in his October exhibition at PaceWildenstein in New York—was immaculate, and there was no sign at all of the hurly-burly of the office. Rather, the show paid obeisance to the artist’s work table as a place of perfect order. The table, which appears in the foreground of his famous pair of world views, Looking East and Looking West, became a subject of fascination to him, and he made three-dimensional, life-size representations of it in wood and mixed media. Carved wooden sketchbooks lie open beside wooden paintbrushes, matchboxes, and other tools of the trade, including, I was interested to see, slices of bread, lemon, and cucumber. The bread is a traditional eraser. Presumably the lemon and cucumber had their uses too.
Innumerable artists have done caricatures on the side, as a form of small talk. Some interesting figures have worked professionally as cartoonists until their art took off—Juan Gris and Lyonel Feininger among them. And then there are rare artists such as George Grosz whose work as painters and draftsmen is simply inextricable from their work in caricature: Grosz’s work as an artist went into decline when the idiom he invented for himself as a caricaturist somehow became no longer available to him.
The foundation of Steinberg’s art is a line that is unmistakably his, like handwriting. Unlike those satirical artists who delight in defining a certain narrow range of types and situations, on which they then improvise variations, Steinberg, though he had his own shorthand for a representative man who recurs over the years, liked to switch not only between idioms but also between modes of representation. Two drawings from the 1950s called Comics show him having fun not only with the inventions of the comic-book vocabulary but also with the art of cubism (a fundamental “way of reasoning on paper” for him), art deco, and, I should say, Miró.
For an extremely fetching landscape at sunset—one of several pleasing oil-on-paper landscapes in the recent exhibition—Steinberg had made a rubber stamp of the figures in Millet’s Angelus, together with another rubber stamp of an artist at his easel. The upshot is a landscape in which six identical couples are pausing to pray at the Angelus, while a whole crowd of artists with easels and brushes and mahlsticks busily paint the scene. One could hardly call this comic invention a comment on Millet, but it does indicate a somewhat wistful relationship with great art of the past.
Steinberg had or developed a gift for writing line after line of theoretically legible yet utterly indecipherable script. Two Dialogues in Bed gives an effect of noncommunication by means of two different versions of this nonsense handwriting, in adjoining bubbles, sharing an ancient iron bedstead. Clearly these dialogues have been at it for years. He invented a cartoon art which said nothing tangible, but which gave an effect of an experience communicated—the vastness of cities, the smallness of man, the immense distance from A to B and the difficulty of making the journey. It was the most systematic rethinking of the genre. It was the calligraphy of the Absurd.
December 16, 1999
Modern Starts: People, Places, Things, catalog by John Elderfield, Peter Reed, Mary Chan, and Maria del Carmen González (Abrams, 1999), p. 69. ↩
Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin (Princeton University Press, 1990). ↩
See Marina Warner, Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (Vintage, 1983), Chapter 6. ↩
J.K. Elliott, The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation (Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 76. ↩