The Symbolic Without the Father
Woman is one of the names-of-the-father
La Can-Can Française
A Visit to East Wallingford, Vt.
Hoboken Palace Gardens
A pale youth crowned with ivy of the species hedera helix seated behind a slab of stone, similar to a table, where two peaches and black grapes are placed. Dressed all'antica with a white cloth wrapping the torso and leaving abundantly exposed a shoulder and the right arm in profile. With both hands the young fellow is holding, and perhaps preparing to squeeze, a bunch of grapes, this time of the yellow variety. His lips are livid, his complexion yellowish, and he seems to be suffering, though he is also smiling tentatively-as if the whole thing were a quip. Worried critics have diagnosed him as sick, claimed that he should be hospitalized at once, before it-whatever it is that afflicts him-gets any worse. The possibility has also been entertained that the young fellow has just left the hospital, so that his smile would allude to the recovery he is naturally confident is on its way. Still, he is rather pale. Hasn't he left his hospital bed too soon?
The picture retains the title of Bacchino malato (Sick Little Bacchus) in honor of such medical speculations; and since Bacchus, the mythological character, has no medical history, this patient, thus the argument goes, must be the painter. Caravaggio was hospitalized in fact, though for injuries, and not for maladies. Too bad. Since the picture is a self-portrait the impulse to explain a particular feature of the character portrayed by way of biographical data (including medical records) of the painter may at first appear justified. But this is only partly so and if I cite the medical argument, it is only because the search for explanatory and distantiating factors that animates it seems indicative of an anxious form of attention, quite recurrent with Caravaggio' s pictures . The critical history of Bacchino malato is a history of uneasy beholding.1
Academic common sense conceives of the self-portrait as a mode of representation that is really about a painter's own involvement with his self. On this model no role is left for the beholder to play other than that of ascertaining the painter's motives for assuming a certain stance and of clarifying whether or not, and eventually how, that stance may relate to the painter's biography, social circumstances, ideological predilections, specific fantasies, and the like. The neutral and testimonial role of the beholders somewhat at odds with the vigorous rhetoric often invoked to certify and reaffirm the power of painting, so that even though a self-portrait is taken to be an affair between the individual represented and painting as such, eventually only the beholder can contribute a statement about painting celebrating itself in the self-representation of one of its devoted and grateful practitioners. If a painter represents himself as a god, a hero, or more generally that which he is not, for example, it is art that makes it possible, so that the self-portrait may be celebrated as the visual evidence of that possibility. If the self-portrait represents the painter for what he is and looks like (or thinks, or wants to believe, or is misled into believing he looks like), it could be presented as a way of securing his features from the modifications imposed by envious time, such that painting can be celebrated as a vehicle of immortality.
1. The picture is described by Giovanni Baglione in Le Vite de' pittori, scultori et architetti (Rome: 1642), p. 136. Caravaggio "painted some portrait of himself in the mirror. The first was a Bacchus with different bunches of grapes painted with great care though a bit dry in style." Giulio Mancini observed in Considerazioni sulla pittura (Manuscript, c. 1617-20), L. Salerno and A. Marucchi, eds, 2 vols., (Rome:1956), vol. I, p.226, note to line 22, "... a beautiful Bacchus unshaven ... owned by Borghese."
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