Helen Langdon's ‘Caravaggio’
Helen Langdon's ‘Caravaggio’

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Helen Langdon's ‘Caravaggio’

3.2 Interpretation beyond biography

The three interpretative strategies outlined in the previous section, and represented by Langdon, Freedberg, and Reynolds and Ostrow, largely rely on recreating the context contemporary with Caravaggio's painting. Other interpretations seem to have more to do with the context and priorities of the modern historian. If, therefore, the interpretation of a work of art is about more than the artist's particular intention regarding that work of art, then, as Martin Kemp asks,

Are we willing, in effect, to say, retrospectively to protagonists in past cultures that we know more of what they were really doing than they did themselves?

There are three main reasons … why we need not feel constrained by the scope of contemporary sources.

The first, providing we assume that a reasonably representative group of sources has survived, is that the frameworks within which things were written down were limited to a set number of genres of literary production, and that each of these genres was itself limited in what it could say by its conventions and accepted terminology. There were … types of verbal transaction that were simply not recorded in writing. And we also need to allow for the likelihood that there were things of importance which could not be said because there was then no way of saying them.

The second is that the visual possesses an inherent potential to operate in fields where the verbal cannot go. The challenges this property poses to the verbal involve the signalling of those special realms of competence for the visual and arriving at verbal means of heightening the spectator's ability to operate in these realms. Much of the history of writing about art has engaged in a perpetual quest to narrow the gap between what the visual can do and what the verbal can suggest. Modern modes of writing have found new ways of bringing word and image closer together, without ever suggesting that the gap will ever completely close. Indeed, the gap may best be seen in qualitative rather than quantitative terms.

The third reason for moving beyond the primary source involves what is called historical perspective. Historical perspective has some definite advantages, as well as manifest shortcomings. At its simplest, our temporal remove gives us a chance of seeing the wood for the trees in a way that no contemporary could. Part of the strength of our later perspective is that we can see more clearly where events were going, though this formulation carries the strong danger that we may fall into the trap of inevitability; that is to say seeing trends as inexorably leading to particular end – and choosing to highlight those events which conform to the assumed trends.

(Kemp, 1997, p. 257)

Helen Langdon deliberately constrains her analysis of Caravaggio's paintings to the scope of sources contemporary with the artist. In fact she does not write about Caravaggio's thoughts or other mental processes in her book because the source material does not allow her to do that. But what does ‘writing about Caravaggio’ mean? Does it mean only admitting information and sources contemporary with the subject? If the subject is a painting by Caravaggio rather than Caravaggio the person then a very different answer will be produced to these questions.

Activity 15

Around 1600 Caravaggio painted Narcissus, a painting Langdon describes as ‘one of his most haunting works’. It is also a work that has attracted very different approaches and analyses from different art historians. Langdon explains the subject of the painting on pages 202–4. Read the passage now, making notes about the kind of evidence on which she builds her interpretation.


Narcissus (below) is clearly a complex painting about reality and illusion. Caravaggio illustrated a complex and thought-provoking classical myth. Langdon describes and analyses it in this context.

Click to view Colour Plate 3 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , Caravaggio's Narcissus, c.1597, oil on canvas, 110 x 92 cm. Galleria Nazionale D'Arte Antica (Palazzo Barberini), Rome. Photo: SCALA, Florence.

Since at least the fifteenth century the subject represented for artists the complexity of the reflective and deceptive relationship between art and nature. The humanist Leon Battista Alberti wrote in his treatise On Painting (1435) that the artist is better than the mere craftsman because he can change paint into nature. He illustrates his point with the story of Narcissus.

For this reason, I say among my friends that Narcissus who was changed into a flower, according to the poets, was the inventor of painting. Since painting is already the flower of every art, the story of Narcissus is most to the point. What else can you call painting but a similar embracing with art of what is presented on the surface of the water in the fountain.

(Alberti, 1991, p. 61)

This strange passage leaves the relationship between Narcissus's flower and the flower of painting unexplained. Narcissus was not an artist but his story says something about the complexities of the relationship between art, nature and the viewer. The message that the myth contains is extended by recent discussion of Caravaggio's painting. More than any other representation of the subject, it is Caravaggio's Narcissus that seems to invite most discussion, due, no doubt, to the enigma of Caravaggio the artist that makes his painting so popular today.

Mieke Bal's book, Quoting Caravaggio: Contemporary Art, Preposterous History (1999), examines Caravaggio's painting, Narcissus, not for what can be discovered about its origins but for the effect that it has on the present. She considers, in particular, the ways in which Caravaggio's art has been quoted in the work of several modern artists. ‘Like any form of representation’, she explains, ‘art is inevitably engaged with what came before it, and that engagement is an active reworking … This process is exemplified by an engagement of contemporary culture with the past that has important implications for the ways we conceive of both history and culture in the present’ (Bal, 1999, p. 1). ‘Quoting Caravaggio changes his work forever’ (ibid.), declares Bal, and in doing so creates the self-reflexive discourse of the art which allows a ‘reversible relationship’ between past and present. Earlier, Gombrich had put it slightly differently:

It is a frightening thought, and yet, I believe, true, that anything we say or write about a painting may change it in some subtle way. It reorganizes our perceptions, and no one can unscramble them or wipe away the accents which description and interpretation superimpose upon the picture.

(Gombrich, 1966, p. 66)

If, for example, Caravaggio's Capitoline St John is in fact Isaac Laughing, there is good reason why it has taken so long for the title to be ‘corrected’. The title effectively sets the description and interpretation of the painting in such a way that it is difficult to ‘unscramble’. The analysis of Caravaggio's Narcissus by Mieke Bal below frames the consideration of the painting in very modern, fluid terms. Bal relies heavily on the complex psychoanalytic research of Jacques Lacan (1901–81) (the relevant part of which will be outlined below). She uses Lacan's reversible – or mirror – relationship between the viewer and the viewed to extend her argument about the interpretation of past art in modern terms.

Narcissus, as the myth has it, died because, unlike Lacan's child, he did not recognize himself; nor did he perceive the mirror for what it was: a boundary between reality and fiction … As the quintessential story of mirroring, Narcissus belongs to the baroque sensibility that so fascinates contemporary culture … In a final examination of the reversible relationship between past Baroque and contemporary art, I read Caravaggio's Narcissus as a preposterous response to Lacan. Either the painting can be construed as that, or Lacan misquoted Caravaggio …

If we only look at this figure's ‘real’ body, the image is horizontal, and the figure is shaped like a table. But if we ignore the water line – the surface of the represented mirror – and consider the double figure, the format becomes vertical, retaining the square and self-enclosed form …

But as Narcissus' body gets to know itself, it loses its boundary. Something along the way of the boy's mirror stage went wrong. At the four corners of the austere, self-enclosing rectangle, the sleeves, especially in their reflected form, seem icons of the water the disturbance of which will make Narcissus' image disappear. As Caravaggio represented him, Narcissus is suspended between the solidity that imprisons and the fluidity that dissolves; he is framed by his own body.

According to the story, Narcissus looks at his own reflection. The difficulties of seeing, which Lacan evoked with the phrases ‘veiled faces’ and ‘the penumbra of symbolic efficacy,’ are symbolised by the shadow that shades the eyes that see without recognizing, so much so that it is impossible to be sure whether the eyes are open at all … Who is reflecting whom? …

The most striking oddity in this painting as we see it today is the naked knee. This knee embodies the spatial transgression most keenly … The knee was condemned to be odd from the start. Situated directly beneath the neck, whose form it symmetrically mirrors, and aside from the arms that signal deadness, the knee is the only part of the body that actually is reflected … The knee's detachment from the body signifies the ‘fantasy of the body in bits and pieces,’ which Lacan attributes to the child at the moment it ‘cures’ itself of that fantasy by the construction of a ‘self-same body’, through the mirror.

(Bal, 1999, p. 237–43)

The self-reflexive discourse of the art which allows a ‘reversible relationship’ between past and present, allows Bal to base her analysis of Narcissus not on the artist's intention but on the viewer's interaction with it. Fortunately, Bal points directly to her method – the application of the theories of child development and the ‘mirror stage’ with which Lacan extended the work of Freud. In this explanation by Rosalind Minsky, it is obvious why Bal sought to link Caravaggio's Narcissus with Lacan's theories. The one rather neatly describes the other.

[Lacan] uses the metaphor of a mirror to describe how the baby, at around the age of six months, first comes to perceive itself as a ‘self’ – through an integrated coherent image of itself in the mirror. The child who actually experiences itself as physically uncoordinated and overwhelmed by emotion and fantasies over which it has no control – in fact as ‘all over the place’ both physically and psychically – suddenly finds reflecting back from the mirror a highly satisfactory and seductive image of itself as a coherent whole – a thing with edges … But, of course, the baby's idea of itself is still of a very blurred, undefined and imaginary kind: the mirror image of the baby is both subject and object. But this experience is the baby's first encounter with a process of constructing itself – its identity – a sense of being centred on its own body, and Lacan argues that this taking of an identity from outside will form the basis of all its other identifications. The baby narcissistically arrives at some kind of sense of ‘I’ only by finding an ‘I’ reflected back by something outside itself and external – its (m)other.

So we first take on board an identity from outside ourselves – an ‘image’ of ourselves – yet one which we feel to be part of who we are. We identify with something which looks like what we want to be, but something which is alien and separate from us. The mirror image splits us in two. We ‘misrecognise’ ourselves in the alienated image of what we want to be because it denies the chaos we feel in our own being … We are given a sense of identity but we think we are given an authentic identity. For Lacan, drawing on Freud's work on primary narcissism, the self, the ego, contains this narcissistic process which we use all our lives, by which we bolster our sense of ourselves with a fiction – a visual story we show ourselves – an illusion of self which depends on the view of ourselves we obtain from other people and objects throughout our lives.

(Minsky, 1992, p. 189)

Bal's interpretation of the painting could not be more different from Langdon's. Conveniently, Helen Langdon reviewed Mieke Bal's book and in her review explained why the two approaches are so very different.

Bal's primary interest is not Caravaggio himself, but the powerful fascination which his pictures have exerted over a group of contemporary artists … whose work she describes as a new form of baroque. Her thesis is that the way in which these artists quote from Caravaggio changes his art forever, and, constantly reiterating the questions ‘Who illuminates whom?’, she suggests that works which appear chronologically first may be seen as after-effects of their recycling by later artists. To describe this reversal of linear history she coins a new phrase: ‘preposterous history’ … A discussion of the bare knee that stands out so strangely in Caravaggio's Narcissus concludes that this seventeenth-century painting is ‘a preposterous response to Lacan’. Bal is uneasily aware that the effect of this knee is probably caused by overcleaning, but, leaving this aside, it is not quite clear why she did not simply offer a reading based on Lacan.

(Langdon, 2000, pp. 468–9)

Activity 16

  1. How does Langdon's explanation of the painting of Narcissus as a vanitas – ‘a warning against the darkness and horror that follow the beauties and vain pleasures of love and youth’ (Langdon, p. 204) – differ from that of Bal?

  2. Do you think both kinds of interpretation are based on equally sound art historical methods?


The answer to both these questions relies on the intentions of the writers. For Langdon, Narcissus is part of Caravaggio's life and his direct context. Bal uses both Caravaggio and Lacan to make her point about the reversible inter-relationship between past and present art and culture. Bal does not ‘simply offer a reading based on Lacan’ because she is not writing specifically about Caravaggio, the artist, or about Lacan, the psychoanalyst. Both Caravaggio's and Lacan's work are used as a means to another end. Bal's use of Lacan illustrates two of Martin Kemp's points, that (i) some ‘things of importance … could not be said because there was no way of saying them’, and (ii) ‘modern modes of writing have found new ways of bringing word and image together’ (see Kemp, above).

But, as Kemp warned, there is a natural gap between an image and words which means that they will never be one and the same thing. Langdon's boundaries are defined by her desire to keep to the seventeenth-century sources and avoid ‘twentieth-century myth and speculation as much as possible’. In the same chapter that Langdon considers Narcissus she goes on to look at other pictures such as the Victorious Cupid which can be linked to the contemporary popularity of emblem books – literary and pictorial mottoes which usually relied on classical sources. The sources Caravaggio probably employed for subjects such as Narcissus and Cupid were obviously complex, and would have been designed to appeal to and flatter the intellect of his patrons. (Similarly modern interpretations of the same paintings are perhaps also primarily designed to show off the intellectual prowess of the writer.) There is a careful balance to be struck between the image and the interpreter.

In the 1546 edition of Andrea Alciati's Emblematum liber there is an emblem that illustrates the difficult and ultimately irreconcilable relationship between words and images. See below for the illustration from the book. The accompanying text reads as follows:


Because your figure pleased you too much, Narcissus, it was changed into a flower, a plant of known senselessness. Self-love is the withering and destruction of natural power which brings and has brought ruin to many learned men, who having thrown away the method of the ancients seek new doctrines and pass on nothing but their own fantasies.

(From Alciati's Book of Emblems, The Memorial Web Edition in Latin and English.)

Click to view Emblem 69 Self Love, reproduced in Alciato's Emblemata (Book Of Emblems), 1546, 49.8 x 38.6 cm. Glasgow University Library, Department of Special Collections.

If Caravaggio did rely on emblems for some of his subjects, then it is no wonder that modern scholars have not been able to define them exactly. That is not in the nature of the genre. Recourse to emblems as sources returns discussion of Caravaggio's art to the search for his original intentions – what was his source?


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