Teju Cole’s Caravaggio

Teju Cole is recognized for his interwoven skills of using just the right words to articulate his acute and nuanced observations of today’s visual world.  Cole teaches at Harvard University where he is the Gore Vidal Professor of the Practice of Creative Writing.  

I admire the recent NYT essay by Cole where he put words to the paintings of Caravaggio.  I unpack his long essay zeroing in on those words and sentences that bring a modern relevance to the 17th-century Baroque paintings.  

Apprehension of the visual world can only unfold through words, discourses, and ideologies.  Language remains an imperfect tool that cannot grasp all the dimensions of the human experience.  For example, Can I fully describe my love for my partner?  Words fail, pictures help, and writers like Cole show how the two can work together.  

An integral dynamic of his explications are Cole’s careful contextualizations of place, mood, and history.  Cole prepares us for his descriptions of the painted image through his illuminations of the worlds that surround the paintings, then and today.  

Cole began his essay by introducing Caravaggio historically, and then tell us he has been studying Caravaggio since he was a child.  Cole’s knowledge of Caravaggio is formidable, equal with any art historian.  Cole knows what he is looking for in the 17th-century era paintings but leaves himself open to discovery.  Cole I believe is after those contradictions that exist in highly developed works of art where ambiguity plays off of fixity of meaning.  Where forms oscillate and you are left astonished at the complexities existing in a static image.  Cole: “I longed for the turmoil I knew I would feel in front of Caravaggio’s paintings.”  My emphasis. 

Cole’s essay traced his 2016 summer journey to Italy to see Caravaggio art works.  Along the way, Cole meets friends, makes friends, interviews refugees fleeing poverty, all the while synchronizing his discoveries to current world events.  The paintings are the catalyst.  

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), The Flagellation of Christ, 1607, oil, 9 feet 5 inches by 7 feet; Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy; image courtesy of the New York Times 

Confronting “The Flagellation of Christ,” Cole described its aesthetic originality and posed an unanswerable question, “As so often with Caravaggio, there is the story that is depicted, but beyond it, and often overwhelming it, is an intensification of mood accomplished through his use of unnatural shadow, simplified background and a limited color palette.  It is an image of brutal injustice, an image that makes us ask why anyone should be tortured.”  

Cole demonstrated reading the reader objectively: “The very act of looking at an old painting can be so strange.  It is an activity that is often bound up with class identity or social aspiration.  It can sometimes feel like a diverting, or irritating, stroll among white people’s ancestors.  It can also be wonderful, giving the viewer a chance to be blessed by a stranger’s ingenuity or insight.  But rarely, something even better happens: A painting made by someone in a distant country hundreds of years ago, an artist’s careful attention and turbulent experience sedimented onto a stretched canvas, leaps out of the past to call you -to call you- to attention in the present, to drive you to confusion by drawing from you both a sense of alarm and a feeling of consolation, to bring you to an awareness of your own self in the act of experiencing something that is well beyond the grasp of language, something that you wouldn’t wish to live without.”  

Cole pinpointed the prime aesthetic issue: “[Caravaggio’s] key, as usual, is his trust in realism: Show what things look like, and the feeling will come.”  

This next quote brings for me the Cole essay to fruition with his understanding and melding of a 412-year-old painting with events in today’s world, events that unite humankind into a singular community across generations and diverse cultures.  

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), The Beheading of St. John the Baptist, 1608, oil, 11 feet 10 inches by 17 feet; St. John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta, Malta; image courtesy of the New York Times

“‘The Beheading of St. John the Baptist’ was difficult to absorb into my understanding of whatever it was I thought painting was.  More than a year would pass before I found a key that helped me process what I saw in Malta.  I saw two brief videos clips from Libya made in 2017.  The first clip is of men being sold at a slave market.  The second, the men being sold are migrants from Niger.…  In those clips, what I saw was life turned inside out, life turned into death, just as I had seen in Caravaggio’s painting.  Not simply what ought not to be, but what ought not to be seen.”  

Cole bends time to show Caravaggio’s relevance for today.  Cole, like Caravaggio, situates the Body as the nexus where all significations flow through; paintings and representations construct identity and the body reflects that knowledge.  As Cole put it: “on the surface of [Caravaggio’s] paintings [is revealed], knowledge of all the pain, loneliness, beauty, fear, and awful vulnerability our bodies have in common.”  

Painting exemplifies the freeze-frame construction of social discourse, a discourse which over time has the subtle power to influence our thinking.  Class, gender, and ethnicities are but three of the societal identities that can be influenced.  These influences become second nature, reflexively enacted.  These meanings circulate through society and into bodies.   

Through representation we construct models of conduct and identity we want to see performed in society.  The rub is that not everyone has the resources to construct representations.  Large segments of society succumb to its power, and worse, it is forced upon others. Cole showed how Caravaggio called into question these imbalances.  At the center of these swirling constructions of societal relations are our bodies.  Caravaggio makes that clear and Cole related the 17th-century to the 21st.  

Cole was after the clearer representation of human relations and though he never stated baldly that quest or its prize, I know he found it.  He’s not finished with the Baroque painter.  We’ll be hearing more about Cole’s Caravaggio.