Masks and metaphors: Caravaggio and the mannerist connection

2017-02-21T23:25:12Z (GMT) by Friemann, Marlene
The thesis argues that the clear stylistic contrast between the painters Agnolo Bronzino and Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio obscures what amounts to a shared understanding of, and response to, the limits of representation. Drawing on the theory of Jacques Lacan and the texts of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Georges Bataille, as well as art historical texts and literary theory, it explores the artists' ironic manner of interrogating classical conventions and engaging, always ambiguously, with the erotic, in the process exposing the classical idiom- its matter and form- as a 'mask' concealing an instability at the heart of appearances. Key aesthetic terms current at the time - in particular, sprezzatura and grazia - are considered from the perspective of their affinities with irony. Harnessing Lacanian notions of desire's 'impossibility' or 'desire as lack,' discussion focuses on the artists' allusions to the discrepancy or gap between ego ideal and lived reality. It is argued that, in giving primacy to the aesthetic, these artists make a presence of absence; that is to say, desire makes its presence felt through naming effects, via metaphor. The thesis is concerned with the limit to representation, explaining it as the barrier to jouissance as determined by sexual difference. Every signifier carries lack. The phenomenon of repetition (Lacan's notion of the drive as "the mask of the symbolic") informs my approach. Always more explicit than Bronzino, Caravaggio dramatizes the imaginary relation - the relation between self and other- for that is where the gap is produced, where death makes itself felt. In the demand addressed to the Other there is always an element left in impasse. The thesis suggests that both artists, in confronting the dilemma of naming the unnameable, essentially create metaphors for emotional immobility and loss. I argue that the viewer's relation to objet a or its complement, the specular image i(a), is established via the phantasm. The fictional nature of the metonymic object is stressed. The paradox of "unmoving movement," so characteristic of Bronzino's maniera, is amplified in Caravaggio's work. In both artists' work, the unnameable manifests, not only as the fixity of frozen form but also as a surplus, as excess - colour playing a primary role in this respect. I consider its relation to the "symptom." The distinction often drawn between narrative or the representational and the performative finds its parallel in the difference between desire caught up in a dialectic - that is, mediated expression - and what is beyond the conceptual, an ego-annihilating jouissance, a pleasure that does not end in harmony or resolution; in short, a "nonsense sense" or jouis-sens. The realm of non-meaning is evoked via rupture or disjunction in the visual field.