I begin this assignment by looking for examples of re-appropriation within visual communication. It took me some time searching around for the right image that could be both interesting to me and that could work well for the assignment. During the search I found Cindy Sherman. As soon as I saw her work, I was mesmerised by her series of History Portraits. I’m choosing Untitled #224 (1990) after Caravaggio’s Sick Bacchus (1593).
Right: Untitled #224, 1990, chromogenic color print, 48 x 38″ (121.9 x 96.5 cm). Collection of Linda and Jerry Janger, Los Angeles. © 2012 Cindy Sherman / MOMA
Denotation (literal elements)
- self-portrait of Caravaggio dressed as Bacchus
- he’s posing and looking at viewer over his shoulder
- he’s muscular yet looks sickly (greyish / yellowish skin colour)
- greyish lips, slight smile
- he’s wearing a white robe tied with a sturdy brown drawstring and on his head lies a crown of vine leaves
- robe reveals his right shoulder and back, his thighs are bare
- he holds a bunch of yellowish ripening grapes in his hands (left hand is partially hidden)
- on the grey stone table lies a bunch of shiny black grapes, two peaches and part of the robe’s drawstring
- fruits and crown look realistic
- background is dark and non-descriptive
- composition: vertical body in contrast to horizontal table
- light comes from below and from his right
- part of his body and face is cast in shadow
Connotation (implied meanings)
- fruit on corner of stone table = inviting, close to viewer, reachable
- Dionysus (Greek) or Bacchus (Roman) = mythological god of wine, fertility
- personification as Bacchus = intoxication, mortal mythological god, relating to history, allegorical? ironical?
- self-inclusion in portrait = biographical, illness, moral message, both model and painter
- sickly complexion = illness, intoxication, jaundice
- ripening (some rotting) grapes in hand close to face= rotting might indicate death, illness, ageing, ripening might indicate sexuality, loss of innocence, ageing, maturity
- peaches and grapes on table, drawstring = inviting, phallic, close to viewer
Context of original (why, where, when)
A Youth as Bacchus or Sick Bacchus (Bacchino Malato) (1593) is an early self-portrait by Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio. He began his painting career in Lombardy before moving to Rome in 1592, where he worked in the workshop of Cavalier d’Arpino painting naturalistic subjects such as flowers and fruits. His early works in Rome, such as Sick Bacchus, Boy Peeling Fruit (1593) and Boy with a Basket of Fruit (1593), show his ability to paint still-life, portraiture and classical subject matter.
An important characteristic about this painting is that Caravaggio used his own reflection from a mirror to combine his features with a mythological subject. As Surname (year:page) mentions, working directly from a model and including himself in his paintings was a way for Caravaggio to break down the hierarchies and idealist ideas of Renaissance painting. The pose in Sick Bacchus is inspired from a figure in Marcantonio Raimondi’s Judgement of Paris (see fig. 1).
It has been linked to Caravaggio’s six-month hospitalisation in Rome at the Santa Maria della Consolazione hospital due to a severe illness, possibly acute infective hepatitis due to symptoms of jaundice, or the yellowing of skin and eyes, in Sick Bacchus. He possibly witnessed chronic alcoholics suffering of jaundice, liver failure and ultimately death (Aronson and Ramachandran, 2007); this might explain why he chose to disguise himself as Bacchus, god of wine, while suffering from jaundice himself. Interesting to note that his later painting Bacchus (1596) looks rosy-cheeked and a lot healthier.
Sick Bacchus, along with Boy Peeling Fruit and Boy with a Basket of Fruit, were among the works confiscated from the workshop of d’Arpino in 1607 by Pope Paul V. They came to the possession of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the Pope’s nephew and an art collector.
Location (Online access, modern relationship and approaches to visual communication)
The original piece is currently located in the Galleria Borghese, Rome, Italy. I located the image in several websites, including Wikipedia, Bridgeman and Galleria Borghese, and found that each version has a different brightness and hue. I’m posting the image found in Wikipedia because it’s the only one in public domain but for this assignment I’ll be analysing the image found in Galleria Borghese. Even though works of art enter public domain 70 years after the last creator’s death, some galleries and museums hold copyright over their photographs of those artworks. I think this complex web of copyright is a good reflection of our modern relationship with historical artworks and how we deal with authorship. Also, I remain doubtful about which photograph is the most faithful one; I wonder, in particular, how the colors really look like in the original painting (Yellower? Greyer? Bluer? Greener?).
Cindy Sherman is an American photographer born in 1954. Her bodies of work show her disguised as different characters, not really impersonating specific people but rather embodying identities and personas. In each of her photographs, she is photographer, model, stylist and makeup artist all at once.
Untitled #224 (1990) is part of her series History Portraits (1988-1990), 35 portraits in which she masquerades as subjects of classical European masterpieces. While many of the pieces in this series are not portraying specific paintings, Untitled #224 is definitely imitating Caravaggio’s Sick Bacchus. I think that viewers might be able to quickly see how multi-layered and ironical this image is; Caravaggio is a male painter acting as his own model and disguising himself as Bacchus, Sherman is a female photographer acting as her own model and disguising herself as Caravaggio disguised as Bacchus. Both artists are, in their own way, satirising history.
Comparison, changed or maintained message, connections between two, visual & contextual
At first glance, these two portraits seem to share many similarities. After all, the two subjects share the same pose, gaze and costume and the two works have similar backgrounds and compositions. Despite this general resemblance, however, there are many small differences between the two.
I think one of the most important visual and contextual differences is the fact that Sherman is disguised as a young man disguised as Bacchus; these layers of disguise definitely alter the original message. Caravaggio is altering the associations with Bacchus by painting a flirtatious young man suffering from jaundice, while also breaking down Renaissance ideals by portraying himself as a mythological deity. Sherman, in turn, is altering the message of the original painting by imitating, removing or changing certain elements and is making a statement about female involvement in art history by acting both as artist and model. Can Bacchus be a woman? Can an Old Master be a woman? These are some of the questions I feel Sherman answers with her self-portrait.
Caravaggio’s Sick Bacchus is sick and tired, yet also slightly flirtatious and inviting. Sherman’s Untitled #224 is not. Some of the painting’s elements and some of his gestures can be read as provocative; a revealing robe showing his muscular back and arm, head resting on shoulder, direct gaze with viewer, grapes raised to lips, arrangement of peach and grapes very near to viewer, open legs. At the same time, he seems to be shielding himself with his arm and by sitting behind the horizontal table. Sherman’s subject, in turn, does not seem neither guarded nor provocative but rather direct and much less secretive; fully illuminated, phallic arrangements gone, body turned towards viewer, visible neck, arm is not tensed and simply rests on table, gaze is more direct.
In contrast to Caravaggio’s realism and naturalism, Sherman is not trying to sell a realistic portrait, but rather show just enough resemblance in order to derive meaning from the original painting. The fact that the props, disguise, light, prosthetics and makeup look clearly artificial communicates a humorous, satirical message. Criticising, perhaps, the idealisation of art history.
List of Illustrations
Figure 1. Raimondi, M. (ca. 1510–20) The Judgment of Paris [Engraving] At: http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/337058 (Accessed on 10 May 2017)
Painter of reality
Age of Caravaggio