Left: Sick Bacchus, 1593, oil on canvas, 67 x 53 cm, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) / Galleria Borghese, Rome, Italy / Wikipedia
Right: Untitled #224, 1990, chromogenic color print, 121.9 x 96.5 cm, Cindy Sherman (1954 – ) / Collection of Linda and Jerry Janger, Los Angeles. 2012 Cindy Sherman / MOMA
In this essay I’m going to be studying an example of a re-appropriated image. I’ve chosen Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #224 after Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s Sick Bacchus. I’ll be carrying out a semiotic analysis and exploring the context, background and visual elements of both works before noting down the similarities and differences between the two. I will see how Untitled #224 and Sick Bacchus relate and differ from each other in order to reflect on how the re-appropriated image has either maintained or changed the original message.
A Youth as Bacchus or Sick Bacchus (Bacchino Malato) (1593) is an early self-portrait by Caravaggio currently located in Galleria Borghese, Rome, Italy. He was born in 1571 in the town of Caravaggio, Italy and became an apprentice in Milan 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.
Cindy Sherman is a contemporary photographer born in 1954 in New Jersey, United States. She disguises herself as different characters, not to impersonate specific people but rather to embody different identities. In each of her works, she’s photographer, model, stylist and makeup artist all at once. Untitled #224 (1990) belongs to her series titled History Portraits (1988-1990), which she was inspired to do after researching Madame Pompadour and the French Revolution for a previous commissioned work. While most of the pieces in this series are not portraying a specific painting or person, Untitled #224 is definitely a re-appropriation of Caravaggio’s Sick Bacchus.
In Caravaggio’s self-portrait, we see him disguised as Bacchus, god of wine and fertility. His pose, sideways and glancing at the viewer over the shoulder, is inspired by a figure in Marcantonio Raimondi’s Judgement of Paris (ca. 1510–20). Though he is young, muscular and flirtatious, his yellowed skin and eyes and his grey lips give him a sickly, tired complexion. These symptoms of jaundice have linked the painting to Caravaggio’s hospitalisation due to a severe illness, possibly acute infective hepatitis. He witnessed chronic alcoholics suffering of jaundice, liver failure and ultimately death (Aronson and Ramachandran, 2007); this would explain why he chose to disguise himself as Bacchus while suffering from jaundice. Interesting to note that his crown of leaves is not made of grape leaves and there is no presence of wine, as opposed to his later painting Bacchus (1596), in which the subject looks rosy-cheeked, healthy and flushed from drinking wine.
At first glance, Sick Bacchus and Untitled #224 seem to share many similarities, such as their pose, gaze, costume, background and composition. Despite this general resemblance, there are many small, yet important, differences between the two. Sick Bacchus is sick and tired, yet also flirtatious and inviting. Sherman’s Untitled #224 is not. Some of the painting’s features can be read as provocative; a revealing robe showing his muscular back and arm, head resting on curve of shoulder, direct gaze with viewer, grapes raised to lips, phallic arrangement of peach and grapes near viewer, and open legs. At the same time, he seems to be shielding his body behind his arm and the stone table. Sherman’s subject, in turn, is neither guarded nor provocative; she is fully illuminated, less secretive, the suggestive hints are gone, her body is slightly turned towards the viewer, her neck is visible, her arm is not tensed and simply rests on the table, her gaze is brighter and more direct.
Next to Caravaggio’s subject are black, shiny grapes and those that he holds near his mouth are ripening and rotting. Sherman’s grapes are all perfect and healthy, but obviously fake. His crown of leaves looks brown and dull compared to hers, which is vividly green and plastic. Her cloth and sash are sheer and soft, her features are clearly hardened by makeup, her thigh is feminine and fully illuminated. She is not trying to be him, she is borrowing from him to communicate her own message. She’s disguised as Caravaggio disguised as the Roman god Bacchus after the Greek god Dionysus. She is making a statement about female involvement in art history by placing a woman in the role of an ancient male deity and in the role of an Old Master, a term referring to the important (mostly male) painters of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.
Caravaggio used his own reflection from a mirror to combine his features with a mythological deity. Bayer (2004:169) states that acting as his own model and including his features in the painting was a way for Caravaggio to break down the hierarchies and idealisms of Renaissance painting. In addition, he is altering the representations of mythology and history by portraying a god as a sick youth. Sick Bacchus communicates human weakness, consequence, illness, and mortality in place of grandiosity, festivity, pleasure and immortality.
Sherman is not trying to imitate Caravaggio’s realism and naturalism. The way she titles, or rather “untitles”, her work communicates an indifferent position in regard to the original artist and painting. Her chosen medium, photography, is a realistic medium by nature, yet she uses it to create a fake illusion. The artificiality of the props, disguise, light, prosthetics and makeup communicates a humorous message about identity and, ironically, humanises the original painting’s subject even further and brings it closer to reality.
Yet another irony is how much more reliable Sherman’s photograph is than Caravaggio’s painting in our modern context. I found images of Sick Bacchus in several websites, including Wikipedia, Bridgeman and Galleria Borghese, but realised that each photograph differs in color, brightness and copyright license. Even though works of art enter public domain 70 years after the last creator’s death, some galleries and museums hold copyright over the photographs of those artworks. Because Sherman’s work is already a photograph, there is only one version and all copyright of it is her own. I think this complexity of copyright, accuracy and authorship serves as a good reflection of our modern relationship with art history and visual communication in general.
Caravaggio and Sherman’s works are different from each other in terms of context, time of creation, medium, and message, yet both artists are, in their own way, drawing from their knowledge of history to criticise idealisations and stereotypes. Both have created self-portraits that speak more about their respective cultures and audiences than about themselves. Both bring forth reflection about identity and about the grandiosity with which we look at things past. Finally, a short statement by Sherman, ‘I guess I’m also commenting on how we think these things are masterful. Why do we think they’re so great?’
Word count: 1128
List of Illustrations
Figure 1. Caravaggio, M. M. d. (1593) Sick Bacchus [oil on canvas] At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Young_Sick_Bacchus (Accessed on 17 May 2017)
Figure 2. Sherman, C. (1990) Untitled #224 [Chromogenic color print] At: https://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2012/cindysherman/gallery/audio/8-224.php (Accessed on 17 May 2017)
Aronson, J. K. and Ramachandran, M. (2007) The diagnosis of art: Caravaggio’s jaundiced Bacchus. At: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1963406
Art21. (2013) It Began with Madame de Pompadour
Cindy Sherman. At: https://art21.org/read/cindy-sherman-it-began-with-madame-de-pompadour (Accessed on 17 May 2017)
Bayer, A. and Gregori, M. (2004) Painters of Reality: The Legacy of Leonardo and Caravaggio in Lombardy [PDF, MetPublications] At: http://www.metmuseum.org/art/metpublications/Painters_of_Reality_The_Legacy_of_Leonardo_and_Caravaggio_in_Lombardy
Bersani, L. and Dutoit, U. (1998) Caravaggio’s Secrets. At: http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/b/bersani-caravaggio.html (Accessed on 17 May 2017)
Gregori, M., Gregory, M., and Christiansen, K. (1985) The Age of Caravaggio [PDF, MetPublications] At: http://www.metmuseum.org/art/metpublications/The_Age_of_Caravaggio
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