100 Works of Art: (Visual) Narcissus by Caravaggio

2. Narcissus, by Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio), c. 1597-1599.

Before I talk about the painting: I am pretty fascinated by Caravaggio the man, which is unusual for me as most artists tend to annoy or bore me (ref. my father is a [not terribly successful] artist) or at best their tribulations just sound like an episode of Eastenders. Caravaggio is interesting because he was an astronomical dickhead. He wasn’t just a dickhead from the perspective of the modern observer, the way so many historical figures are, to be mincingly redeemed with the non-excuse of “well it was normal for the time” for people to invest in the slave trade, beat prostitutes, abandon their wives, vomit on the poor, etc.; no, Michelangelo Merisi was also a prime twat by the standards of the time. He was an oath-breaker, a fraud, a disloyal friend, a reneger on contracts, a murderer, a relentless shagger, a vengeful tit, an arrogant swaggering fucktard, and a bully. He was precisely the kind of person you would cross the street and possibly the city to avoid.

To me that is part of his allure: he wasn’t “a bad boy” in the romantic sense, he was a fucking tool. And he produced these exceptionally beautiful paintings full of vivacity and drama and gore and ugliness and beauty. He modelled the Holy Virgin on a dead whore. He mingled the sacred and the profane and delineated it all in pools of stark light and shadow, and while it would be wrong to paint him as a revolutionary maverick (his style was after all influenced by others), he was certainly eye-catching.

I am fond of many of his works, and forever sad that if he produced a St Sebastian it never survived, but I’ve chosen Narcissus to talk about because of how it handles the subject matter.

Narcissus by Caravaggio, c. 1597-1599

I am uncommonly fond of the myth of Narcissus anyway: one of my university final projects was a post-modern reworking of the story (displayed, appropriately enough, on a large mirror) which got me into trouble with the admin department at the time because apparently not everyone saw the joke in covering a work of literature in pictures of masturbating men. I also have a tattoo of Narcissus’s reflection rising from the waters to kiss him, as drawn by the exceptional Gillian Blekkenhorst & tattooed by Owen Williams at Living Image.

To me this painting embodies the absolute essence of the story of Narcissus, the inward-facing, world-denying self-obsession which leads to him – depending on your version of the story – either wasting away gazing tenderly at his own reflection or, in more pro-active stories with less patience, trying to embrace his own reflected body and drowning. Unlike many other depictions of Narcissus, this studio-posed painting does not show off an artistic ability to include the idyllic forest clearing in which Narcissus fell in love (apart from anything else Caravaggio was often criticised for being apparently unable to use his imagination that much). It instead focuses, as Narcissus focuses, on the only relevant part of the image: the beautiful boy staring into the water.

There is enough solid earth to delineate the edge of the water and to give Narcissus a place to rest his lovesick body, and that is all. His fingertips almost kiss the still surface of the waters; he is leaning forward to peer at this vision of divine loveliness that is himself, utterly entranced and totally absorbed. There is no rest of the world in the painting because there is no rest of the world in the mind of Narcissus: there is only himself, and the image of himself.

The starkness with which he stands out of the darkness, alone, encapsulates perfectly the monomania of love, and I think was more a happy side-effect of Caravaggio’s vain “I am too brilliant to need to paint puny backgrounds give me my damn money I deserve better than this I am a genius I tell you” appalling attitude than necessarily any great allegorical or metaphorical intent, but it is a wonderful accident or coincidence nonetheless.


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