I'll Be Your Mirror: Michael Fried’s “The Moment of Caravaggio”

“I'll be your mirror,” The Velvet Underground sang in the song of the same name, “Reflect what you are, in case you don't know.” In The Moment of Caravaggio, Michael Fried argues that the art of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio captivates us by reflecting back at us the interior life we the viewer project into it. Fried adds to that dynamic another “moment,” in which the artist himself finds himself captured by his own painting, which he must cast off if it is to live as an independent art work. One of the most intriguing and subtle art critics writing today, Fried casts new light into the work of the master of chiaroscuro and presents a fresh approach to understanding just why Caravaggio’s art lingers in the mind and holds our attention even today, four centuries after his death.


Fried’s “moment of Caravaggio” actually consists of two moments happening simultaneously. He calls one “moment” the “immersive,” in which the painter becomes “so caught up, so immersed” in the act of painting that he becomes “less than fully aware of any sharp distinction between the painting and himself.” It as if the painter reenacts the myth of Narcissus, a subject Caravaggio painted (shown above, from 1597-1599), but replacing the beautiful boy with the artist himself. Caravaggio’s penchant for placing self-portraits in his work comes up again and again in Fried’s narrative, allowing him to mount greater and greater evidence for this “moment.” Even Caravaggio’s painted portraits seem immersed, almost trapped, in the drama of the painting they inhabit.

In some works, such as The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew, Caravaggio depicts his painted double immersed in the action before him while simultaneously trying to escape from the scene. Fried calls this escape mode the second “moment” or “specular” moment, in which the artist or viewer is no longer “in” the painting but instead is “outside,” where he “discover[s] that he has become not just detached but distanced from it, in a relationship of mutual facing.” In the first “moment” of immersion, we identify so closely to the painting that it disappears as a painting. In the second “moment” of immersion, the painting as painting returns and forces us to face it from the outside while it faces us from the wall before us.

Fried makes great use of his analysis of the motif of right-angle mirror self-portraits in the works of Caravaggio and his contemporaries. He uncovers the right-angle mirror self-portrait hidden in works such as Boy Bitten by Lizard, in which the painted figure’s right hand bitten by the lizard would have held the artist’s palette and the left hand registering shock would have held the brush. In such self-portraits the artist would immerse himself in the process of looking at the mirror and transferring that image to the canvas. The identification would be irresistible. Pulling free of that irresistible force had to be difficult. Perhaps tricks such as biting lizards may have helped break the spell. Like the figure in The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew fleeing the scene of the crime in the painting, Caravaggio in these mirror self-portraits, Fried believes, removes “himself [from the work] as its creator… to make the work self-sufficient and autonomous… [and] launch it into the world independently of him.”

Another fascinating twist in Fried’s argument, which is based on the A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts he delivered at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, several years ago, comes in his use of Stanley Cavell’s theories on Shakespearean tragedy. For Cavell, what makes Shakespeare’s tragic figures tragic is their inability to confront the reality of “human finitude,… the often painful fact of the necessary separateness of persons and their consequent opacity to one another,” Fried writes. This “necessary separateness “ is necessary in Caravaggio’s paintings as well. Cavell’s theory reminded me of T.S. Eliot’s critique of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s analysis of Hamlet. Coleridge, Eliot complained, “make a Coleridge of Hamlet.” The identification of reader and character in Coleridge’s case was complete—the Narcissistic infinite loop that sets neither art nor artist nor analyst free. By bringing in these ideas from outside the art world, Fried amplifies the power of his argument.

As beautiful as Fried’s analysis of Caravaggio is (ably complimented by 200 color illustrations), I found myself equally captivated by his rehabilitation of the Caravaggisti, the often-belittled followers of the master. Rather than the “parasitic” painters of conventional wisdom, the Caravaggisti emerge in Fried’s essay as part of “a collective effort to formulate a new paradigm for gallery painting… extrapolated” from Caravaggio’s art and continued through that of Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi, Bartolomeo Manfredi, Valentin de Boulogne, and others. Caravaggio becomes the central figure of a great tradition rather than the lone genius—inspiration to his followers, inspirational rival to contemporaries such as Annibale Carracci and Lodovico Carracci, and even indirectly influential to later critics such as Poussin who endlessly professed his loathing for the “other” Michelangelo.

In the very beginning of the very first lecture, Fried announces his “outsider” status in Caravaggio studies. After a lifetime committed to the study of French painting, Fried directs his gaze to Caravaggio studies and sets it on its edge. We’ve always appreciated the confrontational quality of Caravaggio. That “in your face” power that pushes us away is unmistakable. What Fried brings to the discussion is the “in your head” power of Caravaggio—the immersive power of the contemplation embedded in the scenes that leads us to identify with the inner life of painted figures. “I’ll be your mirror,” Caravaggio says, before stepping through the looking glass and shattering it on the way out. Michael Fried’s The Moment of Caravaggio allows us to pick up the pieces.

[Many thanks to Princeton University Press for providing me with a review copy of Michael Fried’s The Moment of Caravaggio.]

Big Think
Sponsored by Lumina Foundation

Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!

As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.

Keep reading Show less

Essential financial life skills for 21st-century Americans

Having these financial life skills can help you navigate challenging economic environments.

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash
Personal Growth
  • Americans are swimming in increasingly higher amounts of debt, even the upper middle class.
  • For many, this burden can be alleviated by becoming familiar with some straightforward financial concepts.
  • Here's some essential financial life skills needed to ensure your economic wellbeing.
Keep reading Show less

New study finds the egg may actually 'choose' the Sperm

Here's the first evidence to challenge the "fastest sperm" narrative.

popular
Keep reading Show less

New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.