Monday, April 02, 2007

Intro to Art Part Ia

Last Sunday we started the art unit in my Humanities 201 Sunday class. As I have been doing lately to get this unit started, I went to a general collection I had in one of my many art folders, which are woefully disorganized though serviceable for most of my needs, and made a handful of selections, as if they were donuts, or lobsters. I started with this one because it is a truly splendid experience--it makes for one, at any rate, even in reproduction--and I start talking about looking, and about looking at looking, as we are doing here. I paired it with this fine Poussin, Et in Arcadia Ego, where there is another kind of looking and deciphering going on--the Poussin is a much colder, virtually emotionless painting--but what had begun to intrigue me about this St. Thomas of Caravaggio was the number of slides--I arrange them on Powerpoint--I had assembled near each other that evoke senses other than looking.

Boucher's Odalisque of 1752, for example, evokes the sense of touch like nobody's business.

From Manet's The Fifer of 1866 we may move from a contemplation of the boy's face, intent on performing his music, to a consideration of the sound itself, in its spare but sprightly high tones.

I followed them with a painting apparently mis-attributed to William-Adolphe Bouguereau, which might also not be by Jules-Joseph Lefebvre, or practically anyone from here, or here, showing one of those beautiful nudes on a beach by a cavern holding a shell to her ear and gesturing us to be silent, to listen, when of course we have already been looking. It sits poorly with the grand Caravaggio so I will show her later.

The sense of touch we get in Caravaggio, of course, is wildly different from Boucher's evocation. We can't help but feel something when we look, and even if Jesus Christ appears to feel no pain, it is about pain, and violation of the flesh. The doubter has our dumbfounded admiration; Caravaggio simultaneously evokes the flesh Thomas feels with the tip of his finger and the penetration Christ feels (must feel, would feel) in his side. To find out more about St. Thomas, we turn to the Catholic Encyclopedia:
Little is recorded of St. Thomas the Apostle, nevertheless thanks to the fourth Gospel his personality is clearer to us than that of some others of the Twelve. His name occurs in all the lists of the Synoptists (Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6, cf. Acts 1:13), but in St. John he plays a distinctive part. First, when Jesus announced His intention of returning to Judea to visit Lazarus, "Thomas" who is called Didymus [the twin], said to his fellow disciples: "Let us also go, that we may die with him" (John 11:16). Again it was St. Thomas who during the discourse before the Last Supper raised an objection: "Thomas saith to him: Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way?" (John 14:5). But more especially St. Thomas is remembered for his incredulity when the other Apostles announced Christ's Resurrection to him: "Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe" (John 20:25); but eight days later he made his act of faith, drawing down the rebuke of Jesus: "Because thou hast seen me, Thomas, thou hast believed; blessed are they that have not seen, and have believed" (John 20:29).

So, Thomas, who has rebuked Jesus, is rebuked in turn. What happens next? The painting is itself convincing, which is all I really care about. I might be convinced, by the tear along the seam of Thomas's garment, for example, that Thomas bears his own wound, a parallel to that of Christ, or that the painting explores dimensions of homoeroticism.