In my article on Hieronymus Bosch, I posit Bosch as a proto-Modern, or even a pure Modern if one considers his work from a purely conceptual standpoint. This is because despite some of his technical lacks (he pretty much worked as a ‘flat’ medieval painter), he was the first to turn these shortcomings into a strength. Bosch took the expected allegories, the almost child-like didacticism of earlier religious painters and deepened them, made these stories richer and fresh. In short, he ripped medieval art outside of its own context, thus sidestepping its worst qualities by focusing on new ones, revealing how even seemingly primitive techniques can be rehabilitated into something worthwhile, a fact that no amount of Renaissance-level realism could have equaled. This was an important move, historically, since it showed that technical ability at the exclusion of all else is NOT the end-all of art — an idea that has still be argued, most notably by Nabokov — but that novel combinations of techniques and ideas can lead to something greater than these individual parts.
Thus, modern painting does not really stem from the innovations of the Renaissance (which were more or less predictable — scientific, even) but the decision to use these innovations for a higher purpose. Sure, Bosch seemed to ignore these innovations altogether, taking a short-cut to this higher purpose while obviating what was superficially new, but it’s the conceptions, the far deeper story-telling that mattered in a way that mere, dull realism could not. Yet just as Bosch eclipsed the Renaissance painters, he, too, would eventually be surpassed when these technical innovations could be married to genuine depth. And this confluence of things would first enter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1572-1610), quite possibly the first true Modern, and the greatest artist of any form, medium, or genre, in the West, up until that time. Interestingly, his date of birth coincides with the birth of John Donne, who (excepting the Chinese writers) was probably the greatest writer until that point, while his death parallels the publication of Cervantes’s Don Quixote, which — even more than Shakespeare’s plays — helped usher in artistic modernism.
To see how Caravaggio accomplished all this, I’m going to use just one painting: Amor Vincit Omnia (“Love Conquers All,” or a number of other titles), not because it’s the best or most representative of the above points, but because it is my own personal favorite, and the first painting that really taught me about visual art.Cupid is put into a physical position — almost a contortion, really — that painters before and after Caravaggio have used. Indeed, lots of painters, such as Delacroix and some of the pre-Raphaelites, have erred in thinking that ‘action’ in a painting is best, and that novelty for novelty’s sake (especially in terms of human positioning) might get you somewhere artistically. Yet Caravaggio’s Cupid is anything but novelty, for he’s just crashed through a window, door, or some other opening, landed on some … Continue reading →