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October 13, 2010

Art Text and Violence Panel at ‘Violence and Reconciliation’

Writing about web page http://humanities.exeter.ac.uk/research/conferences/criticaltheory/




The first talk on this panel was on ‘Caravaggio and the Violent Event’ by Eva Aldea, and it began by highlighting Caravaggio’s painting The Beheading on John the Baptist (1608). Comparing this composition to paintings on similar subject matter by Cranach, Reuben and Tiepolo, Aldea pointed out that Caravaggio’s version was quite muted and that even though there is less gore, his imagining of the scenario is more violent. This beheading shows an audience watching while an executioner struggles to finish off the job. Aldea argued that Caravaggio’s work was far more violent than was normal in the traditions of painting at the time. She referred us to Raphael’s The Judgement of Solomon, which featured a similar grizzly scenario:


In this scene where Solomon orders his soldiers to chop the baby in half and give half to each of the mothers who claim the child as their own. Raphael’s painting, however, offesr a staged, idealized composition, quite different to the shocking realism of Caravaggio who drew from models. Caravaggio presents dark spaces and the people involved are ordinary not glamorous. Aldea also discussed the word that appears in the painting written in John the Baptist’s blood: Fra. Michelangelo. Aldea speculates that this name refers to Caravaggio’s membership of the brotherhood of Malta, and that it represents Caravaggio being cleansed of his sins, baptised in the blood of the Baptist.

Next, Catriona McAra spoke of ‘Sadeian Women’, focussing on violence in the ‘Surrealist Anti-Tales’ of Leonara Carrington, Angela Carter and Dorothea Tanning. McAra (quite rightly) considered the dialogue between Leonara Carrington (Max Ernst’s lover) and Dorothea Tanning (Max Ernst’s wife) and discussed their links to Angela Carter’s writing. All three creators use the Marquis de Sade as a way of unravelling conventional ideas about the female Surrealist artist; it is his influence that encourages them to create ‘anti-tales’. These women don’t read Sade literally, according to McAra, but use his work to enable a rebellion for women. The credo is, I fuck therefore I am. Yet this is not reproductive sex that maintains women’s value in a currency of male lineage and power. Instead what emerges is dark poetry, dark fairy tales, the black humour of Sade. Concurrent with Carter’s idea of ‘wise children’, Tanning offers a vision of child women that resemble Sade’s malicious Juliet. Take for example, Tanning’s painting Children’s Games (1942). McAra goes on to study writings by Tanning and Carrington: Tanning’s short story ‘Blind Date’ (1943) and her novel Chasm (2004); and Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet (1974) and her short story ‘The Débutante’. In many of these texts, McAra finds imagery of defacing, self-portraiture and violence figured as a dog or hyena, as in the paintings: House of the Dawn Hare by Carrington:



... and Tanning’s Birthday:



Natalia Font spoke last giving a fascinating talk on ‘The Bloody Museum’, which is if course a reference to Carter’s short story ‘The Bloody Chamber’ and the aspect of the story where the narrator, the wife of the Bluebeard, tells of the works of art that is on the walls of her new home. This paper was particularly fascinating, because often in this particular story, Carter engages with art and its representations of women, and uses intertextuality to comment on gender. For example, the narrator tells us that there is a painting by Gauguin called Out of the Night We Come, Into the Night We Go, which does not exist. It does, however, appear to be an answer to Gauguin’s real painting Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?:



Another painting which is described as being on the wall is a vision of St Cecelia (by Rubens), which offers a picture of innocent charm. It is worth remembering though, Font insists, that Cecelia was beheaded, a story that hints at the fate of the wife of the Bluebeard. Another painting described of the Sabine women recalls David’s Les Sabines:



David’s painting shows the women trying to reconcile the fighters, suggesting male violence and women as beseeching supplicants. Font did refer to other artists as well as to illustrators of Carter’s work, but this is all that I was able to note at the time.

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