The Quoted Artist: Contemporary fascination with Caravaggio is, in itself, Baroque

by Mieke BAL

Why Quotation Matters – and How

Like any form of representation, art is inevitably engaged with what came before it, and that engagement is an active reworking. It specifies what and how our gaze sees. Hence, the work performed by later images obliterates the older images as they were before that intervention and creates new versions of old images instead. This process is exemplified by an engagement of contemporary culture with the past that has important implications for the ways we conceive of both history and culture in the present.

I would like to put forward the idea that the current interest in the Baroque – and specifically, Caravaggio – acts out what is itself a baroque vision, a vision that can be characterized as a vacillation between the subject and object of that vision and which changes the status of both.

Caravaggio’s paintings put forward a vision that integrates an epistemological view, a concept of representation, and an aesthetic, all three of which are anchored in the inseparability of mind and body, form and matter, line and colour, image and discourse. Indeed, no baroque oeuvre makes a clearer case for the role of both precursor (or inventor) and product (or result) of this oscillation than that of Caravaggio.

The concept of quotation serves to understand this contemporiness of Caravaggio. Quotation is not a unified practice with unified goals. Instead, this practice also redefines and complicates the notion of quotation itself.

“Quotation” stands at the intersection of iconography and intertextuality. The term intertextuality was introduced by the Soviet philosopher of language Mikhail Bakhtin. It refers to the ready-made quality of – in his case, linguistic – signs, which a writer or image-maker finds available in the earlier works that a culture has produced. Iconography seems to be the examination of precisely this reuse of earlier forms, patterns and figures. Hence, this dual concept of iconography and/as intertextuality might be a good place to begin integrating visual and linguistic traditions of interpretation.

Three features, all of which are crucial, characterize iconography and intertextuality, even if in art-historical practice and literary source studies the consequences and possibilities offered by these features are not always followed through. In the first place, iconographic analyses and literary source studies tend to see the historical precedent as the source which more or less dictated to the later artist what forms could be used. By adopting forms from the work of an earlier artist, the later artist proves to be under the spell of his predecessor’s influence; he implicitly or explicitly declares his allegiance and debt to him. But we can reverse the passivity implied in that perspective, and considering the work of the later artist as an active intervention in the material handed down to him or her.

A second difference between the theory of intertextuality and the practice of source studies and iconography is the place of meaning. Iconographic analysis frequently avoids interpreting the meaning of the borrowed motifs in their new contexts. This is understandable; to borrow a motif is not a priori also to borrow a meaning. In contrast, the concept of intertextuality as deployed more recently implies precisely that: the sign borrowed, because it is a sign, inevitably comes with a meaning. Not that the later artist necessarily endorses that meaning, but he or she will have to deal with it: to reject or reverse it, ironize it, or simply, often unawares, insert it into the new text.

In contrast, the undecidability of the visual is understood to be paradigmatic of the production of meaning in general. Instead of classifying and closing meaning as if to solve an enigma, this study of what Freud would call Nachträglichkeit will attempt to trace the process of meaning production over time (in both directions: present/past and past/present) as an open, dynamic process, rather than map the results of that process. Instead of establishing a one-to-one relationship between sign or motif and meaning, I emphasize the active participation of visual images in cultural dialogue, the discussion of ideas. It is in this sense that I claim art “thinks.”

A third difference between theory and practice resides in the textual character of intertextual allusion. Iconography tends to refer visual motifs back to written texts, such as the classical texts of mythology. I would like to try to take the textual nature of precedents seriously as a visual textuality. By recycling forms taken from earlier works, an artist takes along the text from which the borrowed element has broken away, while at the same time constructing a new text with the debris. The new image-as-”text”–say, a mythography– is “contaminated” by the discourse of the precedent, and thereby fractured so to speak, ready to fall apart again at any time. The fragility of the objectifying, distancing device of mythography is displayed by this taint of “first-person” subjectivity.

Thus, this “textualizing” iconography will consider visual principles of form – such as chiaroscuro, colour, folds, surface texture, and different conceptions of perspective – as positions that entertain interdiscursive relations with other works. In this sense, Caravaggio is re-envisioned not only in contemporary figurative but also abstract art.

“Quotation,” then, can be seen in a number of distinct ways, each of which illuminate – through their theoretical consequences – one aspect of the art of the present and the art of the past. First, according to classical narrative theory, direct discourse, or the “literal” quotation of the words of characters, is a form that reinforces mimesis. As fragments of “real speech,” they authenticate the fiction. In narrative, the quotation of character speech is embedded in the primary discourse of the narrator. In visual art, such embedding structures are less conspicuous and rarely studied, despite the frequent use of the term “quotation.” Such literal quotation is at stake, for example, in works by New York artists Dotty Attie and Ken Aptekar as they interact with Caravaggio’s The Cardsharps, The Fortune-Teller , and Judith Beheading Holophernes.

Second, these fragments of reality are the product of a manipulation. Rather than serving reality, they serve a reality effect  (Barthes), which is in fact the opposite – a fiction of realism. Thus they function like shifters, allowing the presence of multiple realities within a single image. This conception of quotation is perhaps most emphatically at stake in the way the most deceptively illusionistic works, such as Caravaggio’s Head of Medusa , resurface in Belgian sculptor Ann Véronica Janssens’s Le corps noir  or Ana Mendieta’s photographs of installations.

Third, in Bakhtinian dialogism, quotations stand for the utter fragmentation of language itself. They point in the directions from which the words have come, thus thickening, rather than undermining, the work of mimesis. This conception of quotation turns the precise quotation of utterances into the borrowing of disc u r – s i v e habits. And this interdiscursivity accounts for pluralized meanings – typically, ambiguities – and stipulates that meaning cannot be reduced to the artist’s intention. Examples of this are most challenging when the artist is not “quoting” Caravaggio in any specific, direct sense, as is the case in Amalia Mesa-Bains’s installations or Carrie Mae Weems’s photographs.

Finally, deconstructionism paradoxically harks back to what this same view might repress when it presents the polyphony of discursive mixtures a little too jubilantly. Stipulating the impossibility of reaching the alleged, underlying earlier speech, this view emphasizes what the quoting subject does to its object. Whereas for Bakhtin the word never forgets where it has been before it was quoted, for Derrida it never returns there without the burden of the excursion through the quotation. This conception underlies the relationship between Caravaggio’s Saint John the Baptist  and of abstract paintings by David Reed.

The first two meanings of the concept of quotation engage the relation between image and reality beyond the question of reference. Their orientation leads from the image to the outside world in which it operates, from the close environment of the work’s own frames in the first, to the world outside those frames in the second. In contrast, the second two meanings of the concept focus on meaning coming from the outside in. Their simultaneous mobilization thus also entails a questioning of the very limit that separates outside from inside. This questioning in turn challenges the notion of intention that is so pervasively predominant in thinking about culture and art.

Can Caravaggio Be Re-Made in Contemporary Abstract Sculpture?

Ann Véronica Janssens’s quotes the form and effect of Caravaggio’s Medusa directly, even though she may not have meant to do so at all. In her sculpture Le corps noir, she addresses the wavering between two- and three-dimensionality that we can see Caravaggio’s work as emblematizing. Le corps noir uses the mythical trope of mirroring as a literal incorporation of space, and explores what combining illusionism and the rotella shape can do.

In this work Janssens also probes the implications of the idea that Caravaggio’s successful rendering of space in two-dimensional painting is based on the inside of a tomb, the absolute darkness of the absolute inside. In a work that could easily be seen as an abstract, modernist, “pure” object, austere in form and devoid of any baroque curls, folds, waves, and colouristic tricks, Janssens binds baroque matter with sculpture as embodied process.

In Le corps noir, the absence of light makes it impossible to distinguish the bulging object from the hollow one, convexity from concavity, which is the same visual problem of Caravaggio’s Medusa. Le corps noir experiments with the practice of space. The spatially ambiguous feature of the work becomes the sole focus of this supposedly abstract sculpture, and for that reason alone, I consider it a re-working of the problematic Caravaggio explored in the Medusa .

By leaving out any representational signs, hence, by avoiding painting, Janssens makes the “pure” sculpture the object of reflection, which is impossibly situated at the edge between concave and convex. But by questioning the site of this ambiguity in the closed space of total darkness, she reintroduces light, only to further enhance the spatial ambiguity.

Here, there is a mobility in a continuum of time and space with which Caravaggio charged the snakes. Le corps noir, then, I would submit, positions the “self-portrait in a convex mirror” – to quote the title of Parmigianino’s famous painting – and hence also Caravaggio’s convex Medusa  at the threshold of exteriorized fear and incorporated space. Hence, the sculpture, as the historical painting, is also a self-portrait.

Janssens’s medium is sculpture: a three-dimensional spatial medium whose temporal dimension is, or at least appears to be, still. But this stillness is undermined, in the first place through the relationship to space itself. This is precisely where the sculpture shifts our perception of Caravaggio’s painted monster. To understand the full impact of this wavering, I would like to suggest establishing a complementarity between Janssens’s sculpture and Mona Hatoum’s 1994 video installation Corps étranger currently on exhibit at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.

This work consists of a small cylindrical space which the viewer must enter in order to see the show. A video image is projected onto the centre of the floor around or over which the viewer can walk. With specialized medical equipment, the artist has recorded the inside of her own body in such claustrophobic detail that visibility is all but obliterated. This play with scale that probes the limits of the visible resonates with the baroque play I discussed a propos of white in my book on the subject. But here, I wish to point to the flipping of that other limit involved in baroque folds, the flipping between inside and out.

In baroque representation, no depth can be seen from a point outside of the space of representation. Here, the viewer must penetrate inside a space that represents the body – a foreign body – in order to see the image. Hence, the entire body of the viewer is inside the visual detail of the other body. Some thing, the image, stands to some body, the viewer, for some thing, the body’s inside.

The wavering of space also has a temporal dimension. For the body (image) was “made” before, but only comes to be the signifying practice that it is at the moment the viewer steps inside (it). The time of the tracking camera over-layered by the rhythmic sound of the body’s movement is the inevitably binding time of the viewing. The image tracks from tunnel-like tubes (fig. 8) to the eye itself.

This is a practice of space that Janssens, in a totally different medium and mode, also puts forward. Whereas time in Hatoum’s video, defined as both duration and rhythm, is a “naturally” implicated element and the transgression of the inside/outside boundary is the work’s primary issue, Janssens’s sculpture, when juxtaposed to it, loses its stillness as well as its clean plastic ‘objecthood’ and exteriority.

The complementary relationship between these two works is possible only because each contributes something elementary to the readability of the other, and because they both alert us to an essential aspect of Medussa. Hatoum makes the viewer enter the body at a metaphorical level: the cylindric space is like  a body, the sense of claustrophobia comes from being inside what seems like  intrauterine existence, an effect that is reinforced by the loud heartbeat one hears upon entering the cylinder.

But she enforces the metaphor by accompanying the representation with real time and illusionistic imagery, so that space seems just as real. Janssens does the opposite. She creates real space from which the temporality of the process is derived. The cement that binds these two practices is the importance of the index, the privileged type of sign that frames the waverings in question in both Janssens’s and Hatoum’s works. From the vantage point, the essence of Medusa is precisely that: it’s frightening indexicality that reaches out to touch us.

About the Author


Mieke Bal, a cultural theorist and critic, is Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences Professor (KNAW). She is based at the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA), University of Amsterdam. Her areas of interest range from biblical and classical antiquity to 17th century and contemporary art and modern literature, feminism and migratory culture. Her many books include A Mieke Bal Reader(2006), Traveling Concepts in the Humanities (2002) and Narratology (3d edition in press). Mieke Bal is also a video artist, her experimental documentaries on migration include A Thousand and One Days;Colony and the installation Nothing is Missing. Her work is exhibited internationally. Occasionally she acts as an independent curator.