The Moment of Caravaggio

Julian Bell writes:

Fried is one of the great auteurs of art history. Like the films of Fellini or Almodóvar, his books have a strong brand identity: whatever he discusses, you always know you are in a certain special zone, a Friedland. And that is partly because your guide keeps offering you the exit. My thoughts, he avows, ‘are bound to strike many readers as going far beyond the bounds of legitimate art-historical interpretation’. Those readers may well regard ‘the account I have just put forward as an interpretive fantasy’. Or might they give that account more credence if they plunged in deeper? He reminds them that in a trilogy begun in 1980, he approached French painting from Greuze to Manet in terms of an overarching project ‘which eventually, more than a hundred years after it got under way, reached a critical stage’. His analysis of Caravaggio will, he hopes, take this already long view a stage deeper into the past. He addresses the question of the co-ordinates that relate painting circa 1600 to what eventually became modern art proper. He finds some of them in the conditions of display. From his early cardsharps and pretty boys onwards, Caravaggio was developing the possibilities of what Fried terms ‘the gallery picture’: not exactly an item for open exhibition, but one to hang in a patron’s collection among other painters’ work, competing for attention.

(LRB 2 December 2010)

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