Post, post-colonialism in art history
How important is post-colonialism? Well, there is a need for other voices to be heard, and that culture should be understood as a global issue, rather than excluding and universalizing accounts of history.
Far reaching art history is post-colonialism. We know art history is normally a systematic discipline, historically specific to the culture that produces it and explains historical change.
Hegel had an ‘Idea’ that united local and universal art, as culturally specific, in a way that future generations may understand art from the past; post-colonialism destroys this unity!
Cultural specificity can only be pursued to a point, but the break down in communication often causes a problem: perfect knowledge would be a fine thing, and people do speak on behalf of someone else – distorting things; thus, Post-colonialism faces the huge difficulty of bridging cultural gaps.
For instance, any account of colonialism is likely to be shaped one way by the speaker. The response being that there is never a true, definitive or authoritative account. Why should one view make a greater claim than any other. Basically it is a dead end.
Surely only those inside the culture can really narrate it! However, censorship is dangerous, and giving authenticity to an opposing view is also very dangerous.
If the native voice is overvalued it becomes primitivism, thus you can not assume the truth with an outsiders voice.
It ignores the cultural mix too by assuming there is an authentic voice of that pure race – fusion food / fusion art – people have been migrating and emigrating for centuries!
How can one speak accurately then, of another culture and of it’s artwork?
Mostly people will rely on the theories of others: Said drew upon Foucault, Nochlin on original feminism, Carven on Marx.
By combining many political and philosophical commitments we now have post-colonialism. However, to rely upon other theoretical models may exacerbate ‘the hermeneutic problem’ rather than help to resolve it.
There is a need to speak from the margins but the ideas are central; invariably there is a danger of going down the route of the colonizers culture which isn’t objective.
Marxism cannot be that appropriate to African or South American people, so postcolonialism generally argues against a unifying notion, instead focusing on the local difference.
When adapted, some theoretical tools from the West may be able to help understand art from around the world. For example, feminist theory about patriachy in colonial regimes and equivelant things with indigenous cultures themselves maybe a useful strand!
It may be possible to identify Western viewpoints whilst ignoring racist elements. Sex and race are always going to come in to postcolonialism and will differ hugely in many cases from our own laws and values, in say the Middle East for example.
Postcolonial theory engages the conflict between the wish to have a global theory, and how the specifics of history undermine this wish.
To deal with this, models of intercultural relations have been developed to try and characterise colonial encounters.
Nichola Thomas shows how an emcompassing theory requires a reductive approach; there is a danger with historical reductiveness, because the word colonialism, is often very vaguely used.
Think of the obvious political differences between Columbus arriving in America, the formation of the Mughal Empire in India and Chinese invasion of Tibet; think about the range of political reductiveness. Thomas doesn’t defend colonialism, but it isn’t just about badness!
In addition, the colonisers have their own internal debates and ethics of imperialism – often the colonial power changes like the Faukland Islands changed hands many times before finally becoming part of the UK and that has always been debated anyway!
Then there is the danger of racism, which colonisation is not always guilty of, and religious belief may get in the way, thus racism comes in many different forms as well.
The issue is then very clear about homogony as there is a mismatch with specific historical analysis and general theory, always being at odds.
Said and Coombes criticise hybridity being used generically. This means a refinement of the postcolonial method is required to give greater reflection on the theory.
Thomas identifies these issues which conveniently enough are symptoms of the hermenuetic problem. Thus, to produce an art historical account from the postcolonial perspective, we must give up possibility of a general theory, becuase it only leads to reductive claims ending largely in racism!
Postcolonialism concern for political status rather than theoretical coherence in art is part of this issue and ending with postcolonialism as an approach to art history shows just how far it has come as a discipline.
Postcolonialism demonstrates how much is gained by avoiding universalising history, and the limitations of a monocausal model particulary when discussing cultural issues.
The politics are often too complicated, thus, the message of postcolonialism can only really be partial, but the approach does at least address these complicated issues and negotiates them, if only to realise ultimately that the problems of postcolonialism are likely to persist and never go away!
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s art speaks of a modern world with youth, sex, violence, love, solitude, spirit and passion because he was a romantic hero and artistic rebel.
Beginning in Milan there was a feudal relationship within the illustrious Colonna family, where Caravaggio had a protected, yet tumultuous life with them, starting in 1571.
Naturalism and tragic darkness in his art probably reflects his early life when he moved to Rome as a rich courtier and low life villain, hence for reasons of homicide and libel, Caravaggio was exiled to Naples, Malta and Sicily respectively, becoming an artist on the run!
Eventually being pardoned by the Pope, Caravaggio died in suspicious circumstances on his way back to Rome, thus his style was marked mainly by naturalism or realism.
At a time of counter-reformation, he flaunted his talent and mocked authority, thus Caravaggio lived at a time when Rome was winning back the power it once had before the Reformation; Catholicism was on the rise, along with art and literature in this post war period.
Successive Popes were art patrons and turned Rome into the renaissance capital starting with the Sistine Chapel and Raphael, however with the ‘Sack of Rome’ many artists fled, but it also meant much work painting the rebuilt churches effectively invited an influx of artists from Northern Europe.
Caravaggio remained the most famous painter and the people in his pictures became like a cast of characters!
Santa Maria, Aracoeli was the holiest site where stood the Capitol at the very centre of the Roman Empire, just a small town to the east of Milan, thus as an apprentice, Caravaggio trained as a Renaissance artist here and brought new light naturalistic colour with him and as a freshness of colour meant the peaches in his work were almost fragrant.
Quickly urbanising in the 1590s and four Popes in quick succession meant chaos and insecurity, though Rome was a cosmopolitan city when Caravaggio arrived and his paintings offered a sense of fear, thus, they were apocalyptic with terror and damnation.
Colonna Palace is where Caravaggio really began his career though. He was painting heads and portraits which won him a top order place training in Borgo where he was educated, learning, schooling and making the right connections such as Prospero who became his closest friend. He also worked with Cesari painting flowers with a diagonal shaft of light coming into the room.
His paintings had a formative influence on the Baroque School with dramatic use of lighting and realistic observation of physical and emotional states.
Caravaggio’s novelty was naturalism with its close physical observation combined with a dramatic shift from light to dark. His first public commissions were The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and The Calling of Saint Matthew.
Caravaggio fell out with Cesari as he couldn’t sell any paintings though he caught the attention of Cardinal Del Monte. This was a significant connection. Del Monte introduced him to his prestigious and elite circle in Rome; Caravaggio’s work then began to use brilliant colour, was deliberately provocative and he painted his own inclinations (including The Robbers) from this point on.
When living with Del Monte, Caravaggio got involved with scientists, poets and musicians which influenced his realism style; for example, the basket of grapes, water drops and his mimetic skill came to life with an aura of melancholy – Caravaggio’s melons were a protégé to his aristocratic vision.
He would have become familiar with Leonardo’s Last Supper and the Lombard-style valuing simplicity and attention to naturalistic detail. In Rome he did the Boy Peeling Fruit for Cesari – the Pope’s favourite artist – and the Boy with a Basket of Fruit too.
Caravaggio painted his Fortune Teller (with the gypsy girl) and the Cardsharps (perhaps his first true masterpiece) before shacking up with Cardinal Del Monte and executing a number of intimate chamber pieces.
When realism returned, the first religious and spiritual theme he painted was Mary Magdalene sitting on the floor.
Thereafter, contracted to decorate the Contarelli Chapel, Caravaggio got a string of prestigious commissions for religious works with violence, torture and death embedded in the works; dark and vulgar, the Groom’s Madonna had to be taken down.
Campo Marzio Piazza in Florence was where the weapons, urban thuggery and drama of the next few years were played out, thus unruly humour succeeded the renaissance courtly love ideal; Caravaggio complied with the political demand for decency and transformed musical pictures in the Jubilee of 1600 while sticking with the religious genre and painting his Mary Magdalene.
Anno Santo, the floods, and the execution of a young girl, all encouraged Caravaggio to paint a Sicilian Virgin Martyr and his work reflected more themes of murder and death before he then moved to a more Roman figure of style, hence, his methods of frozen expressions using posed models faded, and new symbolic figures appeared with a bloody reality.
David and Goliath showed compassion for Goliath heeding Leonardo’s instructions of victim and persecutor. Caravaggio painted a chapel and The Martyrdom of St Matthew with a centrifugal composition and theory of light for sixteenth-century pictures.
Mancini advised on gilt frames and Caravaggio painted the poet Marino. Members of academia were paying for his art – with dew drops and realism he brought sculptures to life, and borrowed some ideas from the Sistine Chapel too.
At the height of Caravaggio’s success in 1600, Christ was a dominating force, especially his suffering with humility.
The innkeeper’s shadow, the fruit bowl and the fish brought back all those Lombard and Venetian themes.
There was a strong sense of power uniting naturalism with idealism at the time. Caravaggio’s success was making others extremely jealous, thus provoking street violence and some paintings vanished.
Caravaggio was imprisoned for libel, throwing stones at the police, and there was the artichoke incident with a waiter in a local restaurant. Rome was under siege in 1603 with conflict between the French and Spanish at a time when Caravaggio was centre stage (especially with his St Matthew paintings) and this meant all of a sudden the demand for public works declined. He got into an argument over a tennis match and bullied other artists close to his style before he painted The Madonna of Loreto which was his last great painting in Rome.
Naples (by 1606) was the art dealing capital of the world and Caravaggio gained some lucrative commissions launching him up the Neapolitan stage, which avoided him military service before leaving for Malta at the very height of his fame.
In Malta, his Beheading of Saint John the Baptist was the only painting to which he put his signature and very few of his drawings survived because he preferred to use only canvas.
Imprisoned in Malta and defrocked, he managed to escape and fled to Sicily in a boat, whilst sending art back; stripped of his knighthood his reputation preceded his arrival, giving him instant success out there, thus, when in exile for murder and totally paranoid, he slept fully clothed every night, brandishing a dagger at all times.
Returning to Naples in 1609 and hoping to be pardoned, Caravaggio was wounded when attacked in a bar and he was thought to be dead. With a lucky escape he then developed a new artistic style, selling many more paintings, before finally making his way to Rome, where unfortunately much of his art had vanished.
Sadly, he never completed the journey and died shortly before arriving under suspicious circumstances. He was still a young man.
Caravaggio was largely forgotten about for over 300 years after his death. His influence on the new Baroque style (which emerged from Mannerism) can be seen in the work of Rubens, Jusepe de Ribera, Bernini and Rembrandt.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio never established a workshop and had no school to spread his techniques, which can only be deduced from his surviving work, of which there are 80 pieces that we know of.