Saturday, January 21, 2012

CONNECTIVITY: Paul Morrissey & Caravaggio

In recently viewing some of the early films of Paul Morrissey,  I was struck by similarities between the works of this Warhol stalwart and the 17th century Italian painter Michaelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio,  whose paintings  possess a similar relationship to a harshly realistic underground culture and the blurry intersections of religious dogma, morality, and sex.  A quiet dignity resonates throughout work of both men,  even when faith, both secular and spiritual is mired in a painful poverty.  The two men are most similar in their use of street people as painters' models or actors,  underscoring the idea of a raw immediacy as a more truthful "reality".  Morrissey's films ( FLESH, TRASH,  and HEAT in particular) are really the first unscripted reality shows ,  while most of Caravaggio's paintings use Roman "lowlife" (street urchins,  prostitutes,  etc.) as models portraying Bible stories,  something that certainly disturbed clergy of the day. A work like "The Madonna of Loreto"  (1604-1606) in Sant' Agostino in Rome  presents the Caravaggio sensibility perfectly.  It shows two ruffled and dirty pilgrims kneeling at the rustic doorway of the Virgin (it could easily be part of a Roman tenement), a pair of unwashed feet right in the face of the viewer. The Madonna is presented as a barefoot peasant holding a less than ethereal Jesus unsteadily in her arms.  She emerges from a plain,  undecorated doorway,  suggesting squalor more than heaven's riches. This milieu is akin to Morrissey's  Alphabet City slums.  Many of Morrissey's films were initially banned from theaters for their use of gay themes,  moral ambiguity,  and plain "bad" acting.  Caravaggio also suffered waves of censorship,  often losing commissions because of questionable taste and the non-spiritual aspects of his compositions and models. Some of Caravaggio's portraits suggest a kind of gay erotica without overstepping the boundaries of the established culture of the time. Both these men rebelled against standards of the day,   and should be remembered for the forms they championed,  the cultural norms they bent,  and the sexuality they dignified.

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