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Los Angeles
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
LACMA - Los Angeles County Museum of Art
5905 Wilshire Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90036
November 11, 2012 - February 10, 2013

Caravaggio's John the Baptist in the Wilderness, c. 1604
by Andrew Berardini

I almost want to fuck him.

Is this John the Baptist? The big JC's notable cousin, claimed second-coming of Elijah and pre-ambler to the messiah, the fiery Jewish prophet, whose head a mere few paintings away gets plattered for the sexy, slithery, fourteen-year-old sexpot Salome? This pale northern European beauty never burned in a Judean summer or strained too strenuously under an imperial Roman yoke; this John, who in the gospel is in the deserts till the moment he manifests to Israel, seems to have instead spent a long winter elsewhere. He might have made a dashing companion to Moreau's Salome hanging across town these days at the Hammer Museum, even with that brooding shadowing his face framed just so by toussled hair and chiaroscuro.

Here is John naked (or loosely, almost post-coitally robed) at what seems the first blush of a joyless spring. Is that a reed in his hand or is he just happy to see us? The fur that coyly covers his pink parts and wraps delicately around his arms has all the suggestions an imagination could want, but the red cloak/blanket/toga splayed around his bent form has all the shape of poured concrete; rarely have any of my togas rippled in quite the same way.

There is a spot of dirt in his toenails but just barely. An art director's suggestion of struggle, grime, hardship.

The wilderness, a tease of dark leaves a few plants at the prophet's lightly soiled foot; each limb rather than disappearing in the dark has the slightest hint of light at its edge, as if the light itself wanted to wrap this youth's body, couldn't let the darkness take it all.

Alright, so we've lusted after this youth a spell, but all the things that at glance make this sacred man so lipsmackingly profane also make him false, maybe even a little bit empty, a prettyboy model when we want a man.

Perhaps Caravaggio, the brawler, the drinker, the murderer, was man enough and he poured the delicacy of his artistic being into painting such a brilliant boy for his patron Costa, who for his own reasons appreciated the painting just so that he put a copy of it in the altarpiece it was meant for and kept the original for his own collection. One wonders exactly where he hung it in his house, what young men might have found tenderness in Costa's ringed hand under this shadow and light. One wonders how well Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio got to know his John the Baptist.

This is all conjecture and it's bad to conjecture in general about artists and their intentions, or patrons and theirs. Costa might have been a pious man with two wives and ten children with nary a hankering for manlove. Caravaggio, despite his famous historical record for being a rascal, might have been religious to the point of fervor, never a profane thought passing his stormy mind (though scholars seem to take his gayness as a given). Then again, maybe not. We have our poems by Michelangelo, for Leonardo we have rumors, and that one lovely drawing of another John the Baptist, where the painting bathes him in shadow, but one drawing shows a hard cock pointing happily heavenward.

It's silly to guess at the sexuality of the painter; we have only with some vague assurances to each alone the sexuality of the viewer. No matter your sexual proclivities, one can appreciate the fragile beauty of this John the Baptist, even if we know that a crazed and dirty man, bearded and dreadlocked, eyes filled with the fire of god, might have its own particular sex appeal.

There is more than one painting in the show, a handful of middling works by the master and an army of imitators with only a couple ever getting halfway to the grace of this one painting. Does this painting travel often? Not often enough to LA by my lights, though it is owned by an American museum, the Nelson Atkins in Kansas City, and I'm reluctant to tell anyone to purchase a twenty dollar ticket on a single painting, even if it is as good as this one.


Andrew Berardini


(Image on top: Caravaggio, John the Baptist in the Wilderness, c. 1604, oil on canvas, 173 cm × 133 cm (68 in × 52 in); © Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City.)

Posted by Andrew Berardini on 11/28/12 | tags: figurative traditional

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