This month, my mother Arta Johnson has been visiting me in Victoria. We have been having many conversations about debates occurring on the Canadian Mormon Feminist Facebook page, conversations that overlap with debates happening in the US.
Part of the conversation has been about the play, “Gracie”, by Victoria playwright, Joan MacLeod. I missed the play when it was running in Victoria, but Arta and my cousin Marcia saw it in Calgary. Our friend Christine saw it in Ottawa. It also had a run in London England. Arta has been writing to the playwright to ask her when it will be coming our way again (the answer is, Regina in early 2019!) (click here for a short interview with the actress)
Arta is hoping that the play can open some interesting conversation amongst Canadian Mormons. The play has just been published as a book, so it would be a great option for a book club!
Seeing the play threw us back into reminiscing about conversations with academics about polygamy. Several years back, we were both part of a workshop in Victoria focused on polyhamy. It resulted in a book edited by Lori Beaman and Gillian Calder called Polygamy’s Rights and Wrongs. The book was the outcome of a workshop held in Victoria on polygamy.
This May, our family had two delicious engagements with the world of art. First, we watched the movie, “Caravaggio: The Sole and the Blood.” Then, we went down to the Legacy Art Gallery to see “The Times of Things”, a curation of works by five Indigenous women artists. I have been reflecting on the unexpected connections, disruptions and and resonance between the two shows. In this post, I will reflect on the former, and then (hopefully) get back to the later in a followup post.
In the middle of the week, I headed off to our local cinema to see “Caravaggio, the Soul and the Blood”, a movie from the Art Beats Series. Click here for a link to the trailer. I took my mother, my 17 year old and his fencing friend along to the show. There were some interesting aspects to this encounter with art. Frequently the art shows give the viewer an opportunity to see the work up close. They often feel like an extended gallery tour, one that lets you get close enough to really see the detail and the hand of the painter in the brush strokes. This film integrated something closer to modern dance or a performance piece in drawing the audience into an interaction with the Caravaggio’s paintings and with his life.
The piece opens in what seems to be a performance space. The images moving back and forth between. A man shirtless, bare feet, a closely shaved beard with a bit of length. His hair was short. He had a lean dancer’s body and he was sitting on a bed which was only a mattress and a metal frame in an empty cavernous interior space. We heard the voice of someone speaking about freedom and liberty and the desperation of being deprived of liberty. The text felt like a letter written from a friend or a page from a journal. The visual imagery flipped from a close up on a man to a butterfly trapped in a globe and a bird in a cage. With slow deliberation the man begins wrapping plastic wrap, around his neck, up over his nose and then around his eyes and forehold. We were seeing an extreme close up. The butterfly and the bird images worked in conjunction with the performance to produce a powerful sense of claustrophobia and suffocation in the viewer, amplifying the power of the words speaking to the desperation of the speaker’s desire for liberty. Or release. Later in the film, there is a similar feeling evoked as we have an extended scene with the same man, his face in the water.
The setting of the bed and mattress in the space position us in a strange time-space juncture. For me, the room felt medieval or renaissance. Stone walls, stone floors, space reminiscent of the 16th century or the time in which Caravaggio lived. The bed and mattress felt contemporary. The institutionalized look and feel of a bed one would expect in a residential school, a war time hospital or a prison. This choice of setting creates a suture between the 16th and 21st centuries, drawing us into an interaction with these words and the art that now feels intimate and almost too close.
Through out the film we then follow the life of Caravaggio, of not only the question of his art, but also the question of his life. We consider his use of light and dark, foreground and background, how he sought to capture action in stillness. Darkness in the light, and light in the dark.
The cinematic choices invite us to think about traces and the marks we leave behind, showing us not only his paintings, but also the 16th century manuscripts which carry the lines of ink tracing out his name, documenting his birth, and the many legal actions against him for assault, the context of debt and for his killing of a man. There is something powerful in being taken to the shelves of an archive to see rows and rows of books. To see the gloved hands of an archivist opening a book for us to see the lines of ink, pages themselves akin to a piece of art to be read. I don’t read Italian. And my children can’t read cursive. But the impact of the visual was no less for all of that. On the pages one could see the evidence of a hand in movement, not the hand of the artist, but the hand of a scribe — a scribe capturing in a line of ink traces of Caravaggio’s passing through life.
The film doubled this impact by interjecting scenes with our dancer placing paint, placing, flinging, spilling paint against a canvas, reminding us of the physicality involved in placing paint and colour against a canvas. The film also doubled what we were being taught about Caravaggio’s style of foregrounding light in darkness, by doing the same thing cinematically with the dancer’s body. This also had the impact of making me think about contemporary painters. Or of seeing Caravaggio’s creative impulses as current. Again, the line between the past and present was blurred between these choices.
We had intense conversations on the way home. How come, my 17 year old asked, artists always seem to have such painful lives. Can you be an artist without suffering? We talked about how the paintings became so much more interesting against the background of the story. We talked about the impact of the plague on people’s lives. About child labour. About mercy and punishment. And about the conflict between good and evil, playing out in people’s lives. The boys wanted to talk about the challenge of an artist seeking to share his vision in a world not yet ready to see that vision expressed. We also talked about the relationship between religion, economy and society. For what or whom was Caravaggio producing these works? It is impossible to think about Caravaggio’s art without acknowledging the context in which he worked, producing art to play a piece in religious space, within churches and cathedrals. Or for private wealthy collectors in contexts where the work would hang on a wall behind a curtain. It also invited us to think about sexuality with canvases filled with so many beautiful naked boys. It is always interesting talking with the boys about the place of religion and the body in the history of art and ideas. My undergraduate degree was in music and to study the history of music is to study the history of religion. But my boys have grown up in a world where organized religion has had a more tenuous hold on them than it did in earlier times. A film like this one does a great job of capturing the context of the time. In short, the film led to a robust conversation about work and art and belief in contemporary times as we drove home. What more could a parent want?
I went to sleep that night thinking about Caravaggio’s erasure of all that which was background. It reminded me of an earlier conversation with my mother when we had been trying to take photos of a scene in front of us. We had both noted with amusement, the way that the photographic representation, wile supposedly a truthful capture of what was in front of us, was not a faithful represention. The photo captured a number of overhead wires or obstructing branches. In our mind’s eye, we had inscribed a scene in which those disrupting elements simply vanished, leaving only the beauty of what we had found in front of us. So, we wondered, which images were more “real”? These of course or the questions that preoccupy artists, but I was left thinking about the impact of this question in my own work and life.