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Sunday, August 15, 2010

Violence in Art

One of the biggest "beefs" with the entertainment media today is that it is too violent. Children aside, there is much evidence and complaint that TV and movies may be too violent even for adults. Though today painting is usually too "genteel" to raise the hackles of parents and pundits regarding violence, this hasn't always been the case. During the Baroque era, from approximately 1600 to 1750, some of the most violent, most gruesome paintings ever done were committed to canvas. The very term Baroque is usually defined as meaning "theatrical". Everything was dramatic, even beyond that sometimes, melodramatic! Lighting was strong, harsh, from the side; action was frozen at the climactic moment of highest visual and emotional impact. And the baroque element cut a wide swath across not only painting but sculpture, architecture, music, and the other arts as well.

Judith Beheading Holofernes
Caravaggio, 1598
The Steven King of the Baroque era is, without doubt, Michelangelo de Merisi, better known as Caravaggio, who lived from 1573 to 1610. His work is nothing if not powerful. Blood spurts--cold blood. Eyes bug out. Muscles strain. Flesh glows. In Judith Beheading Holofernes, painted around 1598, the murderess is seen gripping a hairy beast of a man, decapitating him with a bloody double-edged sword. And lest you think Caravaggio is an anomaly, Artemisa Gentileschi painted the same scene (below, right) in an even more brutal depiction, and Gentileschi was a woman.
Judith slaying Holofernes
by Artemesia Gentileschi

Caravaggio, however, went beyond just painting violence. Between the years1600 and 1606 he was arrested for attacking a man with a sword, disrespect toward a police officer, carrying a weapon without a permit, breaking windows, assaulting a waiter, wounding a man in an argument over a prostitute, and finally, he had to flee Rome after killing a man in an argument over a tennis match. A short time later, having taken refuge in Messina, Sicily, he was forced to flee once more after attacking a teacher who accused him of molesting school children. Sounds like the plot for a movie of the week!

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