It’s a precarious place to be, opting to review an exhibition of art sight unseen, paintings by an artist you’ve never heard of. What if the work is disappointing? What if the work is beyond one’s expertise? What do you do if the work features pedophiliacs, crotch grabbers, and enormous phalluses — and no one notices but you? The best you can, I suppose.
Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, co-organized by the Louvre, introduces a lesser-known French follower of Michelangelo Merisi, known better as Caravaggio. If you don’t know of Valentin de Boulogne (1591–1632), welcome to the club. There’s never until now been a retrospective exhibition of his paintings, no chance to see the scale and scope of his life’s work. He moved to Rome just after Caravaggio fled, yet retained, like many other artists there, a life of abandon. He died at 41, after a drunken attempt to cool off in a fountain’s cold water sealed his fate. He cavorted with the Bentvueghels (Dutch for “Birds of a Feather”), who dubbed him “Lover Boy” for reasons about which his paintings give us some clues, yet go unacknowledged in the exhibition catalogue and other writings on the artist. What’s foremost mentioned is the historical importance of Valentin’s painting method: working directly from the model with no preparatory drawings.
That meant more than doing away with preliminary studies. It meant doing away with classicism. Such was the precedent set by Caravaggio, who inherited the traditional but overthrew it. He developed his ghastly realism by hiring people off the street to paint as models from direct observation. This spirit of empiricism was more than a style; it was revolt. He painted folks as they looked, religion as felt, taking authority away from the priestly class (as Luther did). Think of Galileo. He drew eyeballed pictures of the moon in 1609. Like Caravaggio, who died the next year, Galileo was a master of chiaroscuro; and through his telescope he refuted current science and ancient philosophy, upset scholars and theologians, and collapsed the great heavens into theories of motion.
This topsy-turvy world was Valentin’s Europe. His ambitions were to unfreeze the timelessness of classicist compositions. He also sought psychological intensity and expression in his people, who were more like actors than models that he recast in several paintings in various roles. He took on challenging scenes with multiple figures in dramatic states of engagement, employing the paintings’ boundaries as a viewfinder to capture events. Curator Keith Christiansen explains in a lively catalogue essay how Valentin succeeded in creating a sense of action in his paintings. Yet there is a bit too much maneuvering in the work, it appears. Valentin’s bodily arrangements are frequently awkward and unbalanced in a manner that indicates more — or perhaps less — than formal considerations are organizing his pictorial space. Something else is going on; Valentin is improvising his placements, resulting in a loosened inelegance. He is in effect pushing traditional paintings, religious and profane, into carnal performances.
If observed with more than a passing glance, the paintings reveal that this Lover Boy was in some ways a lover of boys. Take “Return of the Prodigal Son” (1615–16). The repentant boy, lunging clumsily toward his father’s midsection, is charged with bright orange pants that stress his butt’s physicality, as noted in the catalogue essay. Yet behind him is a man grabbing his own phantom phallus while leering at us, implicating the viewer as witness to his own fantasy. Both the form-fitting pants and the hand are praised in the catalogue for their aesthetic qualities, but the connection between them is missed.
In “Saint Matthew” (1624–26) and “Dream of Saint Joseph” (1624–26), you notice the same graybeard model, resigned and passive, is posed with a young boy fondling his genital region; first it’s as an opened book pointed at with a quill — which, along with paper in general, is an erotic motif in many of Valentin’s works — and second, folds of fabric. The boy angel in “Dream of Saint Joseph,” aside from not being a woman as is typically portrayed in this scene, is clenching his covering cloth as if it were an extended phallus. This unique hand gesture is repeated elsewhere: at the top of “Martyrdom of Saints Processus and Martinian” (1629–30), and on both sides of “Abraham Sacrificing Isaac” (1629–32). A boy singing in “Concert with Eight Figures” (1628–30) on the lower right clasps with both hands the substantial but invisible male organ of the cornett player next to him. The player also appears to hold himself with his left hand (yet isn’t), which is another trope gracing many of Valentin’s images of men.
“Raffaello Menicucci” (1627–28) flaunts his feigned member confidently with his extended right hand; he’s akin to “Saint John the Evangelist” (1621–22) who, clutching his unfurled scroll, is seated like a man exposing himself on the subway or cruising in Central Park’s Ramble. The Roman furthest left in “Christ and the Adulteress” (1618–22) is too self-involved to witness Jesus sparing a woman’s life (although Jesus himself has a peculiar sight line).
Phallicized events stretched across the picture plane throw Valentine’s larger compositions off kilter. Christiansen makes note that figures crowded at the canvas edges in Valentin’s work suggest a dynamic entering and exiting of the cinematic frame. It’s true, but they also generate a spatial gap, eye of the tornado, or dead zone in the center. Into this centralized vacuum, Valentin often placed a pictorial “punch line,” and often it’s a man’s crotch, as in “Christ and the Adulteress,” “Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence” (1621–22), “Judgment of Solomon” (1624–25), “Judgment of Solomon” (1627–30), “Innocence of Susanna” (1621–22), and “Martyrdom of Saints Processus and Martinian” (1629–30). Elsewhere, the central punch line is something more unsettling, as viewers can see in “Concert with Eight Figures,” which is arranged like “Concert with a Bas-Relief” (1624–26), where to the left of center a man grips his violin’s unusually shaped neck between his knees as he gazes fondly at the ruminating youth.
Rather like inexpert timing for a joke, Valentin’s centering isn’t working, especially if you compare it to Caravaggio’s “Martyrdom of Saint Matthew” (1599–1600), which, admittedly, is not sexualizing the patriarch’s crotch in the same way. Valentin’s overwrought placement of figures is most strained in “Christ Driving the Merchants from the Temple” (1618–22), where emphatic vectors intersect at the Messiah’s loins. Marking the directional lines are a bright thigh to the lower left, downward folds in the rabbi’s tunic, the tilted table’s left- and forward-most edges that are complemented by a man’s white waist wrap and the raised shin of another. Along the more horizontal axis, and to its left as it crosses the other axis, is the first man’s upward-thrust left hand which completes the image’s criss-cross organizational structure. But notice how the emphasized phallic area creates a stationary space that mitigates the painting’s overall movement, weakening its interior tensions and force.
The most clever painting of Valentin’s — and perhaps the strongest of all the works on view at the Met — is “David with the Head of Goliath” (1615–16), an early piece placed prominently in the exhibition’s first room. Leaning over his foe’s decapitated head, David grips the shaft of his sword as if preparing to shove its handle into the gaping mouth of the dead Goliath. A fellow solder on the left is rapt in anticipation. It is the ultimate act of victory and humiliation, with the future king’s face expressing all the mixed emotions it entails. Here, all of Valentin’s artistic preoccupations come together: dramatic interaction, kinetic force, and subversive sexual subtext.
Valentin did not surpass Caravaggio in any meaningful sense — who could? — or others among the Caravaggisti either. Paintings by Bartolomeo Manfredi (1582–1622) and Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1651) at the show’s beginning are better composed, more skillfully rendered, and exhibit a greater sense of light’s wholeness. Valentin had different aims, however, and because of this requires an alternative read. Scholars have more work to do; let’s hope it starts with looking.
Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 22, 2017.