A Painting Only You Can See


“The Denial of St. Peter,” by Caravaggio, finished in 1610 during the last months of his life. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Four years before he died, the Austrian novelist and playwright Thomas Bernhard wrote one of his funniest works, “Old Masters,” a bitter comic tale of a musicologist named Reger who has spent every other day for 30 years visiting the same room at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, planting himself on the same settee and looking at the same portrait, “The White-Bearded Man,” by Tintoretto.

Such is Reger’s devotion to his ritual that he meets the woman who will become his wife while contemplating the painting, and he maintains an almost familial relationship with an old guard, who brings him the occasional glass of water and prevents other museumgoers from entering the room when he wants to be alone. “I am not really crazy,” Reger insists to a friend. “I am just a person of extraordinary habits, a person with one extraordinary habit, to wit the extraordinary habit of going to the Kunsthistorisches Museum every other day for the past 30 years and of sitting on the Bordone Room settee.”

I haven’t gone quite so far around the bend yet, but for about a decade now I’ve kept up a more or less regular appointment of my own with a single painting — an intensely dark, brooding scene at the Metropolitan Museum of Art depicting St. Peter’s denial of Christ. The Met bought the painting in 1997, and one of the things that drew me to the work was that it didn’t immediately announce what it was: a Caravaggio, only the second to enter the museum’s permanent collection and one of fewer than a dozen on public view in the United States.

Tintoretto's "White-Bearded Man" (1545). Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

“The Denial of St. Peter” has little of Caravaggio’s lyrical naturalism and none of the louche, sloe-eyed characters who people his early paintings like “The Musicians,” its lively Baroque gallery roommate, painted 15 years earlier, in 1595. In the best-known works darkness and light wage a battle cinematic enough to warm the heart of Cecil B. DeMille; in “St. Peter,” completed in the torturous last months of Caravaggio’s violent life, darkness almost carries the day, rendered in fast and sketchy strokes. “A terminally raw and ragged thing,” as Andrew Graham-Dixon describes the painting, with maybe only a little hyperbole, in his 2010 biography, “Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane.”

Curators have long lamented how little time museum patrons spend in front of works; a 2001 study by the Met found the median viewing time to be only 17 seconds. And so I would love to say that I formed a conviction to make the Caravaggio my pilgrimage site in order to nobly embody the pre-Internet virtues of long looking, of allowing meaning to accrue over time. The truth is that my job as an art reporter takes me to the Met with great (and pleasing) regularity, and every time I make my way through the European galleries, I seem to end up passing the painting and stopping short in front of its pile of shadows.

Eventually I came to remember exactly where the painting was, and after an interview, before heading to the subway, I got into the habit of making a beeline for it, almost sheepishly, like somebody at a party snubbing all the guests except the one he really wants to talk to. I’d shoot painfully past Hans Memling, one of my favorites, past Bosch and past Bruegel’s stout harvesters, eternally eating their lunchtime porridge. I’d hang a left at van Dyck’s foppish blond duke, ignore Rubens altogether, and by the time I got to Guercino’s Samson and his gloriously torqued back, I’d know I was almost there. The next gallery, filled mostly with Caravaggio and his followers, is never crowded, even with my failure to enlist a guard to keep people out. “St. Peter” often hangs in a corner, unfolding its story in uncomfortable close-up, like a Passion play presented in a broom closet: to the right, Peter, haggard, balding, his eyes rimmed with tears; to the far left a guard of the high priest Caiaphas, barely visible in the gloom of a nighttime courtyard; in the middle Peter’s accuser, one of the high priest’s maids, who, according to the Gospels, identifies him to the guard as a follower of Jesus.

On the wall, the painting is even muddier than in reproductions — most of the light comes weakly over the guard’s right shoulder, falling on Peter, who makes a universal gesture of blamelessness, turning both hands toward his chest, as if protesting at that moment: “Me? I’m telling you, you’ve got the wrong fisherman.”

For years when I visited the painting I looked mostly at Peter, at his expression of simultaneous deception and defeat. But the longer I looked, the more it seemed to me that the saint — as the symbolic embodiment of the human frailty and faith that underpin Roman Catholic doctrine — was not the lead actor in the drama. It was the maid, whose eyes, catching the light with pinpoint reflections, somehow become the painting’s center. Her eyes seem to have come unfocused, and she’s not looking at the guard she is facing but looking momentarily inward. Whatever precise Counter-Reformation doctrine the painting was once trying to expound, it is the maid’s hesitation and humanity in the moment of accusation that, to me, now remain as the painting’s subject and its power.

Whether this has any historical justification, or whether it is what a broken-down Caravaggio, near the end of his too-short life, intended, no longer makes much difference to me. One result of looking at a painting so long that you can see it in your mind’s eye is that it does, in a very real sense, become your own, not quite the same painting that anyone else will see. Another result is that you feel bereft, in a very real sense, if it’s not there; the painting is now on loan until next spring. When I rushed into the gallery the other day and found it missing, it was as if a close friend had disappeared into the witness protection program.

In Bernhard’s “Old Masters,” Reger stares at his Tintoretto year after year partly trying to tear it down, to cheer himself with the thought that there is no perfection in the world, even in a masterpiece. He also fears being right. “Beware of penetrating into a work of art, he said, you will ruin each and every one for yourself, even those you love most.” Maybe, but it’s a risk I’d advise anyone to take. At a decade and counting with Caravaggio, I haven’t managed to make as much as a dent.



By Randy Kennedy
Source: http://www.nytimes.com