This comic is based partially on a conversation that was part of the reason why I decided to draw the boy from Santa Cruz I’ve been writing about in a Caravaggio homage that I drew a while ago, and which can be seen HERE.
The connections and associations of that image for me, though, are a little bit more complicated, but I don’t think there’s a point to spelling them out completely, since one of the things I like about it is leaving it open to interpretation, and hopefully meaning different things to different people based on their own life experiences. The Michelangelo statue that I reference here is one that I like because of that sort of ambiguity. I haven’t read too many people referring to the old man in the Victory stature as a self-portrait of Michelangelo, but that’s what it’s always seemed to be to me, even if in an emotional way rather than a literal way. The old man does look quite a bit like Michelangelo, though, who was around fifty years old when he made the statue, and also around the point in his life when he was having a relationship with a younger man whose role in his life is often debated by people talking about Michelangelo. People who like to deny or downplay Michelangelo’s homosexuality like to cast his relationship with Tomasso dei Cavalieri as one of friendship and admiration, which it obviously was, but like to turn Michelangelo’s religion-themed comments about the beauty of the male body that God created into a denial that Michelangelo had anything other than an aesthetic appreciation for those bodies. Michelangelo wrote about 300 occasionally erotic-themed sonnets devoted to his “friend” Tomasso and, while I live in San Francisco and know some pretty metrosexual heterosexual guys, not a lot of them write 300 romantically-tinged sonnets for their bromance buddies and consider it all to be about their straight, manly appreciation of God’s creation.
The fact is that attitudes toward sexuality have evolved and changed as human society has in the time since Michelangelo, and whether or not Michelangelo would have considered himself gay in a way that matches up with the modern ideas about that, there’s an obvious sexual undercurrent to a lot of his work. People who like to downplay that are also eager to point out supposed relationships he had in life with women, but he also chose to go his whole life without being married or having children, and if you look at his paintings of women and his paintings of men, it doesn’t take much to figure out where he was looking. Irving Stone in The Agony and the Ecstasy, which is a good novel, by the way, goes to some pretty elaborate lengths to explain the spiritual nature of a man’s obsession with other mens’ bodies, but those rationalizations always say more about the time in which the author of them lives than they do about the time in which Michelangelo did.
The reason I go on about all that is that one of the reasons that I think Michelangelo’s work has endured the way it has is that it seems to be very often a vehicle for personal expression for him, whether he was making the tomb of some crazy Pope or whatever else, he always seemed to manage to put forth an enormous amount about his own life experiences, his own joys and sadness. The way that his sculptures are often partially rough are almost unfinished toward their bases is in some cases deliberate, and a very ahead of his time and bold way to almost show the figures breaking themselves free out of the marble rock from which they came, and with the revelation of that transformative experience they say a lot about what it felt like for Michelangelo to go through the process of creating the statues, and what he felt like he was doing by taking the raw materials of the earth and transforming them into something that could communicate what he felt to be beautiful.
That’s part of what I find so poignant about a statue with an older man who looks close to Michelangelo’s age, and that man’s relationship to a subject that has a lot in common with the subject of many of the things that Michelangelo chose to create. It’s about the man’s relationship to beauty, and to creation, and to the desires that govern us for a large part of our lives. That’s why people who resist the sexualization of the statue are completely missing the point. They think that acknowledging the sexual tension between the two subjects in the statue somehow adds something “dirty” to it, or puerile, or reduces the aesthetic perfection. Of course, it does exactly the opposite, and those knee-jerk reactions to it are denying the universal themes of the work that could actually hold great personal meaning for the people denying them, but instead they get hung up on the gay thing. That’s too bad, ’cause the gay thing is there whether they want it to be there or not and, like I was saying above, the reaction about the idea says more about the people reacting than it does at all about Michelangelo or his art.
That all said, one of the reasons that I bring up the Michelangelo statue is to show what I feel are the universal themes of the Caravaggio David and Goliath painting that I referenced in the drawing of the boy from Santa Cruz that I link to up above.
This comic I’ve posted today is meant as a part of the longer storyline of me dating that boy, and eventually it’ll probably, or hopefully, become clear why the drawing I did of him in the Caravaggio pose was something I chose to do. People don’t seem to deny the sexual nature of a lot of Caravaggio’s work, because you just can’t. Michelangelo has some sort of place in peoples’ mind as kind of this benevolent great master, which of course, he is, but somehow with him the gay thing seems to be a taint for people, whereas with Caravaggio, people seem inclined to view the whole rebellious, bad boy artist thing as part of his mystique and appeal. Really, they lived less than a century apart, and one of the reasons their art looks so different is simply that they were both geniuses who took what they did leaps and bounds ahead of anybody who had done it before them. The truth is that they both lived too long ago for us to really know with any certainty all that many details of their sex lives, but one thing that I see in common is how personal the expressions that they seemed to get through in their art are. Caravaggio, though, seems to have more of a sense of humor about himself sometimes, choosing, as opportunities for self-portraits, and ill drunk Bacchus and a boy sitting in the middle of a small band of boys that he obviously thought were attractive, playing instruments, and with a cupid behind them also in the painting. That one is the painting I did an homage to a while ago.
I love Michelangelo, but what I really love about Caravaggio is that when he wanted to paint a boy he wanted to fuck, that’s what he did, he painted a boy he wanted to fuck, and while there are any number of levels of symbolism and statements to the way that he chose to do it, you don’t stop to wonder if he was stressing out about eternal hellfire the whole time.
That’s the painting in which Caravaggio did a self-portrait of himself as Goliath’s head. The story of David and Goliath was obviously something that was returned to a whole lot of times by painters and sculptors for a very long time, and one of the reasons is that the symbolism of the story is so powerful and can be applied to so many things. A lot of times the story was used as a patriotic metaphor, or as a moral which applied to battles and assured armies that god was on their side, but at its most simple level it’s a proud, assured youth who is victorious because he’s endowed with the skills and physical perfection necessary to what he’s accomplishing. Michelanglo’s David is probably the most famous statue of David, and also probably one of the most homoerotic ones, but one of the reasons that it’s so much more universally appealing to people than, say, films starring Brent Corrigan, is that you can take it innocently, as an admiration of pride, assurance and psychical perfection in a context that is an affirmation of the value and beauty of human life. And it is all those things. Just because Michelangelo probably got hard a whole lot of times when he was carving it doesn’t mean that the other meanings aren’t valid too. That’s one of the things that makes it great art. And one of the reasons I really love Caravaggio’s David and Goliath paintings is that you can successfully take any number of meanings from them, too. There’s a melancholy to his David, and he also plays on the childish innocence, and in some of the versions his squeamishness or repulsion about either the person that he just killed, or the fact that he just killed a person. The fact that Caravaggio did a self-portrait as Goliath’s head in one of the paintings is, when you find out whose head it is, a great joke. It’s also, once you go a bit deeper, something melancholy or sad, and he might be talking about his own defeat, his own frustration with life or with his own sex life, who knows.