Going Baroque: Guercino’s “Mars with Cupid” (1649) at the CAM

September 15th, 2012  |  Published in *, Digest, September 2012

Editor’s Note:  Aeqai is pleased to announce to our readers that long-time critic and collector Jon Kamholtz has joined aeqai as a regular critic.  Kamholtz teaches in the English Deparment at The University of Cincinnati, and begins with our September issue by selecting a painting from the permanent collection of the  Cincinnati Art Museum for meditation and analysis.  Look for regular reviews by this senior stateseman amongst critics.–Daniel Brown

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (Guercino)(Italian, b. 1591, d. 1666), Mars With Cupid, Cincinnati Art Museum, The Edwin and Virginia Irwin Memorial, Accession #: 197.96

A couple of decades ago, I was challenged by Richard Schade, a colleague in the German Studies Department at The University of Cincinnati, to team-teach a course in international literature of the seventeenth century, and to call it a course in “The Baroque.” It will tell you something about English Departments of that time to know that for an English Department, a course in seventeenth century literature was very likely to go under the title of “Seventeenth Century Literature.” To call such a course “The Baroque” required me to think not just of Milton in relationship to Cervantes, but to think of Moliere in terms of Monteverdi, and Donne in terms of Bernini.

In retooling what I knew and thought about the seventeenth century, I learned a great deal by looking hard at the visual arts of the period, a gift of re-understanding that has stayed with me over the years. I found that in teaching the baroque or just continuing to try to understand it better, I had excellent support in the Cincinnati Art Museum’s collection, with its wonderful Van Dyck and Ter Borch, a great Ruisdael (that inspired a John Ashbery poem) and a mysterious Mattia Preti, along with a host of still lifes, some austere and some over the top. The painting I keep coming back to is Guercino’s “Mars with Cupid” (1649). In it, Mars, his attention presumably drawn to a Venus who would have been in a paired picture (now apparently lost) sits with his sword and shield at his feet while a battle rages behind him. Above him, a strikingly blond Cupid hovers, though like the proverbial bumblebee, the physics of his weight and wings would seem to argue against it. Cupid carries a heart in his hand—an iconic, two-lobed affair–and is about to plunge an arrow into it. Between the foreground and the background, a luxurious green and gold curtain is being pulled aside, possibly inadvertently, by Cupid’s foot. Perhaps in deference to that bolt of green cloth, the painting was apparently once thought to depict Achilles in his tent. But I would strongly argue that the cloth is to be read as a curtain and it is being drawn aside just as it is, say, in several of the greatest Vermeers, to suggest something about the nature of theatricality and voyeurism. It is being pulled aside as pointedly as the curtain behind the museum’s great Eleanora of Toledo remains closed, enclosing Bronzino’s subjects in the relatively shallow space they are willing to expose to the public. Mars is sitting on a stone tuffet, and at his feet, we can see the edge of a platform on which he’s been placed, the suggestion of a dark drop-off reminding us that in baroque painting, there is always more space somewhere.

The historicist in me wants to know what battle is being depicted (some of the architectural details of the siege seem to have considerable specificity), but it certainly doesn’t matter to the warrior god. Or rather, to the man who is posing as a god for Guercino, because this is a decidedly mortal god. He is related to all those paintings by Rembrandt where Biblical models appear in get-ups that have been ransacked from a trunk of capes, chains, and hats. Guercino’s handling of the anatomy is particularly sharp in the hands and the feet, and this man who has been posing as Mars has feet that have been crushed by age, weight, and having worn ill-fitting shoes. I used to think that this was a painting of Mars as an old and weary man, but I was struck at my most recent visit that he is younger than I thought, and not just because I am not. He has reddish brown hair, and plenty of it, luxuriantly curled. Unlike Rubens’s post-coital Samson who has fallen asleep in Delilah’s lap across the gallery, this Mars is gangly and rather slight across the shoulders; he might even fit into a 38 or 40 long, while the amazingly muscled Samson won’t be buying anything off the rack.

This god of war is not hyperbolically masculinized. Of course, this would be part of the point of such a painting: having succumbed to the sight of Venus, he has been touched by the contagion of femininity. Mars averts his gaze from us and we can feel his energy being sapped. He could not pick up his sword on a dare. His left leg is drifting akimbo. Desire is something of a soporific to him. He is showing a lot of skin for a warrior. His red cape has been pulled aside so we can see more of his arms and legs (as well as both sides of the cloth). Fringes are everywhere—at the bottom of the curtain, on his sandals, on his ribbons, in his beard—blurring the clean edge of the outlines of things. His helmet seems more suited for a parade than a battlefield, and has perhaps a half dozen feathers on top. White, coral, amber, purple, and blue, the plumes are outrageously beautiful. Over his thighs, his armor looks like bicycle shorts made out of flexible metal. The armor on his torso includes a metal nipple peeking out and there in an indentation above his waist that calls to mind a belly-button. The purpose of his clothing seems to be to call to our minds that he is naked underneath.

None of these things are, to me, flaws or faults of this painting. They go deeply to the core of important issues that inspired the baroque sensibility, and that have come to be central to my interest and pleasure in these works.

First, I see in this painting the baroque’s rich and complicated relationship to the entire notion of symbolic identity and purpose. The degree to which this Mars is as much a man posing in a painting as he is a god sheds light both on how the era saw men and gods. The seventeenth century understood the general through the particular. The same cultural impulses that led Guercino to give us a Mars who resembles an aging dandy can be seen in Milton’s giving Satan the richest human characterization of any figure in Paradise Lost.

Second, I see in this painting the era’s fundamental interest in the nature of imaginary space. Drawing aside a curtain to reveal a battlefield reminds us of the ways that the painting is taking place both indoors and outdoors. But, even more, it asks us to think about exactly what space is being represented in pictorial art. This painting records something originally seen in a studio in such a way as to evoke a larger world. The partially-drawn curtain calls to mind that the artist has stitched two realms together; the understanding audience must do so too.

Finally, the painting revels in its vision of the frailty and glory of the surface. Surface sometimes gets a bad rap in cultural history, but I don’t see it that way. Skin is and isn’t our essence. To the baroque artist, clothing is a second skin, a second self, something likely to tell you a truth about a subject. I value the subtly-colored beauty of Mars’s plumes as much as his dazed desire. I love how much of the drama of the painting is in its fabric, fringes, and feathers.

–Jonathan Kamholtz

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