Portrait of a Detail of a Painting by Poussin
Scribbled by Atticus Bergman using Crayola crayons | 22”x30” | 2020
Portrait of a Detail of a Painting by Poussin
According to one account, Nicholas Poussin’s painting Massacre of the Innocents was commissioned by Vincenzo Giustiniani to commemorate an unsavory incident that took place in 1566. For a little over two hundred years, the Giustinianis had ruled the island of Chios, harvesting the profits that were generated—in vast quantities—by the island’s strategic position in the Aegean Sea. Unfortunately for them, that rule came to a sudden and conclusive end one balmy afternoon at the height of spring, when the Ottomans seized control of Chios and promptly executed eighteen Giustiniani heirs who refused to be conscripted into the Ottoman infantry.
In the aftermath of this carnage, Vincenzo fled to Rome with his father, where he eventually became known for financing the compulsive delinquency of Caravaggio—a man whose unusual relationship with the principals of virtue and moderation ultimately inspired him to castrate one of his rivals with a sword. Later, Giustiniani died without children, leaving behind a will containing such prodigious ambiguities that its text was subsequently disputed in a trial that dragged on for over three hundred years, thereby creating a challenging—and highly abnormal—legal predicament whose resolution presumably required an emergency supply of courthouse officials, so that a fresh judge would always be on hand to replace each one that perished of old age during the course of the proceedings.
If Giustiniani’s family massacre is the purported subtext of Poussin’s painting, the image itself portrays the bloodshed that transpired when King Herod of Judea impetuously chose to exterminate every citizen of Bethlehem under the age of two. At the time, even Herod must have understood that this particular course of action was galvanized by a state of emotional disequilibrium rather than the sober protocols of jurisprudence. Either way, it didn’t do much to improve his popularity as a ruler. Indeed, by the end of his life, King Herod was so nervous about the prospect of dying unmourned that he made a special request to his sister: on the day of his death, he wanted her to slaughter a crowd of innocent civilians, so that the constituents of his empire would actually feel sad. In the meantime, decades of impiety had begun to pickle his body from the inside out, resulting in a set of gruesome afflictions that hastened his death. According to Titus Flavius Josephus, one of these afflictions involved an insatiable hunger that defiled his entrails and tortured his body with appalling convulsions. Moreover, as Josephus put it: the chief violence of his pain lay on his colon; an aqueous and transparent liquor also had settled itself about his feet, and a like matter afflicted him at the bottom of his belly. Nay, further, his privy-member was putrefied, and produced worms; and when he sat upright, he had a difficulty of breathing, which was very loathsome, on account of the stench of his breath, and the quickness of its returns.
“Innocence is like youth, which is given us only to expend and takes its very meaning from its loss.”
Picasso’s favorite part of Poussin’s painting was a roughly hewn woman with muscular shoulders and very large legs. Meanwhile Francis Bacon was impressed by a detail that he once described as the best human cry in the history of art. The first time I noticed this statement, I assumed that Bacon was referring to the expression on the face of the infant in the foreground of the painting. However, it appears that he was actually referring to the expression on the face of the infant’s mother—an expression that, as far as I can tell, seems slightly distracted, as though the intensity of the woman’s suffering is already in the process of being disturbed by her burgeoning rapport with the beefy torso of the man who, coincidentally, also happens to be butchering her child.
Even if my faculties of aesthetic discrimination are offended by Bacon’s misguided preference of screams, I can’t say I’m surprised by his impulse to identify, first and foremost, with the pain of the woman. Broadly speaking, the subjectivity of babies has always been treated with suspicion and prejudice. Even Augustine—an actual, bonafide saint—took a notably ungenerous attitude toward their cries of self-expression, which he viewed as nothing more than imperious demands, inflected by a mixture of jealousy, intolerance, and greed. “The only innocent feature in babies,” he announced in a burst of gratuitous spite, “is the weakness of their frames.”
Jacques Lacan had a slightly more nuanced perspective, if only because he understood that babies produce their cries in a world of preconceptions and contested meaning, where the significance of every sound is twisted and abused by the assumptions of others. In other words, babies grow like saplings in a thicket of shrubs, squeezed on all sides by brambles—or at least by an overgrown mass of linguistic implications that rubs against their evolving brains, shaping their identities and texturing the landscape of their subconscious minds. When he examined this subject in one of his seminars, Lacan referenced a passage from the Book of Matthew, which describes how Jesus was approached by a group of concerned citizens from Jerusalem, who demanded that he explain why his disciples were apparently so indifferent to the principles of hygiene. As it turned out, Christ’s followers were in the habit of eating their bread with unwashed hands; and yet, for Jesus, the ensuing controversy was not really about poor table manners at all. Instead, it pertained to larger matters of innocence and filth: But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: These are the things which defile a man: but to eat with unwashen hands defileth not a man.
“his privy-member was putrefied, and produced worms; and when he sat upright, he had a difficulty of breathing”
Earlier this fall I read The Sot-Weed Factor, John Barth’s postmodern romp through the thievery and insurrections of the American colonies. Over the course of the novel, innocence is deployed as a form of sumptuous, enticing bait, which persistently invites the attention of predators. In the end, it’s the aggression of these predators that drives the plot forward and, in so doing, exposes the gladiatorial ethos of human society. And yet, at the center of all this predation lies a delicious kernel of passivity: otherworldly, magnetic, and, in its own way, equally perverse.
In a sense, this kernel is also what interests me about Poussin’s Massacre of the Innocents. When I decided to create a portrait of a specific portion of that painting, I was motivated by a desire to isolate the helpless figure at its center and, in the process, reorganize the priorities that define the original work of art. I wasn’t especially interested in the tragedy of the painting, or even the violence. Instead I was intrigued by the opulent sensuality of helplessness itself. When it comes to the mythology of Herod’s massacre, this helplessness is subsumed into a larger narrative about the character of the crime and its constituent parts: pettiness and power, violence and grief, injustice and salvation, all of which require a victim whose forfeiture can illuminate the essence of the appetites that destroy it.
In Poussin’s painting, the forfeiture of purity is presented as an episode of high drama. Meanwhile, John Barth leverages it to serve the agenda of comedy and farce. More specifically, he narrates its loss as embodied in the extravagant—and often grandiose—virginity of Ebenezer Cooke, Poet and Laureate of the Province of Maryland, who clings to this tattered scrap of moral superiority long after its technical relationship to his depraved biography has become senseless and absurd. “Innocence is like youth,” the poet complains at one point to a notorious whore, “which is given us only to expend and takes its very meaning from its loss.” In other words, it’s in the nature of innocence to be massacred—a fact which imbues the concept with a precious fragility that allows it to become a fantasy for those who crave it and a fetish for those who’ve lost it. “Wherein lies my pride?” asks Cooke at another point in the novel, proffering a question that gestures towards his own conceit and, as such, encourages the following response:
“In thy very innocence, which you raise above mere circumstance and make a special virtue.”