Sex, death and Renaissance selfies

Caravaggio was haunted by his own selfies in an age before photography, says Vivien Lash.

Caravaggio painting

Caravaggio was a celebrity before fame was fashionable, an artist in a world where the brothel and the church were the social spaces, both selling sex and death but with different currencies.

Staying in control of your own selfie wasn’t an option in the era before photography was invented. When he was on the run for murder, Caravaggio probs regretted painting his self-portrait.

There he is in Beyond Caravaggio (National Gallery, London until 15 Jan 2017), holding a lantern over Judas as he betrays Jesus with a kiss in the Taking of Christ; a painting that fell into obscurity for a few centuries like Caravaggio’s own fame; until he was resurrected by Derek Jarman.

Jarman’s Caravaggio is a violent love story starring Tilda Swinton before she grew up to be David Bowie and Sean Bean before he lost his head in Game of Thrones. I saw it in an arty cinema where children wearing berets could pass for midgets and get in to X certificate films. Like God, when lying about my age I pretend to be older. Swinton plays that familiar virgin-whore icon everyone’s slut of a mom warns them about. Freud said there are six people in every sexual encounter, but don’t forget the Virgin fucking Mary omnipresent in your head even if not hung above your bed.

The division of good and evil, self and twin, me and you, appear to be distinct but are as ambiguous as a blurred selfie.

By using prostitutes to model as saints, murdering a pimp, and dying mysteriously Caravaggio was playing the role of artist as rock star centuries before flasher Damien Hirst was a squint in his embarrassed mother’s eye.

‘Why does Damien have to keep taking his trousers down?’ Mrs Hirst asks. Doesn’t stuffing sharks get him enough attention?

Hirst’s skill is overshadowed by his success and showmanship. An artist’s biography shapes how we view their work. As Picasso said, ‘If you can imagine it, it’s real.’
Picasso’s Portraits (National Portrait Gallery, London until 5th Feb 2017) are a cast of weeping women bled dry by the vampiric painter; at least in this visually complex version of his story.

Did Picasso attract sad women? Did he make them cry? Or is melancholic just the way his artist’s eye sees them?

Fernande Olivier, who shared his starving artist days when Pablo still managed to stay on the wrong side of porky; Francois Gilot, the only one who dumped him, and his last wife Jacqueline share the same Madonna (mother of Christ not Rocco) hairstyle and woeful expression.

Mad, masochistic sophisticate Dora Maar and bovine teenager Marie-Therese could be twins here, hung head to head on the wall, the way they competed for Picasso’s attention IRL.
His ballerina wife Olga’s beauty is celebrated in oils until their bad break-up when he hacks her face to fuck. But there are photographs of Olga to show us what she “really” looked like. Of course the camera sometimes lies.

My photogenic frenemy looks like Louise Brooks in selfies and more Richard 3rd IRL.
In pictures I’m more psychotic boy scout than femme fatale but – Mr Lash insists – pure gorgeous IRL. I haven’t looked in the mirror since eating an entire bag of crisps so I’ll take his word for it.
When I discovered that my ex-stalker fan has been distributing distorted lens shots of me posing onstage as my evil twin, I was tempted to take some selfies to prove that I’m not a minger.

Then I went out without my phone. That pang I feel when I forget to wear my Tiffany bracelet was absent.

What will I miss? A new death threat from Maddie? A self-destruct snap of my faux boyfriend’s bum? The opportunity to selfie my self in the hairdresser’s scary mirror?
Enjoying the silence broken only by the click, click of my Louboutins, and sucky people in the street telling me I’m dead glamorous, the idea of digital suicide came to me on the road to Selfridges.

The beauty of having an evil twin is having someone to scapegoat. She can try digital death first. If she goes to hell and meets lots of interesting people with no camera phones, I’ll join her.

I love you all, but bear in mind I’m two-faced.


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