Blurring the Boundary: A photographic exploration of Baroque techniques by Marie Naffah

The 17th century brought a new emphasis on the role of the viewer. Barriers were broken down and the audience no longer looked through a window into Renaissance perfection. Instead, they found themselves amidst the dirty feet of Caravaggio’s figures, up close and personal with Bernini’s mythological subjects- absorbed in all things ‘baroque’ – emotion, movement and drama.

The focus of this piece is to explore how artists  managed to engage their audiences in works of art in the 17th century and successfully blurred the boundary between the observer and the observed. The centralised government’s concern for ‘reaching the people’ meant that artists started to manipulate their work in order to be involved in, control or intrude on the observer’s space.

Using similar techniques to those used by 17th – century masters, such as Caravaggio and Bernini, I have tried to create photographs that not only encourage, but crucially, demand the participation of the observer.

Arguably, the simplest technique for provoking interaction with the viewer, is through the creation of protruding elements that reach out of the picture plane, and fall into our space.

Above Left: Cerasi Chapel, Sta. Maria del Popolo Rome, Caravaggio Conversion of St. Paul – The foreshortening of both man and horse in such an uncomfortably small space, enhances dramatic tension here as we are physically confronted with the body of Paul, stretching out into our space.

Above Right: (Original photograph, Florence) – Here, I have taken the two photographs from below, creating a similar foreshortening effect which leads the viewer in through the sitter’s feet, into the overall composition.

For the first time, the 17th century brings a crucial element to portraiture – the direct gaze.

From Top: Caracci: The Bean Eater (c. 1585) – the fixed stare of the figure creates an immediate, private connection with the viewer. The sense of immediacy is intensified through the beans that fall from the subject’s mouth, consequentially creating a ‘snap-shot’ effect.

From Below: ‘Bubblegum’ (Original Photograph, Florence) – In the same manner as Caracci, I have used the bubblegum to suggest this similar ‘snap-shot’ effect, as the viewer anticipates the bubble bursting. The figure however grabs our attention through an intense, and some-what seductive gaze, inviting you in and again, forcing direct interaction between the subject and the onlooker.

Lastly, 17th century artists often intended to include elements of surprise in their works, in order to provoke a reaction and involve the viewer. Paintings and sculptures often had sensual undertones which may be thought as slightly controversial, for perhaps religious subject matter, causing questions to be asked by the onlooker.

Left: Untitled, (Own Photograph, Buckinghamshire) The fixed gaze contrasts the motion blur of the overall piece, whilst the sitter’s shoulder is left slightly exposed adding an air of sensuality to the photograph. The sitter still maintains a distinguished beauty, similar, I think, to Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Theresa. In this case, the focus is not on a sexual matter, yet the daring interpretation of the religious subject intends to shock, providing an invitation for further questions to be asked – again, another way of involving the viewer.

At a time when population – particularly in Rome where two of these great artworks were created and still remain – personal space was not an option. Perhaps this is the same today. Certainly I hope I have shed a little light on how the composition techniques employed by great artists of the seventeenth century can still be used today, across artistic media.

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