For the past month, this essay of Nancy’s has been occupying my thoughts. His concept of the “threshold”, the intimate relationship of viewer to a work of art – a looking at death – at painting and the painting of death, and no less than a beautiful, close, poetic reading of Caravaggio – that is what I see in Nancy’s essay. There is more of course, to Nancy’s complex writing on art, I am painfully aware.  Understanding is always partial and fragmented. But the pleasure and engagement of art is not a bounded, enclosed space, but open to return, to re-encounter, to new interpretations.

Some of Nancy’s final words form the basis of my response. The “open,” says Nancy, has no access, for the open is always already access.

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come in and see

“Here, come in and see. To see the dead in this world, to see their bodies in this place, without painting life in the colors of death. That would be to paint without religion, to paint with the colors of painting.” (Jean-Luc Nancy)

These enigmatic words intrigue me, “to paint with the colors of painting.”  And what does it mean to paint with the colors of religion? Merely pious illustration and commemoration? No pious dogma with Caravaggio, says Nancy; there, “There is neither resurrection nor assumption. There is more and less than a negotiation or a philosophy of death.”  Painting death with and as painting. Negotiation.


“…flesh tints [carnations]… and fabrics [étouffes]…that is this whole painting in two words…” (Jean-Luc Nancy)

This is the fourth of the text-themes I’ve chosen from Nancy’s essay.  I introduced the figure form early on in these postings, since Nancy invites us, the viewer, to physically engage and explore this relationship of viewer to viewed.  A fifth element – that of color – spans the four series of drawings from water to light to cloth to flesh, but I mention its presence only now.  Of interest –  towards the final pages of the essay, Nancy talks about the  reversible salutation: “Ave, Eva” (the reference to Eve, to life, to…) but adds that “Ave”, is still further reversible because in everyday usage, it meant “Hello”,  and when engraved upon a tombstone, it meant “Farewell.”

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I’ve pulled four more word-idea-themes from Nancy’s discussion of the Caravaggio image. They are water, light, cloth and flesh.  Here is the first of the four.  Nancy states, “Water is perhaps the secret element or prism of this scene bathed in tears. The water or oil of the painting… washes, streams, spreads…”

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