Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath is a truly important picture expressing art’s underlying paradigm, every painter paints himself, in a clear and unmistakeable way. It was reported in the mid-seventeenth century that both heads, Goliath’s and David’s, are self-portraits at different stages of life though David is described as “il suo Caravaggino”, or in English “his little Caravaggio.”1 This clearly refers to how Caravaggio painted himself when young because although his real name was Michelangelo Merisi he was known in Rome as “Caravaggio”.2 Remarkably, despite this, few art historians have noted Caravaggio’s self-identification in both figures.
One thought it was partly sub-conscious, a psychic echo of the artist’s violent past.3 Michael Fried, on the other hand, a scholar who often recognizes the act of creation depicted in art thought otherwise. He recently described David’s gesture “as a disguised mirror representation of the act of applying paint to canvas, though there is also an important sense in which the head of Goliath may be taken as standing for the painting itself.”4 God bless Fried!
Other scholars unable to explain why Caravaggio would kill himself, even in a painting, suggest the phrase refers to someone else, “a boy from the town, Caravaggio” though they cannot say who.5 It is an escape clause. In the world of literal art scholars, artists do not kill themselves in a painting so they imagine something else or ignore the problem. Few early masterpieces so clearly express that every painter paints himself but scholars, convinced that artists tell logical stories that even a patron can understand, have long tried to deny the obvious: both heads represent the artist.
This painting, like so many others over the centuries, depicts its own creation in the artist’s mind. Goliath, too, is not a symbol of evil, as conventionally claimed, but of chaos, the chaos so central to creative thinking. Art is first imagined in a mind full of chaotic and random thoughts. As two or more combine spontaneously, the artist begins to impose order on the chaos to create the work. Goliath’s death, his head tamed by being depicted forever in mid-scream, is a metaphoric description of that process. Yet while David with the artist’s frown looks inward to depict the inner process of creation, Goliath – also with an artist’s frown – looks outward. He is the painting.