Friday, February 20, 2009


Caravaggio. The Cardsharps, c. 1596.

Please, let me preface this – forgive my absence! I contracted a rather awful case of pneumonia while on an otherwise quite enjoyable "rain hike" in Northumberland. While my recovery period was long, and the illness was quite serious, I did enjoy my surroundings, and my snug room provided me with the perfect setting for reading and re-reading some of my guiltiest pleasures (as I was without my stack of much-neglected journals of art criticism – colleagues, do forgive me; Prof. Witz, I owe you commentary on your brilliant treatise about indoor gardening in the 18th century!): gothic novels!

But let me present to you now a painting that represents a turning point for an artist who truly needs no introduction, painted shortly after he left his first position of employment in the arts (which I will soon describe to you) – it represents, for me, perhaps more than any other painting, the artist's molting from being mere workman, artificer, decorator, to prophet, seer, preserver of daily life's fleeting beauties.

Caravaggio, for some time before his "big break" (so to speak) painted the miniatures that adorned cards for the collectible card game (CCG) Magic: The Gathering – surely a boring, menial task for a man of Caravaggio's scintillating brilliance. Here, he seems to comment on that previous employment; what ought to be a scene of casual, charming, trivial divertisment hides a brutal take on the lengths to which humans go for the sake of competition and collection.

A close look at the painting reveals the game afoot: a well-heeled boy in velvet is the target of a dupe; the lad opposing him receives a signal from his partner regarding the cards held by his opponent (and perhaps regarding his strategy) – he slips from his belt a previously concealed "Counterspell" card, sure to change the game for his favor. The cup of Dunkin Donuts© coffee would indicate that the game has been in progress for quite some time: it is unlikely to be morning, given the circumstances, so it is probable that the setting is late at night, with the coffee having been purchased more for its function than for enjoyment.

And this game's stakes are not low. A cursory glance would tell that the stack of Pogs© in the left-hand corner of the painting, on the part of the table that protrudes into the viewer's space, is the ante here – but a discerning eye (and the aid of an issue of Wizard magazine) reveals, on the table between the two, a "Black Lotus" card from the "Alpha" collection of Magic: The Gathering, whose value even in Caravaggio's time (shortly after the "Mirage" collection's release) was not by any means small. The ruse is made more cutting by the presence of a delicate pipe – likely shared under the guise of friendship.

The most important aspect of this painting, to me, is Caravaggio's delicacy in handling both a criticism of his former employers and in creating a scene of lyrical power, a dangerous game, a children's game, but one whose meaning runs so deep that any sensitive viewer might feel an uneasy twinge at the commonness of that selfish, competitive feeling that must drive our two rogues.