Watching death at work

Caravaggio's David with the Head of Goliath.

Is it compassion, or sorrow, or repulsion we see in the heavy glance that brave David casts on the severed head of Goliath in Caravaggio's painting David with the Head of Goliath (1610), on show in the exhibition "Caravaggio Bacon" at the Borghese Gallery in Rome? This is one of the last paintings by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the Italian master who will be celebrated across the world in 2010, 400 years after his death.

Caravaggio reads the biblical episode in which the young hero triumphs over Goliath, and thereby saves Israel from the Philistines, through the lens of his own travails. The artist, who was notorious for his fiery temper, murdered a man while playing a game in Rome and was forced to flee south to avoid the death sentence placed upon him by the Pope. From that moment on, Caravaggio lived on the run, an existence that came to an end only with his abrupt death, in mysterious circumstances, on the way back to Rome, where he was to receive at last a pardon from Paolo V. We see in the painting, in the head of a desperate sinner gripped by the firm hand of the executioner, the face of the agonised painter himself.

Most likely created to accompany the artist's plea for a papal pardon, this canvas is almost a moving statement of repentance, as well as a poignant farewell. Caravaggio identifies himself with Goliath, evil and darkness, while the near-naked David, a prefiguration of Christ, represents grace, light and the justice to which the painter is preparing to submit. It can also be read as a double portrait, in which the artist's conscience contemplates with pity its dark counterpart. The legend "Humilitas Occidit Superbiam" on David's gleaming sword gives the picture an explicit symbolic and moral significance.

A similarly profound sense of death and despair suffuses many of Caravaggio's late works -- The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula, for instance, or the terrifying Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. Indeed, the artist was deeply familiar with death throughout his life: from his direct experience of the plague in Milan, through the early loss of his parents, to the public executions he would have witnessed (the philosopher Giordano Bruno, for example, was burned at the stake in 1600).

This acquaintance with death is what links Caravaggio's work most closely with the twisting and tortured human forms in the paintings of Francis Bacon, whose centenary fell in 2009. It was a good idea of the curators of the Roman exhibition to place these two artists in juxtaposition.

The open mouth of Caravaggio's dead Goliath is all the more sinister and dramatic when seen alongside Bacon's Head VI (1949), where a ghostly shape emerges from the untreated canvas. Standing in front of Caravaggio's Goliath, it is disquieting to recall one of Bacon's favourite quotations, the words of Jean Cocteau, who wrote: "Each day in the mirror I watch death at work."

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Breaking the Bond ceiling won’t solve British cinema’s race problems

Anyway, Ian Fleming’s Bond was grotesquely, unstintingly racist. As a character, it’s hardly the highest role available in UK film.

I don’t know which of the following is weirder: the idea that Idris Elba is the only black British actor, the idea that James Bond is the highest role available in UK film, or the idea that only by putting the two together can we be sure we have vanquished racism in our entertainment industry and in our hearts. I almost feel for Anthony Horowitz, who ballsed up the Elba question in an interview with the Mail on Sunday to promote his newly-authored Bond adventure, Trigger Mortis.

He even had another black actor (Adrian Lester) lined up as his preferred Bond to demonstrate that it really wasn’t “a colour issue”, but in the end, calling Elba “too street” sounded too much like a coded way of saying “too black”. By Tuesday, Horowitz had apologised for causing offence, thereby fulfilling his anointed role in the public ritual of backlash and contrition.

Whether Elba would make a good Bond depends a great deal on what your vision of Bond is. Elba is handsome, and he’s capable of exquisitely menacing composure – something more in evidence as Stringer Bell in The Wire than in his stompy title role in Luther. He can do violence of the sudden sociopathic sort. All of this puts him in good stead to do a kind of Bond: not the elegant killer gliding on a haze of one-liners, but something closer to the viciously alluring bruiser of Sean Connery. Something like the ur-Bond, the Fleming Bond.

The only thing is that the Fleming Bond is also grotesquely, unstintingly racist and in hock to a colonial past he wishes had never ended. “I don’t drink tea,” he tells a secretary in Goldfinger (ungraciously, since she’s just made him a cup). “I hate it… it’s one of the main reasons for the downfall of the British Empire.” Bond has always been a bit of a has-been. Even in his first adventure, he’s a tired and slightly ragged figure: past it from the start, an emblem of wistfulness for a time when everyone knew their proper place and an Eton-educated murderer could sit comfortably at the top of the heap.

“This country right-or-wrong business is getting a little out-of-date,” he maunders in Casino Royale. “History is moving pretty quickly these days and the heroes and villains keep changing parts.” In the end, the only thing that saves Bond from this alarmingly unpatriotic attack of relativism is that he lacks the imagination to do anything apart from booze, smoke, fuck, and kill the people he’s told to kill. “A wonderful machine,” his colleague Mathis calls him, and this is exactly what Bond is: a beautifully suited self-propelling module for the propagation of white male supremacy.

One of his primary work-related pleasures is seeing that anyone non-white is “[put] firmly in his place, which, in Bond’s estimation, was rather lower than apes in the mammalian hierarchy.” In Live and Let Die, black people are essentially voodoo-addled amoral children, and the civil rights movement is a front for a Russian assault on the western world. Women, meanwhile, exist to be obliterated, the foils to Bond’s marvellous virility. Bond’s favourite kind of sex has “the sweet tang of rape”, and the women he does it to (never really “with”, because that would imply some kind of reciprocity) are “bitches” or “girls”, but utterly disposable either way.

He’s also not quite as glamorous as you think. Yes, there are luxury cars and card games and elaborate dinners, but Bond is a character strung absurdly between heroism and bathos. He saves the world, but he’s also the office bore delivering lectures on hot beverages to junior staff, and even a license to kill cannot save him from the terrible frustrations of the road system around Chatham and Rochester, which Fleming describes as unsparingly as any piece of weaponry. The accidental Partridge has nothing on the deliberate Bondism.

I suspect that Fleming would piss magma at the thought of Idris Elba playing Bond – almost a compelling reason to want the casting, but it doesn’t explain why there is such an obsession with redeeming a spirit-soaked, fag-stained, clapped-out relic of Britain’s ghastly rapaciousness. Nor does it explain why any good actor would want the role. It’s true that a black Bond would not be Fleming’s Bond, and thank Christ for that. Every rotten thing the character is, means and stands for should by rights explode on contact with postcolonial twenty-first century Britain.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.