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Violence and Violins

A six-hour drive last weekend took us from Ithaca in Upstate New York to Oberlin, Ohio—two Blue college towns in a sea of Red. Our purpose was to help a daughter move out of her apartment and to admire the Midsummer fireflies of the Buckeye State—and just about avoid the first public political appearance of Donald Trump since his electoral defeat.

Last Saturday the deposed President emerged from his Diet Coke swamp to campaign for his former aid and 2020 deputy campaign manager Max Miller, now making a run for Congress in his native Ohio. The Save America rally took place ten miles directly south from Oberlin at the Lorain County Fairgrounds in Wellington. The county tipped to Trump by a few percentage points in 2020, though the liberal bastion of Oberlin went heavily Democratic.

The morning of the rally, vintage cars and motorcycles flying MAGA colors came streaming into Oberlin in what had the appearance of provocation. Accompanied by rough-running engines, bullhorns broadcast nearly indecipherable mottoes of rage and revolution.

Lurid fascination tempted us to infiltrate the mob and witness history-in-the-making, the exiled leader riding out among his people again. But we were unlikely to blend in with the MAGAists, what with our summery linens, Subaru Impreza with its impossible-to-remove Nature Conservancy window sticker inherited from the previous owner. (It hardly matters that this big green-washing machine is not the defender of the natural world that most people of whatever political persuasion think it to be: even the innocuous Nature Conservancy oval is a red flag to the MAGA Bulls, as some F-250 fist-shaking on I-90 had seemed to confirm the day before.) Plus, the rally was likely to throw kerosene on the fire that is the Delta Variant.

Rather than battle the traffic, decibels, and bad blood, we headed to the Cleveland Museum of Art, a neo-Greek temple on an Ohio Acropolis. Directly in front of the columns sits a cast of Rodin’s Thinker. This morose bronze looks down long and wide stone steps that lead to a Roman fountain teeming with watery pagan gods enjoying a view of a picturesque pond and spreading lawns still farther below and beyond. In other words, in less than an hour we had been transported to a galaxy far, far away from the Lorain County Fairgrounds on that Saturday afternoon at the end of June 2021, the dark clouds over Lake Erie pregnant with rain and civil war.

Way back in Trump Time, the Cleveland Museum practiced its own mode of Resistance by sponsoring the immigration of aliens unwanted by most right-thinking Americans beyond the urban centers of High Culture and liberal orthodoxy. In 2018 the institution bought Dirck van Baburen’s Violin Player at an auction in Switzerland. On rafts of foundation money, this louche intruder (the violin player, I mean, though we’ll get to Baburen shortly) floated unmolested across the Save America moat that is the Atlantic. ICE agents failed to interdict this undesirable—one full of desire, as you can plainly see from the image below—before he was granted sanctuary in the grandest gallery in the oldest part of the Cleveland Museum.

Dirck van Baburen, The Violin Player, 1623, Cleveland Museum of Art.

Like several of his Dutch compatriots, Baburen spent several years in Rome learning the style of Caravaggio: the dramatic poses and compositions, and mastery of light and shadow, the embrace of eroticism and the human form. After leaving the Eternal City and returning to his Utrecht, Baburen died young, probably not yet thirty, a year after he made this painting.

One has to assume, even if only from the evidence of this picture, that Baburen had a good time while in Rome. His Violin Player unashamedly indulges all the senses. Music has just been made and will soon be made again, but the nearly empty wine glass must be drained first.

Such lusty pleasures are tinged by possible violence. The man’s chipped tooth might even summon thoughts of the brawling Caravaggio himself. The gap had been filled in at some point long after Baburen’s death, but the Cleveland restoration removed the bowdlerizing dental upgrade.

The outrageously plumed hat is literally over-the-top, just asking to be knocked off—or maybe its feathers stroked. The striped, robe-like shirt is slung off the shoulder and open at least to the navel. How far that exposure extends is left raunchily ambiguous. The varnished body of the violin touches the skin of the man’s chest. This positioning of the instrument was typical of the period (only towards the end of the seventeenth century did players raise it up to the neck), but the contact with naked skin was not. Impressively, perhaps impossibly, and certainly suggestively, he cocks the violin bow in the crook of his pinky, the other fingers of his left hand holding the dark glass. Maybe he has mastered the party-trick of playing and drinking at the same time. The marks painted on the underside of the violin suggest rough handling of that fragile instrument. The angles of violin and bow are as lewd as the broken tooth, the naughty smile, and provocative gaze.

The cheerful fiddler is a common topic of the period’s portraiture: Frans Hals and his followers painted many a happy violinist, though they are fully clothed. In comparison to those robust burghers and peasants, Baburen’s Violin Player is a picture of pure debauchery.

Running through the summer there is another seventeenth-century violinist to be seen in the Cleveland Museum at a special exhibit entitled Variations: The Reuse of Models in Paintings by Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi. In a single room across from the gift shop at the new, modern entrance are juxtaposed three pairs of paintings. In one of these, Judith has just decapitated Holofernes. In the adjacent canvas the severed head has been replaced by a violin, the sword by the bow. The model is the same woman in the same pose, perhaps the seventeen-year-old Artemisia. (A victim of rape, Artemisia would later depict Judith in the act of beheading Holofernes in paintings of literally visceral drama.)

Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, c. 1610-12. Orazio Gentileschi. Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art, Hartford.

Young Woman with a Violin (St. Cecilia), c. 1612. Orazio Gentileschi. Detroit Institute of Art.

What struck me in looking at these two pictures—both resident aliens in the U.S.A., one on loan from Hartford, the other from Detroit—is that the substitution of musical instrument for weapon is not as paradoxical a switch as one might at first think. Jazz musicians called their horns axes, and with them hoped to fell rivals on the bandstand battlefield. A famous Dresden duel of eighteenth-century violinists pitted the homegrown German hotshot Johann Georg Pisendel against the touring Italian heavyweight Francesco Maria Veracini. The musical clash ended with the visitor throwing himself out a second-story window in the palace where the bout had taken place. Miraculously, Veracini bounced back from the defenestration. His further travels eventually took him across the English Channel, but during the crossing his ship went down, and with it his two celebrated violins named St. Peter and St. Paul—as lethal a pair of sidearms as two Old West Colt revolvers. Once again Veracini survived.

It is rarely women who are pictured in Baroque paintings playing the violin, long held to be fit only for men to wield. Even into the eighteenth century, male commentators expressed alarm at the sight of females daring to perform with the instrument. A Viennese critic was put off in 1787 by the appearance of the virtuosa Caroline Bayer: “‘It would be good, or at least far better, if ladies who played the violin were dressed ‘à l’Amazone’. [in mannish clothes] The long cuffs, ribbons and trailing sleeves, then the naked arm, and the violin at the throat, always offend me somewhat in performances with this instrument, and would probably do so no longer if the artiste stood before the music stand as a charming half-man in a little hat.”

Although Gentileschi’s saintly violinist lifts her eyes upward as if to follow the ascent of the tones she has just played towards heaven, there is earthy real-ness to her that the instrument and its relation to her body projects. One might even see her violin as a form of defense against the Holoferneses of this world—the pussy grabbers of then and now.

In the hushed, climate-controlled confines of the Cleveland Museum my thoughts drifted to the sweltering Lorain County Fairgrounds as Donald Trump mounted the dais: Arm thyself America, not with swords and assault rifles, but with violins!