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When Artists Kill

Is a murderous temper the mark of a great artist?
Caravaggio, Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist (1610). All images via Wikimedia Commons.

Many artists grace the idea of death every day, with their pens, pencils, and brushes. But throughout art history, a handful have brought actual death into the world, with knives, guns, and defenestration. This begs the question: When an artist kills, what happens to their work?

The Renaissance master Caravaggio is known for chiaroscuro and dramatic compositions. His life was just as dramatic: in 1606, he got in a brawl with a man named Ranuccio Tomassoni over a prostitute named Fillide Melandroni. Caravaggio attempted to castrate his dueling partner, but missed and instead hit the femoral artery. Tomassoni bled out.


Caravaggio spent the last four years of his life on the run from Roman authorities, who would have publicly displayed his disembodied head if caught. His work turned increasingly violent, perhaps in an attempt to atone.

It is rumored that the artist signed his 1608 The Beheading of St. John the Baptist with the phrase “I, Caravaggio, did this,” referring to either his authorship of the painting, or of a murder. He painted three more beheadings between 1606 and his death in 1610: two versions of Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, and David with the Head of Goliath. In place of the severed heads of John the Baptist and Goliath, he painted his own likeness.

Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath (1606-7)

For Caravaggio, travel was the way to escape prosecution and continue his work. 250 years later, Eadweard Muybridge followed almost the same path—swapping the prostitute for a wife, and adding an acquittal.

In 1874, Muybridge discovered a letter from his wife, Flora Dawns, to theater critic Harry Larkyns, that led him to believe Larkyns was the father of his wife’s child. Muybridge immediately tracked Larkyns down, shot, and killed him. He was acquitted on the grounds of “justifiable homicide,” and immediately left town, spending the next nine months photographing Central America. Back home, his wife divorced him and died soon after, sending the child to an orphanage. Murder, in a way, allowed Muybridge to focus on his work.


Eadweard Muybridge, The Horse in Motion (1878)

In 1872, he went to the Yosemite Valley to upstage a fellow nature photographer, Carlton Watkins, taking extreme lengths to prove his photographic prowess. In order to capture a more perfect landscape, he chopped down trees with his own hands. Perhaps, to Muybridge, his murder victim was tantamount to an unsightly tree.

These irrational behaviors might be explained by brain chemistry. In 1860, Muybridge was involved in a stagecoach accident that left him in a coma, caused months of double vision, sensory deprivation, and, according to the hypothesis of psychologist Arthur Shimamura, uncontrollable emotional outbursts. Shimamura believes Muybridge suffered damage to his frontal cortex, the part of the brain that regulates emotions.

Eadward Muybridge, Yosemite Falls, 2700 feet, Yosemite Valley (1868-1873)

Brain damage might explain Muybridge’s murderous temperament and obsessive dedication to his work. But for Minimalist sculptor Carl Andre, the only chemical imbalance involved in a tragic death was a high BAC. Andre was apparently drunk when he and his wife of eight months, artist Ana Mendieta, had an argument that ended in her fall to death from the window of his 34th-floor apartment.

Mendieta’s death on September 8, 1985, and the ensuing investigation, were heavily covered by the press. The New York Times reported that a Manhattan district attourney “said a passer-by had heard screams that were ‘consistent with someone being thrown out the window.’” In a later article, the newspaper reported “[a] doorman working nearby testified that he had heard cries of: 'No! No! No!' just before the body hit the ground.” Andre told a 911 dispatcher that Mendieta had “somehow gone out the window,” after a dispute about “the fact that [he] was, eh, more exposed to the public than she was.”


A photo posted by Latamuda (@latamuda) on Apr 4, 2016 at 11:17am PDT

Andre was acquitted, but it’s difficult not to speculate that he was at least a little bit jealous of Mendieta’s youth and promise, when he had already been canonized and pigeonholed. 17 years Andre’s junior, Mendieta had learned about Andre’s work in college. HIs early work was in some ways revolutionary; but as he aged, his work stayed the same, seemingly unaffected by anything external—not even the death of his wife. As late as 2009, he was still stacking blocks of wood.

Mendieta, on the other hand, was just gaining traction in her career. Where Andre’s work dealt with form and gestalt, Mendieta’s was political, feminist, and engaging new media—more in line with the zeitgeist of the 1980s. After Andre’s acquittal, it was noted in The New York Times that Mendieta “was lesser known [than Andre], but her sculptures were gaining prominence.”  Today, Mendieta’s work obscures the living Andre’s, the latter prompting protests in the former’s name, the former receiving posthumous exhibitions.

A photo posted by studio : le songe, Paris. (@studiolesonge) on Mar 25, 2016 at 5:50am PDT

What do these three controversial have in common? Well, for starters, each of their crimes or trials were brought about by passion. None were punished by law, not even those who confessed. They were all landmark artists: some pinpoint Caravaggio as the father of the Baroque, Muybridge as the father of the motion picture, and Andre as the father of Minimalist sculpture. If these patriarchs’ spotty histories are any indication, perhaps we should start thinking in terms of mothers of great art movements instead.


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