Notable fingers in art
Or: The Poisoned Apple, Part II
(This is the second in an occasional series about how specific artworks can lie to us. The first essay in the series, on a poem by Matthew Arnold and a poetic response by Anthony Hecht, can be found here.)
Well—it’s happened. Took a little longer than I thought, but . . . it’s happened: the AI image engines can now do hands pretty well. I must admit, Midjourney even fooled me a few times before I caught on to what was happening! So now we can fully enter the era of never trusting a photograph on the internet. Of course, photography has a long history of being used to manipulate the perception of reality; if anything, this new development of Midjourney’s ability is simply the culmination of a very long process by which images are rendered impossible to believe. But so what? Images are lies, as Picasso famously said; and anyone who says differently is selling something. Okay . . . where do we go from here? Can the AI image generators communicate with their drawings of hands? Perhaps . . . but while we wait for them to do so, let’s look at some other examples of hands, and especially fingers, in art, and ponder their meanings.
First let’s look at James Montgomery Flagg’s famous recruitment poster from the American effort in World War I. That scowl—those eyes! And that extended index finger—it’s got to be one of the most amazing, most glorious fingers in art! Note how it extends beyond the picture plane into our space—how often does that happen in paintings!?
Flagg’s poster is based on an earlier British design featuring Lord Kitchener, and over the years there have been many similar posters using the same setup. Flagg’s poster, though, has got to be the best of the lot. It’s important to remember that this perspectival effect is one of the hardest things to do in a drawing (which is probably why Midjourney et al. had such a difficult time figuring out how to do it). It requires immense powers of detachment to observe a finger pointed at you and read it as a set of volumes and lines and not as a finger. Flagg’s finger is perfect. Note how effortlessly he seems to do it—this was back in the golden age of illustration, when highly talented artists would deploy impressive resources of skill making mere magazine ads, posters, newspaper cartoons, and other such ephemera. Notice how Flagg didn’t even bother erasing his pencil sketch after finishing the painting.
There’s a lot to unpack in this picture. The sense of space is very weird; why is there so much happening in the picture’s left half and barely anything on the right? Either St. Jerome is a little itsy-bitsy person, or he’s way off in the back of the picture somewhere—and if that’s so, that pillar has got to be absolutely enormous. And I have no idea what’s going on with the anatomy of the central figures—Mary looks like she might be about nine or ten feet tall, Jesus is . . . strange . . . and what is with Mary’s bizarrely long neck and freakish fingers? A while back, Vito Franco said he thinks the model must have had Marfan syndrome. But I don’t think we have much need for that kind of theory. Either Parmigianino was trying out some daring new stylistic techniques here, or . . . this whole picture is a bunch of mistakes. I favor the latter view; are there any Parmigianino fans among my readers who would be willing to contradict me here?
Okay what is this. Our little man from Parma might be making mistakes but this . . . this is deliberate. Um, explain please, Marc? Someone? Anyone? Oh wait, here it is! This is from Marc’s website:
Chagall’s Jewish heritage shows strongly in much of his work, with references to traditional folktales, fables, and beliefs. In Self Portrait with Seven Fingers, Chagall refers to the colorful Yiddish folk expression Mit alle zibn finger (with all seven fingers), meaning “working as fast and as hard as possible.” That explains the extra fingers!
Hey, now that’s really cool! And I was just about to dismiss those extra fingers as mere silliness. This is an example of the depth of meaning that a picture can convey; what lies on the surface can conceal an artwork’s true significance. But the fact remains that apart from research I would not have known Chagall’s fingers were meant to signify anything at all, and I could very easily have interpreted them to mean something different from what they are meant to signify, because images, on their own, are open to interpretation; that is their great power, and also their terrible weakness. Remember that—it will become very important before we’re done.
Nothing could be more stereotypical than this genre scene, right? Would you believe that the thumbs in this picture were the cause of a minor controversy when Gérôme unveiled this painting? George Bothamely explains that “the historical accuracy was something of a controversial matter amongst the academics of his time. As scholars often do, they debated endlessly (and, in truth, rather pedantically) over whether there really was any historical evidence for the ‘turned thumb’ gesture being used in the roman colosseum.” Someone apparently wrote a 26-page pamphlet explaining why the painting was probably wrong. The problem is that when ancient sources mentioned the “turned thumb,” it isn’t clear what, exactly, they meant by that phrase. For a thumb to be “turned,” there has to be an established “non-turned” point—right? According to anatomical position the hand is shown facing palm forward, with the thumb on the outside—so a “turned” thumb might be pointed towards the body instead of straight up or down! But there have been debates about anatomical position as well.
Whatever the case may be, it is certain that this painting by Gérôme is the origin of the “thumbs down” gesture. Just imagine what human culture might have become if Gerome had painted his vestal virgins using some other gesture—what if they had been flashing peace signs? Or the “OK” signal? Or something else?
My relationship with this image is very ambivalent. It is one of the world’s masterpieces of religious art; it’s of an undeniably powerful emotive quality. None of the idealized nudes of the Italian renaissance here—Grünewald gives us a very Teutonic, very sentimentalized conception of the crucifixion, masterful in its ability to render the emotions into communicable form, and therefore perfect for a church which would have been frequented by peasants. An illiterate churchgoer (most likely a patient at the hospital of the Monastery of St. Anthony, where the altarpiece was displayed), unable to make sense of the worship service sung in the alien Latin language, could look at this image—could see Christ with plague sores just like theirs, and the intense, keening emotion on the faces of Mary, the Magdalene woman, and John the Evangelist—and could grasp with powerful immediacy the truth of a faith that might otherwise seem inaccessible. Christ’s clawing fingers are majestic; his body, slumped in death, still shows the agony of separation from his father which he endured at the cross.
BUT . . . what is John the Baptist doing in a crucifixion? At this point in the story, isn’t he supposed to be dead? And his body language . . . he’s very detached, emotionally, from the scene. He looks almost like a tour guide. “Over here, we can see the Lord and Savior, having just given up his spirit at the cross of Calvary. Fun fact: crucifixion usually takes two days to kill a person, but in this case Jesus died in only three hours! Be sure to exit through the gift shop.” NO ONE points like that in real life.
This was one of Karl Barth’s favorite paintings; the eminent theologian had a reproduction of it hanging above his desk in his office for many years, and discusses at length, in his Church Dogmatics, the meaning of the painting and especially of John the Baptist’s pointing finger, which Barth says is “the hand of judgment and grace.” Other writers have found similar meaning in the finger.1 Indeed, for many people the picture remains a thoroughly impressive, unequivocally powerful masterpiece. But I have a hard time swallowing it whole. Is this just a bias or prejudice on my part? Am I simply not allowing the art to speak to me as it could, and instead letting my preconceived notions get in the way? Perhaps.
And now we come to the most famous two fingers in all of European art. Everyone has seen this image; parodies and knockoffs are ubiquitous. What do these fingers mean, though? Let’s zoom in on them a little bit.
Um, a little more. There, that’s good.
Do you see anything between those two extended fingers? Any “divine spark,” any holy static electricity of any kind? Any communication at all between God the Father and his created image? I don’t. I don’t see any connection, any touch, anything at all, in that little gap.
So why is Adam so obviously alive? If he has not yet been touched by the divine power, how is he able to lift himself up off the ground and reach towards the source of his life? Where did he get the vital force to do so?
Is Michelangelo trying to tell us something about the creation of Adam by giving him, apparently, half the agency in his own creation??
I realize that’s a very provocative question; there isn’t really any reason to believe that Michelangelo is communicating anything by picturing the moment of Adam’s creation in this particular way. But then again, there isn’t any reason not to believe that the Old Master is trying to slip in some dogma, even if it’s only of a personal kind; he was fond of putting secret meanings into some of his artworks (notoriously in The Last Judgment), and we know that he was interested in the philosophical and religious discussions of his day so it is not out of the realm of possibility for him to be making some sort of theological statement in this panel of the Sistine Ceiling. This painting is one of the most analyzed, most puzzled-over works of art in the entire Western pictorial canon; in Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles? James Elkins calls it an “ambiloquy” and says that “a monograph that answered the major earlier readings would be almost inconceivable—it would have to look more like a short encyclopedia than a book.” Far from dissuading me from presenting my reading, however, these facts about the Ceiling’s puzzling nature only give me license to puzzle over it myself; to look for clues and meanings in Michelangelo’s picture is well within the tradition of art criticism.
There are a few alternate interpretations here. It could be that Michelangelo is painting not the exact moment of Adam’s creation but a moment immediately following. The Biblical text says that God “breathed” life into Adam, not “touched” him. It could also be that Michelangelo’s point is the opposite from what I intimated earlier; rather than claiming that Adam seems already alive before God touches him, we could say that Adam has not yet touched God’s extended finger; perhaps he does not, on his own, have the strength to traverse that tiny space, and must wait for God to hover slightly closer. If so, Michelangelo’s point could be that we humans are not able to approach God on our own and must rely on divine grace to come close to the father, rather than the other way around. Maybe Andrew Graham-Dixon is right when he says the image ought to be interpreted symbolically, as representing the moment when God imparted a moral sense to Adam: “Adam looks up to God with an expression of barely dawning awareness on his face. He has just woken into consciousness and there is still about him the wide-eyed helplessness of a child. Yet the look in his eyes suggests that he has already begun to absorb the awareness that life brings with it duty to God.”2 Or perhaps Benjamin Blech and Roy Doliner are right to find hidden Kabbalistic symbols and meanings in the image?3
Whatever it is, it sure is ambiguous, isn’t it? Imagine yourself attending one of the forty or so worship services which occur annually in the Sistine chapel. Your eyes are drawn to the decorations in the room; as your gaze wanders, you come upon the “Creation of Adam” panel . . . you stop to ponder it . . . and you draw conclusions. Who is to say what one may think of, or come to believe, from looking at the art in religious institutions? Over there is the priest, giving the authorized and authoritative interpretation of the Scriptural text . . . but who is interpreting the pictures for us? If pictures, statuary, stained glass windows, and all the rest, are indeed capable of communicating anything at all in church . . . who is doing the editorializing? Who is ensuring that they aren’t being misconstrued?
A picture, in this context, is so full of a sense of assertiveness. This is what happened. This is the way it was. But the problem with images is they can’t be authoritative; they can never have only one received and established interpretation. If Michelangelo is not lying in The Creation of Adam, then he is being monstrously ambiguous;4 he is certainly obscuring the truth about what happened on day six, there in the garden, so very long ago.
Andrew Graham-Dixon, Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, page 85.
In The Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo’s Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican, page 197 and following.
James Elkins’ glorious descriptor of choice for pictures of which it has become impossible to both determine an exact meaning and to cease looking for one.