Can old art be awakened and made new again? A photograph that went viral this week of a father’s flash reflex to shield his child when a baseball bat went hurtling into a crowd of spectators is so arresting in its visual power it could jump-start the pulse of a hundred comatose canvases. The photo was taken in Orlando, Florida at the instant when a bat slipped from the hands of Pittsburgh Pirate, Danny Ortiz, during a spring training game against the Atlanta Braves.
Utterly unstaged, the image captures the heart-stopping nanosecond when a fan instinctively stretches his arm to deflect the lethal trajectory of the stick as it whirls wildly towards his son’s oblivious face. Rawer than the poised and pretentious works we’re accustomed to encountering in museums, the fluky snapshot reaches its own long arm across art history to give an overly familiar painting by an Italian Renaissance master a bracing slap across the chops.
At first glance, Titian’s famous depiction of a scene from the Book of Genesis, Sacrifice of Isaac (c 1542-44), in which Abraham is commanded by God to kill his son, may seem at a far remove from this week’s photo of a father protecting his child. Look again, and the opposing images unlock levels of emotion in each other.
So fatigued have our eyes become by the rote repetition of this biblical narrative (recited endlessly by every artist from Caravaggio to Rembrandt, Tiepolo to Chagall), they’re numb to the true horror of the infanticidal story and how profoundly Abraham’s compliance with God’s instruction to murder Isaac violates a parent’s most deeply encoded instincts. Time has slowly transformed the terror that Titian’s painting ought to evoke into the blasé blinks of bored school children who troop past it every day.
Placed side-by-side with the recent photo, Titian’s work is rudely elbowed awake in our imaginations. The baseball bat, spinning out of control, suddenly feels prefigured by the wrenched body of the blade-wielding Abraham, forever frozen in an awkward and uncontrollable twist of pious possession.
However deep the instinct to protect one's child runs, the history of art and literature rarely captures it
The remarkable photo invests with renewed horror the interrupted action portrayed in the painting. We're so accustomed to seeing Abraham on the verge of julienning Isaac, we can become numb to the full terror of what's being depicted. However deep the instinct to protect one's child runs, the history of art and literature rarely captures it and is disturbingly replete instead with examples of the opposite urge.
By merging the two images, we’re able to equate the real-life heroism of the father in the photograph with the intercession, in Titian’s painting, of the descending angel who, in the Genesis story, halts Abraham’s murderous flail in the nick of time. After all, what phrase better explains the flawless physical coordination captured by this week’s image – the immaculate synchronicity of mindfulness and muscle – than ‘divine intervention’?
100 Works of Art That Will Define Our Age by Kelly Grovier is published by Thames & Hudson
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