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Untitled Bacchus after Caravaggio

October 25, 2023

Hanna Alwine ’26

He watches me as I sleep, Mona Lisa eyes sunk deep beneath heavy brows. He is the picture of relaxation. He props himself up on his left elbow, swirling some burgundy drink in his right hand. He is not entirely nude, a white cloth drapes over his right shoulder and the fruit bowl is situated in such a way that would obscure any less savory images. But his chest is bare, his collarbone sharply lined by shadow, his gaze domineering. I wish he would offer me some of the fruit that waits in front of him, mounds of purple grapes spilling over the sides of the ceramic bowl, two oranges, the spine of a pineapple thrust into the air, the round green curve of a watermelon hiding among the foliage. But he never offers, simply sits there among his fructose riches, contemplating the room with a detached air from the confines of his yellow-wood frame.

The man who watches me across the matchbox of my dorm room is none other than John Clem Clarke’s Untitled Bacchus, wine drunk or soon-to-be, my constant companion this semester. It isn’t one of his most famous works, barely showing up in a quick Google search. You can find it on something called “Invaluable.com” and another something called “MutualArt.” It doesn’t feature in John Clem Clarke’s Wikipedia page either. (Based on these searches I have decided that John Clem Clarke’s Untitled Bacchus after Carravaggio is actually just super underground… Oh.. you’re a John Clem Clarke fan? Do you even know Untitled Bacchus after Carravaggio?? I didn’t think so…) John Clem Clarke himself yields more results. He’s an American artist active in New York during the SoHo art movement of the ‘70s. He is known for his reinterpretations of classical works including Peter Paul Rubens’ painting “The Judgement of Paris” and John Singleton Copley’s “Portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Mifflin.” Most recently, it has been reported, one of his best (though obscure) paintings has been spotted hanging on the wall of Hanna Alwine’s shoebox of a dorm room. 

Untitled Bacchus after Carravaggio, in all his gluttonous Greek glory, is a painting on loan from the Allen Memorial Art Museum. Oberlin’s Art Rental Program is the reason I decided to attend the institution. For the small fee of $5, you, a college student, living off dorm-room-ramen or co-op-beans, no credit score to your name, with no knowledge of the Renaissance other than prevalence of turkey legs at the eponymic fair, can have a world famous (or just nationally famous, or maybe not famous at all, but still super cool) painting or print or collage or photograph hanging on your wall. 

I tell other friends at other universities or parents or neighbors about the program and they can’t believe it. Don’t they get broken? Dirty? Ruined? I had the same concerns for my own paintings — how could I be sure that I would take care of them? How horrid would I feel if something horrible befell these masterpieces in my care? But somehow, in the 50 years that this program has been in operation, nothing bad has happened (at least not to my knowledge). Turns out art is more resilient than we give it credit. 

I think this might be at the heart of why I love this program so much. Obviously it’s incredible to be able to put a masterpiece on your wall, but I think it's even cooler to have a masterpiece become a part of your everyday. There is a demystifying aspect of having a piece of art on your wall. When I wake up, Bacchus greets me with his welcoming goblet of wine. When I go to bed, his gaze is the last thing I see before the lights click out. Bacchus and I are in the beginning stages of our relationship, but we are becoming familiar fast, thanks to the hours upon hours we spend together in a single space. My other paintings, too, followed a similar trajectory. By the end of the semester we had become well-acquainted. I still remember the nonchalant air of the goat woman who sat at the head of my bed from March — April; in my mind’s eye I can still make out the curve of her horns. Slightly more blurred is the red house, on a black and white patch of land. I seem to remember a chicken somewhere in the background. 

I am a big fan of museums that offer this type of community engagement. Museums are important places that house cultural and historical knowledge. I love the quiet atmosphere, the echo of footsteps on marble floors in rooms with ceilings that vault into the unknown, and the slow museum walk as you step… step… step… from painting to painting to sculpture to painting again. But I think that the atmosphere of a museum can sometimes remove art from context and from the everyday. Oberlin’s Art Rental Program blurs this line between high art and our “normal” lives. Bacchus and the goat woman and the little red house are pieces of art that I hold close in my heart. They are works that were with me every day, that followed me through highs and lows, that accompanied me as I drowned myself in the horrors of Kant or delighted in Kai Cheng Thom’s Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir. If you do one thing at Oberlin, you should make time to go by the Allen Memorial Art Museum at 9 am (or earlier if you don’t want to wait in the line) on the Saturday at the beginning of the semester to get your very own dorm room masterpiece.

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