William Rowe: Transition with Carravagio’s David with the Head of Goliath

My name is William Rowe and this summer I am going to create a series of paintings related to biblical and mythological beheadings. These beheading scenes in my paintings are a metaphor for the transgender experience. In Caravaggio’s painting of David with the Head of Goliath, Goliath’s head is actually a self portrait of the artist. Caravaggio had hoped that this painting, and others he was making at the time, would be enough to encourage someone in Rome to mediate a pardon and negate his sentence of beheading. The psychological realism and the historical context of this work are reminiscent of the judgement and punitive actions against the transgender people who socially and physically transition. The alienation experienced in a cisnormative society distances trans people from family and community, and the process of transitioning is often seen as disgusting. Transitioning sometimes feels mythological; the individual can be viewed as both the murderer and the walking corpse of their “previous” identity. Transgender people can be seen (especially by family, politicians, and conservative medical personnel) as mutilators of a cisgender body that should have gone on to either sire or carry children. 

This series would consist of medium to large canvas paintings that explore the consequences trans people face if they choose to transition socially and physically. Although the inspiration for this project was Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath, I would like to draw from other biblical and greek beheading myths like Judith and Holofernes, Salome and John the Baptist, and Medusa and Perseus. I plan to finish one of these paintings in each month of summer, starting in May and ending in July, while continuing to conduct art historical and biblical research.

My research explores the ties between transgender guilt, catholic guilt, and the idea of good versus evil. Ideally this series would create awareness about aspects of transness that the viewer hasn’t considered before, and cause the viewer to think critically about viewing trans people as a spectacle. I would want this research to educate and to inspire a connection between universal feelings and specific messages, in the same way that Carravagio’s David with the Head of Goliath felt so immediately understandable and relatable to me when I first saw it.

By Caravaggio – Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=68505566

This project will help me refine my future MFA applications and the overall philosophy behind my artist’s statement, because this will help me efficiently communicate my thoughts and experiences. This series will hopefully help to humanize trans people through the familiar motifs of classical stories.

Over the last five years I have felt the guilt, discrimination, and loss that transitioning socially and physically causes. That experience has prepared me for the message and the vulnerability that is intrinsic to this series of work. My Christian upbringing is also part of what inspires this series, and is one of the reasons why Christian Renaissance art (especially when made by homosexual artists) is so poignant to me and other LGBT people with similar upbringings. Christian guilt, and the expression of the artist’s own emotional turmoil through the lens of Christian myth, is so incongruous and classically beautiful.

I plan on graduating with my bachelors of fine arts next spring, and I’m going straight into the arts education graduate program the summer after that. I love to see others learning to paint and expressing themselves or just enjoying the process. Right now I have a part time job at a paint and sip place in Tallahassee that I genuinely enjoy, and I would love to make a career out of teaching others things like drawing and painting. I’m particularly interested in teaching either k-12, at community colleges, or in nursing homes.  

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