Steven Connor

The Painter and the Fly

Flies had featured regularly as decorative elements in the margins of medieval illuminated manuscripts and Books of Hours such as the Isabella Breviary. They began to appear in paintings from the fifteenth century onwards. Art historians who have tracked the appearances of the fly over the ensuing century and a half have divided decorously into two groups. For some time, the consensus seemed to be that flies were to be read as religious symbols, connoting sin, corruption and mortality (Kühnel 1989, Estella 2002). The well-known associations between the fly and the name of Beelzebub, ‘Lord of the Flies’, a local Philistine deity first mentioned in 2 Kings 1 and later promoted to the condition of Satan’s lieutenant, helped pin down the fly’s demonic credentials. A clear example of this is The Mystic Betrothal of St. Agnes (c. 1495/1500), by the Master of the St Bartholomew Altarpiece, in the German National Museum in Nuremberg. The Golden Legend tells us that St Agnes gave an unwanted suitor the brush-off by telling him that she was betrothed to Christ. In the background of the painting are two peacocks, symbols of virginity and resurrection, and a larger-than-life fly, symbol of the earthly lusts she has renounced. The appearances of flies in paintings of the Madonna and Child may have the same connotations of sin on the run. Crivelli’s Madonna and Child at a Marble Parapet, for example has a healthy-looking flower springing up from the left-hand side of the parapet in the foreground and a withered flower and fly on the opposite side. In the same artist’s Madonna and Child With a Goldfinch, the infant Christ clutches the tremulous title bird to its breast and looks apprehensively down at a fly to the left of the ledge on which he is sitting, which looks big enough (it even has a shadow) to go a couple of rounds with the bird. Even the Queen of Heaven herself seems to be keeping a stately eye on it. This religious symbolism survives in broadened form in later appearances of the fly, where it seems to connote mortality and the vanity, rather than the wickedness, of earthly desires. Often the fly is seen crawling over a skull, as, for example in Guercino’s Et in Arcadia Ego (1618-22), or Barthel Bruyn the Elder’s Vanitas, a marvellously poised still life in which the fly, sharing the space with a death’s-head, a jawbone and an extinguished candle, ironically provides the only hint of life.

More recently, art historians have begun to wonder whether the fly is quite so easily to be swatted for symbolic purposes. For the fly seems also to be used, as Felix Thülemann has put it, as ‘a selfconscious representation of superior painterly prowess’ (Thülemann 1992, 543). The fact that representations of flies are often to be found in the vicinity of artistic signatures, especially those which have the trompe l’oeil form of the rolled or torn strip of manuscript, seems to heighten the association between the fly and the making, even the maker, rather than the meaning, of the work of art. The fly that appears in the foreground of the New York Metropolitan Museum’s Portrait of a Carthusian by Petrus Christus (1446) perches on top of the trompe l’oeil wooden frame, on which is carved ‘Petrus Xdi Me Fecit’, perhaps hinting that the fly aspires to be the referent of ‘me’ rather than the painting. In Portrait of Luca Pacioli (1495), possibly by Jacopo de’ Barbari, in the Galleria Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples, a fat fly squats on a tablet on which is inscribed an abbreviation of the artist’s name, partially obscuring the date. Similarly, in a 1609 water-colour portrait of Dürer by Johann König in the Uffizi, based on Dürer’s self-portrait as one of the figures in his Feast of the Rose Garlands (1506) Dürer is shown holding a piece of paper which has a fly in lieu of a signature (Eörsi 2001, 17-18).

There is an ur-story of the painter and the fly, first told by Filarete in his Trattato di Architettura, written between 1461 and 1464 (Filarete 1965, I.309) , but known much more widely from Vasari’s brief reference to it in Lives of the Painters (Vasari 1996, I.117). The young Giotto arrived in the studio of his master Cimabue, to find a portrait in progress on an easel. Giotto painted a fly, seemingly poised on the nose of the painting’s subject. When the Master returned to the studio, he attempted repeatedly to brush away the fly. Implicitly, this is the moment at which the genius of the young Giotto was noticed, and a new area of realism inaugurated. The story was quickly transferred to other artists. In his fictitious dialogue between Leonardo and Pheidias, Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo has Leonardo tell how the young Andrea Mantegna fooled his Mantuan Master by painting a fly on the eyelash of a lion in his painting of St Jerome; envious of his talents, the Mantuan master sent his uppity apprentice away to work with Bellini (Lomazzo 1974, I.93-4). In these stories, the fly signals the art that conceals art of the painter, an ostentation arising in ordinariness, a perfecting defacement.

When they stumble into art, flies are the ground promoted to the status of figure, a breaking through into visible significance of the blooming buzzing monotony of the insignificant, the accidental, the ignored; they are what Wallace Stevens calls ‘a repetition/In a repetitiousness of men and flies’ (Stevens 1984, 502). Where other lowly or loathly creatures have often been held to characterise the abject or the informe, flies have a more specific office. As embodiments of accident, of what just happens to happen, as synecdoches of the untransfigured quotidian, their principal signification is as the opposite of art. And yet, for that very reason, flies have whizzed and crept and tiptoed across art and writing for centuries, never quite achieving the status of a subject, of that which may be fixed in view, and yet irresistibly drawing the eye and soliciting the attentions of the forming hand. Flies are, in two senses, a provocation to art – a nose thumbed at art’s grandiose self-esteem, and a challenge to the artist’s skill. The fly is always caught – as though on a windowpane – between the condition of emblem and phenomenon: at first sight a mere smudge, blot or blemish, which then becomes the emblem of its own obstructive phenomenality.

These two ways of reading the fly – as religious meaning or artistic exhibition – may seem to be at odds. When it is an emblem, one reads through the fly, the matter of which is lost in the lucidity of its import, the intelligible rendering the sensible as translucent as a windowpane. When the fly is rendered as surplus to semantic requirements, as a sport or painterly self-designation, it becomes visible as foreign body, that flies, or at least crawls, in the face of easy intelligibility. The accidental matter of the fly looks like one in the eye for meaning. Yet these two alternatives, of religious and artistic meaning, are in fact more tightly tied together than might seem.

The Like Nondescripts

Flies, like the fleas and mites with which, for centuries of unassisted eyesight, they were associated – along with worms, eels, mice and frogs – were assumed to be spontaneously generated, out of mud, ordure, dust, or other kinds of indeterminate or decomposing substance. The belief in spontaneous generation was often linked to the belief that it produced imperfect creatures, creatures that do not belong to the domain of created nature. Aristotle assumed that, although such creatures could copulate and reproduce, they could never reproduce themselves identically: ‘from the copulation of such spontaneously generated males and females there is generated a something – a something never identical in shape with the parents, but a something imperfect… from these issues the parent-species is never reproduced, nor is any animal produced at all, but the like nondescripts only’ (Aristotle 1910, 539a-539b).

For early Christians, who found it difficult to cast off the comfortable assumption of a creation divided between the divine and the demonic, flies represented a fiendish kind of anti-life. Flies are a perversion of creation, while yet representing the principle of generation at its most profuse and incontinent. Like other insects, they are associated, especially in the form of the maggot, the fly in its decomposed, or precomposed state, not so much with death, as with the life of death, a loathsome, pullulating overspill of unquiet, not-quite-life. One inconvenient thing about this was that the supererogation of spontaneous generation seemed so to resemble the miracle of the Incarnation, which was also produced without the convenience of sexual intercourse. In his Liber de spiritus et anima the twelfth-century Cistercian Alcherus of Clairvaux, known traditionally as pseudo-Augustine, not only acknowledged but approved the connection (my account of his argument comes from a book in praise of the Virgin by Bernadino de Busti):

[I]f God can produce men by means of sperm, then he can also produce them without it. For if the sun, by its own power, can generate a frog or a fly, without the concurrence therein of any other frog or fly, but merely from mud or mire, by how much more may God, through his infinite power, produce a man without any concurrence of male semen, but solely through the pure blood of the Blessed Virgin (Busti 1607, 346; my translation).

There is a traditional contrast between the apparent casualness of the fly’s form and the perfection of man – ‘Does Nature blunder into forms? Does she/Count these as true expressions, – fly and worm?’ – a contrast it is equally traditional to invert: ‘And Man? – perhaps her one mistake is he -/Slow-toiling out his term’ (Madison 1912, 117-18).

However, there is an alternative tradition, which seems to have begun seriously only with the work of St. Augustine, one of the few patristic writers to recognise the dangers of the Manichean division between the realm of the divine and the realm of nature represented by the fly. Augustine was fond of pointing out that the idolatrous Egyptians, so skilled in forming representations of other creatures, were unable to represent flies, which only the Lord God, the supreme artificer, could fashion:

Pharaoh’s magicians also made serpents, and other similar things. Yet it is more of a wonder that, when it came to making the tiniest flies, the power of those who could make serpents failed them utterly. For the midges [scyniphes] which in the third plague fell upon the Egyptian people in their pride, were the most short-lived little flies. And yet there the impotent magicians said ‘This is the finger of God.’ (Augustine 1845, III.7, col. 875)

Augustine’s claims for the divine miracle of the fly’s construction were made in the teeth of a deep predisposition, among Christians and others, to see the fly as devilish, not just because of its association with filth, but also because it seemed a kind of counterfeit life, life self-realised in excess of the divine blueprint. What is most demonic about the fly is the dubiousness of its form. Indeed, we might even suppose that its promotion to the status of emblem is a kind of categorial domestication of that which is both insufficient and gratuitous in its being.


After Augustine, the fly is bound up both with the powers of horror and with questions of form and creation. When surrealism turned to the formless and abject, it was attempting to extend art downwards into the basely demonic, rather than to lift the fly up into the condition of art. Salvador Dali was an immoderate though ambivalent lover of flies, claiming ‘I adore flies. I am only happy in the sun, naked and covered with flies’ (Dali 1966, 159). He explains that he would wax his moustaches with the sticky juice from dates and pour achovy oil over his head, in order to attract flies to his body. He was not entirely undiscriminating, however:

I cannot bear the dirty city fly or even the village fly with its swollen belly, yellow as mayonnaise, its black wings that look as if they had been dipped in some lugubrious necrophilic mascara. I love only the cleanest flies, super-gay, dressed in little grey alpace suits from Balenciaga, glittering like a dry rainbow, precise as mica, with granite eyes and with bellies of noble Naples yellow, such as the marvellous little olive flies of Port Lligat, where nobody lives except gala and dali. These little flies always have the grace to sit on the oxidised silver side of the olive leaf. They are the fairies of the Mediterranean. (Dali 1966, 159)

Flies make many appearances in Dali’s work. The somewhat unpleasant etching Ants Nails and Flies, one of a series that Dali did in 1967 to illustrate the work of Casanova, shows a nude female figure, her head severed by the top frame of the drawing, covered with ants and flies, and with larger than life size nails driven into her pubic mons and left nipple. Might Dali perhaps have known the tradition that flies attempted to lessen the sufferings of Christ, by imitating nail heads, and preventing further nails from being driven in? He certainly knew well another story of religious flies, concerning St Narcissus, whose tomb in the Catalan town of Gerona was being torn open by French invaders in 1285, when a

swarm of flies flew out and drove the invaders away. Gerona’s deliverance is commemorated by the chocolate flies that are still a speciality of local bakers. Dali, who was brought up a few miles away from Gerona, in Figueres, recalled the event in a small bronze sculpture entitled St Narcissus of the Flies, which features a fly on the stomach of the bishop.

In The Hallucinogenic Toreador (1970), swarms of flies arranged into pointilliste masses form the cap, hairnet and cape of a toreador, and a dying bull, whose shapes are both buried in, and rise out from the rebus of other details in the scene – a beach, a lagoon, a small boy, the face of Gala and recursive images of the Venus de Milo.

Dali claimed to make out in flies important esoteric illuminations:

it is today, the 7th of November, at two o’clock in the afternoon, while looking at five flies flying round a sea-urchin’s shell, that I have been able to observe that in each flight they make a spiral movement from right to left. If that law is confirmed, I have not the least doubt of its future: it will be as important for the cosmos as the law of Newton’s famous apple, for I maintain that this fly everybody chases away contains within itself that quantum of action which God is forever putting under men’s very noses to show them again and again the way of one of the universe’s most hidden laws. (Dali 1966, 208-9)

As well as incorporating flies in his work, Dali recruited them to the process of making it. His Diary of a Genius describes painting a painting a rotten fish naked in the hot sun, besieged by flies, attracted both by the fish serving as his model, and by a scab which had formed at the corner of his mouth:

I had to remain impervious to their bites, continuing unperturbed to perfect my strokes, painting the outline of a scale without so much as blinking, while at the same moment a fly clung frenziedly to my eyelid and three others glued themselves to my the model…the superhuman problem of painting while being devoured in this way by flies fascinated me and drove to feats of agility I would not have been capable of without the flies. (Dali 1966, 41)

The flies allow Dali to achieve concentration and centring; by assailing his composure, they anneal it. So the truth is that Dali does not love the flies in themselves but rather for the challenge they pose to his powers of abstracting himself. Like Glenn Gould, who, for similar reasons perhaps, preferred to practise to the sound of a hoover, Dali used the flies to secure art as the domain of the not-fly: ‘the day I find my thoughts are disturbed by the flies that cover me, I shall know this means that my ideas do not have the power of that paranoid stream which is the proof of my genius. On the other hand, if I do not notice the flies, it is the surest proof that I have the spiritual situation entirely under control’ (Dali 1966, 160).

With My Little Eye

Flies were also demonic because of their ordinariness. The fact that it is so easy for them to pass beneath notice makes them a useful vehicle for the devil, which is why the French word ‘mouche’ still means a spy (there is a mechanical spy-fly in Philip Pullman’sNorthern Lights, and there are frequent rumours of attempts to build surveillance nano-satellites – Pullman 1995, 134-7). Flies are implicated in visual art not just because they are hard to see, and represent a challenge to the skill of the painter or sculptor, but also reflexively because of their legendary powers of sight, and the suspicion to which this gives rise that they may have us under observation, constituting us in a mode of vision, or on a visual scale, that it is hard for us to comprehend or share. The trompe l’oeilfly trumps the eye because of the implication of its own eye in the operation. The fly effects an intersection of planes – the material surface of paint and varnish on which it seems to rest, and the represented surface within the painting on which it is positioned. It engenders an interference of perspectives and focal lengths, appropriately enough, perhaps, given the fact that the panoptic fly is also known for its short-sightedness and its swift responsiveness to changes in its immediate vicinity, along with its indifference to the grander, more continental perspectives of our dimension. Some have even attempted to derive ‘myopia’ from the muops, the gad-fly, which Aristotle said died of dropsy in its eyes (Aristotle 1910, 553a).

In 1970, James Coleman shot Fly on a Super-8 camera. The piece follows the movements of two flies buzzing and fuddling futilely against a window pane through which may be made out the form of a storm-tossed tree. The camera may perhaps be trying to sight the tree with the flies, getting their movements to line up with its outline.

As Jean Fisher suggests, the piece may allude to and sourly send up the demiurgic image of the artist presented in Hans Namuth’s 1950 film of Jackson Pollock painting on glass (Fisher 1993, 49). Here the work not only looks as though it had been formed from the unmeaning blots and trails left by snails, flies or other insensate creatures, it seems to identify its perception with that of the flies. Where Namuth’s film used the glass to give us the canvas’s view of the artist’s attentions, Coleman focuses attention – or, more strictly, unfocuses it – on the blur and buzz of what interposes itself between the glass and an apparent subject that lies beyond it. The lurches and zigzags of the flies become an erratic engine of vision. As Michael Stoeber suggests, the flies are ‘at once director and scriptwriter’, such that, in the end, the camera ‘no longer merely follows the manoeuvres of the flies, but itself becomes a fly, dodging and darting crosswise back and forth’ (Stoeber 2003, 298; my translation).

Yoko Ono, Fly

In the following year, Yoko Ono produced a 19-minute film also entitled Fly. The film begins with a single fly exploring the naked body of a young woman (actress Virginia Lust). The film is a kind of blinding, which invites us gradually to assemble the slivers of perception we are allowed into a whole body. Though we are encouraged to recognise the fly’s indifference to the codings of the bodily surface over which it makes its way, we cannot see the body with that same indifference. This is partly because the camera picks out and lingers on specific zones of the body, zones of sensitivity and erogenous sensation – nipple, hair, vulva, lip, toe. No doubt the flies anyway needed little encouragement to make for these particular dunes and declivities, since they also tend to have concentrations of odour and taste (and flies taste with their feet). The most striking, and sustained, sequence shows a fly performing fussily elaborate ablutions atop the grey-pink tumulus of a nipple. As the wings are primped, and the forelegs carefully scoured, it is as though the fly were scrubbing up before a ticklish bit of surgery.

The film alludes, with perhaps unwitting wittiness, to the poetic and artistic tradition of fly erotics, which surfaces in Romeo’s jealous reflections on the flies that he knows will have more intimate access to Juliet’s body than he, after his banishment from Verona: ‘more validity,/More honourable state, more courtship lives/In carrion-flies than Romeo: they may seize/On the white wonder of dear Juliet’s hand/And steal immortal blessing from her lips’ (Romeo and Juliet, III.iii, 38-42). The sequences showing the fly moving across the woman’s face may remind us of the seventeenth-century craze for covering the skin in patches, which became known in England as ‘beauty spots’, but were called ‘mouches’ in France. (And really, a full explication of the meaning of the fly would have to proceed via a more general account of the idiom and appearance of the spotted – Connor 2004). Frans van der Myn’s painting The Fly (1742) invites the viewer to identify with the lady’s apparent pleasure in the titillations provided by the tiny feet moving across her shoulder, the fly’s shape rhyming with the right nipple that is accommodatingly exposed, as though she were trying to tempt her guest to it. Her left hand is drawing aside her hair tied in a blue ribbon, though we cannot tell whether this is to spread for the fly a more sumptuous expanse, or in preparation for the slap that will shortly despatch it, at the expense of her bosom’s creamy immaculacy.

However, Ono’s film has usually been read as a protest against the desirous segmentations to which the female body must consent (Lavrador 2003, 62). This idea has been encouraged by Ono herself, who has said ‘ “It’s really obvious that Fly is the statement of a woman, what women go through. It’s interesting that from a male point of view, it’s a totally different film – it’s about curvature” ’ (quoted, Borris-Krimsky 2001, 83). This view is certainly encouraged by the soundtrack, consisting of a mixture of buzzing, whining and howling sounds composed and performed by Ono herself, which one writer thinks ‘could represent the fly, the psychic pain of the woman, or the repressed collective rage of those who have experienced emotional and/or physical violation’ (Borris-Krimsky 2001, 83). At the end of the film, we are encouraged to relinquish the flies’ (and men’s) purblind addiction to curvature, as the camera focuses on the blue sky outside the New York loft, enjoining us perhaps to read the film’s title no longer as a noun but as an imperative to conceptual flight. It certainly seems to be the case that, far from taking over and discomposing the camera’s gaze, as in James Coleman’s film of the same period, the fly here is reduced to the condition of a decoy, the apparently intent singleness of its lubricious itinerary being carefully threaded together from the walk-on parts played by a large number of flies – some 200, apparently. Caroline Boriss-Krimsky thinks that the woman looks ‘drugged-out, supine’, but in fact it was the flies that had to be anaesthetised to perform the required choreography. There is an extra irony in the fact that the flies who stuck around for longest on the oxymoronically-named Virginia Lust’s body were more than likely female themselves, since male flies eat only for energy and not for reproduction and so have less interest in browsing for the protein snacks provided by sweat and other bodily secretions.

As Ono’s Fly proceeds, the number of flies multiplies, and the camera correspondingly draws back to allow a fuller and more integrated view of the woman’s body. It is as though, rather than decomposing the scene, the flies were a kind of viewfinder, a way of keeping an eye on the body, an auxiliary eye that is itself unseeing, but which yet gradually effects a sort of reverse entomological anatomy, disclosing to view the whole body that it itself cannot discern. (Entomology and anatomy are significantly related: the insect, Greek entomos, is a creature that is cleft, or has a cut, Greek tomos, in its being; an anatomy is a dissection of that which isa-tomos, without section or division, thus an undoing of undividedness.) And yet, the more the woman’s body in Fly coalesces, as an unsectioned singularity, the more like a corpse it seems, this suggestion highlighted by the brief resemblances to Mantegna’sLamentation Over th Dead Christ, with its clownishly foreshortened footsoles, and with the stigmatic dots in hands and feet transmogrified into the dots of the flies. The suggestion now is that the flies are not so much exploring as consuming the body, their own bodies thus receding into their customary invisibility.

Flies have teased and tempted artists because they are always between world and work, between intelligent design and ordinary hazard, between composition and discomposure. Dali’s Seven Flies and a Model (1954) is a work consisting of ‘ink and fly on paper’, in which we are teased by the fact that one of the flies scattered randomly over the surface of the page is not drawn but is real. Damien Hirst repeats the gesture on a huge scale in Armageddon (2002), in which the entire canvas is composed of dead flies. The fly is never wholly inside or outside the work. Declining to be vitrified beneath a layer of glaze, the fly always seems to be at both ends of the telescope, and on both sides of the glass. They are the essential accidence of art.


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