Beyond Caravaggio

National Gallery, London

Written by:
Frances Wilson
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Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, bad boy of Baroque art, defier of precedence and authority, produced strikingly original and emotionally-charged paintings in his short life. Dramatically lit and rich in colour and gesture, his work had an immediate impact on his contemporaries and followers, and a lasting influence on European art.

Beyond Caravaggio, this new exhibition at London’s National Gallery, explores Caravaggio’s widespread and diverse influence through just 49 paintings gathered largely from museums, stately homes, churches, castles and private collections in the UK. Thus the exhibition is not just a celebration of Caravaggio’s far-reaching impact, but also of the works we are lucky enough to have here in the UK.

Although he did not travel extensively, nor have pupils, Caravaggio’s significance extended far beyond Italy – to northern Europe, France, Spain. Seduced and excited by his new style of painting, his contemporaries and followers created a “Caravaggio diaspora”, and, as this exhibition shows, the reach of his legacy is quite astonishing, as people flocked to view, imitate and emulate his work. One of the most staggering examples of this is Georges de la Tour’s painting “The Cheat With the Ace of Clubs”: de la Tour never met Caravaggio and almost certainly experienced his works second- or third-hand, yet his own masterpiece contains the key elements of what is understood by the term “Caravaggism”. Here is the distinctive light and shade (“chiaroscuro”), the direct gaze of the subject, and an unflinching realism that hints at a back story to what is immediately visible on the canvas.

In his early paintings, displayed in the first room of the exhibition, Caravaggio took ordinary people as his models – scruffy street boys, cardsharps, musicians and fortune-tellers – and turned them into extraordinarily compelling figures in his naturalistic and dramatically-lit paintings. There’s more than a hint of homo-eroticism in these pictures: the subject of “Boy Bitten by a Lizard” is cherubically handsome, with a flower nestling coquettishly in his auburn curls. But just look at the way Caravaggio catches the light on the glass vase: his realist touch brings the object to life with a startling clarity.

Biblical subject matter receives a similar treatment: in “Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness” (c1603/4) Caravaggio exchanges the traditional idealized portrayal of John for a piercing realism. Stripped bare of nearly all his traditional attributes, John is shown only with his animal skin, draped suggestively across his midriff. What we are left with is a brooding intensity, reinforced by the dramatic deep, opaque shadows and the bright light which illuminates John from above and to his right. He stares out at us from darkly shrouded eyes, and the placement of him in the foreground, close to our own space, contributes to the dramatic impact of the painting.

It is his treatment of well-known themes (mainly Biblical events and stories) in such striking and original ways that enabled him to blur the line between the sacred and the profane, and bring religious subjects right into his own time, injecting new life into familiar stories. Another remarkable example of this is the recently rediscovered “The Taking of Christ” (1602), in which a well-known story (the betrayal of Christ by Judas) is given an immediacy by the jostling figures who crowd around Christ and Judas, the curious, dramatic placing of the heads of the main protagonists – is Christ recoiling or submitting to the kiss? – and the way the light bounces off the polished armour of the soldiers, or illuminates the furrowed forehead of Judas. The black background, pregnant with portent, only adds to the power of this drama. Meanwhile, the artist himself makes an appearance in this work, holding a candle to light the scene.

There are works by Georges de la Tour, Orazio Gentileschi, Guido Reni, Mattia Preti, Gerrit van Honthorst, and Artemisia Gentileschi, and these are displayed alongside the works by Caravaggio so that the viewer may better appreciate the way these artists took those distinctive stylistic innovations of Caravaggio’s work and made them their own. The exhibition is organized thematically rather than chronologically, and the dimly-lit rooms serve to emphasise the chiaroscuro, and remind us that many of these paintings would have hung in churches or candlelight palaces or castles. It’s a fine exhibition, not overwhelming in scale, but Caravaggio’s paintings are the real scene-stealers here and they leap from the walls with drama and immediacy.

Date reviewed 11 October 2016


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