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What’s there to celebrate: Caravaggio’s sumptuous legacy

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio 1601: The Supper at Emmaus, oil on canvas. Photo: National Gallery, London
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Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio 1601: The Supper at Emmaus, oil on canvas. 141 x 196.2 cm. © The National Gallery, London

The highs and lows of Caravaggio’s life are well known, notoriously so even, but his influence on the work of contemporary European artists, including those who emulated him without ever meeting him, has been less apparent.

Beyond Caravaggio at the National Gallery, London, serves as a timely corrective and shines a welcome and indeed instructional light on the tremendous inspirational force that was Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610). Belittled by bigoted and egotistical art critics and historians, Caravaggio is now rightly regarded as one of the most revolutionary figures in art— just about any art anywhere that has received influences from the Renaissance and post-Renaissance culture of continental Europe.

The first major exhibition in the UK to explore the work of Caravaggio and his followers, Beyond Caravaggio is at once academically robust and entertaining, exploring as it does the path of Caravaggio’s creative output but also the passionate pursuits he put about, the troublesome illicit encounters that tailed him wherever he went.

Although Caravaggio did not have pupils and travelled only in parts of southern and southwestern Europe—dying or probably being murdered at age 39—his influence spread wide and led to an astonishingly diverse output from other artists. His ‘commercial’ work and works by artists painting in his style gave rise to a particular  ‘market’ or taste that outlasted him and contemporaries for several decades. But then followed a period when Caravaggio in particular was debased and reviled. In Britain, for instance, critical reception of Caravaggio was clouded by dismissive and vituperative writings by people who are now widely regarded as pillars of art criticism.

This coming together of Caravaggio and his ‘followers’—some of whom actually weren’t per se, either in body or in spirit— reveals to us that artists who took to his styles and techniques often excelled in the process, surpassing him and, on reflection, appearing to diminish his accomplishments somewhat, especially in rare staged comparisons such as this exhibition.

The resulting display of works at the National Gallery therefore isn’t all celebratory or edifying of Caravaggio’s work. It tells us about the styles others emulated or developed, often perhaps in pursuit of the same limited amount of work that could be had from church patrons or secular buyers of new art, and of instances where the followers bettered the master.

Beyond Caravaggio tells us how cut-throat it was for artists in the midst of a building boom, as moneyed clergy and mercantile class manipulated their purses to fill ecclesiastical and secular spaces with new art. It reminds us that today’s abusive and corrosive potential of social media matches in no small measure the nastiness of the pamphleteering and rumour mills of Rome in which Caravaggio and other artists featured and were both victims and perpetrators.

At the same time it reinforces our knowledge that, amidst the many who drew on Cavaraggio’s inspirational and exemplary masterwork, there wasn’t one who could reach his heights of technical accomplishment, his interchangeably subtle or theatrical storytelling prowess and his mastery of light and shade. Unlike his contemporaries, for example, Caravaggio apparently never used candlelight while painting new work, but the exhibition shows followers who did just that and some depicted the source, too, in their paintings.

The gallery also has showed a deft hand in its treatment of Carvaggio’s sexual proclivities and street life that often landed him in courts or cost him lucrative commissions. Barring the one reported homicide that clearly implicated him, Caravaggio didn’t do anything exceptionally shocking or outrageous that other citizens walked away from. Artists partook of any pleasures they could afford, as did other segments of the citizenry. But Caravaggio, ever the consummate artist, transformed his illicit encounters into opportunities for creative artistry, a trait that is evident from early works featuring cupids and boys, some accompanied by admonitions about the transactional costs of ‘sin’ and temptation. The National Gallery’s own, Boy Bitten by a Lizard (1594-5), in the exhibition is an example.

Caravaggio's Boy bitten by a Lizard, dated, 1594-5, oil on canvas, 66 x 49.5 cm, from the National Gallery, London, collection. © The National Gallery, London
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Caravaggio’s Boy bitten by a Lizard, dated, 1594-5, oil on canvas, 66 x 49.5 cm, from the National Gallery, London, collection. © The National Gallery, London

The location of scenes drawn from biblical stories by Caravaggio and his followers also acquires a new edge, because of current and recent events in a Middle East seized by new violent struggles for supremacy,  culminating in barbaric acts of gore and horror. Our own experiences of today inevitably evoke comparisons with what essentially are religious paintings yet so eloquently rendered in chilling detail with mastery of colour and chiaroscuro in full flow, and vice versa.

In a world enticed and ravaged in unequal measure by the pornography of violence of contemporary warfare, from the Daesh beheadings to the slaughter of innocent multitudes, juxtapositions however gross or gratuitous are inescapable. This is especially so when faced with Caravaggio’s Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist, painted around 1609-1610, or David and Goliath by Orazio Gentileschi, completed over 1605–1608.

Beyond Caravaggio curator Letizia Treves says inspiration for organising the exhibition came from the National Gallery’s own holdings that are on show with the 46 borrowed works. It became an opportunity  “to display these paintings alongside others by Caravaggio’s followers, and to demonstrate the extraordinary breadth and range of his influence on a whole generation of painters,” adds Treves.

Dr Gabriele Finaldi, director of the National Gallery, says, “Four centuries on, Caravaggio’s art still retains the power to inspire, awe and surprise. The exhibition shows how his revolutionary paintings, which were praised and damned in equal measure by his contemporaries, had a profound impact on dozens of artists from all over Europe, giving rise to a truly international phenomenon. Visitors will be able to see many works that will be new to them.”

Next year Beyond Caravaggio travels to the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin (11 February – 14 May 2017) and the Royal Scottish Academy gallery in Edinburgh (17 June – 24 September 2017). Both are major lenders to the show,  which draws extensively on British public galleries and museums, stately homes, castles, churches and private collections. Credit Suisse supported the exhibition. www.nationalgallery.org.uk. © Sajid Rizvi.

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