Beyond Caravaggio

Back in London for the exhibition...
Emerging from the darkness, framed by the arch of swirling red cloth, two men’s faces are pressed closely together. One is in profile, his brow furrowed with the strain of his task. The other’s face is iconic, not only because of his famous beard and long hair, but because of his deep sorrow. Despite the fact that they are surrounded by movement and jostling, grabbed at from both sides, this moment is one of perfect stillness. Here, is the pivotal moment where Judas kisses Jesus, thereby betraying him and condemning him to death. This act is framed, not by objects, but by a crowd of men, suits of armour and outstretched arms. This is a composition exemplary of the mastery of the artist. He has painted himself in the scene, bearing witness to this biblical betrayal. He is of course Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. 

Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ, (1602)

Caravaggio is one of the most engaging and easily recognisable artists. His art is at once beautiful, shocking, dark, real, and timeless. He is one of my favourite artists, but that isn’t a very surprising statement. So many people are fans because his art is easy to love: its stories, subjects and characters are easy to understand and easy to feel. I was just down in London for one weekend, so of course, I had to go to The National Gallery to see Caravaggio’s work and learn about his influence in ‘Beyond Caravaggio.’

Although The Taking of Christ (1602) is shown here, there are in fact very few paintings by Caravaggio in the whole exhibition. It is more about celebrating him through those he influenced rather than just through his paintings alone. In each of the seven rooms, there is perhaps one or two of Caravaggio’s pieces. The rest are by followers who were influenced by him in subject matter or painterly technique.

Cecco del Caravaggio, A Muscisian, (1589)
Here a student of Caravaggio was clearly influenced by his use of chiaroscuro, humorous subject matter and emotive facial expressions. 

An interesting example is in the room dedicated to paintings where candlelight is explored. Caravaggio is famous for his use of chiaroscuro. Although he did not invent it, he may as well have, because no one manipulated it as he did. The high contrasts between light and dark allow his figures to dramatically emerge from the canvas. His utility of shafts of light lend new and emotive meanings to paintings that otherwise could be quite simple. He did not, however, paint candles. This room shows how his advances into manipulation of light and dark allowed others to explore new methods and themes. I was interested in the way that, as artists became more confident with chiaroscuro, they no longer had to even show the flame of their candles but rather alluded to it. In Willem Van Der Vliet’s A Philosopher and his Pupils (1626), the wick is completely hidden by the student’s hand which is backlit. The gold and then red outline of his fingers beautifully illustrates flesh and bone being illuminated by a close flame. Lighting up the scene, so clearly from this one small light source, is an extraordinary feat which shows the skills of Van Der Vliet, but it is clear by this point in the exhibition that this painting would not exist if not for Caravaggio.

Willem Van Der Vliet, A Philosopher and his Pupils, (1626)
The parts of a painting I always think I look at the first are the faces. This is not unusual, and is quite natural for humans to do. However, Caravaggio and his followers exploit this far more than any other group of artists. They demand for the faces to be looked at, imploring the audience to be part of the painting, to feel what this figure is feeling. Caravaggio was not just revolutionary in his use of chiaroscuro but also in the realism he lent to his subjects. In fact this often landed him in controversy. When painting biblical figures, he did not shy away from painting the dirt under their fingernails, blackened skin on the souls of their feet, the swollen belly of the dying Virgin Mary. This makes them seem like people, in a way that was simultaneously ground-breaking for the art world and almost blasphemous for the Christian one.

Caravaggio, John in the Wilderness, (1598)
Here, the Saint's dirty foot is prominent at eye-level. It adds incredible yet controversial realism to the piece. 

So too, his followers pursued intense realism, particularly for biblical figures. One of the most arresting paintings was Giovanni Antonio Galli’s Christ displaying his Wounds (1625-35). The tilt of the face is so real, so contemporary. It entices you into the painting with the angle of the chin and the imploring eyes. Here, we are forced into the role of doubting Saint Thomas who needed proof to believe Christ had risen. There is no background, just a slight gradation in colour behind Christ’s head, hinting at a divine glow. This is an intimate moment where we face Christ and he invites us to touch his wound. Perhaps seen on a screen, it is just a good painting, but face-to-face it is truly powerful. As a Big Caravaggio Fan I hate to say it, but this has to be even better than his take on the subject.

Giovanni Antonio Galli, Christ displaying his Wounds, (1625-35).

Caravaggio, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1601) 

One of my only grievances with this fantastic exhibition was the crowd control. Tickets are needed for entry, but I was surprised with how many were sold for one period of time. It was so crowded in there I only caught glimpses of Caravaggio’s most famous pieces such as the Supper at Emmaus. But it did create an interesting almost pilgrimage-like feel which reminded me of my recent reading into the religious feelings we have when confronted with famous art.
I struggled to get a view of the Supper at Emmaus (1601) due to the crowds
Many of Caravaggio’s fans followed his work so closely that for centuries many were thought to be by Caravaggio himself. This is an interesting slice of art history by itself, showing the evolution of our understandings of paintings as well as our use of scientific data. I wonder if any of the paintings currently thought to be a Caravaggio original will emerge otherwise. I like to think not. Mainly because, with DNA analysis, I’m sure it is now easier than ever to decipher the artist. But also because, since spending an afternoon comparing Caravaggio and his followers, there still seems to be many elements to his paintings no one could quite mimic.

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