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Beyond Caravaggio: Dark Matter and Salivating Detail

October 28, 2016

ArtsPainting | by Harry Seymour


 

The National Gallery’s winter blockbuster is here – and it isn’t one to miss. Beyond Caravaggio is the first major UK shows that explores the pure power that Caravaggio exerted in his works, and how this went on to influence his contemporaries in Rome, and further afield, turning Baroque on its head and inventing a new genre of deeply dark mannerism.

Caravaggio (1571-1610), The Supper at Emmaus, 1601, Oil on canvas, 141 x 196.2 cm, NG172. The National Gallery, London. Presented by the Hon. George Vernon, 1839 ©, The National Gallery, London
Caravaggio (1571-1610), The Supper at Emmaus, 1601, Oil on canvas, 141 x 196.2 cm, NG172. The National Gallery, London. Presented by the Hon. George Vernon, 1839 ©, The National Gallery, London

Caravaggio is one of those artists who grips his audience – favoured by art historians and the general public alike, his snapshots in to the night, depicting the most deceitful, trickery filled, anguish laden scenes are salivating in their detail and emotion. Born in Italy in 1571, the artist spent his youth galavanting around Milan and Rome, drinking, whoring, gambling and fighting, while not attending his job as a studio assistant. It is said he didn’t even paint his first picture until ages 22. But when he finally did, it was like a lightning bolt. His first small scale intimate portraits are full of symbolist warnings against the virtues of vice, with phallic metaphors and homosexual undertones. From this departure, his works only got darker, as the artist went further down the rabbit hole. His next phase of work shows people being hustled in Italian tavernas by gypsies and cheats, then he soon moved on to religious subjects including the stupifying Supper at Eammmus and The Taking of Christ works. Scenes were set against intense black backdrops, with faces protruding from the background, illuminated by flashes of action. Caravaggio clearly was adept at realism – the depth of field, foreshortening, chiariscuro, proportions and textures of skin, cloth and wood are all exceptional. But past that, he had a knack for telling a complex story, writhing with emotion in complex compositions, with a gritty reality the likes of which had never been seen. The artist continued to paint these scenes, which became an over night success and their influence began to creep in to the works of his contemporaries such as Manfredi and Gentileschi. However the young artist’s life became increasingly troubled; on the run for murdering a rival artist and pimp in Rome, arrested and imprisoned for homosexuality in Malta, jumped by heavies in the night in Naples with his face slashed to shreds – as his life became more and more of a calamity, so too did his work. In this chronological exhibition it is possible to not only trace the progression of the artwork being produced during this time in Europe, but the artist’s own downward spiral. Works become frantic, blacker, intenser.

Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652), The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew, 1634, Oil on canvas, 104 x 113 cm National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the 50th Anniversary Gift Committee, 1990.137.1, Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652), The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew, 1634, Oil on canvas, 104 x 113 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the 50th Anniversary Gift Committee, 1990.137.1, Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Full of beautiful early 17th century painting, the show is a sight for the eyes. It’s a collection of stunning works, that no doubt were by important artists who shaped art history, but, is little more. There is no fresh scholarship, no new approach – it’s a survey show, and with the word ‘Caravaggio’ in the title, will no doubt receive record visitors. However if you go expecting to see lots of Caravaggio’s, you may be disappointed – having only 6 in the show, most of which have been on display just up one flight of stairs in the National Gallery’s own collection, and ‘Boy Peeling Fruit’ is probably not by the artist at all.

Caravaggio (1571-1610), The Taking of Christ 1602, Oil on canvas, 133.5 x 169.5 cm, On indefinite loan to the National Gallery of Ireland from the Jesuit Community, Leeson Street Dublin, who acknowledge the kind generosity of the late Dr. Marie Lea-Wilson Photo © The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin
Caravaggio (1571-1610), The Taking of Christ 1602, Oil on canvas, 133.5 x 169.5 cm, On indefinite loan to the National Gallery of Ireland from the Jesuit Community, Leeson Street Dublin, who acknowledge the kind generosity of the late Dr. Marie Lea-Wilson, Photo © The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

But don’t let that stop you – its still an (albeit mini) comprehensive show of how painting developed over this 50-year period that clearly tells its story, and gives the chance to see some much less known works by Spadarino and Saranceni, that have come out of hiding to finally receive the attention they deserve, as well as well known masterpieces by Ribera and Stom. It’s also a great opportunity to see the stunningly sublime ‘The Taking of Christ’ without having to go to Dublin.

Harry Seymour

Beyond Caravaggio at the National Gallery, London, WC2N 5DN. 12 October 2016 – 17 January 2017.