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Caravaggio and the Painters of the North at Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid

June 27, 2016

ArtsPainting | by Harry Seymour


Caravaggio, the master of Baroque, has for a long time been the fascination of art historians, lauded as the man of mystery and the one of the most celebrated painters ever. He is known for being the bad-boy of Baroque – ever since his 17th century life, rumours have swirled in abundance about the man – was he gay, why did he murder a man in a night time sword fight, who helped him escape from prison, did he run a brothel, and where and how did he die? The sheer amount of unknown facts and little evidence adds fuel to fire. Coupled with the scant facts we do have (scrubbed out court records, patchy contemporary biographies and most importantly, his much argued over oeuvre) means it’s often tricky to know where to begin with the artist. Much of his work exists as multiples, making it hard to know which is the original, or even by the man himself. Coupled with the fact that everyone from a national gallery to a private collector wants to own a Caravaggio for the prestige and of course value, means people will go to great lengths to prove they have an original on their hands.

Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio, The Fortune Teller 1595-1596. Oil on canvas, 115 150 cm. Rome, Capitoline Museum.
Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio, The Fortune Teller 1595-1596. Oil on canvas, 115 150 cm. Rome, Capitoline Museum.

Certain pictures can be positively attributed to the master, such as his grand altarpiece in Malta or the many church works in Naples and Rome, and even his early works such as Boy Bitten by a Lizard, of which there are no fewer than two that we know of, are at the least copies of his original composition. With a little detective work and a bit of art history knowledge, we can begin to piece together the artist’s life through his remaining paintings.

Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio. The Musicians. 1596-1597. Oil on canvas. 91 x 118 cm. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1952.
Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio. The Musicians. 1596-1597. Oil on canvas. 91 x 118 cm. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1952.

Over time, his works become darker, painful, repentant, and frantic, as did he. Figures sink in to the shadows, eyes gaze with burning intensity, flashes of intense light illuminate like lightning scenes of revelation and suffering characters lament their demise. It’s a stark contrast to the lustful images of naked male lute-playing youths with which the artist began his career when touting his paintings to shops across the noted piazzas of Rome in the hope a cardinal might spot them.

Caravaggio, through projecting his tumultuous life and personal sense of anxiety in to his paintings, switched the course of art forever. This new highly charged, highly powerful and incredibly dark style of painting defined a Baroque movement that was the antithesis of renaissance art, and gave the Catholic Church as new means with which to subordinate the masses – the art no longer was about wealth and power, but about penitence, piety and suffering. It sent shock waves through Europe, with many artists learning of this new style and then disseminating it through their own work across the Netherlands, Spain, England, France and the rest of Italy. There were over 2,000 artists in Rome in 1600, and because of a native tradition to study art from a Classical perspective, Caravaggio’s style of painting from true life greatly appealed to non-Italian artists.  A new show at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid brings together a collection of works spanning Caravaggio’s career, before exploring how these went on to influence other artists of the day, from the surrounding cities, to the other countries of Europe.

The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, which is home to the second largest privately owned collection of art in the world (after the British Royal family), begins the show with a selection of works from Caravaggio’s early days, which are small, pure and alluring. The show then moves chronologically in to his later ventures into allegory and portraiture, and finishes with his scenes of punishment and retribution. The show then suddenly jumps to a series of rooms that follow one another geographically around Europe, each filled with several works by two or three painters who adopted Caravaggio’s unique style. The show finishes with a final room devoted to just one work, which is Caravaggio’s final ever painting, The Martyrdom of St. Ursula. The flow feels somewhat incoherent, information provided is extremely scant, and often the works to which the later generations of artist reference of Caravaggio’s, are not in the show. A curious second century Roman sarcophagus seems particularly out of place amongst it all.

Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio. The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula. Oil on canvas, 142 x 180 cm. Intesa Sanpaolo Collection, Naples, Gallery of Italy - Palazzo Cevallos Stigliano.
Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio. The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula. Oil on canvas, 142 x 180 cm. Intesa Sanpaolo Collection, Naples, Gallery of Italy – Palazzo Cevallos Stigliano.

Trying to secure a Caravaggio work for a museum loan is near impossible, and that the Thyssen-Bornemisza has managed to fit twelve supposed works by the artist in to the show is no mean feat. Sadly, few of them represent the artist’s best work – as would be expected. However when it comes to the comparative artists available, there is a wealth of pictures available. Some works in the show, particularly those by Vouet, Finson and especially Honthorst’s tavern scenes, show how each artist took this new Baroque theme and chiaroscuro technique and ran with it, often successfuly. Others, such as the works by Vignon and Baburen, only illustrate how they couldn’t grapple with the complex themes and techniques with the same intelligence and power as the original genius. It’s equally as important to understand this from an art historical point of view, but leaves the visitor a little deflated after seeing twelve Caravaggios back to back, because it isn’t every day that opportunity arises.

Fortunately, where the show lacks energy, Caravaggio resuscitates through his wrenching compositions, that throw your eye around a scene, picking out clues from the dark and glancing in to the eyes of deceit. The highlight of the whole show is Caravaggio’s self portrait painted in to the back of the crowd behind a martyred Ursula. His eyes are sunken and his mouth is open gasping in the black air of the painting. He knew his days were numbered at this point, and has frantically illuminated his last known existence of his face in to this work, asking for his own martyrdom – patron saint of the arts perhaps? Pardoned from his recklessness and sins thought his genius work? He was repenting with the only thing he could offer- his art. Little did he know his request would be heeded and one day he would be lauded as the greatest painter to have ever lived.

Caravaggio and the Painters of the North, 21 June – 18 September 2016, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Paseo del Prado 8, Madrid, Spain.