16th Century Sex, Drugs and Chiaroscuro – by Patricia Levy
Beyond Caravaggio – National Gallery (UK) till 15th January 2017
Book tickets for Beyond Caravaggio at the National Gallery of Ireland here (Opens Feb 11th)
Where were you when you heard the stunning news in 1993 that the supposed copy of the Caravaggio masterpiece The Taking of Christ which had presided over many a Jesuit dinner in Leeson St since the 1930s was, in fact, the original. The Jesuits did the right thing of course and lent it to the National Gallery but until the middle of January it sits as the central image of the British National Gallery’s Beyond Caravaggio exhibition and what better way to spend all that extra sterling from the cash machine than to go and see it in the context of his work and his many followers. But even if you don’t make it over there before Brexit puts up the border crossings, the exhibition comes to Dublin right after London.
Culturally speaking, Caravaggio was the Bob Dylan of the sixteenth century. Where Dylan took silly love songs and turned out poetry, Caravaggio grabbed the dull, stylised art world of the time by its sensitive parts and turned out naturalistic, powerfully charged, stunningly lit paintings with a narrative. Plus you’ve got to respect a man who despite being one of the greatest artists of all time, who could have grown rich and lazy turning out altarpieces in Rome, spent most of his leisure time and money drinking, brawling and, surely, fornicating. He fled first from Rome, where he killed a young man in a drunken fight, then from Naples, Malta and finally Sicily. Attempts were made on his life and his sudden death at only 39, at the peak of his painting skills, when he could buy pardons for murder by sending the right person one of his paintings, came in mysterious circumstances. Well, more Sid Vicious than Bob Dylan.
This exhibition looks at the ways that Caravaggio’s work changed the art world pretty much forever. The few Caravaggio paintings that are here are surrounded by mostly superb examples of how other artists were influenced by his naturalism, the emotional violence of his paintings and the use of light and shade in his work. The first rooms show some of his early work and later imitators, and highlights how, even barely out of his apprenticeship, he brought humanity into paintings of the divine. A non-religious work, the allegorical Boy bitten by a Lizard, depicts a young guy with grubby bitten fingers, his clothes fall off one shoulder seductively and his face is full and alluring. This still life is opulent and suggestive of the hazards that accompany a life devoted to sensuality.
Other early works before the Church got interested in him show card games with innocent youths being cheated and his genius can be seen in the faces of the characters – deceit, innocence, greed. These images must have been popular (maybe a bit like dogs playing pool) because there are many copies and versions of the work by other painters showing similar but less immediately sentient figures. They stand out as well-executed paintings but the figures are less alive somehow.
Boy Peeling Fruit is probably the earliest of his surviving paintings and is one of several similar compositions also attributed to Caravaggio so he was probably turning them out for a quick buck. Again, the boy is real and a little bit sexy and with the innocence of youth.
All this came to an end once the big commissions from the church and Roman nobility started coming in. From this period we see the two centrepieces of the exhibition, our own The Taking of Christ hanging side by side with The Supper at Emmaus, both possibly commissioned in 1602 by the same patron. In the latter painting the mundane scene stands out against the luminous revelation being experienced by some of the disciples (tell me he doesn’t look like the young Bob Dylan here). It would be easy to put in speech bubbles over the heads of the three disciples. We know what they are saying.
The Taking of Christ in contrast depicts a fluid and violent scene, full of movement. Christ pulls back from the traitor Judas but offers no resistance, the armour-wearing soldier reaches past both of them while John the Baptist reacts with terror. Over to the right is Caravaggio himself holding an ineffectual lantern, all the light coming from the moon to the left. Judas’ hands are dirty. A moment of betrayal.
Caravaggio’s religious scenes became more and more violent as time passed and many were rejected by those who commissioned them, but gladly snapped up by art collectors of the time. He fell out of favour for a couple of centuries after his death but luckily for us many of his works survive.
But the exhibition is also about those who were influenced by Caravaggio’s work and there are some great paintings to see here. Artemisia Gentileschi’s Susannah and the Elders stands out not only for its use of light and shade but for the way she portrays the shame Susannah feels. She can reproduce the same feeling of violence and betrayal seen in the best of Caravaggio’s work. Gerrit Van Honthorst’s Christ before the High Priest stands out also. More formal and static than Caravaggio’s work, with background figures and the light positioned centrally from a candle in the painting, Van Honthorst’s figures have the same realism as Caravaggio’s. Look at Christ’s face and stance – rather bored, tolerant forgiveness –‘ yeah, yeah, heard it all before’ he seems to be thinking.
The British National Gallery puts on some excellent exhibitions although the price must put off lots of people and the punters are uniformly white and middle class. Hopefully when it comes to Dublin the exhibition will draw in a more diverse audience. Caravaggio was definitely a rock-and-roll kind of guy.
National Gallery (UK) till 15th January 2017,
Daily 10am-6pm, Fridays 10am-9pm.
£16. Concessions £14 seniors, disabled; unemployed, students £7.
National Gallery of Ireland 11th February- 14th May 2017 Prices tba