“After a fortnight’s work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, so that it is most awkward to get along with him.” So wrote a contemporary of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio in 1604. Famous at twenty nine, a pronounced murderer and outlaw at thirty five, dead at thirty nine, Caravaggio’s life fascinates as much as his work, and perhaps more than any other artist. Like Thomas Malory, the author of the chivalric tales in “Le Morte d’Arthur”, who was imprisoned for banditry, kidnapping and rape, it is difficult to square Caravaggio’s sublime works with such a violent and reckless individual. Yet, I think it is exactly this violence and temper which informs the deep emotion and throbbing life of the pieces.
Caravaggio’s first public commission caused a sensation. Italian art at the time was still under the influence of Mannerism and the High Renaissance but a sea change was at hand and Caravaggio, riding the crest of the Baroque movement, caught the public mood. Church commissions flooded in and he found himself at the centre of a popular cult. “The painters then in Rome were greatly taken by this novelty, and the young ones particularly gathered round him, praised him as the unique imitator of nature, and looked on his work as miracles.” Giovan Pietro Bellori.
What they saw was a dedication to physical and psychological realism. Caravaggio broke from tradition by painting directly from life, rather than building up from sketches, and was famous for using ordinary, physically imperfect models. His saints and apostles had the faces and torn doublets of market traders, his Marys’ the earthy faces of local prostitutes. Then there was his dramatic use of chiaroscuro lighting, an emphasis on drama and story and a focus on action which stripped out all extraneous detail and often truncated the figures themselves. For the first time the Bible was transposed nearly two thousand years to the early seventeenth century Rome of his contemporaries. It breathed life.
These followers, known variously as the Caravaggisti or the Caravaggesques, were to take and develop different elements of Caravaggio’s style for the next twenty or thirty years, until fashions changed once more and the middle of the 17th century saw a return to a more Classical style. Over the next three hundred years the Caravaggesques, and Caravaggio himself, fell into obscurity. In the 20th century Caravaggio’s reputation was restored – books were written about him, films made. What is still not so well known are the many artists and their works from the Caravaggesque movement which this current exhibition, “Beyond Caravaggio” seeks to redress.
In many ways this is very much a domestic exhibition. Most of the forty nine paintings on show come from museums and private collections across the British Isles. Next year the show will travel to the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin and then onto the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh. The draw though is still Caravaggio, as seen in the exhibition’s title, even though only a handful of his paintings are on display. Of these, Boy bitten by a Lizard, The Supper at Emmaus and Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist are all part of the National Gallery’s permanent collection. Like the Delacroix exhibition I reviewed earlier in the year and which had a similar brief, the scarcity of actual Caravaggio’s on show is an issue. I got the feeling that the national Gallery is trying to have its cake and eat it, of flirting with block buster without necessarily providing the canvases to bust the block.
Such was Caravaggio’s reputation that the Caravaggesques sprung not just from Italy but travelled across Europe to study his works, most notably from France, the Netherlands and Spain. Early on in his career, Caravaggio drew inspiration from the seamy streets of Rome. Famously he painted card players, musicians, revellers and fortune tellers. These subjects were re-popularised in the two decades after his death by a number of prominent Caravaggesques. Both Antiveduto Gramatica and Il Cabrese produced canvases entitled Card Players and Draughts Players respectively where fashionably dressed youths in wide satin sleeves and plumed hats sit at gaming tables. The glint of light on breastplates and gorgets and the bulging of sword hilts suggest that the game might be a sedentary alternative to a duel or brawl, but that, nonetheless, violence might not be far off.
One of the more unusual of the gaming genre is by Frenchman Georges de la Tour. In Dice Players, five figures, including four men and one woman, stand watching a game in progress. The various elements of the genre are there – armoured men, dramatic light on faces, cropped composition – but stylistically the treatment is very different. The faces of the players are smooth to the point of androgyny and drama is replaced by a sense of theatricality. Unlike Caravaggio and many of the Caravaggesques, it is though that La Tour may have used cartoons in the mapping of the composition.
The Flemish artists were very taken by Caravaggio’s atmospheric use of light and for the fact that that source of light in his paintings is usually not revealed. In Willem van der Vliet’s A Philosopher and his Pupils, a bearded sage sits in earnest conversation with three fresh faced acolytes, one of whom obscures the flame of a candle with his open palm. In A Man singing by Candlelight, Adam de Coster strips the drama down to the single figure of a man, plunged in darkness, the rich textures of his elaborate outfit and his concentrated face lit from a candle below.
Unsurprisingly, Biblically themed canvases dominate. Gerrit van Honthorst’s Christ before the High Priest shares the emotional understanding of Caravaggio’s best Biblical pictures with a different dramatic emphasis. The priest’s raised forefinger is sharply lit and as frightening as a raised sword, and contrasts with Christ’s calm acceptance of the situation. The brown tones and soft brush strokes pre-figure the later works of his countryman Rembrandt.
Two of the most exciting Biblical canvases are by Caravaggio himself. The Taking of Christ records the moment in the Garden of Gethsemane when Judas identifies Christ for the arresting soldiers by embracing him. Five figures, including Judas, hurtle to the left in a press of bodies. Only Christ faces the other way, his eyes downcast, his features ineffably sad. The painting was only recently discovered as a Caravaggio and hung for years in the Jesuit Community, Dublin. It is now on permanent loan to the National Gallery of Ireland. It possesses a raw power which is difficult to explain. Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness depicts, not the typical bearded ascetic, but a brooding, smooth-faced adolescent, half-naked and draped in white and crimson cloth. The canvas is monumental in size, startlingly original in both its simplicity and interpretation, at once iconic and iconoclastic.
On the one hand the paintings of the Caravaggesques are very good, on the other they show just what an innovator Caravaggio was, that technical audacity aside, he mesmerizes us with a spiritual drama that seems to surpass all understanding. Whilst I enjoyed getting to know paintings I didn’t know by painters I had never heard of, part of me craved the silence of a single room with nothing but a handful of Caravaggio’s. Still, a diet of caviar is no diet and the National Gallery should be applauded for filling in some hazy pages of art history and for bringing to the attention of the public some minor masterpieces which might otherwise be mouldering in lonely solitude. As the critic Robert Longhi has noted, “Ribera, Vermeer, La Tour and Rembrandt could never have existed without him. And the art of Delacroix, Courbet and Manet would have been utterly different.”
Beyond Caravaggio at the National Gallery until 15th January 2017. For more information and to book tickets please visit the website.