Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Caravaggio and the Caravaggesque

On Sunday I visited the National Gallery's Beyond Caravaggio exhibition. Caravaggio seems to delight admirers of both modern and more traditional art and I was keen to find out why.

Born Michelangelo Merisi (or perhaps Amerighi) in Lombardy he took the name Caravaggio from a town in the province of Bergamo where his father worked. It may've been his exact birthplace. It's unclear. In his early twenties, probably 1592, he moved south to Rome and, after an initial spell providing unloved hackwork, he started to concentrate on the vibrant, and crime ridden, street life of Rome. His paintings of card sharps, fortune tellers, and musicians were considered highly original. Not least for their subject matter. They brought him to the attention of powerful patrons such as the cardinal, diplomat, and arts connoisseur Francesco Maria del Monte and the banking intellectual Vincenzo Giustiniani.

Boy Bitten by a Lizard (1594-5) was seen as a metaphor for the prolonged suffering that can be experienced after short lived sensual pleasures. Both the morality of the piece and its brushwork furthered Caravaggio's reputation and in 1599 he received his first public commission. To paint the Calling of St Matthew in the Contarelli chapel in Rome's San Luigi dei Francesi, a baroque Catholic church near Piazza Navona.

The public unveiling in 1600 made Caravaggio a star. Something he would remain for the rest of his life - which was only another ten years. In 1601 he painted the Supper at Emmaus. As well as taking still life painting to the next level, imbuing the fruit, and even the cutlery, with nearly as much character as Jesus himself, he became an acknowledged master, the acknowledged master, of the technique known as chiaroscuro, the use of strong tonal contrasts between light and dark to give a sensation of three dimensionality.

Caravaggio had become such a big deal on the Roman art scene that, unsurprisingly, other painters with similar styles sprang up in his wake. Giovanni Baglione's Ecstasy of St Francis (below), made the same year as the Supper at Emmaus, is the earliest known painting in the style that became known as the Caravaggesque. Caravaggio and Baglione were later to become bitter enemies.

Orazio Gentileschi (responsible for David and Goliath, 1605-8, above) was another who felt the wrath of his former friend. Caravaggio and Gentileschi went to court after falling out over the loan of a Capuchin robe and a pair of wings. Sounds like the sort of case Judge Rinder would adjudicate on now.

Caravaggio's fame, and ability, was, by 1602, so assured that he even incorporated himself into that year's Taking of Christ. He's the one holding the lantern at the far right as Judas betrays Christ with a kiss. A kiss that didn't quite land on Jesus' cheek. Again the lighting is sublime.

Whilst many admirers were mere copyists some took their cues from Caravaggio and developed their own styles. Orazio Borgianni's Saint Christopher Carrying the Infant Christ (1610-15) has a forceful energy quite unlike Caravaggio's work. Christopher's fleshy pin reminds me of the contemporary Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens and his fondness for depicting human skin in all its realness.

Orazio Gentileschi's Rest on the Flight into Egypt is a surprising burst of colour in a mostly dark, nocturnal looking, exhibition. See, for example, Lo Spadarino's Christ Displaying his Wounds (1625-35) in which the risen Christ exhorts us to become doubting Thomases. The expressive nature of JC's face suggesting a mortality at odds with the fact he's just come back from the dead!

Cardinal Scipione Borghese collected Caravaggios and, for a few decades after Caravaggio's death, the Caravaggesque too. It's interesting to see how two different artists tackled the same subject. Guido Reni's Lot and his Daughters Leaving Sodom (1615-18) and Giovanni Francesco Guerrieri's work of the same name made about the same time.

Both are more colourful than we've seen with Caravaggio himself though both use colour in very different ways. Guerrieri's is far less bashful about what's actually going on here. Lot's daughters are getting their dad pissed so he'll have sex with, and hopefully impregnate, them. I've said it before - cold blooded old times.

In wake of this Artemisia Gentileschi's Susanna and the Elders appears to be almost a proto-feminist work. Artemisia was Orazio's daughter and it's rare enough to find a female artist this far back in history let alone such a bold and innovative one. The fact she opted for the story of Susanna, the Hebrew wife who is falsely accused by lecherous voyeurs and then avoids being tricked into sex (or raped) by them, as her subject matter underlines her credentials greatly.

Drunkenness and incest may have been prevalent in Biblical times but 17c Rome seemed quite happy to take its moral cues from there. Caravaggio was often in trouble. This exhibition tends to shy away from the more sensationalist aspects of his life in favour of concentrating on his work. Its a good idea but there was no way of avoiding the murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni. Caravaggio, in one of his many brawls, killed Tomassoni over, it's believed, the small matter of either a gambling debt or even a game of tennis.

The Kingdom of Naples was, at that time, part of the Spanish Empire so Caravaggio escaped the heat of Rome for a while - and not for the first time. Whilst running away from justice is nothing to be admired Naples did prove to be fruitful for Caravaggio's development as an artist. There was a thriving art scene already there which included Jusepe de Ribera who was known as Lo Spagnoletto, Italian for the Little Spaniard. He'd been born near Valencia.  

He could paint a bit too. His Martyrdom of St Bartholomew (1634) shows the moment just before the apostle is skinned alive. As the executioner sharpens his knife Bartholomew looks to heaven, his outstretched arms creating a strong diagonal focus that manages to draw us into this claustrophobic, and violent, scene.

Caravaggio himself wasn't immune to a bit of gore either. Salome receiving the Head of John the Baptist (1609-10) demonstrates that clearly enough. Salome doesn't look overly pleased with her 'gift', looking away more in resignation than horror.

In the years after Caravaggio's death, which is still something of a mystery, the copying of his work really took off. Many artists hadn't been keen to imitate him whilst he was still in Rome as he was known to intimidate, and even beat up, those he felt were stealing his commissions and aping his work.

After his exile from Rome, and even more so after his death, his international reputation spread rapidly. No doubt due to the numerous French, Dutch, and Flemish artists that were based in Rome. Utrecht was a particular, if unlikely, hotbed for Caravaggists.

Gerrit Van Honthorst's Christ Before the High Priest (1617) makes marvellous use of candlelight and Hendrick ter Brugghen's 1626 Concert echoes back to Caravaggio's earlier penchant for portrayal of minstrelsy. The Frenchman Georges de la Tour (Dice Players, 1650-51) did the same with the subject of gambling. De La Tour hardly seems concerned with facial expressions or telling a story and has seemingly isolated the play of light, the chiaroscuro, and made it the point of his work.

Like most things that become fashionable the work of Caravaggio and his followers fell out of vogue equally quickly. By the mid seventeenth century his baroque approach had been replaced by more idealised, classical, techniques. His artwork, like Saint John the Baptist (1603-4) below, was in the wilderness for a long time. It took another three centuries for his reputation to be restored and in the decades that followed he has slowly, but surely, come to be seen as one of the most, if not the most, important artists of his era. And not just because he'll kick your head in if you say otherwise. 

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