Let There Be Light: Caravaggio comes to London

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The newly discovered Caravaggio – The Taking of Christ

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This Autumn, the National Gallery has chosen to transport us into the dark and dramatic artworks of one of the most well-known Italian artists: Caravaggio.

This exhibition does impress but, unlike the rather dangerous and exciting personality of its protagonist, there is something missing that left me stumbling in the dark.

Who was Caravaggio?

He was the “bad boy” of the Renaissance, a real genius-with-a-temper sort of guy. A violent man, some would say a thug, who was particularly adept with a paintbrush.

We know a fair amount about Caravaggio because he was constantly getting himself in trouble and appearing in court. He even spent the last four years of his life on the run having murdered someone, over a game of tennis no less (Andy Murray take heed!). C’s death is itself a little suspicious according to Art Historian Andrew Graham-Dixon who has questioned the causes leading to the artist’s eventual demise.

The life of this artist is rich with intrigue and danger which, I believe, is reflected in his paintings and make them so recognisable.

To make a Caravaggio, you need:

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Here’s one he made earlier… Boy Bitten by Lizard,  1593-94

300g of dark

150g of light

200g of powerful story telling

A generous pinch of artistic innovation mixed in with some arrogance

NB: For extra Caravaggio flavour, you can consider some rude, gruesome or highly realistic details. (For example, C was scolded for depicting peasants’ feet as being actually dirty and in another painting, he angled a horse’s behind towards a painting by another competing artist).

To serve: sprinkle some artistic competition and violence.

The end product? An image of intense light and dark contrasts with a healthy dose of naturalism, drama and perhaps some tongue-in-cheek which conveys a painted scene like no other before.

The Exhibition

Before you step in to see the paintings, turn right and go to see the short 10 min film which provides some context to Caravaggio and the sort of Rome he lived in.

We learn in the 1600s, Rome was a city focused on the glorification of the Catholic Church and consequently became a hotbed for budding artists wanting to establish themselves. We are also told of the city’s dangerous underbelly, where crime and violence was rife. It was a city in which thrived the pious and the sinful, the good and the bad (possibly the ugly too), the light and the dark.

A perfect environment for an artist like Caravaggio.

The first room displays some key early works by the artist and highlights how, from an early age, Caravaggio was fascinated with the effects of intense light and dark in his painting and used this to heighten the drama of the subject depicted.

The walls of this room, and throughout the entire exhibition, are painted very dark so you feel as if you are stepping into the artist’s world of shadows. Even your fellow gallery visitors, as they leer in and out of the low light, become semi-caravaggesque themselves.

The second room is the pride and joy of the exhibition and examines Caravaggio’s work for some of his most important patrons. One painting included here is a jewel of the NG’s permanent collection – Supper at Emmaus. To its left hangs the star of the show: the newly attributed painting and ‘poster-boy’ image – The Taking of Christ (see top image). These two, painted for the same patron, are fascinating to see together and compare. You have to sharpen your elbows to reach to the front of the gathering crowd to have a good look, but it’s worth it – they are two truly extraordinary paintings.

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Supper at Emmaus, National Gallery

The next three rooms are where the exhibition perhaps lost some of its energy. They feature paintings by Caravaggio and his intimate followers; Caravaggio and his imitators and finally Caravaggio and his international following. The problem I found was that they all seemed to be doing the same thing – copying C’s effects of light and dark. I really relied on the audio guide to tell me key aspects about some of the works chosen for the exhibition and began to grow tired of the line “here [again] you can see how the artist is inspired by Caravaggio’s use of light and dark”.

Ok, we get that, but what else was born from C’s work?

The NG does discuss Caravaggio’s skill with naturalism and story telling but these two elements of his work were quite literally overshadowed by the focus on his treatment of light and dark. Perhaps it would have been interesting to include some contemporary 17th century paintings of a different style to highlight how different and innovative C. was?

The pace picks up again in the final rooms which explore C’s influence on Northern European artists. Here, we are made aware that Caravaggio never actually included a light source in his paintings. The light is just, there.

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Matthias Stom, An Old Woman and A Boy by Candlelight, c.1630-50

The painters in Northern Europe, however, thought more rationally it seems and began to include a single candle in their compositions. This encouraged them to play around with the different effects of candlelight, especially when it is semi-obscured to the viewer. The pinky-amber glow, for example, that is made by an elderly woman’s hand as she protectively cups the flame.

This leads us to question: how did Caravaggio create his compositions? Is the light supposed to be that of a candle or is it natural? Or divine?

In the last room is the beautiful St John the Baptist in the Wilderness. This painting provides a bookend to the exhibition and encompasses all of Caravaggio’s skill as an artist; not just in his rendering of light and dark but also his unconventional treatment of the subject (making the saint rather dashing, modern and surprisingly young), his expert hand with naturalism and his proficiency in storytelling.

It is certainly worth going to see this exhibition and NG have turned the small, dark, oddly shaped rooms of the Sainsbury Wing exhibition space to their advantage.

I couldn’t help overhear, however, one visitor turn to their colleague to ask:

“So where are all the Caravaggios? Did no one want to loan to London?”

Of course, we should not expect this exhibition to consist solely of Caravaggio’s paintings – it is entitled Caravaggio and Beyond after all, and it does successfully show how far and wide the “Caravaggio craze” has spread.

But it did seem, after a while, that all Caravaggio has handed down to the following generations was his play of light and dark when there were other aspects to his work that captured artists’ imagination and perhaps could have featured more prominently when examining this artist’s influence.

The answer to the question is, if you really want to see Caravaggio, you have to become a follower yourself and go to Rome. It is in the city’s churches where you’ll find the works that created this tidal wave of Caravaggio groupies.

None-the-less, an interesting exhibition with some great image comparisons, despite the increasing sense of deja vu.

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