National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh.
17 June – 24 September 2017
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 – 1610) remains one of the most radical, explosive and influential artists in the history of Art. Although his undeniable brilliance, profound insight and consummate skill as a painter attracted esteemed patrons during his lifetime, he was also a man of the street and a murderer, spending the final four years of his tragically brief life as a fugitive. If he were alive today his rise and fall would be meteorically tabloid. “Brilliant, challenging, argumentative and violent, our image of his work is inseparable from his tumultuous personal life.” Despite his deeply conflicted, volcanic temper and fatally impulsive personality – or perhaps because of it, he dared to simultaneously level and elevate humanity in his art. Controversially using ordinary people as models for the saints and placing them in everyday settings, he consistently “blurr[ed] the lines between [the] sacred and profane.” His highly dramatic compositions are designed for inclusion, bringing the viewer into the frame, regardless of the Age. Caravaggio’s theatre of the human condition spills into our foreground, combining desire, divinity and illuminating darkness. Profoundly moving, dazzlingly theatrical and intimately cinematic, the technique of Chiaroscuro is very much about the light and dark of the soul. It appeals to our primal instincts and higher senses, the creative drive to construct meaning, alive in shadow play on cave walls, Silent Film, the black and white morality of Film Noir and in the work of this 17th Century Master. Caravaggio’s protagonists erupt from an intense, dark ground of worldly experience. On the high altar of Catholic morality Caravaggio is a burning contradiction, accessibly grounded in the language of everyday mortal life with the breath-taking ability to transcend it. His masculinity admits the feminine in fascinating ways and his ability to convey essential truths through visual narrative is truly spectacular.
This exhibition of works by the artist, his ‘ Caravaggesque’ followers and contemporaries from across Europe including; Artemisia Gentileschi, Orazio Gentileschi, Orazio Riminaldi, Mattia Preti (Il Calabrese), Giovanni Antonio Galli, Nicolas Régnier, Francesco Buoneri (Cecco Del Caravaggio), Matthias Stom, Willem Van der Vliet, Jusepe de Ribera, Valentin de Boulogne, Gerrit Van Honthorst and Nicolas Tournier, is the first of its kind in the UK and part of this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival programme. The touring exhibition is a collaboration between The National Gallery, London, the National Gallery of Ireland and the National Galleries of Scotland, sponsored by Credit Suisse International. Over forty works are on display, “normally housed in museums, stately homes, castles and private collections within the UK” and Ireland, providing a fantastic opportunity to discover the artist’s influence on an entire generation of painters in juxtaposition. Many works and artists in the show will be unknown to visitors and the artist’s influential scope is extremely varied. Caravaggio’s individual brand of naturalism, focus on human gesture, the symbolic narrative of light and his proficiency as a storyteller have enduring appeal, significantly influencing other art forms in the 20th and 21st Centuries.
Something which begs exploration out with the parameters of this show is wider exploration of Caravaggio’s influence on Theatre Design, Photography, Cinematography and film directors such as Peter Greenaway, Derek Jarman, Vincent Corda and Martin Scorsese. Taking a cross-disciplinary approach could provide alternative pathways into Caravaggio’s work for those not immediately drawn to the work of a ‘Master’ from the canon and that of his 16th and 17th Century contemporaries. In the world of gaming, illustration, photography, writing, animation and filmmaking, this artist has much to teach contemporary artists about storytelling through body language, expression, gesture, positioning of the figure in space and the physical/ metaphysical power of lighting. There are many hands-on approaches to Caravaggio’s work that would have tied in beautifully with EIFF just around the corner, enhancing both programmes and appealing to younger audiences. Hopefully Caravaggio’s billing as the “bad boy” of Art History will make people curious and encourage those unfamiliar with his work and that of his contemporaries to visit this amazing exhibition. For visitors who are familiar with the artist’s work, there are new, dynamic connections to be made.
There are certain images that are masterpieces in the holistic sense of the word-perfection on every level in terms of composition, Craft, emotional intelligence and expression. I can say unreservedly that Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ (1602, Oil on canvas, 133.5 x 169.5 cm, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin) is one of them! From every angle, at distance and up close, it drew me back to it like a magnet. It is hung facing another sublime painting in the largest RSA gallery space, Caravaggio’s much celebrated The Supper at Emmaus (1601, oil on canvas, 141 x 196.2 cm, The National Gallery, London). Both were commissioned by Ciraco Mattei and it is wonderful to see them reunited in the space as examples of an artist at the height of his powers. In a wider thematic context and in terms of influence it is fascinating to see the relationships between works and how they bounce off each other. The technical influences are obvious; positioning of light, use of shadow, the naturalism of live models and everyday settings, but there are many more nuanced connections to be explored in the show. One of the most humbling aspects of The Taking of Christ for all its sophistication and artistry is what Caravaggio achieves in terms of expression. It is a story told through the hands, body language and gesture, the most basic means human beings use (primarily unconsciously) to communicate. The artist didn’t labour over preparatory drawings, he reacted very directly to life within and around him in an immediate, visceral way. It doesn’t matter what age you happen to be standing in, your education, cultural background, what your religious beliefs are or if you have none, the gesture and psychology of this composition appeals to human hard wiring to read each other and construct meaning visually. It is an absolute masterclass in the artist transcending themselves to create something timeless and revolutionary.
The Taking of Christ is like a single frame of a film frozen for the spectator to fully contemplate a moment and the condition of betrayal. Unfolding biblical drama aside, it is a story communicated progressively through the hands and with the power of light. The artist is literally and metaphorically holding a lamp in the scene, creating balance in the composition with a line of light bisecting the arrow of arresting light on the arm of an armour-clad soldier. This clash of hard metal and vulnerable flesh contains violence in what is a compressed pictorial space and a dark night of the soul. The figures in closest relationship to each other (Jesus and Judas), one gripping the shoulder of the other in an extension of the arresting arm of the soldier makes the character complicit. The intimate space between the two men is divided by shadow and we feel in the downcast gaze and hands turbulently entwined beneath the weighted burden of deepest blue the psychological anguish and gravitas of human betrayal. The betrayer looks past the betrayed, his furrowed brow communicating the conflicted nature of the act, whilst the figure in the far left of the composition cries for help with his arms raised, beyond the picture plane into darkness. We understand in the darkness beyond the frame it is too late and the call for deliverance will not be answered. The scene is highly charged and intensely dramatic, but crucially not melodramatic. Its emotional core is interior, rather than being trapped in exterior performance and that is the real source of the painting’s power and appeal. Even if the viewer does not know the story of Christ and his disciples in the garden of Gethsemane prior to the crucifixion, the image appeals to our emotional intelligence in portraying the complexity and conflict of betrayal, beautifully, miraculously through hands which reach across time to touch our own. These are men in the dress of the day feeling as we do, not gods or heroes, even though the central character is the son of the Christian God. That piercing light of intentionality like a sword hits us immediately, instinctively and emotionally, requiring no further explanation. Interestingly, as Aidan Weston-Lewis suggests in his exhibition catalogue entry, it is Caravaggio inspired by Albrecht Dürer’s depiction of The Betrayal of Christ (1509), which for me is one definitive, singular personality and trajectory of creative intent, inspirationally leading another.
Displayed in the same room, we see how humanity is communicated in the figure of Christ in a painting by Giovanni Antonio Galli (called Lo Spadarino, 1585-1682). Christ Displaying his Wounds (about 1625-35, oil on canvas, 132.3 x 97.8cm, Perth Museum and Art Gallery, Perth and Kinross Council, Scotland) shows Christ illuminated in resurrection, emerging from the dark, mysterious ground of death. His fingers of his hands part his own flesh, opening the wound for us to see with the felt sense of our own body, coupled with an expression that calls for us to examine the truth of what we are witnessing. Although lit from above, Christ’s eyes directly, inescapably address the viewer; furrowed brow and mouth slightly open, questioning not as an elevated being but eye to eye. The biblical text/concept of “blood of my blood and flesh of my flesh” made real and relatable. This arresting painting aligns with Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1601-2) in terms of the doubting disciple/ human doubt, poking a finger into belief. The resurrection Galli’s risen Christ suggestively affirms is within our own souls. It is the gesture and the immediacy of touch which flows between the hand of Caravaggio, Galli, the human/ philosophical subject, the painting as object and the viewer. The link between Caravaggio and his followers is often more complex and visionary than simple aesthetic or stylistic imitations. Throughout the exhibition it is extremely interesting to see what aspects of his Art appeal to different artists from Italy, Switzerland, France, Spain and the Netherlands and how this manifests in their individual approaches to the secular and sacred.
In the Painting from Life: Music/ Drinking/ Gambling themed room Nicolas Tournier’s Dice Players (about 1620-25, Oil on canvas, 127 x 172.7cm, Attington Park, The Berwick Collection, The National Trust) conjures the atmosphere of illicit activity and potential violence in a quartet of men assembled around a makeshift gaming table. The light invested in the faces and hands of the three central protagonists skilfully pulls us into the game, aligned with the three die cast on the table top, an expression of their individual personalities, attitudes and fates. The gaze of the central figure is fixed on his opponent. His hand assertively placed on the table operates in dialogue with the players flanking him and the illuminating placement of their hands and bodies frame the tension of the scene. It is taking place in the shadows, perhaps in an alley or the back room of a tavern. It is absorbing how the merger of everyday faces and settings enters into more religious subject matter in the show and the levels upon which this operates, especially in the context of Faith under threat in later generations. Caravaggio’s rebellious introduction of traditionally unworthy models; street urchins, prostitutes and crimminals as the faces of religious art caused a sensation in the early 1600’s. Anchoring storytelling to familiar settings and dress, or the use of dark, ambiguous spaces into which the viewer can project themselves, is aided by the artist’s choice of foreshortened views. Rather like the eye of the camera in modern cinematography we imaginatively enter the scene, we can’t help it because the artist has placed us very deliberately in the foreground of the composition. He doesn’t just want us to see, he wants us to experience and more importantly to feel.
Orazio Gentileschi (1563-1639), an artist who knew Caravaggio in his lifetime, brings this dynamic into play with his rendering of David and Goliath (about 1605-8, oil on canvas, 185.5 x 136 cm, The National Gallery of Ireland) which spills emotively into the viewer’s space. The scene of the boy David about to slay the giant is presided over by a drawn sword. The active steel engulfs the top of the composition, whilst the background plays a subtler role in establishing the internal, unconscious Nature of the image. Behind David’s head is a living tree with an arched branch following the curve of his sword about to deliver the decisive blow, whilst just below it a dead branch inclined at a precarious angle, aligned with Goliath’s hand as he lays on the ground. David’s slingshot and the arrangement of stones topple into our foreground and we’re effectively cast as participants in the emotive tension of the scene.
Hung opposite this painting in the thematic “Sacred and Profane” room is one of the finest, most subtly nuanced paintings in the show by Orazio Gentileschi’s daughter Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-about 1656). Her stunning treatment of the Old Testament subject of Susannah and the Elders (1622, Oil on Canvas, 161.5 x 123cm, The Burghley House Collection) outstrips the adjacent skills of her father and introduces, perhaps for the first time in Art History, the biblical tale from a Female point of view. Her beautifully crisp treatment of detail and acute emotional intelligence shine through a highly unusual treatment of the subject. It’s the only painting by this artist housed in the British Isles and brings into play a much more highly evolved sphere of influence, engaging fully with the complexity of emotion at work in Caravaggio’s paintings. Curator Letizia Treves comments on the mistaken attribution of this work to Caravaggio “throughout the nineteenth and well into the twentieth centuries, the signature confirming Artemisia’s authorship [ signed and dated in the lower centre, above Susannah’s knees] only becoming apparent after cleaning in 1995.”
The influence of Caravaggio on Artemisia Gentileschi’s work is multifaceted, arguably operating on a deeper level than many other followers. Something that has always struck me about Caravaggio’s Boy Bitten by a Lizard, an early work painted between 1594-5 (Oil on canvas, 66 x 49.5cm, National Gallery, London) is that even then, the technical prowess is matched by the artist’s capacity for expression of complicated emotion and desire. It’s a quality that elevates his Art and enables it to speak in a modern, secular world. Caravaggio’s audaciousness and tenacity puts many contemporary artists in the shade in that respect. Whilst many have written about Boy Bitten By a Lizard as an expressive study of surprise, reacting to the physical stimulus of the young man’s finger being bitten, there’s a whole lot more going on in this picture, not just in acknowledging the homo-eroticism of it, but how the artist achieves a multi-layered rather than a simplistic reaction to desire. The exquisite attention to detail in the ripe, glistening fruit you could reach out and touch, the glass vase with running beads of water and delicately modelled blooms, certainly establishes the painter’s ability as a calling card, but the function of the image, sold on the street, is more than the artist working from a live model to convincingly capture a single expression. The youth’s shoulder is sensuously exposed and the directional light catches the rhythm of his robe, the curve of his hands and fingers in a highly animated serpentine curve as he leans into the table. His open mouth, curvaceous lips and tongue combine with his furrowed brow, creating an expression not simply of surprise but of pain mixed with the suggestive promise of pleasure. It is a moment of experience, a twist in the tale of innocence transformed and a projection of desire on the part of the artist and potential client. It’s an intimate view of a street wise Bacchus and the worship of a different God through the body and senses. Caravaggio isn’t afraid to confront challenging subject matter, he is who he is, fuelled by impulse and instinct, refined here with the unnerving clarity and transparency of glass. There’s a sense of unease and anticipation in walking that knife edge, a precariousness that strengthens his compositions. He is supremely confident, isn’t prone to overworking the painting, is spontaneous in his reaction to the subject/ aspects of Self and equally controlled in how he composes the world within the frame.
What Artemisia Gentileschi brings to understanding Caravaggio is to take command of the composition in painting and in life. She grasped from a very young age what many mature followers of Caravaggio do not, namely the emotional complexity, sensitivity and internal power of his work. The light and shadow in her Susannah and the Elders comes from within, depicted as never before in the history of Art. She’s not just a follower, like Caravaggio she is uniquely herself in this work and eclipses her contemporaries in the process. The biblical tale of Susannah and the Elders is (unsurprisingly) a very popular subject amongst male artists and patrons as it provides the opportunity for the appearance of Old Testament piety, coupled with imaginative wish fulfilment and sexual gratification in the female nude. In Gentileschi’s version, the core of the image is Susannah herself, she isn’t cowering or running for cover, but is self-possessed and symbolically lit from above. Her eyes are raised beyond the space in the high right hand corner of the painting where the two elders lean into the frame, leering at her. Pushed to the edge of the painting their presence is balanced on the left-hand side by the heavy, oppressive form of an urn, which cuts into the blue sky and torn grey clouds as negative space. This feels very much like the archetypal woman as a vessel, establishing a masculine / feminine power differential in a society led by male elders. The putti in the fountain cast a sinister show as her private bath is invaded. Susannah’s back is literally and metaphorically to the wall and in deflecting the advances of the two elders. Her body twists in on itself, one arm across her torso and the other crossing her knees as she tries to wrap her white chemise around her body. Her form isn’t idealised beauty but voluptuous and real. Although some viewers might confuse the arrangement of form with erotic display in one breast being revealed, it is also protectively enclosed by her bent arm and elbow. The painting commission may have dictated an open treatment of the subject in terms of the female body but the artist delivers this on her own terms. Susannah’s entire expression and posture denotes shielding herself, but still being the woman she is and that gives us hope for her and her story. There is a feeling of psychological survival in her separation from the elders’ close proximity and threat of violation. In the minds of contemporary viewers the story would have completed with her vindication and reputation restored. The artist’s empathy with the female protagonist is impossible to separate from her own experience of sexual violence and the horrific public rape trial which profoundly affected the course of her life and Art. As we see it in her painting of Judith and Holofernes (about 1614-20), a composition inspired by Caravaggio’s image of the same subject painted between 1598-9, but far stronger as a pure, visual expression of revenge and rage. She is the strength behind the composition, resoundingly bound together by her skill, insight and experience as a true Master. That same self- possession tempers the extreme distress we see in Susannah’s face and her vulnerability, communicated in tiny details such as her earrings which catch the light not as adornments, but rendered in the same manner as her tears. The posture of the elder in blue is one of appraisal of her body as property, something to be used, while his voyeuristic companion crassly clambers to get a better look over his shoulder. Their fine clothes and status amplify the statement of moral hypocrisy and corruption, but do not overshadow the virtue and resilience of Susannah, or indeed Artemisia herself. This is a hugely important painting, not just in terms of the artist’s development, but in what it reveals about gender equality, society, politics and culture not just in Artemisia’s time, but in our own century which has only begun to question and re-evaluate our visual inheritance. Like Caravaggio, Gentileschi can stand alone in any century. She makes Nicolas Régnier’s beautifully painted Saint Sebastian tended by the Holy Irene and her Servant (about 1626-30) look like staged artifice by comparison. She has Caravaggio’s fortitude and guts, but without the misdirected brute force of inherited masculinity and arrogance that was his downfall.
Styles of painting fall in and out of fashion and even painting in recent years has fallen out of favour but as this exhibition demonstrates, holistic engagement with the human figure still has a far reaching influence. Generations after Caravaggio’s death, the nature of his influence as a Master without a School is as potent and fresh as ever and what a joy it is to see the work of other artist’s inspired by him step out of the shadows and into the public domain.