Beyond Caravaggio at the National Gallery

St John the Baptist in the Wilderness, c1603-4, Caravaggio

Michelangelo Merisi Da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was the Alexander McQueen of late C16 Italy. He emerged suddenly on the art scene in Rome, had enormous and immediate impact, burnt out and was dead before he was 40. Like McQueen, Caravaggio told stories in images; stories which convey a remarkable sense of emotional intensity and melodrama, which are richly and sumptuously finished and suffused with unavoidable erotic undertones. Like McQueen, Caravaggio became an immediate and highly-sought after celebrity whose fame spread across Europe at internet speed, and was the genesis of a whole school of Caravaggesque painting, largely despite his personal efforts to stop his style being copied. 

Like McQueen too, Caravaggio is enormously popular now and an exhibition based around him is guaranteed to be popular, as this one indeed is. It has not however always been so. Despite being enormously fashionable and influential in his life and the years immediately afterwards, Caravaggio fell into obscurity as the populist directness of his images fell out of fashion and it has only been in the C20 that he has returned to fashion.

The Taking of Christ, 1602, Caravaggio

David Hockney refers to Caravaggio as the inventor of ‘Hollywood lighting’ with his use of strong chiaroscuro lighting to create dramatic contrasts of light and shade,directing the viewer to the heart of the picture. But it is not just lighting that Caravaggio has in common with Hollywood; he mastered the art of compelling storytelling with narrative pictures set in the contemporary world which were open and accessible to everyone. The sense of theatre was writ large and creates dramas which every viewer could relate to. His principal subjects of course were religious paintings and at a time when the Catholic Church had recovered its confidence after the shock of the Reformation, Caravaggio had exactly the style to infuse the congratulations with passion and belief, to feel the pain of the martyrs, to suffer with Jesus as he is betrayed.

This exhibition is called Beyond Caravaggio and it focuses more on his influence and followers than on Caravaggio himself. It also makes markedly clear that there is a huge gulf between Caravaggio and most of his followers. Those Caravaggio pictures in the exhibition illuminate their presence across the room through the theatrical drama of the scene, the richness of the colours and the quality of the finish; most of the work by other artists seems faded by comparison. Indeed, in some cases the comparison invites ridicule. There are perhaps few things that seem more ridiculous than erotic images that fail to be erotic and leave the subject simply looking embarrassed. But that is the fate of Cupid in what must be by some measure the weakest picture in the exhibition by Rutilio Manetti (1570-1639). If he were here, he would be asking for his picture to be withdrawn. 

Victorious Earthly Love, c1625, Rutilio Manetti

But the relative weakness of his followers compared to the original is not universally true of course; two works which really stood out for me was a highly charged image of Christ demanding that the view inspect and touch his open wound, and a version of Susannah and the Elders. The first was by Giovanni Galli, Lo Spadarino, (1585-1652) and is normally to be found in Perth Art Gallery. How the good Presbyterian burgers of Perth react to this most emotionally charged and Catholic of paintings, one can only wonder. The second painting is by Artmesia Gentileschi (1593-1656), daughter of Orazio Gentileschi another follower of Caravaggio, and stands out for the intensity of composition and richness of finish. 

Christ displaying his Wounds, c1625-35, Giovanni Galli

As I indicated at the beginning, this is a popular and hence crowded exhibition, which travels on from the National Gallery to Edinburgh and Dublin. If you don’t mind a certain amount of jostling for space, it is though well worth a visit.