“Beyond Caravaggio” is an exhibition at the National Gallery, London which I visited on Saturday. I want to give in this post an overview over the exhibition and my thoughts about it.
1. The exhibition “Beyond Caravaggio” opened at the National Gallery, London on 12 October 2016 and will close on 15 January 2017. From 11 February 2017 until 14 May 2017 the exhibition will be shown at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin and from 17 June until 24 September 2017 at the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh. The exhibition is dedicated to Caravaggio and his influence on contemporaries and followers. It is the first major exhibition of this kind in the UK. The exhibition focusses on the interest in caravaggesque paintings in Britain and Ireland. Most of the paintings come from British or Irish collections (private and public).
2. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was born on 29 September 1571 in Milan (or in Caravaggio). He was a difficult character and reacted with jealousy, if someone copied his paintings or his style. He therefore also did not establish a formal school. Nevertheless, his art became quickly famous and other artists in Italy and further afield were influenced by his subject matters, his composition and his style – so much so that the adjective “caravaggesque” was coined for paintings and artists who painted in a style which imitated Caravaggio’s stylistic innovations. Some of these artists knew Caravaggio personally, like Francesco Buoneri, called Cecco del Caravaggio, and Orazio Gentileschi. Others knew primarily his paintings mainly because they had travelled to Rome or they had only heard about him and his innovations.
3. The exhibition “Beyond Caravaggio” occupies seven rooms in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, London and contains 50 paintings. 6 paintings are by Caravaggio. The 44 other paintings are by Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch and Flemish artist which were influenced by him.
Room 1 in the exhibition is called “Painting from Life. Caravaggio’s Early Years in Rome”. Caravaggio was about 20 years old when he arrived in Rome. The first room shows two of Caravaggio’s early paintings: (1) “Boy peeling a fruit” (1592-1593) which is now in the Royal Collection. It is the earliest known work by Caravaggio probably painted shortly after his arrival in Rome. (2) “Boy bitten by a Lizard” (about 1594-1594) which belongs to the National Gallery, London. Both paintings were presumably painted for sale on the open market. Caravaggio devoted his art to real life subjects which he considered to be worth painting. This is a characteristic which is evident in his early paintings of musicians and fortune tellers, but also in his later sacred paintings. He always paints nature and real people, particular the “Boy bitten by a Lizard” is a realistic and highly emotional painting. The boy’s face is distorted by surprise and pain and the fruits and the vase with flowers look so real that one might be tempted to touch them. The six other paintings in Room 1 are also paintings which show musicians, gamblers and fortune tellers. For me one of the most interesting paintings apart from the Caravaggios is the painting of a musician by Cecco del Caravaggio who was Caravaggio’s servant, model and presumably his lover. This painting shows that he was also a gifted artist in his own rights.
Room 2 is called “Success and Patronage: Caravaggio’s immediate Circle”. Caravaggio received his first commission in 1599. He painted “Calling of Saint Matthew” and “Conversion of Saint Matthew” for the Contarelli Chapel in San Luigi dei Francesci, Rome. The unveiling of the paintings in July 1600 caused a sensation and these paintings were a turning point for Caravaggio. The Mattei brothers Ciriaco and Asdrubale commissioned in the following years three paintings: “Saint John the Baptist” (1602) which is today in the Pinacoteca Capitolina, Rome, “The Supper at Emmaus” (1601) and “The Taking of Christ” (1602). “The Supper at Emmaus” belongs today to the National Gallery, London and “The Taking of Christ” to the Jesuit Community, Leeson St, Dublin, but is on indefinite loan to the National Gallery of Ireland. Both paintings are shown in the exhibition in Room 2. They are stunning paintings. In both cases Caravaggio decided to show exactly the moment which is the most dramatic and most emotional. In “The Supper at Emmaus” Caravaggio depicts the moment in which the two disciples recognise that the “stranger” at their table is the risen Christ. The composition has great immediacy and the viewer of the painting becomes almost involved in the Biblical scene. Also in “The Taking of Christ” Caravaggio choose the most dramatic moment, immediately before or after the kiss with which Judas betrayed Jesus. There is a great emotional tension between Jesus and Judas and Jesus looks sad and disappointed about the betrayal through a friend. At the same time his face is calm and serene – ready to face suffering and death. A remarkable detail of this painting is that Caravaggio included a self portrait in it in which he holds a lantern and witnesses the whole incident. The five other paintings in this room include two paintings which were also in the Mattai collection and hung presumably close to Caravaggio’s paintings.
Room 3 is dedicated to “Caravaggio’s Close Followers”. Mancini, one of the first biographers of Caravaggio, described a few artists as Caravaggio’s schola (“school” or “following”). These include Bartolomeo Manfredi, Jusepe Ribera, Cecco del Caravaggio, Giovanni Antonio Galli, called Lo Spadarino and Carlo Saraceni. Room 3 shows paintings by some of these artists, but also by Orazio Gentileschi and Orazio Borgianni. The most impressive painting in this room is for me Lo Spadarino’s “Christ displaying his Wounds” (about 1625-1635) which belongs now to the Perth Museum and Art Gallery, Perth and Kinross Council, Scotland. The risen Christ is depicted presenting the wound in his side. The painting has a striking and almost disturbing immediacy and directness. It seems that Jesus is directly looking at the spectator of the painting asking him to look at the wound and probably even to touch his wound. The viewer is not longer only an observer, but gets the role of the doubting Thomas who was not present when the risen Christ appeared the first time to his disciples. He only believed in the resurrection of Christ when Jesus appeared a second time and asked him to put his finger in his wound. This painting and all the other paintings in this room follow Caravaggio in their great realism and the use of chiaroscuro (effects of light and darkness in a painting).
Room 4 focusses on “Admirers and Imitators. Caravaggio and his Italian Followers”. Many painters during Caravaggio’s life and after his sudden early death in 1610 travelled to Rome to see his paintings. There was a great demand for paintings in his style and artists produced paintings with naturalistic depiction, strong darkness and light contrasts and subject matters he had painted himself. Room 4 contains six paintings: Guido Reni: “Lot and his Daughters leaving Sodom” (about 1615-1616), a painting by Giovanni Francesco Guerrieri with the same title and subject matter, Artemisia Gentileschi: “Susannah and the Elders” and three paintings showing Cupid asleep (by Giovanni Battista Caracciolo and Orazio Riminaldi) or victorious over Arts and Science (Rutilio Manetti). The sleeping Cupid and victorious Cupid are both clearly influenced by Caravaggio’s famous paintings with the same subjects.
Room 5 is called “In Pursuit of Caravaggio. Painting in Naples”. Caravaggio visited Naples twice: the first time in 1606 – 1607 when he had fled Rome following the murder of Ranuccio Thomassoni and in 1609 – 1610 when he was on his way back to Rome from Malta and Sicily. Artists in Naples would usually travel frequently to Rome and therefore know Caravaggio’s paintings. In 1607 Caravaggio painted a work in Naples itself which made even easier for artists to see his work: “Seven Acts of Mercy” at Pio Monte della Misericordia. Room 5 shows Caravaggio’s “Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist” (1609-1610) which belongs to the National Gallery, London. Compared with his earlier paintings this is much darker and uses a restricted palette of colours. There are six other paintings in the room, including three paintings by the Spanish painter Jusepe de Ribera who lived and worked in Naples. All three paintings by Rivera are stunning. “Saint Onuphrius” (probably 1630) and “The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew” (1634) show both an old saint. Both paintings are very naturalistic with strong contrasts between darkness and light. The also show how well Ribera could paint old people. The third painting is one of my favourites: “Lamentations over the Dead Christ” (early 1620s) which belongs to the National Gallery, London. It shows the dead body of Christ lying on a white shroud. Saint John the Evangelist is supporting the body. The Virgin Mary has joined her hand in prayer and looks full anguish at her dead son. Mary Magdalene is leaning over the feet of Christ with her face close to his feet as if she wants to see the wounds at his feet or probably kiss his feet. The whole painting is dark only the body of Christ and the white loincloth and white shroud are bright. The painting is fascinating through his naturalism and is striking in its directness and lack of idealisation.
Room 6 is dedicated to the “International Caravaggesque Movement: Darkness and Light”. Caravaggio did not only have followers and admirers in Italy but also across Europe. Room 6 contains seven paintings by Matthias Stom, Willem van der Vliet, Adam de Coster, George de la Tour, Henrik ter Bruggen and Nicole Tournier. Even so Caravaggio used strong darkness and light contrasts he usually did not paint the source of the light and never painted a candle. In contrast Caravaggio’s Northern followers depicted often candlelight and were good in showing the specific light of a candle and the effects. This becomes also evident at the paintings in this room, six out of seven contain a candle as source of light.
The Last Room, Room 7 deals with “Caravaggio’s Legacy. The Power of Storytelling”. Caravaggio was famous for his use of live models, his dramatic lighting, his story telling and his blurring of the line between sacred and profane. His naturalistic style got out of fashion in the middle of the 17th century and people preferred again idealised and classic depiction of reality and human beings. Room 7 contains nine paintings, including Caravaggio’s “Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness” (about 1603-1604) which belongs to The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. The paintings which impressed me most in Room 7 was Gerrit van Honthorst: “Christ before the High Priest” (about 1617). Gerrit van Honthorst who eventually received the nickname Gherardo delle Notti was a painter from Utrecht, The Netherlands, who painted many night scenes. In his painting “Christ before the High Priest” he shows Jesus Christ standing with downcast head before the High Priest. The Hight Priests sits at a table. An open book lies on the table and one finger is raised and points at Jesus. He looks intensely at Jesus. The whole scene is lit by a single candle. Jesus and the High Priest are painted lifelike and naturalistic, the figures in the back are hardly more than shadows. Even so the subject is dramatic, the depiction is calm. The candle light is warm and soft, but the picture still feels unsettling. I am very impressed by the atmosphere and intensity of this painting.
4. I enjoyed my visit to this exhibition very much. Most of the Caravaggio paintings were not new to me. I knew the three paintings which are in the National Gallery, London and the one which is the National Gallery of Ireland. Nevertheless, it was fascinating to see them in the context of other artists and to see who widespread Caravaggio’s influence was. It was also interesting to realise that these artists were influenced by Caravaggio and his work in many different ways. Some of them stayed quite close to Caravaggio’s example. The paintings are thematically and stylistically clearly influenced by his paintings. Other artists took certain aspects of his paintings as a starting point, in particular the naturalistic style or subject matters, but then develop it further and went in their own direction.
I am very tempted to visit the exhibition a second time and I can also highly recommend it to everyone who is interested in Caravaggio and generally Baroque paintings.