Out of the darkness, the flash of light, the glint of steel, the shocking white of skin. Within the gloomy, subdued lighting of the National Gallery’s Beyond Caravaggio exhibition, paintings emerge into view as your eyes adjust to the carefully curated lighting schema. When dealing with an artist who became legendary during his lifetime for his chiaroscuro, it seems appropriate to refer to the august lighting of a church, rather than the flat, cold, all-over light of the gallery space.
As you approach the two centrepiece works of the exhibition, The Taking of Christ (1602) and The Supper at Emmaus (1601), the whole atmosphere seems to have a kind of sacred tinge to it. The two finest Caravaggios outside of Italy and Malta, there is an undoubted frisson seeing them placed side by side for the first time, dominating the room. All heads are turned to Christ. In this environment, John Berger’s famous experiment with school children in the 1972 TV series Ways of Seeing, where the beardless Jesus of Emmaus is claimed as both man and woman, becomes facile, irrelevant. Instead, the paintings’ importance is in the thrilling, Baroque drama, their snatched-from-life, anecdotal qualities, as though they were scenes Caravaggio had glimpsed in the streets of seventeenth-century Rome. The Gospels are made flesh, relatable and passionate, allowing the congregation (of believers/viewers) to renew their faith (with Jesus/the genius of Caravaggio), in the true spirit of the Counter Reformation.
Yet the majesty of these two pieces should not be allowed to distort our view of the overall exhibition, which is interested in moving beyond Caravaggio, as the title indicates. So we only have six works by him (clearly limited by the number of collections willing to lend to the exhibition) and a clear focus on the Caravaggisti, the large volume of artists influenced by him, either directly by being part of his workshop, or more distantly inspired painters, ranging from Spain to the Netherlands. Admittedly, this leads to an inevitably uneven level of quality in the work displayed; while Giovanni Serodine’s The Tribute Money (1625) has an impressive roughness to the handling of paint, the works of Orazio Gentileschi (Artemisia’s father) and Carlo Saraceni are distinctly second rate, full of obvious and uninspired borrowings from Caravaggio. But their inclusion is nevertheless significant, for it shows the commerciality of work in the style of Caravaggio in the years after his death in 1610. Some seem to have been deliberately misattributed to him to increase their value as canvases, others merely operating within his aesthetic. Yet few painters of the era (one thinks of Michelangelo) succeeded in creating a style which was so personal to them, simultaneous with inspiring a host of other artists. A new art market was created by the Caravaggisti.
Perhaps the most intriguing discovery to be made at the exhibition is Cecco del Caravaggio, Caravaggio’s servant, model, and alleged lover, a fine painter in his own right, whose A Musician (c.1615) and The Fluteplayer (c.1610-20, normally found in the Ashmolean) show a sensitivity to portrait, combined with an exacting eye for the representation of objects (from violins to fruit), moulded by a complex use of shade. Little is known of his life and his oeuvre is contested, but Cecco stands above many of his Roman counterparts. This is especially true as Artemisia Gentileschi is represented by one solitary, not particularly good work. Again, the vicissitudes of museum collections are at play, but it does mean we pay more attention to painters who previously may have escaped our attention, such as the Spanish Jusepe de Ribera and his Lamentation over the Dead Christ (c.1620s), who reminds us that Naples at the time was part of the Kingdom of Spain. The international aspect of the Caravaggisti is further underlined by the final two rooms of the exhibition which show Dutch works, often from later in the seventeenth-century and dubbed ‘nocturnes’ due to their preponderance for night scenes. Hendrick ter Brugghen’s wonderfully atmospheric The Concert (1626) sets the stage for the transformation of Caravaggio’s startling chiaroscuro and painting from life into the methodology of Dutch Still Lifes, a remarkably subtle evolution which takes a wide-ranging exhibition like Beyond Caravaggio to draw the disparate connections together into a cohesive whole.
When you emerge from the exhibition, you feel as though you’ve travelled a long way from Baroque Italy at the beginning of the sixteenth-century. It is Caravaggio’s impact on continental painting, the altering of how the world was represented, which is the real subject of the exhibition — Caravaggio is the starting point and not the end. The threads of his influence are shown to spread across Europe over a century of artistic development. It is a bold direction to take, especially in an era of ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions where there is an expectation that every work should be a picture-postcard. The National Gallery has been confident enough to display artworks which are interesting historically and not aesthetically. It speaks of a deep curatorial intelligence at work which makes the exhibition just as rewarding to art historians as a more general audience. Paradoxically, the darkness of Beyond Caravaggio is strangely illuminating on a crucial period of art.
Beyond Caravaggio runs at The National Gallery, London, from 12 October 2016 to 15 January 2017. Admission charged. More information can be found here.