Art exhibition review: Beyond caravaggio
Beyond Caravaggio was an exhibition designed to highlight the influence of Caravaggio on European Art. The exhibit was a collaboration of the National Gallery in London, the National Gallery of Ireland and the Scottish National Gallery. I saw the exhibit in Edinburgh.
Michaelangelo Mersi was born in Milan in 1571. To escape the plague, his family moved to the town of Caravaggio, which gave the artist the name which he is known by today.
After studying art in Milan, Caravaggio moved to Rome where he established a reputation painting everyday subject matter. This drew the attention of Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte and numerous commissions from the church followed. Indeed, the majority of Caravaggio's works have a religious theme.
Caravaggio came on the scene at a time when the Catholic Church was seeking to counter the Protestant Reformation. His work was quite different than earlier religious painting. It was dramatic and realistic and thus appealed to the masses. Conequently, it found favor and he became quite famous.
This artist was not a pleasant person. He was quarrelsome and became involved in numerous brawls. He consorted with prostitutes and it has been suggested that he was also a pimp. In 1606, he had to flee Rome because he murdered a man over a game of tennis.
He fled to Naples where he once again established himself as an artist. But then he had to flee again after a quarrel.
Caravaggio went to Malta where he was made a knight of Malta. However, after injuring one of the senior knights in a fight, he was expelled from the order for being “rotten.”
He went to Sicily where he again found artistic success. But enemies forced him to leave and return to Naples.
Seeking a Papal pardon, Caravaggio set out for Rome but died en route in 1610. The cause of death is unclear. He may have died from a fever or been poisoned by the lead contained in the paint he used. He also could have been murdered by one of his many enemies.
During his lifetime, Caravaggio was one of the most famous painters in Europe. His work was quite influential in the development of Baroque art. However, for a long time his work fell out of favor only to be revived in the 20th century. Today, he is once again very popular.
Several factors seem to support his modern popularity.
First, there is his trademark dramtic use of light. Hs makes extensive use of chiaroscuro, making stark contrasts between deep shadows and brilliant highlights. This gives his work an almost theatrical appeal.
Second, Caravaggio's works are highly realistic foreshadowing the hyper-realism which has become so popular today.
Third, the figures in Caravaggio's works are typically common people, not idealized figures. As a result, it is easier for audiences to identify with the scenes depicted by Caravaggio.
Fourth, the psychological realism of the paintings is appealing. The thoughts and emotions of the characters are clear.
Lastly, the scenes depicted by Caravaggio are often not very pleasant, involving torture, death or other stressful situations. Like horror films and Brutalist architecture, such negativity seems to speak to 20th and early 21st century audiences.
While the exhibit is about Caravaggio's influence on art, it is dominated by four major works by Caravaggio himself. We see in the other works that later artists adapted parts of Caravaggio's lighting style and/or his psychological realism but none of these works has the same impact as the works by the master.
The Encounter, Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt, at the National Portrait Gallery in London, is the NPG's first exhibition of Renaissance portrait drawings. It includes 48 works by artists of the highest caliber and includes works from some of the most important collections in the United Kingdom including the Royal Collection.
Just bringing together works by the likes of Leonardo Da Vinci, Rembrandt Van Rijn, Hans Holbien the Younger, Anthony Van Dyck and Albrecht Durer is enough to make an exhibit important. However, the NPG has striven to go beyond just creating an assembly of works by great artists by selecting works that highlight the interaction between the artist and his subject.
Every portrait drawing involves the artist who renders the image and the subject, i.e., the one whose image is being rendered. Usually, this involves at least two people but in the case of a self-portrait, there is only one person involved. In such instances, the artist plays both roles.
In this encounter, the subject provides not just his or her physical form but also the emotions and thoughts that animate that form. The artist not only recreates the image before him or her but interprets the subject in light of his or her thoughts and emotions. It is this interaction that makes art different than the process of copying a document on a copier.
During the Renaissance, artists made their living primarily through painting. Drawings were usually not done as finished works. Often they were done as preparatory works where the artist was trying to develop an image that would later be used in a finished work, perhaps as a commissioned portrait painting or as a face in a mural of some Biblical scene. Indeed, in one of the Holbeins, the artist scribbled notes as to the subject's complexion and the fabric of the clothing the subject was wearing so as to guide him in the final painted portrait.
Drawings were also done for practice. The very informative pamphlet distributed by the NPG explains that young artists would often learn their craft by copying collections of images done by their master. Practice continued even when an artist became established as seen in a sheet of drawings by Rembrandt that contains multiple quickly sketched images.
Because these works were done primarily for the artist's own use, they are often freerer than the same artist's more polished finished paintings. The subjects are often more informal and appear in their own attire rather than say in classical costume. As such, the encounter - - the interaction between artist and subject - - is closer to the surface and more easily observed.
Pictures from the Exhibition: A sheet of figure studies with male heads and three sketches of a woman with child by Rembrandt van Rijn c.1636 (above left).
Young Woman in a French Hood, Possibly Mary Zouch, by Hans Holbien the Younger c. 1653. (Images courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery).
Drawn to Greatness, Master Drawings from the Thaw Collection is the largest collection of drawings yet to be exhibited at the Morgan Library and Museum and includes some 150 works. However, beyond the quantity of works, this exhibit is important because of the quality of the works. The artists represented in the exhibit are a Who's Who of western art from the Renaissance to the 20th century. Consequently, works of beauty and excellence unfold as you walk through the galleries.
The exhibit is drawn from the Thaw Collection, a gift of some 400 sheets by Eugene and Clare Thaw. It was amassed over the last 50 years by Mr. Thaw, an art dealer and collector. Interestingly, Mr. Thaw began his career handling the works of contemporary artists only later expanding into Old Masters. Mrs. Thaw encouraged her husband to keep some of the drawings that he was particularly enthusiastic about and so the collection was born.
Works from the Renaissance are the earliest works in the exhibit. As the signage at the exhibit tells us, this was when artistic drawing changed from mechanically recording an image to intellectually creating an image. The exhibit then proceeds chronologically through the centuries, revealing the many ways artists used drawing to create images.
The term drawing is used here in its broadest sense. It does not just encompass black and white images done with graphite or charcoal. Rather, the exhibit shows that there are many forms of drawing often involving color. These include pastels, watercolor, inks, chalks, and even oil paint to name a few mediums.
Indeed, I was struck by how artists in the 18th century would use several different mediums in their works. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line, this multi-medium practice became lost so that today on social media an artist can be accused of “cheating” if a work contains say both gouache and watercolor.
The works here include finished pieces as well as works done in preparation for a painting or mural. However, because the drawings were often for the artist's personal use they are sometimes more revealing than works produced for sale as they are not as tempered by the need to please the tastes of the market. Turner's “The Pass of St. Goddard,” for example, is a swirling mass of colors that is closer to abstraction than realism.
Still, the drawings bear the hallmarks of the style which is associated with each artist. To illustrate, an Ingres' drawing looks like an Ingres portrait. You do not need to look at the signage to tell if a drawing was done by Picasso. As a result, the exhibit is a condensed survey of the major ideas in European art.
I found myself spending the most time with the late 19th century French masters. Degas is known for his pastels and so it was not surprising to find several of them on exhibit. But there was also a rare black and white drawing by Monet, the master of color. There are also delightful watercolors by Renoir and Morisot. The innovative works by Cezanne take watercolor in a different direction.
In addition to being an important exhibition for art lovers, I would also recommend this exhibit to those who make art. It is perhaps easier to push back the curtain and analyze how a work was done with a drawing as opposed to a finished painting.
“Henry James and American Painting” at the Morgan Library and Museum explored the relationship between one of the 19th century's foremost authors and several visual artists.
Henry James was born in 1843 into a wealthy family from Albany, New York. However, he spent much of his early life traveling around Europe. When the family returned to the United States, it settled in Newport, Rhode Island but subsequently moved to Boston, Massachusetts. During this time, James developed friendships with many of the great minds of New England such as the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. He also embarked on a career as a writer.
In 1869, James returned to Europe where he would stay for most of the rest of his life. He became a central figure in the American ex-patriot community. And, as documented in this exhibit, many of his friends were artists.
James saw the creative process of the novelist as being analogous to the creative process of the visual artist. In addition, he often used references to visual art in his writings His more experimental later works have been compared to Impressionist painting.
Perhaps the best known American artist living in Europe during this period was John Singer Sargent. James knew Sargent, wrote about him and sat for portraits by him. In addition to a formal portrait commissioned by James' friends to mark his seventieth birthday, the exhibit had a number of more informal works by Sargent. These included portraits of friends as well as a series of watercolors and oils done by Sargent while in Venice. As the signage in the exhibit indicated, several were works that James had known and/or commented upon.
In addition to their connection to James, these informal works were of interest because they showed Sargent's style free of the economic pressures and constraints of his commissioned portraits. In fact, the watercolors were never intended for sale or exhibition. The style in such informal works is looser and more free. The portrait of writer Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife borders on the abstract. It is much more 20th century than 19th century.
James was also friends with another famous American ex-patriot, James McNeill Whistler. In fact, James modeled one of the characters in his book The Ambassadors after Whistler.
The exhibit had fewer works by Whistler than by Sargent. “Arrangement in Black and Brown – The Fur Jacket” is a large vertical portrait of a woman. Like Sargent, Whistler had the ability to create intriguing portraits of women, using vagueness to create a sense of mystery. James also created portraits of women in his novels.
Not all of James' artist friends are as well known today as Sargent and Whistler. Lilla Cabot Perry was an American who joined with the community of artists that sprung up around Claude Monet when he was living in Giverny, France . Her portrait of her daughter reflects the strong Impressionist influence.
According to the signs at the exhibit, the relationship between American painters Frank Duveneck and Elizabeth Boott Duveneck and Elizabeth's father, inspired parts of three of James' novels. Elizabeth's father viewed Frank Duveneck as his social inferior and so was against his daughter marrying him. The exhibit had Duveneck's formal portrait of his father-in-law, presenting a very proud and imperial figure. Elizabeth died early on and the exhibit also had the tomb sculpture that Frank carved for her.
In addition to the paintings and other art work, the exhibit had manuscripts and letters that James wrote to various artists.
The exhibit presented a unique bridge between the world of literature and the visual arts. Considering that the Morgan is a museum founded upon a library, the exhibit was highly appropriate.
Rich Wagner is a writer, photographer and artist.