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.
Rich Wagner is a writer, photographer and artist.