Michelangelo Merisi (1571-1610), better known as Caravaggio, was an artist of daring and genius whose radical approach to painting sparked a revolution in art across Europe. Few could rival Caravaggio for the violent drama and emotional depth of his best work, a quality which has ensured that the visceral power of his work remains undimmed with the passing of the centuries. The National Gallery of Ireland’s latest exhibition, Beyond Caravaggio, not only provides ample evidence of Caravaggio’s unique gifts, but also shows just how far-reaching and profound his influence was on an entire generation of painters from across Europe.
Caravaggio led a short and tumultuous life, gaining an infamous reputation as a violent drunkard as he flitted between studios in Rome, Naples, Sicily and Malta, often just one step ahead of the law. The most notorious episode of his incident- life was his murder of a rival in a duel in Rome, after which the artist was forced to flee from the authorities and seek refuge further south in Naples. Despite these frequent scandals and self-inflicted upheavals, he proved incredibly prolific; managing to pack a wide-ranging body of work into his 38 years and leaving behind some of the most celebrated art of the period.
Caravaggio took an unconventional and pioneering approach to his art. He used models drawn from the impoverished streets near his various studios to convey a greater sense of emotional realism in his paintings, and also invented and refined a host of lighting effects which continue to be influential to this day. One of his most remarkable innovations was chiaroscuro – an extreme contrast between light and shade which focused the viewer on the central subject and which generated the sense of drama and intensity which remains a hallmark of Caravaggio’s work. (For an example of how Caravaggio’s influence has endured through the centuries and across different media, notice the juxtapositions of light and shade in the moody color palette of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy; cinematographer Gordon Willis has often acknowledged Caravaggio’s use of chiaroscuro as an inspiration for his work). Other artists of his time scrambled to emulate his stylistic advances; in fact he spawned so many imitators from across Europe that they collectively became known as caravaggisti.
This latest exhibition from the National Gallery has as its centerpiece four of Caravaggio’s most celebrated works, The Taking of Christ, The Supper at Emmaus, Boy Bitten by Lizard and Boy Peeling Fruit. Irish Caravaggio-lovers will be delighted to see the return of the breathtakingly dramatic The Taking of Christ, which has just returned from an extended loan period at the National Gallery in London, but will be equally enthralled with the other works by the master on display. Boy Bitten by a Lizard is an unforgettable allegorical study of the perils of temptation, and it’s fineness of detail is matched by the arrangement of figures in Boy Peeling Fruit, the earliest known work attributed to Caravaggio.
Most impressive of all the visiting works is The Supper at Emmaus, an astonishingly vivid and typically dramatic tableau which captures with stunning intensity the moment when the risen Christ first appears to his disbelieving disciples. The artist’s eye for telling detail is represented here by the basket of bread which teeters perilously on the table’s edge, symbolizing the hazardous nature of the apostle’s lives, as well as the transience of existence itself.
One of the main draws of this exhibition is the opportunity to see first-hand Caravaggio’s direct influence on a legion of lesser known acolytes, alongside the paintings from the original master. Arguably the most accomplished of these imitators was Artemisia Gentileschi, daughter of the painter Orazio Gentileschi, who become the most celebrated female artist of her age. Her painting, Susannah and the Elders, (1622) is an extraordinary insight into female vulnerability in the face of male objectification, and betrays the influence of Caravaggio with its dramatic lighting effects and superbly-detailed composition. The exhibition also highlights the work of painters from France, Spain, the Netherlands, and Denmark, demonstrating the far-reaching nature of Caravaggio’s influence.
Beyond Caravaggio will run at the National Gallery in Dublin until May 11th, and is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Irish crowds to witness how the work of one genius ignited an unprecedented artistic revolution.