Beyond Caravaggio at The National Gallery

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We take a look at The National Gallery’s Beyond Caravaggio, which documents the influence of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s iconic artistic style through the work of his followers.

We take a look at The National Gallery's Beyond Caravaggio, which documents the influence of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio's iconic artistic style through the work of his followers.

When considering the life and work of the Italian painter Caravaggio, it is difficult not to purely focus on the tension between his clear, prodigious talent and the dramatic elements of his biography. A man known for having a short temper, when Caravaggio wasn’t painting he was continuously getting into fights and even ended up on the run for committing a murder. His narrative ability for expressing tension-fuelled scenes through dramatic lighting undoubtedly nods to his own turbulent personal life. It is brave then, that The National Gallery would choose to consign Caravaggio’s colourful biography to merely a footnote and instead focus on the influence of his unique style on his followers. Dedicated admirers of Caravaggio might be surprised to discover that only 6 of his paintings are on display, but as the exhibition seeks to show, Caravaggio’s distinctive and innovative painting style had a vast influence throughout the 16th and half of the 17th century.

Two Caravaggio paintings begin the exhibition, showcasing his early focus on still life and naturalism that would become so influential in the years to come. His work emphasised the importance of looking at nature, highlighting seemingly insignificant objects such as musical and scientific instruments with incredible detail. At the same time his ability to express incredible character in his paintings becomes apparent, with pieces such as Boy Bitten By Lizard depicting a young boy with an ambiguous glance balancing a lizard on his finger, symbolising the dangers of sensual pleasure.

Boy bitten by a Lizard (About 1594-5), Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The National Gallery, London.

Moving through the exhibition we see the work of Caravaggio’s contemporaries Bartolomo Manfredi, Giovanni Baglione, Artemisia Gentileschi and Giovanni Serodine. Most significantly we see the influence of chiaroscuro, the adoption of strongly contrasted lighting effects to heighten the mood of a scene. We see this technique manifest itself in different ways throughout the exhibition, from the juxtaposition of faces bathed in light to others shrouded in darkness, as well as the use of the technique to create emotionally intense religious iconography. A prime example of this is Giacomo Galli’s Christ Displaying his Wounds, where Christ looks straight at the viewer with a penetrating expression as he prises apart a wound on his rib, lit up from behind as if by a halo but also realistically portrayed with the use of directional lighting.

Christ displaying his wounds (about 1625-35), Giovanni Antonio Galli, called Lo Spadarino, Perth Museum and Art Gallery.

Caravaggio is known for his compelling storytelling abilities, his subjects fill the canvas, painted in stark light to depict striking moments in time. His followers adopted this technique to tell the stories of everything from the drunken card games of fraudsters to the biblical story of the decapitation of John The Baptist. Arguably the centerpiece of the exhibition is Caravaggio’s own work The Supper of Emmaus, which depicts the exact moment in time after the resurrection that he reveals his true identity to his followers. His follower’s rapturous emotion and disbelief is perfectly shown through their expressions and gestures.

The Supper at Emmaus (1601), Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The National Gallery, London

However, the question of Caravaggio’s authorship is always central to the exhibition rather than the artist’s themselves, to the extent of which many of the pieces exhibited were mistaken for being the work of Caravaggio. It is only later that we start to see innovation and artists begin to build upon the work of Caravaggio rather than appearing to directly copy his style. The work of Jusepe de Ribera is infused with all the dramatic power of Caravaggio, yet his use of shadowing on his subject’s bodies creates even more extraordinary realism. The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew documents an unsettling and traumatic moment in time, with Saint Philip reaching up to the sky in devotion to God before being brutally executed. His ambiguous expression, bathed in devotional light against his executioner in half darkness, is one of the most striking images of the exhibition.

The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew (1634), Jusepe de Ribera, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Why would we want to look beyond Caravaggio? By looking past the man and instead focusing on the development of his style, this exhibition considers the importance of authorship and influence. Whilst most of his followers may not be able to light a candle to Caravaggio himself, this exhibition includes work that tells incredible stories that suspend moments in time with intricate clarity and character.

Beyond Caravaggio runs from 12 October 2016 - 15 January 2017, tickets are £14 with concessions avaliable. For more information, visit the website.