Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness” (c.1604-1605), by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Photo courtesy of the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, by Jamison Miller
Largely due to “Bodies and Shadows: Caravaggio and His Legacy,” on view through Feb. 10 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art,” Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) is enjoying unprecedented attention. As Sybille Ebert-Schifferer notes in her abundantly illustrated monograph on the artist, there were 350 new publications about him that emerged on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of his death. The current volume, plus the catalogue – by J. Patrice Marandel and others – that accompanies the LACMA show, pushes the number of recent articles and books even higher. And so one has to wonder, is there anything new that can be said about this Italian painter that hasn’t been said before?
If there is, it’s probably here. Ebert-Schifferer seems to live and breathe Caravaggio, and has been turning out publications about him for years. Among the first orders of the day, she reads us the riot act: This will be a no-nonsense book, and her avowed aim is to cut through the patina of misinformation that has accrued to the person of this great artist, romanticizing him somewhat as tempestuous à la Beethoven, and playing up his many run-ins with the law, including one for murder.
The exhibition at LACMA highlights eight pieces by Caravaggio and some 50 artists (Orazio Gentileschi, Simon Vouet, Matthias Stom, Jusepe de Ribera, etc.) who either imitated his style (called “Caravaggisti”), were influenced by his work, or simply painted in a closely related style (such as Georges de La Tour). Although eight pictures may not seem like much, it’s a good basis for a show of this nature. The reason why there aren’t more Caravaggios on display is because many of them are large and fragile or too much a part of their settings (as altar pieces, for example) to be moved. Just wait until you’re 400 years old; you won’t be traveling much either.
Now, if there’s one drawback to poring over a book like the one Ebert-Schifferer has written, it’s that the avalanche of names and places will be mostly unfamiliar to the majority of us. Even more of a challenge for the lay reader is acquiring a grasp of the artistic trends that were in vogue in different parts of Italy, let alone across Europe.
For instance, Caravaggio spent four years as an apprentice to Simone Peterzano, the latter’s artistic allegiance favoring the Venetian school characterized by the lighter tones of Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto. By contrast, there was the Lombard school with its predilection for dark grounds and somber colors. When we think of the Tuscan school – Florence, mainly – we may think of the brighter hues in the manner of Raphael. A trained eye will pick up on this; the rest of us will simply duly note: Italian art, 16th or 17th century.
And so what makes a Caravaggio a Caravaggio? Dramatic side-lighting, strong colors that pop out of a dark or shadowed background, realism, and psychological expressivity. Or, as Ebert-Schifferer sums it up late in the book: “The most striking and exciting innovation of Caravaggio’s style was the use of strong diagonal light to illuminate his figures, both literally and metaphorically. Leaving large parts of the painting in the dark, it throws the often tightly grouped figures into sharp relief, thrusting them onto the viewer from the depth of a barely defined space.”
Like Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” in photography, Caravaggio’s pictures are like cinematic, climactic (but not climatic) moments, captured and preserved for the ages. One of the best examples, in the LACMA show and illustrated here, is “Salome Receives the Head of St. John the Baptist.” I’m fascinated by the expressions – on Salome’s face it’s that flicker of doubt and remorse, and on the face of the executioner, who hands her the head, it’s a flicker of disgust or irritation. And the way that Salome holds the vessel that receives her trophy it’s almost as if an albatross is being placed around her neck, as it’s now the cross (of guilt, of regret) that she must forever bear.
Over and over again, Caravaggio imbued his pictures with drama but without suffocating them. Composition, tone, mood; nuance, gesture, symbolism. If we could share “Supper at Emmaus” and “Taking of Christ” we’d be looking at pictures just as miraculous as the scenes they depict.
Caravaggio has also sustained a reputation as a brawler and ruffian. Some of this, pure and simple, is the result of malicious gossip or slander propagated by jealous artists or others with an axe to grind. Part of it can be traced to a time when one’s sense of honor was not to be trifled with, and when people often took the law into their own hands. There’s no arguing the fact that Caravaggio was an emotional and passionate young man – who died of fever at age 39 – and Ebert-Schifferer points out that he was often his own worst enemy. She also writes:
“It is misguided to interpret Caravaggio’s delinquency, which was perfectly normal for the time, as a symptom of a personality disorder that would also find expression in his work. His misdemeanors dissuaded not even the most pious of patrons from ordering a painting from him.”
However, in what reads like a skirmish in “West Side Story,” Caravaggio did indeed mortally wound one Ranuccio Tommasoni. Or, as LACMA’s press release sums it up: “In 1606, Caravaggio’s murdering of a young man over either a woman or a game of tennis forced him to leave Rome where he was wanted by the police.” Maybe instead of “either” it was over the Roman Serena Williams – that is, over a game of tennis and a woman.
At the end of this engrossing book we are left with two almost contradictory impressions. One, that Caravaggio was always moving around or getting in trouble, and, two, that he was not only highly productive but managed to squeeze so much depth and piety into his pictures. There may be hundreds and presumably thousands of monographs about this great artist, but how well can we know or understand him, especially from this remove of several centuries where we can only squint back through the distorted lens of the present?
What remains before us is the work, and it, too, perhaps, defies our grasp because it is simply so remarkable.
Bodies and Shadows: Caravaggio and His Legacy is on view through Feb. 10 in the Resnick Pavilion of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. There is a free exhibition lecture this Sunday, Jan. 6, at 1 p.m., titled Caravaggio and Optics. There is also a filmic weekend taking place soon in LACMA’s Bing Theater. It’s called Bodies, Shadows and Stories: Cinema After Caravaggio, and the screenings include O Sangue (Blood), by Pedro Costa, with Confortorio, by Pablo Benvenuti, on Friday, Jan. 18; Caravaggio, by Derek Jarman, with Mama Rosa, by Pier Paolo Pasolini, screens on Saturday, Jan. 19; and The Last Temptation of Christ, by Martin Scorsese, will be shown on Sunday, Jan. 20. Tickets, $10 general; $7 members, seniors, students (except for the Scorsese film, which is free). Call (323) 857-6010. For LACMA admission fees and hours (open daily except Wednesday) call (323) 857-6000 or go to lacma.org.