Wednesday, 12 October 2016

'Beyond Caravaggio' at the National Gallery

On Monday I went to a preview of the new blockbuster exhibition at the National Gallery about Caravaggio and the artists he influenced, 'Beyond Caravaggio'. It's obviously Caravaggio's year since I saw a similar exhibition in Madrid in September called 'Caravaggio and the Painters of the North' at Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. That exhibition looked specifically at Caravaggio's influence on painters in northern Europe, most of whom I hadn't heard of before, but had the bonus of including Caravaggio's last painting, 'The Martyrdom of St Ursula'. The National Gallery's exhibition goes broader than just northern Europe and includes some astonishing paintings.

Caravaggio is known for his use of light and shade, for the dramatic poses and for his realism. There aren't any idealised people in his paintings, they're ordinary and we can still see them in the street today, with frayed cuffs, unthinkingly dishevelled and with wrinkles. The poses of his people aren't just dramatic, they were also new at the time, a new take on a very familiar story. In his 'Supper at Emmaus' he shows one of the diners about to jump out of his chair in shock and surprise - have you seen that pose before in any painting before Caravaggio? - and another diner throwing his arms out wide in a challenging angle to get right. The magic is that you could almost reach out and grasp that man's hand since it seems to be pressing out of the painting, and, if you did, you'd be in the presence of the Christ. That brings you closer to God.

It's not just the story-telling, Caravaggio is clearly a great painter of people. Just look in the faces of the people in 'The Taking of Christ'- these are real people. The look of almost acceptance in Christ's face is belied by his hands, the twisting fingers suggesting the fear of what he knows will come next. It's a very powerful painting and painted to a high finish, with the sheen in the guard's armoured arm at the centre of the painting rather than the faces of Jesus and Judas.

This is, justifiably, the poster for the exhibition and there's a giant blow up on the hoarding in Trafalgar Square. The man in the top right of the painting holding the lantern is thought to be a self-portrait of Caravaggio, placing himself at the centre of history.

There are works by a range of other painters on display and one of my favourites was a rather un-Caravaggio painting of 'The Rest on the Flight into Egypt' by Orazio Gentileschi. It's very light and airy and has a feeling of the dryness of the atmosphere. Joseph is asleep (as he often is portrayed), bundled in his voluminous cloak and the too-big baby is suckling, sitting on his mother's knee. What attracted me, though, was the magnificent donkey seen on the other side of the wall with his really thick fur and perky ears. Isn't he lovely?

Another painting that grabbed my attention was 'The Crucifixion of St Peter' by Mattia Preti (Il Calabrese). This shows an aged St Peter upside down and about to be crucified, very off-centre and lit from the left. His position and flailing arm suggests his pain and discomfort in his last moments, a very clever composition that was designed to be hung high so the viewer looks up at it. Peter felt unworthy to be crucified in the same way as his Lord and asked to be crucified upside down and this is what we see. This photo doesn't really show it very well and it's not as dark as this makes it look.  

There is only one Caravaggio painting in the final room and that's 'St John the Baptist in the Wilderness', a painting also part of the Museo Thyssen exhibition. It's obviously John since he holds his trademark symbol of the long thin cross and is wearing animal skins as well as the gorgeous red robe. But what's unusual, and again goes back to Caravaggio's ability to reimagine and re-tell stories we're all familiar with, he paints John as a sullen young man rather than the more mature man he's usually depicted as. The sulky John is sitting there mulling over some thoughts while almost naked and with dirty toe nails. Is he wondering whether he's made the right career choice? Who knows, but it's a very startling painting.

This is an excellent exhibition that shows us Caravaggio and the painters he influenced, enabling us to compare and contrast and think about these marvellous paintings. The exhibition opens today and runs until 15 January 2017 so there's plenty of time to see it. I'll certainly be going back for more.

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