LACMA’s recent exhibition Bodies & Shadows: Caravaggio and his Legacy (November 11, 2012 – February 10, 2013) is admittedly not the first U.S. show to bring together works by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and artists who emulated his style. 2010 marked the 400th anniversary of Caravaggio’s death, and the art world exploded with monographs, biographies, and exhibitions about Caravaggio. There have been Caravaggio and Caravaggisti exhibitions every year since. And the fascination with Caravaggio – the cult of Caravaggio – only grows. Indeed, the catalogue that accompanies LACMA’s exhibition admits people must think: Caravaggio again?
Yes, Caravaggio again.
Much about Caravaggio’s life, personality, and art is still being resolved. And yet, the LACMA exhibition is hardly as much about Caravaggio as it is about the overwhelming impact he had on seventeenth century art. The curators purposefully avoid the term “followers” to describe those who employed Caravaggesque features in their art, and this is for a few reasons. Unlike some of his famous contemporaries, Caravaggio never had an academy or pupils; by his death, his style was so popular that he scarcely needed it. He had a circle of artist friends in Rome, but their relationships were not of a master-student type. Each artist shown at Bodies & Shadows had something unique about their style and each, perhaps more importantly, had their own personalities and imagination. This might seem like an obvious statement, but with Caravaggio studies, some things need to simply be restated lest we begin to take terms like “Caravaggisti,” “Caravaggism,” “Caravaggesque,” for granted. As Bodies & Shadows demonstrates, artists took freedoms with Caravaggio’s style and emphasized artistic elements from their region and/or their own specialties. (As I’ve written previously, I think this would have particularly annoyed Caravaggio – but that is another story.) The important idea is that Caravaggio sparked a change in art that spread across western Europe with incredible speed, no doubt helped by his sojourn in Naples, Malta, and Sicily. For whatever reason, Caravaggio’s humble figures and dramatic chiaroscuro resonated with artists and patrons, and suddenly, it became the major mode of artistic expression.
There are particularly powerful moments in Bodies & Shadows. As a Caravaggio specialist, you can probably imagine my emotional state when as soon as I walked in there were two of my favorite Caravaggios, the Ecstasy of St. Francis and St. John the Baptist within my immediate line of sight. I think I burst into tears. I can’t quite articulate how important it is to see works of art in person. Everything about them is different. You connect with them. I literally got on my knees so that I could see Caravaggio’s “sketch” with the back of his brush on the St. John. I could see the wet in Peter’s eyes as he pointed to himself and denied he knew Christ. I made a face at the sickly greenish-yellow color of John the Baptist’s head on a platter – realizing for the first time why Salome might be turning away … because it’s a severed head, and it looks like one. Obviously I knew this before, but slides don’t do justice to Caravaggio’s mastery of color and detail. Gerrit van Honthorst’s Christ Crowned with Thorns coupled with Jan Janssens’ work of the same name offered equally powerful moments. I was mesmerized by these two paintings. Both combine Caravaggesque lighting with truly remarkable expressions that bring the viewer face to face with a tender and wince-inducing moment in Christ’s passion, leaving the viewer to contemplate which side they’re on.
These powerful moments are not confined to single works of art. There were knock-out moments where I could spend a long time going back and forth between paintings looking at the way the artist applied paint to create hair, or fingernails, or jewelry. The exhibition’s design makes it fairly easy to walk back and forth between paintings by a specific artist for comparison. There is exquisite beauty in the smallest of details in the paintings at Bodies & Shadows, such as the sheerness of Judith’s shawl in Valentine de Boulogne’s Judith or the way Georges de la Tour renders shadow on Mary Magdalene’s bare shoulder as a piece of her hair delicately rests on it.
There was a problematic moment in the show, too. I suspect I’m not (and won’t be) the only person who will mention The Tooth Puller (c. 1608), a painting in LACMA’s own collection attributed to Caravaggio. I have a tense “relationship” with this painting. (You can see some of my thoughts here.) I haven’t decided, even after seeing the work in person, whether or not I think it’s from Caravaggio’s hand. Seeing it in person was immensely fulfilling, and I spent a lot of time in front of the painting talking with my husband and brother-in-law about the differences of the work to the other Caravaggios we had just seen. There are passages in the painting that seemed to me to be drastically and blatantly different from the way Caravaggio handled paint in the other works shown at the exhibition. On the other hand, the sinister, eerie quality of a painting that has some wonderfully Caravaggesque details lends support to a Caravaggio creation. I’ll address the painting in more depth in a follow up post, but for now, the words of Keith Christiansen best describe my current thoughts about the painting: “If Caravaggio connoisseurship contains a lesson, it is that this revolutionary master is too unpredictable in character to fit any tightly constructed scheme of evolution or expectation.” (“Caravaggio and “L’esempio davanti del naturale,“ Art Bulletin, 1986)
Bodies & Shadows brings together art by artists of many nationalities to make a point about Caravaggio’s legacy. His legacy began at home, in Italy, when his art was in such high demand that when he wasn’t in Rome, there was an artistic void that artists could only hope to fill. It spread, with his exile, to Naples, Malta, and Sicily, and from there, to Spain and beyond. We find his influence in France with artists like Valentin de Boulogne and in the Dutch world, particularly in Utrecht, where artists’ experiments and inventions within Caravaggism secured his legacy amongst Northern Baroque artists. Artists influenced directly or indirectly by Caravaggio appropriated his chiaroscuro, earth tones, and humble figures, and his style, if that is even the correct term, became an undeniable, yet sometimes subtle force in their own art.
I’ve started to think of Caravaggio as a self-made man. I think he was someone who, arriving in the bustling artistic hub of Rome at the age of 21, knew exactly what he wanted to do with his talents but struggled for years to get there. And when he finally did, his career took off to such a startling degree that perhaps even he wasn’t expecting it. I think he enjoyed the fame and the commissions that came with it, because he had been effectively working toward it his whole life. This might be a romantic, populist viewpoint of an artist who is already constantly and tirelessly popularized, but I also think it’s a human viewpoint more than anything else. The one thing Bodies & Shadows made explicitly clear to me is that Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, a man of unimaginable talent whose incredible skills of self-fashioning enabled him to become the most sought after artist in Rome, a man who created undeniably powerful works of art … was just a man. And yet, his legacy is so tremendous that he defies definition. He is simply Caravaggio.
Note: I urge you to see the show at LACMA before February 10th, when it closes. I strongly recommend buying the catalogue that accompanies this exhibition, Caravaggio and his Legacy ($40 USD). If you miss the exhibition at LACMA and can make it out to the East Coast, you’ll have a chance to experience Caravaggio at the Wadsworth. Burst of Light: Caravaggio and his Legacy will be running from March 6 – June 13 of this year.