You don’t complain about a Caravaggio show. Among the most precocious and perennially fresh of the old masters, Caravaggio (born Michelangelo Mirisi, his famous appellation coming from his place of birth) continues to have a throttling effect. Even the most mundane elements of his legacy possess a charge. The National Gallery of Canada’s current blockbuster summer exhibition, “Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome,” gathers paintings from Fort Worth, Hartford, Kansas City, New York, Toledo, Detroit and, naturally, Rome. You’d have to keep quite the itinerary to see it all when disbanded. There are absences, of course, a relative lack of European holdings—only one of the Uffizi works (no Medusa or the sublime second Bacchus); no The Conversion of Saint Paul, which remains in Rome; no Omnia vincit Amor, in Berlin, one of the painter’s naughtiest endeavours—but really, this is a treat of treats.
The power and rarity of Caravaggio’s works, not to mention their scattering across institutions and borders, means that encountering even one of them is transfiguring, akin to the many conversions and reckonings he himself painted before his premature death at 38. Andrew Graham-Dixon, in his fantastic, measured 2010 book about the artist entitled Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, puts it this way: “Caravaggio’s paintings have a destructive effect on pictures by other artists hung anywhere near them in art galleries. They exert such a sensually charged, magnetic attraction that they seem almost as though backlit, or somehow illuminated from within, while the pictures around them—even those of great artists, whether Rembrandt or Poussin or Velàsquez—appear by comparison to recede, to retreat from the gaze.”
“Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome” thus poses some problems. How can the achievements of the artist’s lesser contemporaries possibly hold up? Is the National Gallery merely padding out the Caravaggios it could obtain?
There is also the matter of Caravaggio’s life. Often sensationalized and heavily interpreted—instances vary, from Derek Jarman’s 1986 film to biographer Peter Robb’s controversial page-turner M—it is effectively absent from the National Gallery’s didactic panels. A beautiful large-format pamphlet is available, but without this viewers new to the work will have no knowledge of the artist’s legend: his mysterious early convalescence, his bisexuality, his association with various brawls and forms of petty crime, his murder rap, his conflicted integration with the Knights of Malta, his elliptical death. The absence is remarkable, actually: Why would the NGC miss out on an opportunity to sex up its exhibition? Is this prudishness, an attempt to skew family-friendly?
A less cynical view is that curators David Franklin and Sebastian Schütze want to emphasize aesthetics. In the subtitle of Graham-Dixon’s book, one finds a rationale for downplaying Caravaggio’s ribaldry: the artist was both profane and sacred, working as hard as he played. His conviction about seeing and living life for what it is resulted not just in a string of seamy, semi-substantiated biographical tales, but, foremost, in an art reflecting these tales’ most transcendent qualities. What emerges above all in “Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome” is Franklin and Schütze’s desire for us to read the artist as revolutionarily authentic, down-to-earth, experiential. In other words, realist.
And placing Caravaggio next to his followers might, practical reasons aside, be the best way to do this. Like a powerful drug or rigorous exercise, this artist is to be administered with discretion and care. Artists such as Giovanni Baglione, whose Ecstasy of Saint Francis resounds with Caravaggian aspects, makes us appreciate details of the master’s formal innovations, his attention to flesh, to intimacy. Ditto for the Gentileschis, Orazio (peer of Caravaggio) and his daughter Artemisia, whose famous, weirdly and boldly painted Judith Beheading Holofernes comes to the NGC from Naples. Artists who are not slavish copiers still show us how distinct he is. We are fortunate to have the brilliant Georges de La Tour’s The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs here, an example of how Caravaggio’s The Cardsharps partially instigated similar topics decades later. But the two works do not get along well. De La Tour’s droll social fancy jostles against Carravagio’s tactile sublimity. Bon vivant Valentin de Boulogne’s David with the Head of Goliath and Two Soldiers is, in its own way, fantastic—its central, androgynous David persevering boldly amid the embellished gore. But it has none of Caravaggio’s implications. Standing in front of the latter’s first Sacrifice of Isaac, just adjacent to de Boulogne’s David, one gets an entirely different feeling—as if one is accomplice to murder.
It is noteworthy that few of the things Caravaggio paints are, to modern eyes, strictly real: visitations, stigmata, Greco-Roman myths, etc. In the painter’s day, getting in touch with the immediacy of religious experience was, however, very real, a by-product of the austere, shrill revolutionaries of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, whose aim was to make the vicissitudes of the scriptures as close to the bone as possible. To our eyes, Caravaggio’s works may seem even more intriguing for the cutting irony his colourful life, as we now presume to know it, brings to this zealousnness. For instance, courtesan Fillide Melandroni, a frequent Caravaggio model, poses as Mary Magdalen in his Martha and Mary Magdalene, her conversion problematized by the sensuousness with which her body and face are painted. As Graham-Dixon points out, Melandroni was no repentant whore.
There is little distance to a contemporary encounter with Caravaggio, however. It has been said often, but, in Caravaggio, one finds presentiments of photography and cinema: the dramatic lighting, in which everything seems spotlit against a black backdrop; the fleshy figures, all life models, many of them street types, painted with unfailing, and at times morbid, detail. Martin Scorsese is a vocal champion, but the director most aligned with Caravaggio is Pier Paolo Pasolini, whose own extreme life eerily echoes that of the painter’s. And in Pasolini—who was also called a realist but loved opera, fabulism and ancient tragedy—one finds a key sympathizer, someone who renders life’s miseries, hierarchies and depravations as bombastic-yet-scruffy tableaux.
And so Caravaggio, especially when paired with his comparatively tame followers, does not rest easy. All of his works are about looking and, by association, and as evinced by that fabulously bizarre early masterpiece, Boy Bitten by a Lizard, about violation. One is beguiled by Caravaggio’s formal bravado and then inevitably brought to a moment of thematic severity and crisis. Among the first true decadents, Caravaggio is giddy about the raw, paradoxical allure of beauty: its dangerous proximity to ugliness. Curiously, it was 1980s hardcore band Black Flag’s “Slip It in,” a nasty song about sexual longing and teasing, that occurred to me as I left the exhibition. I pictured Caravaggio singing it to his friends, enemies, lovers, patrons, viewers and followers alike: “You say you don’t want it / You don’t want it / Say you don’t want it / Then you slip it on in.”