I recently visited the National Gallery’s current exhibition Beyond Caravaggio. Rather than focusing on the man himself, the exhibition centres around the work of lesser known artists who were inspired by Caravaggio in various ways. Some by his raw subject matter and commitment to realism. Others by his use of light and closely cropped frames. Actually, very few paintings by the man himself are exhibited here, though somehow his genius is made all the more apparent by his absence.
So often, when confronted by widely accepted works of genius you find yourself wondering what the big deal is. I think this is partly because you’ve seen too many reproductions of this work on mouse mats and umbrellas. Perhaps it’s because you have to look at the masterpiece through the iPhone screens of other tourists. I also think it’s because when the lowly human brain is confronted by so much beauty all at once, it can’t comprehend any of it and you start to feel sleepy and when you look around for a bench you find that they’re all taken by little old ladies so you have to go home and collapse into bed and watch about eight episodes of the simpsons just to recover. But maybe thats just me.
My point is, that this exhibition really highlighted Caravaggio’s brilliance by NOT showing much of his work. His paintings are hidden amongst the work of his contemporaries and followers. What’s interesting is that the vibrancy, immediacy, humanity, action and general squalor of his work immediately jumps out at you. You’re drawn to his paintings before you even know why. And by comparing them with others of a similar theme and content, the exhibition points out quite clearly who’s the big renaissance dawg.
The exhibition assumed a certain level of knowledge and wasn’t particularly informative on Caravaggio’s biography or the context of his times (in contrast to the Portrait Gallery’s Picasso exhibition). This was clearly a deliberate choice, rather than an oversight or an assumption that the artist’s legend precedes him (although it probably does). I thought this was clever, as it edged away from the bawdy and violent biographical details and instead focused on Caravaggio’s contribution to the development of Western art. Where the Picasso exhibition focused on the artist’s reaction to events and movements, this explored how the artist inspired his own.
That said, if you are interested in getting to know more about the original nuttah himself, and you fancy a bit of a laugh, I recommend Simon Schama’s Power of Art, Caravaggio. Not least for the extremely bizarre and historically questionable re-enactments, which feature a young and rather gouche looking Andrew Garfield.
The documentary makes him out to be a kind of renaissance Kanye West: incredibly volatile, self-obsessed and prone to scandal. But maybe with a little more talent, although I actually love Kanye, so less of that plz. Anyway, I seem to have digressed so far from my original point that I think it prudent to stop writing altogether. Basically, I suggest y’all visit Beyond Caravaggio before it closes and try not to be too dissapointed by the lack of actual Caravaggios on display because THAT’S THE POINT OF THE EXHIBITION YOU FOOL.
Beyond Caravaggio runs until 15th January 2017
Tickets are £14 for adults, £7 for Students and Jobseekers.