BEYOND CARAVAGGIO Scottish National Gallery 2017 review Thursday 15th June

The Taking Of Christ (1602) by Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio


Beyond Caravaggio is a major new summer exhibition at Scottish National Gallery.  This major exhibition featuring 48 works of art from 30 different artists, including  four works from Caravaggio himself, follows not only the  influence that Caravaggio had on his artistic contemporaries, but also those who continued to in their own way draw inspiration from his artistic vision in the years after his death…a vision by which Caravaggio re-defined European classical painting of the period in the way he composed, painted, and most famously played with light and shadow in his work to bring a new emotional and physical realism to art.

Michelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio (1571-1610) was one of the original “bad boys” of the art world.  A man with a reputation for breaking the accepted rules of the day and for a hot and fiery temperament, a temper that eventually led to him having to flee Rome for the relative safety of Naples to escape a murder charge after killing a man in a quarrel over a game of tennis (or cards – the exact details are still debated by historians).  Only the protection of Caravaggio’s important and powerful friends and patrons made this move possible, but later events in his turbulent life stretched even this protection to its limits.  Caravaggio died reputedly of a fever in 1610 aged 39 (again even these facts are unclear), and his final resting place is not known.  To the wider world (outside of artists influenced by his works on the whole) Caravaggio was forgotten after his death and his style of painting, along with so many other artists from this period, fell from popular grace.  It was not until the middle years of the 20th century when major re-appraisals of European paintings from this period began to take place that Caravaggio’s importance as an artist was re-established.

One of the major works on display here is “The Taking of Christ” (1602) by Caravaggio, and so many elements of this painting are of note, including  the lighting and placement of the figures in such a way that our optical centre of the painting is moved without us realising it.  This painting captures on canvas the illusion of real people and a real event, almost as if a window in time has been opened on the gallery wall for you to step into.  A lovely little twist too in this painting of the artist painting himself into the top right hand corner of the painting holding the very light source that everything is built around.  In the same gallery on an adjacent wall to this painting we can see “The Tribute Money” by Giovanni Serodine.  In itself, this is a great work of art, but on display close to one another, it is obvious who was the master and who was the follower here.

Caravaggio brought real people and reality to life on canvas, but the religiously influenced works of art were never far from his or his followers’ hands as wealthy patrons would vie with one another to prove their devotion (both public and private) by commissioning works of art often depicting “The Saints”.  One room of this exhibition is devoted to such works of art and in themselves are an interesting insight into the religious mind-set of the wealthy elite of the period.

This exhibition is interesting on far more levels than the artists and artwork themselves. Through artists like Adam de Coster,  Pietro Novelli, Orazio Borgianni and many others we can start to see not only how Caravaggio influenced these artists, but also how some of these artists themselves influenced others.  Art is never a fixed point in time, it is always a fluid flow of inter-changing and developing ideas and some of the works on display here could easily fit into “new works of the 20th Century”.   This exhibition is also an insight into the production line that Italian and European art was at this time – you entered a master’s studio as an apprentice (as Caravaggio himself did), then you work your way through the production line of an “artist’s studio” working to start with on small background details or maybe flowers.  Slowly, bit by bit you learn your craft.  It is a production style that was still in use when studios would package art and story content for comic book publishers in the 20th century.

Caravaggio’s reputation as an artist is well earned and the paintings by him on display are exceptional.  As you stand close to them, more and more of the subject matter is opened up – his attention to detail was stunning.  The use of light in his paintings and the realism of the subject matter is what most people would attribute as outstanding to this artist, but for me, finding that Caravaggio only worked from live models and still life subjects and painted directly what he saw without the conventional use of preparatory sketches as a guide makes these paintings to me even more remarkable.

This exhibition is organised by The National Galleries of Scotland in partnership with the National Gallery in London and the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin.  Works have also been made available from private collections – some available for public exhibition view for the first time ever.

Beyond Caravaggio
On now until 24th September 2017
£12 (£10) Free for Our Friends

Review by Tom King

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