Thursday 27 April 2017

Old masters, down to a fine art

Arrogant, hot-tempered and a hellraiser. A new exhibit dedicated to Caravaggio at the National Gallery is one you won't want to miss

Brush strokes: A Musician (1651) by Francesco Buoneri, called Cecco del Caravaggio
Brush strokes: A Musician (1651) by Francesco Buoneri, called Cecco del Caravaggio
The Taking of Christ, 1602, by Caravaggio

Ros Drinkwater

Were he alive today, he would be on Interpol's Most Wanted list - and he'd probably have Johnny Depp on speed dial.

Born in Lombardy in 1571, Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio was a seriously bad boy known for his arrogance, hot temper, violence, lechery (men and women), and general disregard for authority. The reason we're still talking about him today is down to his genius. Caravaggio revolutionised art, setting the template for the image makers of the generations to come - from the Old Masters (Rubens, Rembrandt and Velaquez) to today's filmmakers. Remember the bar scenes in Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets? Like much of Scorsese's work, they were inspired by Caravaggio.

At the National Gallery Of Ireland, 'Beyond Caravaggio' brings together 40 masterpieces, four by Caravaggio, complemented by significant works by his followers, known as the Caravaggisti. From the time of his first public commission in 1599, artists from all over Europe headed to Rome, eager to learn, and to emulate his radical departure from everything that had gone before in art. What thrilled them was the realism, his dramatic use of light in what became known as chiaroscuros (the effect of contrasted light and shadow, a duality never seen before), his love of narrative and daring placement of biblical figures in contemporary settings.

An innovation that caused him grief was his use of real people (dead and alive) as models. When the Carmelites commissioned the Death of the Virgin, they rejected the finished work as indecent - the model for the Virgin was rumoured to have been a drowned prostitute.

The Taking of Christ, 1602, by Caravaggio
The Taking of Christ, 1602, by Caravaggio

What strikes you is the utter modernity of the paintings. They are shocking, charged with menace and sensuality, but there's also an underlying compassion for the dispossessed.

To get the measure of this exhibition, you'll need more than one visit. Start by focusing on the Master. Centre stage is The Taking of Christ, a painting that made global headlines in the early 1990s when it was identified as a 'lost' Caravaggio.

Attributed to Caravaggisti Gerrit Honthorst, in 1921 it had been bought by a Dublin doctor, the late Dr Marie Lea-Wilson, for £8 in Edinburgh. A decade later she gifted it to the Jesuits' House in Leeson Street where it hung on the wall until 1990 when it was sent for cleaning to the National Gallery. The perceptive curator and art historian Sergio Benedetti authenticated it as a Caravaggio original. Worth in the region of £50m, it is now on permanent loan to the gallery. The figure on the extreme right of the painting is believed to be a self-portrait, a notion that chimes well with a 1597 criminal archive description of the artist as "a stocky young man… with a thin black beard, thick eyebrows and black eyes, who goes dressed all in black".

The Supper at Emmaus shows the moment when, after the resurrection, Christ joins his disciples for supper and reveals his identity. The key element is the depiction of Christ, youthful and unbearded, but don't miss the symbolism - in the basket of fruit, the pomegranate stands for the crown of thorns, apples and figs for original sin, and grapes, the Eucharistic wine - the blood of Christ.

Upon his arrival in Rome from his home village of Caravaggio, the 20-year-old set people talking. Boy Peeling Fruit (1592-93), thought to be his earliest surviving work, caused a sensation - the subject being neither religious, nor of a prominent person.

In similar vein, Boy Bitten by a Lizard was a startling departure from the norm. It has been interpreted as a warning of the fate that awaits the libertine. David LaChapelle perfectly described it as "a photograph before photography".

In a career spanning a mere two decades, Caravaggio produced 80 to 90 works. In 1606 he killed a long-time enemy in a duel and fled Rome, pursued by his enemies and run to ground. They disfigured his face but left him alive. He ended his days in Tuscany, dying of malaria in 1610, aged 39. Without question, he was an enigma. The roots of his angst could lie in his blighted childhood - his entire family died of the plague.

But the hot-blooded hell raiser also possessed the infinite patience to teach his adoring pupils, none more than Cecco, his favourite model, and possibly his lover. Of all the works by his followers, the one that crosses centuries to connect to today's audience is Cecco's A Musician. It was painted a decade after Caravaggio's death, but who can doubt that the smouldering gaze of the youth is aimed directly at his one-time master? If you see one exhibition this year, this should be it.

Beyond Caravaggio is at the National Gallery of Ireland until May 14. See nationalgallery.ie.

Irish Independent

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