EXHIBITIONS: ‘Beyond Caravaggio’

‘Beyond Caravaggio’     National Gallery, London

January 2017

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 – 1610)

This exhibition is the first exhibition in the UK to explore the influence of this major artist on the work of his contemporaries and artists who came after him.

As well as some of the major works by Caravaggio, it features artists such as Orazio Gentileschi, Valentin de Boulogne, Jusepe de Ribera and Gerrit van Honthorst.

Caravaggio was an exceptional artist and one of the most revolutionary figures in art. His paintings seem to depict the intensity of his short life. They are strikingly original in their intense naturalism, dramatic lighting and powerful story telling.

“The painters then in Rome were so taken by the novelty, and the younger ones especially flocked to him and praised him alone as the only true imitator of nature, looking upon his works as miracles, they vied with each other in following him.”

Giovan Pietro Bellori, 1672

There are 49 paintings in the exhibition and only a small selection of these are by Caravaggio. I found this a disappointing aspect as I’d expected to see more. Those that were featured were totally unforgettable and so powerful that they overwhelmed the other work exhibited. The other artists were not familiar to me and I’m afraid they paled into insignificance. I could see the influence of Caravaggio on their work in the composition, naturalness and the use of light and dark but they were not able to touch the brilliance of Caravaggio’s unique expression. Admittedly Caravaggio lived a tumultuous, dangerous and probably depraved life and I feel that his creative energy exploded out of this life style. No doubt this explains to some degree the power of his story telling and imagination. But what was surprising to me was, what I saw as, his empathy with many of the biblical scenes he painted. The individuals and the dramatic elements of the events came alive and there was a realism and an understanding of what was going on. This was rarely the case in the work of the other artists.

My overall feeling about the exhibition was one of disappointment. I couldn’t help comparing it to two exhibitions I saw last year, both with similar themes showing the influence which artists had on other artists. One was ‘Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art’, the other, ‘In the Age of Giorgione’. In both of these exhibitions, the influence of the artists was shown in the work of other equally prominent artists. I learnt an enormous amount from these two exhibitions but not from this one because of the featuring of unfamiliar and seemingly second-rate artists. I would like to have asked why an artist such as Rembrandt (1606 – 1669) was not included to show equally powerful story telling, naturalism and unparalleled use of chiaroscuro. This would have given Caravaggio’s influence more significance and meaning.


About pbfarrar

I am an Australian living permanently in England. I have recently retired from the position of Principal of an independent school and have taken up the study of Fine Art with the OCA.
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