Sun, 06 Mar 2005


Crazy about Caravaggio: new show in London examines artist's late

Jill Lawless, Associated Press, London

Four hundred years after his death, Caravaggio - the brawling bad boy of Renaissance art - is experiencing a renaissance of his own. Everyone from filmmakers to fashionistas, it seems, now claims the troubled genius as an inspiration.

Director Martin Scorsese recently cited the Italian artist as a major influence. Handbag designer Silvia Venturini Fendi has said Caravaggio's rich color palette and contrast of light and dark inspired her latest collection of bags for men.

Dawson Carr, curator of a major retrospective of the artist's late work that opened this week at the National Gallery in London, simply calls him a "superstar."

"Previous generations accorded that status to Michelangelo and Raphael and the like," Carr said. "Ours gives it to Caravaggio."

The National Gallery exhibition, "Caravaggio: The Final Years," calls the artist a "modern icon," and it's easy to see why. Born in the Lombardy region of northern Italy in 1571, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was the prototype of the fast- living, outlaw artist.

As a young man storming the Roman art world with his startlingly vivid take on familiar Biblical scenes - often using models taken from the city's streets and taverns - Caravaggio was arrested for crimes including cursing women and illegally carrying a sword. In 1606, he killed a rival in a duel over a disputed tennis match and fled Rome under sentence of death.

For the next four years he traveled to Naples, Sicily and Malta, painting prolifically while on the run from the law. "Caravaggio: The Final Years" brings together 16 paintings from this period.

Caravaggio's early paintings are often dramatic tableaux pierced with shafts of bright light. Many critics see the late paintings, more muted and introspective, as evidence of a tormented soul.

Most of the canvases on show at the National Gallery depict biblical scenes with an unblinking eye for emotional truth and telling everyday detail.

"Caravaggio's revolution was to treat biblical and mythological subjects with realism," said Carr. "He completely eschews idealization. That runs completely counter to the tradition of his day.

"He is also a very great storyteller. He's brilliant at digesting the stories and picking the moment that encapsulates the story."

A depiction of Salome with the head of John the Baptist shows the young woman averting her gaze from the grisly trophy; the executioner, still holding his bloody sword, steals a glance at her partially exposed breast.

In "The Adoration of the Shepherds" - exhibited outside Italy for the first time - what catches they eye is not the infant Christ but the dirt floor, the shepherds' poverty and the exhausted face of the Virgin Mary.

Carr says "The Flagellation," a depiction of the captive Christ, epitomizes Caravaggio's ability to give new life to a scene treated by artists many times before.

"Normally the composition is a kind of balletic dance, with the flagellators in various poses around him," Carr said. "Caravaggio chooses the moment before it begins to heighten the dramatic tension."

In Caravaggio's painting Christ has stumbled, and one of his captors puts a foot out to steady him.

"He stumbles, and in stumbling assumes a pose that conveys his vulnerability and is also heroic and quite beautiful," Carr said.

Caravaggio was drawn to the beauty in scenes of violence. The show includes two depictions of the decapitated John the Baptist, as well as "The Martyrdom of St. Ursula," pierced by an arrow. Most striking of all is the exhibition's final painting: David holding the head of the giant Goliath. The giant's bloody, dripping head, with its contorted grimace, is a likeness of the artist himself.

Some critics have seen the painting as a bid for clemency, and Caravaggio received a papal pardon for his crime in 1610. He died of fever on his way back to Rome, aged 38.

Caravaggio's unsettling style fell out of favor for several centuries following his death, until rediscovered after World War II by a generation weary of romantic, idealized visions.

"The mood after the Second World War, and especially the great neo-realism of Italian cinema - think of 'The Bicycle Thief' - laid the groundwork for Caravaggio's rediscovery," Carr said.

Since then, filmmakers have been drawn to his work. The late director Derek Jarman, who made a 1986 film about Caravaggio's life, said the painter "invented cinematic light" with his bold shafts of illumination.

Scorsese recently cited Caravaggio's use of light and shadow and his street-wise characters as an influence on his films, from "Mean Streets" to "The Aviator."

"There was so much action going on in the frames and in the way he designed the composition and the subject matter," Scorsese told British Broadcasting Corp. television. "He chose a moment that was not the absolute beginning of the action, it's during the action. You come upon the scene midway and you're immersed in it. It was like modern staging in film.

"Caravaggio lived on the edge, he had a truth about life that he knew from the street, from his own gut, which he just put up there on the canvas; and the beauty of it is that the sacred is up there along with the profane."

"Caravaggio: The Final Years" runs at the National Gallery in London until May 22.

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