Caravaggio: The Final Years at the National Gallery

This article first appeared on the website of the Social Affairs Unit.

At the heart of any exhibition review, after one’s stripped away the informative, fun or rancorous bits, there is almost always a simple, yes or no question waiting to be answered: is it worth bothering to see this show? So I might as well come clean right away. Yes, Caravaggio: The Final Years, currently showing at the National Gallery, is worth seeing. The organisers have managed to bring to London a few paintings of extraordinary quality, interest and importance, most of which rarely leave their usual domiciles in southern Italy. One or two are truly unforgettable. And it hardly needs saying, at least amongst people who know anything at all about art, that Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was a magnificently innovative, endlessly surprising painter whose influence was immense and who continues to be copied and name-checked now, centuries after his short life ended. So to experience any of his autograph work at first hand, even amidst the least encouraging of circumstances, is a boost to anyone’s visual literacy. For that reason, if no other, it would be a mistake to miss this exhibition. In the end, after all, it’s the art that stays lodged in the mind — not all the transient infelicities of this misguided, mismanaged exhibition, which is so very many ways ought to have been so very much better.

In the spotlight
Let’s start with the single worst misjudgement first. What’s the one thing that everyone knows about Caravaggio? And no, I don’t mean his homicidal turns, his energetic bisexuality, his gift for making enemies or any of the other colourful content of his turbulent life — what’s the one thing that everyone knows about his art? It hinges, of course, on light. Caravaggio’s chief legacy to his followers was a whole new vocabulary of light, in which the intense contrast between illumination and shadow could frame a moment of drama, add weight to a composition or simply speak for itself with a degree of expressive potency unparalleled in earlier art. This, coupled with the so-called ‘realism’ of Caravaggio’s work — his tendency to people his holy scenes not with ideal types cribbed from classical art, but with the all-too-human prostitutes and petty criminals who filled the streets of places like Messina and Syracuse — bundled up, it must be said, with the strange lithe sexiness of some of his figures — that is what contemporaries found most striking about his work. And indeed, it what we find most striking now. But over the course of his life, Caravaggio’s use of light changed. It seems clear that in those last years preceding his death, his treatment of light and darkness grew more extreme, more intense and more violent than ever before. So presumably, an exhibition focusing on Caravaggio’s final years should provide ample scope for examining the painter’s use of light — its development, and, to the extent that the chronology of works is clear, its ultimate conclusion. We should expect to learn a lot about Caravaggio’s light. And if we don’t, then something has gone pretty badly wrong.

Yet what we encounter instead, as we file with the rest of the throng down the stairs into the airless, charmless bunker that constitutes the Sainsbury Wing’s special exhibition space, has to count as one of the most bizarre and inexplicable mistakes ever perpetrated by a major art institution. What we see isn’t Caravaggio’s light — it’s the gallery’s light, and pretty darned strange it is, too. Somewhere along the planning process for the show, someone obviously decided that it would be a really good idea to keep the exhibition space extremely dark — dark walls, in oxblood and slate, as well as a generalised absence of illumination — while at the same time training spotlights on the paintings themselves. The result? As might have been predicted, this arrangement (more familiar from, say, the London Dungeon than the more upmarket reaches of the tourism spectrum) has the effect of making the usual unremarkable crowd of massed cultural consumers look marginally more like figures from Caravaggio’s canvases — while making the canvases themselves almost unreadable. The raking light tells us a great deal about the glaze layers and the overall condition of the upper few inches of the larger works, bleeds all the colour out of the centre of the work and inflicts strange patches of glare everywhere else. The larger paintings are simply impossible to see in their entirety. Did no one notice this before the exhibition began? Did no other critic notice it? The literal-mindedness behind this decision might be vaguely endearing had the show been organised by a team of enthusiastic six-formers. Coming from the curators at one of the world’s greatest art institutions, though, it is nothing short of scary. What next? Insisting that viewers can only enjoy Bruegel’s riotous kermesse scenes after consuming four or five pints? Refusing to show Turner canvases anywhere except outside, preferably in a thick fog? Making everyone strip off on their way into a Lucian Freud retrospective? Demand that only horses can see the forthcoming Stubbs show?

Down to our level
But then there’s other evidence afoot that, in the midst of organising all the loans and scholarship and hype, no one actually thought to look at the end result. For one thing, the large works are all hung incredibly low. Does this matter? Well, yes, in all sorts of ways.

Let’s take a simple example. One of the highlights of the exhibition is a magnificent Flagellation (1607), usually on show at the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples. It’s a spectacular work even in the company it encounters there, tall and commanding, powerfully emotive — a perfect painting to experience in the run-up to Holy Week. Christ, head bowed, figure painfully twisted, naked except for His crown of thorns and a brilliantly-executed strip of white cloth, is tied to a massive stone column, flanked by the figures of three of his tormentors — two framing Him, one just a little taller and one a little shorter, another crouched at His feet. It is this grid of bare, pale limbs — Persecuted and persecutors entwined together in the elaborate choreography of suffering and forbearance — that gives the composition its almost electric charge — that, and Caravaggio’s inimitably successful way of establishing complicated spatial relationships through gesture and illumination. In a canvas that divides neatly into three horizontal fields, it is the lower two in which all the action occurs, while the velvet black of the upper canvas is mostly there to bear down upon the actors, forcing down Christ’s head, pushing His tormentors in closer to Him. In some ways, in fact, the lowest third, while less obviously full of psychological force than the centre third, has the most vital part to play, for this is both the area that establishes most clearly the relationship between all the figures, and that gives the viewers that almost frightening sense of proximity to, or perhaps even complicity in the terrible scene unfolding before us.

Yet here, at the National Gallery, what do we see? Not what we would have seen in the church of San Domenico Maggiore, that’s for certain, where the painting once hung and where a replica version hangs today, high above a raised, consecrated altar in a relatively narrow transept chapel flooded with natural light — which is to say, leaving the liturgical context aside for a minute, an uninterrupted, clear, upward-looking view of this magnificent painting. Instead, in the Sainsbury Wing, we simply see a flock of dramatically-lit gallery-goers lost in the whispered confidences of their audio-guides, and then rising above them, the upper two thirds, or perhaps the upper half, of the Flagellation. Well, perhaps even half of something this good is better than nothing?

Notes and queries
Still, while waiting in the inevitable informal queue that develops alongside the smaller works in order to allow some sort of view of them — the handsome, sober Portrait of a Knight of Malta for instance, or the distinctly creepy Sleeping Cupid — there are plenty of minor puzzles to help pass the time. How, for instance, did it come to pass that a costly, purpose-built, contemporary exhibition space, created expressly for the display of Old Master paintings, suffers from a nasty, glare-afflicted lighting scheme that, while it might please conservators, plays havoc, again and again, with what we must assume to be the painters’ intentions? And given the tendency of these Old Master shows to include large altar-pieces — one thinks here of the recent Titian, El Greco and Raphael exhibitions — isn’t it unfortunate that London’s main Old Master exhibition space has such repellently pokey little proportions, truncated sight-lines and all the charisma of a particularly lacklustre underground car-park? And — here’s an old favourite — why is it every time the National Gallery shows its own Old Masters alongside those from other collections, the National Gallery paintings always look so flat, so lacking in depth and luminosity, in a word, so hideously over-restored? (At least the answer to this final, rather upsetting question is being explored to good effect elsewhere.)

So far, then, so bad. Time, perhaps, to give the organisers of Caravaggio: The Final Years a small dose of credit where credit is plainly due. There is one practical aspect of their work that deserves a generous dollop of praise. Having complained recently on this site about the usual dichotomy between the uninformative, free exhibition leaflet versus the unwieldy, far-from-free catalogue, I was delighted to encounter a neat response to this problem — a compact, free exhibition guide containing a brief introduction, a short description of each painting and a tiny bit of useful additional material. Although one could quibble about some of the content, this is, more or less, the right size and shape and complexity of thing to accompany most of us around an exhibition, answering the most urgent questions and providing a point of reference if we want to pursue more complicated points elsewhere. (The catalogue, while illustrated in admirably true colour and hence in some ways a better source of visual information about the pictures than real life encounters with them in the present exhibition, is otherwise an oddly hermetic affair, of interest to connoisseurs of Italian art-historical academic cat-fighting only.) Other institutions would do well to adopt this format, although curators might well argue that it is particularly suitable for shows featuring only a tiny number of actual works.

Qualitas quam quantitas?
For that is another curiosity of this exhibition. When Caravaggio: The Final Years first appeared at the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte in Naples, it was considerably more expansive, containing 19 accepted works, 9 copies of missing originals and 5 new proposed attributions. In London, by way of contrast, there are 16 accepted works — and that’s all. But the Italian show had another advantage. To crib a point made by Brian Sewell in his perceptive Evening Standard review of the London exhibition, Naples is so glutted with work painted by Caravaggio, as well as work profoundly influenced by him, that viewers can be assumed to know a lot, consciously or otherwise, about this painter, whilst visitors from Rome have the full benefit of all his earlier, more spectacular achievements there. By contrast, what do we have in London? The National Gallery’s Supper at Emmaus (1601), which is perhaps stretching the ‘final years’ concept more than a little, a Salome that Sir Denis Mahon bludgeoned the Trustees into acquiring, and not a lot else. All of which means that these 16 works, hung sparsely across the six dark, underlit rooms, are presented not only with very little context in terms of their original patronage, function or reception — the kind of lacuna we’ve come to expect by now — but also with very little context even in terms of art history. Or to put it another way, if you have the misfortune to enter this exhibition without any knowledge of what Caravaggio was getting up to before his ‘final’ years began, you’re going to emerge back into Trafalgar Square none the wiser. All of which is a bit odd, because surely half the point of the whole ‘final years’ tag is to make a distinction between earlier and later work, even to argue (however gingerly, given the bad teleological risks involved) for some sort of ‘late’ quality inherent in the work, some intimation of the end, perhaps something approaching a summation.

But it just isn’t here. How are we to recognise from this exhibition the distance travelled between the lush, overripe, gone-to-seed homoeroticism of his early work and, say, the very late St John the Baptist included here — coarse-featured, enervated, bled dry of fleshiness and physical appeal but perhaps more seriously invested with psychological insight? Or between the vivid colour of the earlier work and the near-monochrome rigour of David with the Head of Goliath — a really magnificent work, by the way, made all the more arresting by the suggestion that Goliath’s head was modelled on Caravaggio’s own? The overall effect is less a narrative of change and development than the evocation of one particular phase of a career. Yet even here, the chronology is still so hotly disputed, the number of works so small and the span of time over which they may have been painted so relatively large, that in the end, really, what is produced is more effect than argument — a show to experience with your eyes and heart and viscera, but not necessarily your intellect.

Spot the difference
There’s an exception to this, however. One of the high points of the exhibition is a comparison between two versions of The Supper at Emmaus — the National Gallery’s own painting and a loan from the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan. It is the one point at which the comparison between ‘early’ and ‘late’ becomes real, because there — assuming one can see past the crowds, the glare and the nasty finish on the National Gallery’s version — it is possible to look back and forth from one to the other, analysing what was gained and lost in the development of the image. This is the kind of totally engaging experience that perhaps uniquely justifies all the time, effort, cost and danger consequent on the organisation of an exhibition involving paintings of this quality. What a shame, then, that there are not more such experiences on offer here.

Here, in front of these two powerful yet divergent works, even the least experienced Caravaggio-watcher can chart out for himself the way in which a completely different mood, a completely different spiritual impact is achieved. He can see, as it were, the brilliant reds and golden yellows of the National Gallery’s version drain away — we have to assume that they were not all created by dodgy ‘cleaning’ — to become the sombre, umbrous tones of the Brera painting. He can watch the focus simplify from that rather elegant repast to a quasi-sacramental loaf and wine-jug and the circle of interconnected gazes. He can see how apparently minor shifts in the gestures of the figures transform the scene from one of high drama to one of wonder too deep either for exclamation or exertion. Movingly, he can experience a sort of nightfall between the two works, drawing in about the Brera piece as if to make this scene the only one in all the world, so that the viewer shares the uncertainty of the participants: ‘And while they yet believed not for joy, and wondered …’ For of the two — and doubtless familiarity plays its usual deadening role here — while the National Gallery version may be the more spectacular piece of painting, it is the Brera version that makes the more powerful spiritual point. And because Caravaggio is a painter who always seems, in a strangely modern way, to draw the conversation back to himself, one stands before this painting somehow imagining that the man who painted it must have felt in his own heart the appeal of the Emmaus story, with its promise of hope, even when hope seems most foolish and futile.

Is nothing sacred?
All of which brings us to a very basic problem — for once, not the problem of this exhibition per se, but of virtually all exhibitions of devotional art. No one would be barbaric enough, in these robustly civilised times, to suggest that a Cubist work by Picasso or Braque would look better with a thick layer of varnish. Nor would they suggest ripping the glass off one of Bacon’s Studies after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X. And what is clearly the worst thing Clement Greenberg ever did? Not his self-centred mistreatment of lovers, colleagues and students, obviously, because that only hurt other human beings. No, his real sin was to encourage the loss of paint from the surfaces of some of David Smith’s sculptures. For these days there’s a general agreement that the artist’s intentions regarding a work are, if not literally sacrosanct, then at very least worthy of serious, scrupulous respect. Who, when hanging a Rothko exhibition these days, would ignore his well-publicised views about the height at which his works should be hung? Only someone who was purposefully making some sort of statement by doing so. It would be like hanging late Turners without frames, in order to make them look more contemporary — a tail-wagging intervention, soliciting approbation from critics and, mostly, other curators. It would not be done accidentally, not only without comment but almost without consciousness. If the edict were disobeyed, such a dandyish gesture would only call more attention to the edict, and to the importance of its conservation.

And yet such is, almost invariably these days, the fate of Baroque devotional art. Who cares if an altarpiece was designed to be hung at a certain height, to be seen from certain vantage-points but not from others, to be illuminated in a certain way and from a certain direction, and to be experienced in the context of particular surroundings — paintings, sculpture, architecture, whatever? While I have no idea whether Caravaggio is known to have made a great fuss over such matters, I do know for a fact that Titian, Tintoretto, El Greco, Raphael and others all did. What’s more, their patrons, critics and admirers were also demonstrably conscious of this sort of issue. Anyone who has ever yawned their way through any serious work on Renaissance or Baroque patronage knows the immense amount of tedious discussion surrounding scale, frames, harmonisation with other nearby work, visual puns, the overall impression made by a work once installed in its intended site — in other words, aspects of its visual functionality. Nowadays, however, it is considered perfectly normal — and like the present show, the El Greco and Titian exhibitions were perfect examples of this — not only to show unfinished, cut-down or otherwise damaged work, but to hang work low, more or less unframed, against gallery walls under artificial light. Is this really the best way to learn anything about an artist, though — even at the basic level of trying to understand how he wanted his paintings to look? Of course not. Instead, such hanging schemes bring the devotional hardware of other times and places down to the level of our present-day art, created for the tartish humours of public scrutiny in a shifting world of white-walled, anonymous galleries. And of course something is lost in this translation. No wonder these Old Master exhibitions so often have a strange, inexplicable air of sadness lingering about them.

God and man in Sicily
Inevitably, a lot of meaning is lost, too, in the decision to move a painting from a church into a gallery. Those who derive their knowledge of Caravaggio principally from broadsheet newspapers’ regurgitations of National Gallery hype, if not from that Derek Jarman’s film, may be surprised at the notion that Caravaggio’s work might have any religious meaning whatsoever. Surely a mentally-unstable bisexual murderer — for few artists have ever been luckier in their modernist, ‘misunderstood outsider’, creative credentials — couldn’t possibly have painted a ‘straight’, serious devotional work? Surely the hand that enthusiastically depicted all those pouting rent boys masquerading as St John, what with everything else it got up to, couldn’t have been connected to a self-consciously Christian soul? Surely these works, with all their drama, earthiness and patent genius must always have been mostly about art, or perhaps about the artist, and not about something as old-fashioned and dreary and unremarkable as actual Christian faith?

To be fair, Caravaggio is hardly the only painter who is burdened, again and again, with our baggage of anachronistic and frankly myopic secularist assumptions, although his bad-boy image makes him a particularly soft, receptive target. Goya is another, especially for those either unwilling or unable to understand the distinction between anticlericalism and atheism. For what, after all, is the point of painting something if you’re not out to undermine it, critique it or transgress against it?

It would, obviously, be foolish to ignore the amount of pride in his own workmanship, the sheer competitive zeal that must have gone into the scraping-into-life of Caravaggio’s most successful paintings. There’s a kind of wilful extremism in some of those compositions, in some of the schemes of illumination, that speaks as clearly as mute pigment can of the desire to push his medium just that little bit further than any of his contemporaries dared to go. The need to be at the cutting edge is one that we understand, although perhaps these days that understanding is intercut with a hint of nostalgia That is perhaps why the National Gallery is so keen to tout Caravaggio was ‘the first modern artist’. But I think we need to take seriously, too, the possibility that there was more than artistic ambition, coupled of course with the desire to make a bit of money, behind the creation of Caravaggio’s devotional work. It is all too easy, now, to read into those broad-featured peasant faces and dirty feet some sort of attempt to criticise the wealth and power of the ecclesiastical hierarchy or perhaps even to subvert belief, full stop — less easy, perhaps, to remember the desire of many Counter Reformation thinkers to develop an affective, personalised, down-to-earth style of religiosity both to wrong-foot protestant critiques and to improve the breadth and depth of public devotion. Surrounded by all the trappings of liturgy and faith, in the churches for which they were painted, we might at least have been able to explore whether this work might still speak to us at the level those who commissioned it, and perhaps even the artist himself, intended. In the Sainsbury Wing basement, however, it is hard enough for the paintings to function as art, let alone as anything more significant. And really, this should be a source of sorrow for all of us, Christian or otherwise, if only because it sets up a barrier between us and these magnificent, mistreated acts of creation.

Not in the South
Still — well, in the end, for all its faults, Caravaggio: The Final Years is still worth the admission fee. Several of the paintings are simply that good. I’ve mentioned, already, the Flagellation from Capdimonte and the David from the Galleria Borghese, Rome. Both are remarkable, yet what admirer of the Baroque won’t eventually find his way to a gallery in central Rome (no matter how eccentric its opening hours) or to the hills above Naples?

In that sense, the real wonders here are the three major Sicilian paintings which are much less well known to those of us languishing in London — the Burial of St Lucy from Syracuse, and the Raising of Lazarus and Adoration of the Shepherd from Messina. Of these, the St Lucy seems, at first, the easiest to dismiss, but is perhaps the greatest. It is a bit of a mess — thin in parts, with areas of repainting and a complicated, vexed history — and looks deceptively simple. But the longer one looks, the more there is to see in this strangely warm, earthy yet luminous work. The two gravediggers (what Leon Golub always tried to achieve, yet never did) seem too monumental to be ordinary humans, leaning inwards, their gigantic forms describing a sort of parenthesis within which much of the action occurs, while the almost scary foreshortening of the dead saint’s body provokes a sense of crisis, looking just that little bit too dead for comfort, and the cusp of the bishop’s mitre is picked out abruptly by the raking light. A blood-coloured cloth, near the centre, provides the only flash of colour. Meanwhile, the upper half of the canvas is occupied only by shadow and a mysterious double arch. The rhythms here repay protracted study — the composition is nothing short of amazing — but perhaps even more remarkable is the sense of age, mystery, gravity produced by this rather sketchy-looking, damaged marvel, which alone would have made entry to the exhibition worthwhile. It looks almost like an excavated fragment of classical Roman painting. It looks almost like some sort of artefact, a relic of something real, rather than just a painting, just a construct. The National Gallery speaks of ‘the first modern painter’ with the implication that this is a point in Caravaggio’s favour. Whereas in my own mind, Caravaggio may be the only painter other than Rubens to tackle the classical world more with lust and understanding than with deference. And what, in the first decade of the seventeenth century, could be more of a marvel than that?

But then the two Messina paintings are also, in their own ways, marvellous. Both share the reddish-brown cast and the low, wedge-shaped composition of the St Lucy. The Lazarus is laid out like a frieze, with Lazarus stretching his arms out in clear evocation of the Crucifixion, his right hand rising above the file of wondering mourners in order to connect, visually, with the imperative, pointing finger of a monumental Christ. The strange frightening light picks out bits of drapery, contours of flesh. Intuitively, the hot-blooded Caravaggio seems a world removed from cool, cerebral Poussin, yet at moments like this the two draw very close indeed. Meanwhile the Adoration is unlike any other treatment of this subject I’ve ever seen. It isn’t so much that all the actors are ‘ordinary’ — Netherlandish painting tended to cast those shepherds as very ordinary indeed — but rather, the psychology of the moment is evoked so unsparingly and perhaps so personally. Once again, much of the upper half of the canvas is lost in the dark — but in this case, rather than suggesting infinite space above, some sketchy rafters instead reveal how low are viewpoint is beneath the eaves of this low stable. Mary is lying on the ground, propped up on a feed box. She looks, frankly, exhausted — like a woman who has just given birth. She is nuzzling her baby, who reaches His tiny fat hand up towards her face. This, obviously, and correctly, is all she cares about — not the strangers kneeling in front of her, not Joseph, certainly not the indifferent bulk of the livestock, as impassive as statues, only a few feet away. It’s a very tender painting, but the sacramental still-life in the foreground lifts the tenderness above sentimentality, just as the emotive power pushes the composition far beyond mere artistic brilliance. It’s real and raw and beautiful. It’s the sort of painting that reminds us why Caravaggio is so easy to copy, yet so impossible to equal.

Ultimately, then, Caravaggio: The Final Years provides an odd sort of access to the life and work of one of Europe’s greatest and most influential painters. There’s no context, no sense of development, because the late work we see is contrasted with nothing. There’s no particular sense of why the work was painted, or what it was painted against, as it were — the work of Caravaggio’s predecessors and contemporaries, so richly represented only a few yards away in other parts of the National Gallery. The paintings are hard to see, while the lighting scheme and the overblown emphasis on the artist’s tempestuous life broadcast a pointless air of theatricality over the proceedings. Did the curators really believe that these paintings could not have made a case for themselves without all that regrettable ‘first modern painter’ bombast, the glaring spotlights and the melodramatic darkness? If so, they were bizarrely, inexplicably wrong. Viewed either at the level of stepping-stones in some narrative of learning how to make pigment on canvas do heart-stopping things — or, better still, as a particular individual’s highly distinctive meditations on the great truths of suffering, death and redemption — there’s enough here to make yet another grudging visit to London’s worst exhibition space entirely worthwhile. Despite itself, this is an exhibition worth seeing.
Bunny Smedley used to be Arts Editor of electric-review.com.

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