Caravaggio: The Rebellious, Hot-Tempered Punk Of Art History


 The paintings of Caravaggio combine a realistic observation of the human state, both physical and emotional, with a dramatic use of lighting, and they had a formative influence on Baroque painting. The expression on Isaac’s face says it all: he is scared to death, with his father about to cut his throat. At this exact moment, an angel intervenes, suggesting that Abraham had better sacrifice a sheep.

Do more and more liberals find the emotions unleashed by the arts—all of the arts, from poetry to painting to dance—something of an embarrassment? Are the liberal-spirited people who support a rational public policy—a social safety net, consistency and efficiency in foreign affairs, steps to reverse global warming—reluctant to embrace art’s celebration of unfettered metaphor and mystery and magic? Political correctness has an obsessive belief in the power of language to reveal hidden wickedness. One ‘inappropriate’ remark, one slip, uncovers vast prejudices hiding behind the masks of repeatability. Hence the ‘twitter storms’ about ‘gaffes’ or ‘misspeaks’ which fill the papers in the absence of news. Hence the academic analyses of this novelist or that film maker’s hidden biases. Left unchecked these forces will produce work which is as ‘appropriate’ as a 1950s’ country house drama or a sentimental Victorian novel – and just as forgettable.

Is any artist’s biography more compelling than the life of the Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610)? He has a reputation, of course, as the rebellious, hot-tempered punk of art history, pitching up in Rome in the final decade of the 16th Century, and electrifying the art world as much for his quarrelsome antics as his unconventional pictures. According to one early biographer, the Flemish writer Karel van Mander, Caravaggio used to work intensively for a fortnight and then “swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side … from one tennis-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, with the result that it is most difficult to get along with him”. What is certain is that in our data- and metrics-obsessed era the imaginative ground, without which art cannot exist, is losing ground.

In the early years of the 17th Century, he was brought to trial on at least 11 occasions. The charges included swearing at a constable, penning satirical verses about a rival painter, and chucking a plate of artichokes in a waiter’s face. And then, in 1606, he was forced to flee Rome, after killing a man during a brawl sparked by a dispute over a game of tennis. He spent the rest of his life on the run, before he collapsed and died, in the summer of 1610, while travelling back to Rome to seek a pardon from the pope.

As for his paintings, well, they were just as provocative as the man who created them. Caravaggio employed close physical observation with a dramatic use of chiaroscuro that came to be known as tenebrism. He made the technique a dominant stylistic element, darkening shadows and transfixing subjects in bright shafts of light. Caravaggio vividly expressed crucial moments and scenes, often featuring violent struggles, torture and death. He worked rapidly, with live models, preferring to forego drawings and work directly onto the canvas. His influence on the new Baroque style that emerged from Mannerism was profound. It can be seen directly or indirectly in the work of Peter Paul Rubens, Jusepe de Ribera, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and Rembrandt, and artists in the following generation heavily under his influence were called the “Caravaggisti” or “Caravagesques”, as well as tenebrists or tenebrosi (“shadowists”).

First, he used models in an unorthodox and novel manner – pulling into his studio people from the streets whom he then painted directly from life. “Artists had always drawn from life,” Treves explains, “but no one posed their models and painted directly from life onto their final canvas. Caravaggio didn’t bother with the academic study of drawing. He skipped that stage because he believed in the importance of looking at nature.” This resulted in paintings remarkable for their striking, in-your-face realism, which captured even the humblest details: if the model had dirty fingernails, for instance, then Caravaggio would paint them.

A corollary of this was that Caravaggio lavished as much attention on inanimate objects as he did on people: look, for instance, at the magnificent still life – a rose and sprig of jasmine inside a glass vase, beside some cherries – placed prominently in the foreground Boy Bitten by a Lizard from the National Gallery’s own collection. “He really elevated still life, which was the lowest genre,” Treves continues. “He is said to have remarked that painting still life requires as much artistry as painting figures. That was really revolutionary.”


Busted: The Taking of Christ, 1602, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. Caravaggio’s application of the chiaroscuro technique shows through on the faces and armour notwithstanding the lack of a visible shaft of light. The figure on the extreme right is a self-portrait.

Caravaggio’s second big innovation, meanwhile, was his use of light. “That’s what he’s most famous for,” says Treves. “It’s what the biographers talk about – that he wouldn’t allow anyone to pose in daylight, that he had light shine from above. He used light to capture form, create space, and add drama to otherwise everyday scenes.”

The Supper at Emmaus, also in the National Gallery, is a case in point. At supper one evening shortly after the crucifixion, two of Jesus’s disciples suddenly realise that their dinner companion is in fact the resurrected Christ. “It’s a moment of revelation, and the light underpins that narrative,” Treves says. “So Caravaggio uses light in an emblematic way, not just as theatre. It’s very sophisticated.”

This combination of realism and dramatic lighting resulted in exceptionally powerful storytelling. “Caravaggio made these Biblical stories so vivid,” Treves says. “He brought them into his own time – and he involves you, so that you don’t just passively watch. Even today, you don’t need to know the story of The Supper at Emmaus in order to feel involved in the drama.”  ‘Caravaggio mania’ raged across Europe in the early decades of the 17th Century, as wealthy patrons competed to buy his pictures, and artists emulated, or simply ripped off, his distinctive style.

The curious thing is that by the middle of the 17th Century, the vogue for painting in the manner of Caravaggio had passed. “There was a real shift in taste back to classicism,” explains Treves. “And the naturalistic way of painting that Caravaggio had introduced was seen as the antithesis of that noble tradition of painting going back to Raphael.” It would take almost three centuries before Caravaggio’s reputation rose again. Caravaggio’s innovations inspired Baroque painting, but the Baroque incorporated the drama of his chiaroscuro without the psychological realism. The style evolved and fashions changed, and Caravaggio fell out of favor. In the 20th century interest in his work revived, and his importance to the development of Western art was reevaluated. The 20th-century art historian André Berne-Joffroy stated, “What begins in the work of Caravaggio is, quite simply, modern painting. But to give you a sense of how low his stock tumbled, consider The Supper at Emmaus: the only reason that it ended up in the National Gallery in 1839 was because its owner had failed to sell the painting at auction eight years earlier. The important 19th-Century British art critic John Ruskin castigated Caravaggio for his “vulgarity”, “dullness”, and “impiety”, and lamented the fact that the Italian had supposedly overlooked beauty in favour of “horror and ugliness, and filthiness of sin”. Ouch.


Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1599–1602, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome 

Things changed, though, during the 20th Century, when Caravaggio came back into fashion – largely as a result of a ground-breaking monographic exhibition staged by the art historian Roberto Longhi in Milan in 1951. Following his return to prominence, Caravaggio once more began to inspire artists in various fields. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, his use of light had a big influence upon film-makers and photographers. The photographer David LaChapelle, for instance, has spoken about the “really big impact” that Derek Jarman’s film Caravaggio (1986) had upon him. Inspired to find out more about him, LaChapelle discovered that Caravaggio had painted “the courtesans and the street people, the hookers and the hustlers”. This in turn informed his own photographic series Jesus Is My Homeboy, which featured people from the street dressed in modern clothing.

Even the film director Martin Scorsese admires Caravaggio. Quoted in Andrew Graham-Dixon’s Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, Scorsese says: “I was instantly taken by the power of [Caravaggio’s] pictures … You come upon the scene midway and you’re immersed in it … It was like modern staging in film: it was so powerful and direct. He would have been a great filmmaker, there’s no doubt about it.” According to Scorsese, the bar sequences in Mean Streets (1973) were a direct homage to Caravaggio: “It’s basically people sitting in bars, people at tables, people getting up. The Calling of St Matthew [one of two large canvases that Caravaggio painted for the Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, which turned him into a star almost overnight], but in New York! Making films with street people was what it was really about, like he made paintings with them.”


Amor Vincit Omnia, 1601–1602, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. Caravaggio shows a very explicit version of a naughty looking Cupid prevailing over all human endeavors: war, music, science, government.

All year, we’ve been subjected to the borderline hate and unfettered lunacy of Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and the rest of the Republican presidential field. Carson has gone on record saying Islam is “not compatible” with the US constitution, even though the constitution explicitly gives American citizens the right to practice Islam freely. Meanwhile, Donald Trump wants to ban Muslims from entering the US all together. The naïve might assume that political correctness means being against sexism, racism and homophobia. It is easy enough to be against all three if you believe in universal human rights. But most – not all– progressives in the West do not. They have found it as impossible to be against sexism, racism and homophobia, all at once and at the same time, as the French revolutionaries found it to be in favour of liberty, equality and fraternity, all at once. The practical reality of modern society is that most of us would rather not hear what the other side has to say and would quite frankly chew off our own genitals in exchange for the power to pretend like those people don’t exist at all. It’s why any hope for meaningful compromise on wedge issues has died since the early days of the Obama administration. The power of Trump is that he can magically quiet those he does not agree with through the power of insults. That’s the greatest gift a politician could hope for in a democracy that doesn’t value differences of opinion.




About Art Selectronic

Art Selectronic is an artist-led initiative, that supports grass-roots contemporary art that remains unswayed by fashion, trends or the whims of government funding. The project involves ongoing research into the placing of contemporary art, it’s audiences and it’s relationship to the everyday. We place great emphasis on context. Our mission is to support new works of contemporary art and foster an audience from a wide range of backgrounds.
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