Ian Nairn, that crotchety savant of London architecture, described the National Gallery as “a set of good porticoes and bad domes, badly arranged.” Nairn was dead before the 1991 addition of the so-called Sainsbury Wing, which falls into neither of the aforementioned categories, though it is hard to imagine he would have had anything kind to say about it, either. That the self-consciously postmodern design (consisting of “stylistic quotations” from disparate sources and none the better for it) was chosen after the Prince of Wales famously described the top-vote-getting design as a “monstrous carbuncle” suggests the barrenness of contemporary architecture, if nothing else.

The major show in London this autumn, entitled “Beyond Caravaggio,” is in residence at the Sainsbury Wing through January 2017. Caravaggio, it should be said, belongs to that rarified circle of artists who have earned the honor of being referred to by a single name—that his first name is Michelangelo may have something to do with it—and the pan-Italian harbinger of the Baroque never fails to bring the crowds. Those expecting a glut of the master’s work might be disappointed: there are only six verified Caravaggios on show, out of forty-nine total paintings. Heeding the title of the exhibition—that pesky “Beyond”—yields dividends, however, for it is in the margins that the show proves its worth.

A stern warning, a breathing vanitas.

But first, the man himself. Much of our impression of Caravaggio comes to us from his first biographer, the slightly older Giovanni Baglione (also a painter), whose feud with the young Caravaggio regarding alleged artistic plagiarism and subsequent libel is well documented. Baglione seems to have established the canonical myth of Caravaggio—the tempestuous youth whose talent mirrored his temper. Caravaggio may not have been a committed homosexual, as many moderns have tried to claim, but he was certainly given to whoring and is thought to have had relations with both men and women. Further records indicate his penchant for street-fighting and weapon-carrying; Fra Angelico he was not. An 1801 biographical morsel in John Aikin’s General Biography gives the view that has prevailed to the present day: “Caravaggio passed an unhappy life in the midst of contests, and often in great penury. He dressed meanly, lodged in taverns, and once, not having money to pay his reckoning, he painted a sign for the house, which afterwards sold for a large sum.” Most significant among Caravaggio’s exploits, and the incident which looms largest in the historical mind, is his 1606 murder of another gentleman-ruffian, Ranuccio Tomassoni. Historically said to have been a violent resolution of a quarrel surrounding a tennis match, more recent theories of the murder have posited a rivalry between the two men over a shared courtesan—in either case it was a nasty business that sent Caravaggio into exile. All this personal drama has served as the supposed source for the painter’s distinctly tenebristic style but perhaps more importantly has worked to establish him firmly as the most “relatable” of the old masters.

It’s easy to see what’s relatable about one of the National Gallery’s own contributions to this show, the iconic Boy Bitten by a Lizard (1594–95). (Think mosquito, but really much worse.) The subject of the early painting, dating to Caravaggio’s Roman period, is a flouncy youth with luxuriant trefoils of hair containing a solitary white flower above his ear. Caught in a moment of suspended action, he quails after the eponymous bite, his mouth agape and eyes cast in horror. With splayed, sclerotic hands and a frozen expression, he is a stern warning, a breathing vanitas. The carefully rendered still life that occupies the foreground, fruits with flowers arranged in a vase, reinforces this impression of lost innocence. Though rendered with characteristic realism, the painting shows only the briefest hint of what was to become Caravaggio’s signature chiaroscuro style—a jutting light that pierces in from the top left of the canvas, illuminating the boy’s shoulder and half his face, hardly the stuff on which his reputation is made.

The issue surrounding Caravaggio’s reputation is that, in actuality, Caravaggio was not excessively concerned with the play of light and shadow. He was enormously influential—something the show makes clear—in his treatment of light. But if one gazes upon a Caravaggio expecting the melodramatic tenebrism of, say, Joseph Wright of Derby (a notable omission here, to my eye), he will be sorely disappointed. Caravaggio’s treatment is much more subtle and studied, and decidedly less distracting. This is made readily apparent by the inclusion of the works of Caravaggio’s acolytes and admirers in the show, most of which serve to underscore just how much more talented Caravaggio himself was than those who followed in his tenebristic manner.

The artist who comes out looking the best in the inevitable comparison is Ribera, three of whose paintings reside in the room titled “In Pursuit of Caravaggio: Painting in Naples.” Ribera, like Caravaggio, found himself a fugitive (debts, not murder) and was in Naples at the same time. Of the three canvases, the most feeling is 1625–29’s Saint Onuphrius, which traveled to London from the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. One of the lesser of the Desert Fathers, Onuphrius is traditionally associated with profuse hair, having eschewed the worldly comforts of the haircut. But Ribera’s approach frames the saint as an old man, with a bald pate and a scraggly beard. The life force has nearly departed and the senex’s skin has that peculiar quality of the elderly: at once saggy and taut. The saint looks skyward, his hands clasped in prayer, and he is brilliantly illuminated from the front; behind him is only darkness. Virtuoso bits of shadow occupy the crevices of the saint’s withered body—his collar bone juts across his torso to introduce the convex spaces wilted by time. No one could accuse Ribera of omitting the details here. Though the primary impression is the function of the saint’s emergence from darkness to light, the picture delights in the small characteristics of the saint—the semi-obscured foliage loincloth, the prayer beads, the thorny crown. But Ribera attends to the emotional details, too: the searching face, the emaciated and wrinkly hands. There is a seriousness to the work absent from much of Caravaggio, especially his early work.

Here is chiaroscuro at its most tarted up.

Serious, however, is Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ (ca. 1602). In this moment of Christ’s apprehension, Caravaggio’s tenebristic skill is on full display. The principal players are all allayed against a deep dark background—John at left, reaching skywards in anguish; Christ placid and downcast; Judas pulling out of the fateful kiss and searching for Christ’s eyes, which dare not meet his. To the right are three soldiers, the most prominent of which accosts Christ, grabbing for his beard. His armor gleams marvelously, a beacon and an arrow. But even more striking than the lustrous streak on the soldier’s arm is the richness of the deep black-brown armor. The streak of light across his arm gets all the press, but in person it’s the honeyed black metal that amazes. This is Caravaggio at his most controlled—able to express high emotional content and a distinct, prodigious style simultaneously. The painting regularly resides in Dublin on indefinite loan from the local Jesuits, whose generosity in this case cannot be overstated.

Most of the other artists presented fare poorly in comparison to Ribera and Caravaggio. Cecco del Caravaggio’s two contributions, one from Apsley House and the other from the Ashmolean, are especially derivative and tinny—genre scenes at their most banal. In addition to being his assistant, Cecco is rumored to have been Caravaggio’s lover, but if the two did have relations it seems little of the Caravaggio genius found its way to the young disciple. Matthias Stom, Gerrit van Honthorst, Dirck van Baburen, and Hendrick ter Brugghen all carry the torch (sorry) for “Utretcht Caravaggism,” that Dutch strain of tenebrism, which all the aforementioned seemed to have picked up in Rome. Their pictures tend to rely on that bête noire of tenebrism—the presence of a central candle serving as a light source. Caravaggio himself never used the trope, but so prevalent was it among his followers that the great master’s reputation has been duly tainted. The most extreme example of the tendency is found in Adam de Coster’s A Man Singing by Candlelight (1625–35), which depicts the subject of the title holding a candle, the top of which is obscured by a music stand. The light given off is flamboyantly strong, especially when set against the deepest of black backgrounds. The sumptuously attired singer, with his fur collar and feathered cap, emerges as a hyperrealistic vision, his face a varied topography of light and shadow. Here is chiaroscuro at its most tarted up, and, while hardly the most technically proficient picture in the show, it retains a certain charm for its dedication to the tenebristic contrivance.

Special mention among the candlemongers must be given to Georges de La Tour, whose scenes, with their playing-card-faced inhabitants, present a somewhat surreal take on the Caravaggesque style and as a result register as deeply original. His Dice Players (ca. 1650–51) mostly obscures the candle which lights the scene and gives a startling gloss to the roller’s hand, which in its spindly woodenness has the look of a mannequin’s. The light amplifies the colors of the figures’ costumes, drawing out a resplendent orange-red in multiple places and intensifying the gold brocade of the central figure’s arms. The painting, thought to be de La Tour’s last, is proof that the influence of Caravaggio could indeed be applied judiciously and to great effect.

If the National Gallery’s intention in bringing together “Beyond Caravaggio” was to prove the worth of Caravaggio’s followers then the result is fairly middling. If, however, the aim was to show how Caravaggio did it first, and best, then the show can be considered a great success. Following the show’s tenure in London, it will travel to Edinburgh and Dublin, giving the population of the entirety of the British Isles the chance to judge for themselves.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 4, on page 68
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