Caravaggio, the awful painter for our awful time

CaravaggioNow that a Caravaggio painting worth zillions has been discovered in a Toulouse attic with a leaky roof, the painter is in the news again.

To be fair, he has never left the news, or at least art appreciation classes, for at least a century. So high is his status that it’s easy to forget that for roughly 400 years after his death art lovers hardly knew who Caravaggio was.

Until the 20 century, in which more people were killed than in all previous centuries combined, the world hadn’t been quite ready for Caravaggio because it hadn’t been quite ready for modernity.

Artists forgotten for four centuries seldom make a comeback – unless their old art tickles our new sensibilities. So what sensibilities are tickled by Caravaggio’s soulless, violent and perverse art?

The answer lies in the adjectives modifying the word ‘art’ in the previous sentence. This is what modernity sees when looking at itself in the mirror of Caravaggio’s paintings. This is what modernity likes.

A few years ago an Amsterdam museum made a terrible mistake. It put together a joint exhibition of Rembrandt and Caravaggio, two painters the curators thought were umbilically linked.

The link was purely formal, but then pure formalism is all that matters nowadays. Caravaggio turned chiaroscuro, widely used by others, into tenebrism. That’s essentially more of the same thing, with little transition between an exaggerated shadow and an equally exaggerated light.

Several 17th-century giants, such as Zurbarán and Rembrandt, also used the technique, which is supposed to make them Caravaggio’s disciples.

The write-up on the sublime Zurbarán’s painting of St Francis at the National Gallery says so in as many words: Zurbarán was influenced by Caravaggio. I’d be tempted to say that Zurbarán was influenced by St Francis or, to be more exact, by Jesus Christ.

When looking at a work of art, I first ask the hopelessly outdated question ‘what?’, rather than the fashionably upbeat ‘how?’ Technique is important only inasmuch as it’s adequate to the artist’s treatment of his subject.

Yet by the time the 20th century arrived, the soul of our civilisation had been ripped out. Hence paintings were no longer seen as vehicles carrying a divine, or any deep, meaning. They had become merely combinations of colours and shapes, with painting not stepping outside itself in search of meaning. Art became endogenous rather than exogenous.

As that process gathered speed, the combinations of colours and shapes became too esoteric for anyone to understand without help from critics. Art again became exogenous, stepping outside itself – except that this time it looked for inspiration not in God or any of His creations but in literature, specifically the genre of art criticism.

Tom Wolfe wrote a brilliant essay about this, The Painted Word, but that was long before those Amsterdam curators decided it would be instructive to juxtapose Rembrandt and Caravaggio.

Actually, instructive it was, but not the way they meant it. They were hoping to show that the two painters were so closely related that they were practically twins. Instead the exhibition showed they weren’t even the same species.

Rembrandt loved human nature, understood it, and was able to convey it better than most artists in history. He didn’t portray his sitters’ features. He portrayed their souls.

That was an alien concept to Caravaggio. What functioned as his own soul was a combination of various perversions, social, sexual and psychological.

This is exactly what appeals to a modernity trained to appreciate form more than content, and the artist more than his art. Everything about Caravaggio fits.

His formal innovativeness trumps his empty soullessness. His sanguinary naturalism excites the public weaned on horror movies. And let’s not forget his life, so reminiscent, mutatis mutandis, of the lives of today’s pop celebrities.

When not busy painting or pursuing nubile boys, Caravaggio wandered around Rome drunk, his hand on the hilt of his sword, looking for someone to kill. Eventually he did murder a young man and had to flee Rome under a sentence of death – what’s there not to love for our desensitised, voyeuristic public?

Blood flows liberally in Caravaggio’s paintings, and he was obsessed with decapitation, both tendencies clearly springing from his own murderous past and the likely punishment for it.

The newly found painting, Judith Beheading Holofernes, is another such revelling in beheading. The expert who authenticated the work commented that “this isn’t the kind of painting you’d want to hang in your living room”.

True. I don’t see how anyone, other than the chaps who teach art appreciation, would even want to look at it in a museum. Most of us are never satisfied by technical mastery alone.

No doubt Caravaggio was technically proficient. But a walk through any major museum will be rewarded by demonstrations of technical mastery galore. I doubt one would find any incompetent works of art there.

But great artists offer so much more than just that. They have the ability to move us by reminding us of the sublime heights to which the human spirit can soar.

Caravaggio uses his skill to remind us, unwittingly, of the putrid depths to which the human spirit can sink. That does make him the ideal artist for modernity, rejoicing in the lower depths of the human spirit.


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