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Beyond Caravaggio? Let’s Get Ready to Rumble!

I spent a lovely Sunday in The National Gallery with B and the mum-in-law at the Beyond Caravaggio exhibition. I shall forthwith pronounce my (informal) review of this show and (for those of you who aren’t acquainted) of Caravaggio as a person.

Remember Sister Wendy (I know, I know – I owe you a post of the ‘B’ artists soon!!)? She ranks Caravaggio’s Bacchus (1595) and The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1602) among her comprehensive list of Western Masterpieces.

We recently saw both of these paintings in Florence! Weeeeeeeee! Along with several other of his works — including that Sleeping Cupid I told you about in the Pitti Palace. You could say we’ve been on a bit of a Caravaggio kick since we spotted two surprises in Hampton Court last year, so we jumped at the chance visit this latest London exhibition.

The idea behind Beyond Caravaggio is to feature a handful of Caravaggio works alongside a greater number of paintings by other artists who were inspired by the master. Having walked the walk, I can decidedly tell you that there is nothing in the rooms that reaches above and ‘beyond’ Caravaggio: there is a huge disparity between Caravaggio and his imitators, the Caravaggisti.

All paltry attempts to replicate Caravaggio’s dynamic chiaroscuro and grotesquely interesting energy fell short of the mark. The true Caravaggios were identifiable within a five second scan of each room.

I got on the wrong train because I was concentrating so hard on drawing this excellent illustration with my finger on my iPhone – #sacrifice

I mean, sure, there were some non-Caravaggio gems like this depiction of ‘Roman Charity’ (a daughter breastfeeding her starving father in jail):

Cimon and Pero (Roman Charity) by Dirck van Baburen, 1622-3
Me, mum-in-law, and B: Nahhhh I’m good…. I think I’ll just go ahead and starve… thanxxxxx.

But regardless, it is definitely worth the price of admission just to see the six featured works of genius by the man himself. I mean, LOOK AT THIS AMAZING PAINTING!!!

The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio, 1602

This piece was unbelievable in person. The expressiveness of Christ’s face and his hands — incredible. Judas betraying Christ with a kiss — gutting. And the self portrait of Caravaggio holding up the lantern — the artist literally illuminating the scene for us both in and out of the painting. Absolute stunner!

Below is a gallery of the other five paintings that were displayed, each one arresting and fascinating in its own unique way.

There is something visceral about seeing a work by Caravaggio in person — the art happens to you. A frenetic madness emanates from the canvas and draws you into his paintings. And despite this school of Caravaggisti, there is nothing else in the world quite like a Caravaggio.

The artist lived his short life chaotically, and this chaos brought a fascinating drama to his work.

Murder! Sex! Scandal!

Big C was the quintessential bad boy of the art world.

Big C Portrait by Weekes, 2016 (This is what cool people wear, right? Backwards caps and gold medallions? I thought so.)

He was a celebrity in his own time and, like Marky Mark (relevant and hip pop culture reference), definitely hit up the clubs and partied hard. When he wasn’t working, he was swaggering around Italy with a sack o’ wine quarreling with people and biting his thumb and looking for a fight.

There is much speculation about Caravaggio’s sexuality. It is notable that none of his paintings feature the idealised female in the nude. They do, however, often feature sensual young men like his model, student, and (very likely) lover Cecco di Caravaggio (whose own work was also featured in Beyond Caravaggio). Although he was not openly homosexual, Caravaggio never took a wife and does seems like he enjoyed playing for both teams.

Big C eventually fled from Rome in 1606 (with Cecco at his side ❤ !) after trashing one too many hotel rooms and MURDERING a man named Ranuccio Tomassoni in some sort of tavern brawl.

Luckily for us, Caravaggio persisted in painting (and brawling) after he committed the murder, but he seemed to also be living an itinerant life on the run, dashing from city to city whilst continuing to unravel emotionally. At last, in 1610 he was set to return to Rome and receive a pardon for his crime…

…but the pardon never came. Big C died of a mysterious ‘fever’ en route to Rome (but we don’t really know the cause–was this also murder???).

He was only 38 years old when he died – quelle tragique!

Alas, Caravaggio seemed to know he was doomed (and let’s face it, was a liiiiiiiiiiittle bit of a self sabotage).

David With the Head of Goliath
A flattering selfie from the year of his death: David With the Head of Goliath, 1610

Fortunately, Caravaggio left us with a legacy and body of work that is both erotic and spiritual, real and otherworldly. The other world he evokes is often dark and torturous, gruesome and dramatic–but it is also marked by bursts of light and humanity that allow the viewer to coexist in a reality with the Divine.

I count myself very lucky to have seen so many of his works in the flesh.

In short: get thee to the gallery! This exhibition ends 15 January so if you like what you’ve seen here, make haste my little chickens.

For this week’s Weekes Word we (say that 3 times fast!) look to our fount of knowledge: Sister Wendy. She used the word tare and I thought, ‘Hmmm what’s that?’ So I looked it up and the dictionary told me that a tare was a vetch. And in particular, the common vetch. ‘Well, wtf is a vetch?!’ I thought. ‘Is that like a betch?’ I wondered. ‘Is Sister Wendy talking about common betches???’ I asked myself. (I was sorta drunk.)

Well, duh, Sister Wendy is obviously way too classy for any betchiness, so let’s take a look at what she actually meant.

Vetch: from the Latin ‘vicia’ and meaning a widely distributed scrambling herbaceous plant of the pea family, which is cultivated as a silage or fodder crop. Ex: Desperate to evade a drunken and raging Caravaggio, Weekes pulled her dagger from her boot and waited trembling amongst the vetches until he passed.

 xWG // #dazeandweekes

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