Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 9, 2013
J. Patrice Marandel, ed. Caravaggio and His Legacy Exh. cat. Los Angeles and Munich: Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Prestel Verlag, 2012. 174 pp.; 180 color ills. Cloth $39.95 (9783791352305)
Bodies and Shadows: Caravaggio and His Legacy
Exhibition schedule: Musée Fabre de Montpellier Agglomération and Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, June 23–October 14, 2012; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, November 11, 2012–February 10, 2013; Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, March 8–June 16, 2013
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Installation view. Bodies and Shadows: Caravaggio and His Legacy. November 11, 2012–February 10, 2013. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA.

The first painting viewers see upon entering the Los Angeles County Museum’s (LACMA) elegantly mounted exhibition, Bodies and Shadows: Caravaggio and His Legacy, is an anomaly in the Baroque master’s oeuvre. One of the very few portraits that is now securely attributed to Caravaggio (after years of debate), it depicts Cardinal Maffeo Barberini who eventually became Pope Urban VIII. The youngish cardinal is shown seated against a typically Caravaggesque shallow and dark background, wearing delicately sketched, diaphanous sleeves and bisected by a sinuous, horizontal streak of red satin along the inside of his sober but sumptuous robes. Along with these sartorial signs of his reputed personal vanity, his beard and mustache are also fastidiously trimmed (an indication of why he would later be referred to anonymously in an epigram on Pasquino in Rome as “Urbano dalla barba bella” or “Urban pretty-beard”). In front of him is a small table on which appears an open book and a crystalline vase with flowers, an arrangement that has the same precision and naturalism seen in other still lifes by Caravaggio. The cardinal’s eyes, however, exert a mysterious pull, painted as though slightly offset from one another, and his mouth seems drawn into a barely perceptible smile. These curious additions to an otherwise youthful, rounded face enliven the portrait, making the cardinal’s gaze rakish, a bit ambiguous, and perhaps even a bit unnerving. The depiction is an astute testament to the sitter’s tenacious personality (to the consternation of his enemies, he survived a bout of malaria after being elected pope), which would eventually command the resurgence of post-Tridentine Rome.

Organized with the Wadsworth Atheneum and two French institutions, the Musée Fabre of Montpellier and the Musée des Augustins of Toulouse, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibition was curated by Jean Patrice Marandel, Robert H. Ahmanson Chief Curator of European Painting and Sculpture at LACMA who also, with Gianni Papi, contributed to the very fine catalogue (replete with full-color, high-quality photographs). The entire enterprise was the fruitful collaborative product of the French Regional American Museum Exchange (FRAME), a consortium of twenty-six French and North American museums that promotes cultural exchange. Although there have been several large-scale exhibitions of Caravaggio and his followers in the United States, most notably the Metropolitan Museum’s 1982 show curated by Keith Christiansen (which included all the paintings that appear in this recent exhibition except the above-mentioned portrait of the future pope), and more recently the blockbuster exhibition organized by the Kimbell Art Museum and the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, in 2011 (click here for review), marking the five hundredth anniversary of the artist’s death, this is the first opportunity to see eight Caravaggios in Los Angeles (or California, for that matter). These range from the sweetly poignant but somewhat bland early religious work, such as the Wadsworth’s Ecstasy of Saint Francis (1595–96), to the reflective Martha and Mary Magdalen (1595–96) and intensely sensual Saint John the Baptist (1604–5) that show his maturation as a painter, to the late works epitomized in the strangely quietist Salome Receives the Head of St. John the Baptist (1606–10) and the gruesome Toothpuller (1608–9). Together they show the range of Caravaggio’s techniques and narrative strategies.

The rest of the show examines how Caravaggio’s approach was interpreted and augmented by Italian, French, Netherlandish, and Spanish painters in the century after his untimely death at the age of thirty-nine in 1610. About halfway through the rooms, the viewer encounters a work by the French painter Claude Vignon. Entitled the Martyrdom of St. Matthew (1617), it seems to have been hastily painted in garish colors with an awkward arrangement of figures packed into a narrow space. Immediately noticeable is the fact that the work is filled with recognizable Caravaggisti elements. The soles of the saint’s somewhat outsized feet are displayed prominently in the bottom left corner, smeared with what appears to be greenish and only partly dried mud. The executioner who plunges a sword into Matthew’s chest seems familiar, and, in fact, is a direct quote from Caravaggio’s Martyrdom of St. Matthew (1599–1600) in the Contarelli Chapel in Rome. He wears the same idiosyncratic loincloth and headband and nothing else (the question as to why Matthew’s executioner is almost nude has never been satisfactorily answered). Above, there is an angel with snarled hair who extends a palm frond of martyrdom to the saint that also could pass for a quill, which, in turn, would explain why the gospel of St. Matthew is resting open on the stump at the right. The reference to one of Caravaggio’s most celebrated and recognizable Roman chapels is almost complete, missing only a nod to the most famous of his three paintings at San Luigi dei Francesi, the Calling of Matthew (1599–1600). Vignon’s angel also sports wings that are like those of Cupid in Caravaggio’s Amor Vincit Omnia (1601–2). That is, following Caravaggio’s model, they are more prosaic than heavenly, although unlike Cupid, whose wings may have derived from an eagle, Vignon’s wings seem more ragged and drab, closer to those of a pigeon.

The painting is a jarring reminder that for those who admired his style, Caravaggio’s influence could lead to a hack set of iconographic motifs as much as it could be used to produce a newly complex visual vocabulary for evoking affective space, light, shadow, and form. The LACMA exhibition makes the most of this diversity of interpretation that characterizes Caravaggism. While there is some dispute about whether Caravaggio instituted the first proto-modern “movement” of painting, there is a clear sense (testified to by exhibitions and books of the last thirty years) that “Caravaggiomania” (Richard Spear’s term) swept Europe in the seventeenth century, and painters from far-flung areas of the continent were drawn to his depiction of both secular and religious subjects. And this, in spite of seventeenth-century critics like Nicolas Poussin, who declared that Caravaggio had been put on earth to “destroy painting.”

One of the most interesting aspects of these “followers of” exhibitions is the way in which they allow the viewer to trace the depiction of a single subject from Caravaggio through to those who were influenced by but not slavish to his style. For instance, one of the most affecting late paintings by Caravaggio included in the LACMA show is the Denial of Peter of 1610, a subject (the Apostle Peter’s denial that he is a follower of Christ) that was, as the exhibition catalogue attests, uncommon except among the Caravaggisti. Within the shallow, forced space of the painting, three nearly life-size figures are pressed up to the picture plane. They depict from left to right a soldier, a maid servant, and the Apostle Peter. Caravaggio’s dramatic use of raking light focuses the scene on the eyes of the maid, with their direct, conspiratorial gaze, and on the eyes and hands of St. Peter. The saint’s gaze is turned down in remorse, directly contradicting his eloquent and illuminated gesture of denial. All else is dark and obscured. Drawing attention to the interiority of the saint’s mental state and the visible signs of inner conflict, the work is vintage Caravaggio. Throughout the exhibition viewers see various homages to this picture, but each one carries a different emotional impact. In a version by the Pensionante del Saraceni, a painter who remains anonymous and is known only as someone who perhaps lodged with the Italian painter Carlo Saraceni, the scene is reduced to two figures. The Caravaggesque raked light now focuses on the questioning gesture of the maid’s hands, and on her nose and open mouth—both of which point aggressively and accusingly toward Peter, whose eyes are now hidden in shadow, an external indication of his shame that reflects his internal state. He appears more frightened and more conflicted in this depiction, as though the Pensionante wants viewers to understand and empathize more with his fear than with his remorse. In contrast, the Netherlandish painters who take up this theme focus on the narrative array of figures. Adding a candle as the primary source of light in his version, Gerrit von Honthorst focuses sensually on the smooth throat of the expressionless maidservant who tugs physically on Peter’s robes as though to expose him. She is reimagined here as a temptress, leading Peter astray. Gerard Seghers stretches the narrative further into the realm of profane temptations by placing Peter in a tavern scene, surrounded by young dandies as well as soldiers, all illuminated by candlelight.

Caravaggio’s propensity to imbue female heroines, especially biblical ones, with solidity and strength of character also undergoes shifts and changes in the work of followers. Nowhere is this more starkly observed than in the nocturnal Magdalens of Georges de la Tour. The exhibition includes one of LACMA’s best and most treasured paintings, the Magdalen with the Smoking Flame (1636). Although it still remains a mystery how or if Georges de la Tour came into contact with the works of Caravaggio, either directly or through intermediary painters who worked in his style, his paintings represent an extraordinary turn toward quietism. In its expression of a deeply inward, sensual contemplation, the LACMA Magdalen transforms female mysticism into an expression of Counter Reformation embodied piety that is at once completely traditional and newly unsettling.

Lyle Massey
Associate Professor, Department of Art History and Visual Studies, University of California, Irvine

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