Before us is Tychy’s renowned oil painting, “Visitors to the Scottish National Gallery looking at Caravaggio’s ‘The Taking of Christ’.” A throng of Edinburgh citizens are frozen in a confined space. The composition is stiff and stagey; all of these gallery-goers appear to have been captured during some awkward split-second when they are not quite making strict eye contact with the painting. Fortunately, the light that radiates from “The Taking of Christ” throws the gallery-goers into enthralling shadow, with such a crisply realistic effect that the woodenness of their postures is altogether lost. The scene is startling and we are taken aback.
You can probably tell that Tychy is a Caravaggisti or a follower of the great Italian Baroque master Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Back in the day, we were all hangdog and unscrupulous and we strutted about with a Bacchanalian train of wenches and rent boys, taking great liberties with conventional representations of Biblical topics. Our squabbles over church commissions often degenerated into murderous vendettas but this hypocrisy was normal to us. Most of our Virgin Marys were prostitutes who were still sticky from the bedsheets.
Caravaggio was a contemporary of William Shakespeare and there is the same sense that you have from Shakespeare’s writing of a new man who is wielding an unprecedented human power. Both artists had plucked ordinary people from off the street and made them play great characters from history and myth. There is the same location in each of their work of something that swerves towards modern consciousness and that was followed, in both instances, by centuries of incomprehension and back-pedalling.
We have the same, very limited access to Caravaggio as we have with Shakespeare. I picture the Bard as a discreet, watchful man with the personality of an amiable civil servant. Caravaggio, for his part, sounds massively likeable and far more of a loss to the historical record. There was plenty of Humanist freedom in Caravaggio’s own life – he was a brawler and a libertine and someone who hopped around Italy as his days ran out, constantly trying to leave his crimes in the last city. He had killed men in brawls but legend takes an indulgent view of this. One stabbing reportedly arose from a dispute over a tennis match.
Caravaggio has scarcely shown up to the Scottish National Gallery’s Beyond Caravaggio and there is singing air where his most familiar works should be. It is like attending a festival of Elizabethan theatre that features plays by Francis Beaumont, John Fletcher and Thomas Kyd, with only a couple of early comedies included to represent Shakespeare. They should really hang a banner up outside the building that reads, “This Exhibition Contains Traces of Caravaggio.”
I should explain that Caravaggio’s paintings cannot really be herded together. If you wanted to see his greatest works, one after the other, then you would have to jet-set around European cities on the holiday of a lifetime. England has five undisputed Caravaggios; Ireland has one, though its attribution was only tentatively settled in the 1990s; and there are none that call Scotland home. The UK largely got the lesser Caravaggios – the ones that were never nailed down – the ones that were pocketable on Grand Tours.
If you are lured inside by Caravaggio’s name, there will be a bump of disappointment, and a swift comedown, when you realise that this exhibition is more about Caravaggio than by him. There is ten times more Beyond than there is Caravaggio. To appreciate this exhibition, in fact, you will need to have a gallery of pictures that are scattered hundreds of miles away in the forefront of your mind. Sometimes the preeminent image in any given room is a small, illustrative, plastic Caravaggio on an information board.
The addition of Caravaggio’s realism can bend potentially second-rate paintings into ones that are still second-rate, but weirdly and amusingly so. Or they are amusing, at least, to modern eyes. Godly Christians must have once gazed with blank devotion at Orazio Borgianni’s “Saint Christopher Carrying the Infant Christ” (1615). Today, the infant Christ looks like a mischievous baby koala bear who is frolicking on a zookeeper’s shoulders. It is just as hard not to be amused by Giacomo Galli’s “Christ Displaying His Wounds” (1625). Why exactly is this image so funny? Christ’s raised eyebrows surely play a large part – along with that piteous, pained expression that makes you want to laugh in his face. The fact that he appears to be wearing a sleeping bag cannot help. But I think that it is ultimately the caption on the frame, “PRESENTED TO THE CITY OF PERTH.” Yes, this faulty Christ has been designated to be all of Perth’s own.
In Caravaggio’s paintings, you laugh when he tells you to. You very much laugh with the inappropriately roguish cupid in “Amor Victorious” (1602) as he tramples the world beneath his feet. You equally laugh, to be frank, at “Judith Beheading Holofernes” (1599). The amazement of the dying man is still, beneath the shock of this image, rendered in gleeful slapstick. When there is incongruity in Caravaggio’s paintings, you will be haunted rather than bemused by it. Whatever was once communicated to the original viewers remains fully operational, shining through the murk of history. “Supper at Erasmus” (1602) – which is included in Beyond Caravaggio – puts forward a swarthy, sensual Christ with a peasant’s face. A Christ who knows how to fuck. Still, the weightlessness of the composition – the stiff eeriness of the disciple’s outstretched arms – that basket of fruit that has been placed half off the table – all create an effect as thrilling as the cool that hangs over deep waters.
Most of the paintings in Beyond Caravaggio lack the crystal clarity, the ice-cold glassiness, of a draught from the fountainhead. To my eye, there often seems to be an insolence to Caravaggio’s art, but it is hard to know what you are meant to prioritise from amongst his enhanced chiaroscuro of the sensual and the spiritual. When, as a young man, the current pope frequented the Church of St. Louis of France in order to contemplate Caravaggio’s “The Calling of Saint Matthew” (1600) it was presumably not to admire the splayed buttocks that are fixed, improbably, as the focal point of this image. No doubt Francis never even noticed them. On the other hand, Caravaggio’s own contemporaries voted down his “The Death of the Virgin” (1603) because of Mary’s unsettling resemblance to a prostitute.
The brightest of Caravaggio’s satellites were themselves adept with this democratic earthiness and ambiguity. Matthias Stom’s “Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist” (1630), Jusepe de Ribera’s “The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew” (1634) and Mattia Preti’s “The Crucifixion of Saint Peter” (1656-9) all pause over the psychological curiosity of the saints’ executioners. The executioners, rather than the degraded or dismembered saints’ bodies, are, according to the scripts, damned. These men are placed momentarily before us to be puzzled over. Each looks powerful and wretched and majestically, recognisably, human.
Did Caravaggio’s pursuit of photographic realism discover grace amongst the grime of taverns or does God simply get mislaid there? We might suspect that there is something sly to these compositions – that the badness is really hiding in plain sight – or, alternatively, we might be too bad ourselves to have gotten beyond their superficial allure. Caravaggio is so modern because it is down to us; there is no didacticism and we have to search for the meaning to his brilliant imagery in our own breast.
Neither is there sentimentality in Caravaggio. Sentimentality is prescriptive and whenever his epigones err, they are being sentimental. “Christ Displaying His Wounds” fails because none of Caravaggio’s Christs had ever looked up out of a painting at us like Galli’s piteous fraud does. Artemisia Gentileschi’s oppressive “Susanna and the Elders” (1622) presents a vision of vulnerability that is very far from Caravaggio’s original aesthetic, though her “Judith Beheading Holofernes” (1614) reaches for one of Caravaggio’s most famous images and weaves the crisis of her own rape into it. Where Caravaggio’s depiction was playful and impish, Gentileschi’s is literally murderous. Alas, “Judith Beheading Holofernes,” with its radical application of Caravaggio’s method, does not number amongst the exhibits in Beyond Caravaggio.
It would be going too far to say that Beyond Caravaggio offers displays of Caravaggio’s method without any exercise of his power. The interpretation of his method is rich and fruitful. There is an authentic chill to Dirck van Baburen’s “Cimon and Pero” (1622), a scene of human goodness amidst Caravaggio’s conventional cellar-floor squalor and dread. Amongst reviewers, I have not seen much being made of one of the very best paintings in this exhibition: “The Concert” (1627) by Hendrick ter Brugghen. We interrupt three players – two musicians and a songster. In a pretty game, we can see them but not hear their music, whilst they have paused as if they have just heard us but they have not yet turned around to see us. Their surprise is beautifully echoed in our own alarm at the proximity of their candle’s naked flame to the flautist’s sleeve. The realism is so vivid that this painting looks like a mistimed photograph in which the singer’s eyes are accidentally shut.
Would not Beyond Caravaggio have been better called The Caravaggisti? Such a title might have been overly ambitious, since Beyond Caravaggio does not comprehensively map out Caravaggio’s influence. To explore the debt of masters such as Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt van Rijn to Caravaggio would be too much for an exhibition of this size to commit to. With some artists, Beyond Caravaggio appears to have obtained the most available painting rather than the most acutely Caravaggesque. The exhibition instead makes its case and then leaves us with the old masters.