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Beyond Caravaggio

Beyond Caravaggio 12th October-15th January 2017 National Gallery, London.

An incredibly exciting, visually powerful and intense exhibition viewed even more dramatically in the subdued lighting of the Sainsbury Wing. Glowing candlelit scenes of rich colour and dynamic subject matter sit side by side. However, only six of the 49 paintings featured in this exhibition are attributed to the master painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), and that is because this exhibition, cleverly curated by Letizia Treves, is predominantly about the influence Caravaggio exerted on his rivals and followers. An artist who was willing to share his genius and was an incredible teacher, so it is no wonder that he inspired emulators. A number of the paintings on show were at one time thought to be by the hand of Caravaggio but have since been proven otherwise. Forty three of the paintings depicted here are by his contemporaries including his lover Cecco who never signed nor dated his work. Much of Caravaggio's work is boldly homoerotic and it is renowned for its emotional realism and magical interplay of light and dark. His art was as colourful and flamboyant as his life style and his followers imitated his style and further developed it. They emulated his use of chiaroscuro (contrasting light effects),and painted real people and models from real life. Also, they embraced his use of detailed still life and his sometimes bizarre subject matter. It was the unusual subject matter that also brought Caravaggio to the attention of wealthy patrons. 'Boy bitten by a Lizard' is one such painting exhibited here.

Born in Milan, Caravaggio was a revolutionary figure who ignited an art movement that rippled across Europe. His depiction of violence, tragedy, sexual tension, wealth, decadence and poverty were rich topics embellished by his gift for visual storytelling. His subject matter was varied and ranged from the brothels and taverns of Milan to the musicians, scientists, cardinals and courtiers of Rome as well as his depictions of the obligatory biblical scenes. In his case art mimicked life itself, and his dark and turbulent background fueled his somber and violent subject matter . Caravaggio was a murderer, he was exiled and then at a later date, pardoned by the Pope.

Artists from diverse backgrounds and traditions were drawn to him. They attempted to imitate his miraculous naturalism and attention to detail and the dramatic lighting of his compositions. In this exhibition it is possible to make side by side visual comparisons between the master and his followers some of whom are fellow Italians, also Spaniards, Flemish and French artists. It is possible to witness the way in which they have borrowed his ideas and techniques.

Of particular note is Carravagio's John the Baptist in the Wilderness with it's vibrant colours and virtuoso handling of light and his depiction of the kiss of Judas in 'The Taking of Christ' in which Caravaggio portrays himself as a lantern holder illuminating the way.

The only female artist represented here is Artemisia Gentileschi and her painting of Sussanah and the Elders 1622, is a moody and psychologically dramatic depiction, on loan from the Burghley House collection.

Despite only achieving 39 years of life, Caravaggio died in peculiar circumstances in 1610. He had an enormous impact on the art world and it is fascinating to enjoy Letizia Trezes interpretation of his legacy. A visually stimulating and thought provoking exhibition which is well worth a visit.

NB. If you are lucky enough to visit Italy's Uffizi Gallery in Florence, then you can enjoy a Hall dedicated to the works of art by Caravaggio. It is claimed that his technical ability was enhanced by his use of a complicated system of mirrors which enabled him to portray his subjects on canvas in a technique that is reminiscent of the early technical skills of photography. Along side a virtuosity in the use of chiaroscuro. However, advocates of the sight-size portraiture technique believe that his super realism stemmed from working and measuring directly from life. .

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