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Prepare for disappointment, as the actress said to the bishop. There aren’t a lot of Caravaggio paintings in this exhibition. Yes, it says Caravaggio in the title, and yes, that’s a bit of a bloody liberty, especially because most of them are already in the National Gallery’s permanent collection, so you can see them for free most of the time anyway. What you’re missing is the ‘beyond’ bit, you see. Because this isn’t a show of Caravaggio paintings at all, silly you, it’s a show of work influenced by him. But trust us, it’s still pretty thrilling.
Caravaggio was a superstar in seventeenth-century Italy. Everyone wanted his paintings, and every artist wanted to paint like him. His style changed the way art was made, and this show looks at his incredible impact. So what is Caravaggism? Luckily not something you need an ointment for, but a style of painting defined by jarring contrasts of bright light and sombre dark (‘chiaroscuro’, if you want to be fancy), combined with a mastery of still life and a total dedication to clarity, drama, storytelling and vicious realism.
The show puts a handful of Caravaggio works in relation to a whole bunch of paintings by his friends, followers and imitators. It starts with early works, including a couple by his possible servant/ lover Cecco del Caravaggio, the absolute master of Baroque side-eye, before moving on to the star of the show: ‘The Taking of Christ’ (pictured), on loan from the National Gallery of Ireland. It’s a great throbbing mass of black and red, shot through with a maelstrom of white flesh depicting Judas betraying Jesus with a kiss. It’s so full of movement and detail, so rammed with torment and drama, that nothing else in this show can quite match it. Lots of the works around it are great, but Caravaggio shines. It’s a bit like surrounding yourself with less attractive friends to make yourself look hotter.
But that’s unfair, because some of these artists are masters in their own right, they just lack the soap opera drama of the headliner. Lo Spadarino’s religious pictures are stark and pained, Gentileschi’s ‘David and Goliath’ is a snappy exercise in the drama of scale, and then there’s Jusepe de Ribera, with his depictions of drooping, ageing flesh and infinite darkness. His works here are total highlights.
Ribera’s paintings are followed by a room of Dutch paintings, some inspired by Caravaggio even though the artists may have never even seen his work, that’s how strong his influence was. They lack the flair of their inspiration, but have a warm northern European appeal of their own. Then to round it all off there’s a stunning Nicolas Régnier painting and another jaw-droppingly chiaroscuro-tastic painting by Caravaggio, with Saint John the Baptist looking all sad in a forest.
This is a warm comforting blanket of a show. Dark grey walls, the low lighting, the sumptuous paintings; you could stay here for hours, lost in Caravaggio’s legacy. It’s a world of contrast and realism, where your eyes are taken on joy-rides along highways of bright white flesh and blood reds. There might not be a lot of Caravaggio’s painting here, but he sure inspired a lot of brilliance.