A radical cultural struggle against the established order: Mike Quille reviews the Caravaggio exhibition at the National Gallery.
Curators sometimes overuse the word revolutionary when promoting exhibitions but it is an apt description of the six paintings by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio which hang alongside those of his admirers, rivals and imitators at the National Gallery. The show Beyond Caravaggio demonstrates just how innovative, oppositional and subversive his paintings were — and are.
Rome in the early 17th century was a city deeply divided by class, with a tiny minority of very rich and powerful people and large numbers of poor. It was also dominated by the Church which then, as now, often served to legitimise the exploitation of the many by the few. Art was commissioned and deployed by the popes and cardinals to provide conformist devotional images, part of the ideological justification for an unjust social order.
But Caravaggio’s art was both heretical and revolutionary. Long before thinkers were articulating theories of how religion expressed and inverted worldly suffering, he took religious themes and, visually, brought them down to earth. In Supper at Emmaus, the scepticism and shock on the careworn faces of peasants in their tattered work clothes gives a resolutely human and mundane perspective on sacred events - see how the man on the right of the picture stretches out his arms, like Christ on the cross. Imagine the reactions of poor pilgrims from all over Europe, streaming past these paintings, seeing themselves depicted realistically in sacred scenes for the first time!
The striking realism and “tenebrism” of Caravaggio — strongly contrasting tones, piercing light and vast pools of inky shadows — heightens the emotional challenge and drama in the images, as exemplified in The Taking of Christ.
The Taking of Christ, Caravaggio, 1602, Dublin
Like the noir film genre, surely part of his legacy, it is a visual expression of the uncertainties, contradictions and obscure, violent terrors of the precarious social existence around him. We can also interpret the painting as depicting the way artistic culture, represented by Judas and Caravaggio himself on the far right of the picture, holding the lamp, betrays truth and justice by allying itself with the violent, armour-clad forces of social domination. It's a prophetic parable of cultural hegemony, centuries before Gramsci was born.
Caravaggio’s art also has a democratic force: it includes, involves and empowers. In Supper at Emmaus, the disciples’ hands stretch out, drawing us into the composition. For the first time in the history of Western art, the space between viewer and scene has been destroyed. And, in contrast to traditional religious art, the meanings in Caravaggio’s paintings are challenging, ambiguous and negotiable, liberating us from a lazy, deferential consent to the dominant ways of thinking and feeling so omnipresent in class-divided societies.
In paintings such as Card Players, depicting a foppish, soft-skinned aristocrat being cheated at cards by a lowlife character, whose side are we supposed to be on? Is this not a painting of resistance and rebellion, of playfully imagined expropriation by the lower classes from the rich thieves who rule them?
Cardsharps, Caravaggio, 1594, Kimbell Art Museum
In the light — and dark — of Caravaggio’s amazing achievement, it is perhaps not surprising that most of the other paintings in the exhibition are nowhere near as good. There are some technically good imitations but generally his admirers and imitators reverted to the mainstream aesthetics of devotion, awe and pity in religious art and a relatively anaemic realism in secular art.
The upheavals of 20th-century modernism are what make Caravaggio’s art look incredibly of the here and now. The enduring power of his paintings shows us that truly great art is intrinsically opposed to class-divided societies. Now, we are used to subversive ambiguity, social awareness and uncomfortable challenges to the viewer. Then, it was truly revolutionary — a radical cultural struggle against the established aesthetic and ideological order.
And because our unequal world is not so different from his, we can still feel the strength of his challenging, complex and oppositional art. In that sense art has not, in fact, gone beyond Caravaggio.
Beyond Caravaggio runs at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until January 15, and then tours to Dublin and Edinburgh.
Mike Quille is a writer, reviewer and chief editor of Culture Matters.