Caravaggio and his followers (appeared in NUVO Magazine)

For art lovers, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), is the hottest baroque painter who ever held a brush. He was also one of the founding fathers of the baroque style. In the first Canadian exhibit of this very contemporary Old Master, the National Gallery presented Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome, which closed September 11.

Caravaggio’s genius is eerily contemporary. “Four-hundred years later, he seems to touch our sensibilities more than any of the Old Masters,” remarks Sebastian Schutze, co-curator of the exhibit and Chair of the Department of Art History at the University of Vienna.

The chiaroscuro element - the dark background and the light-infused figures in the foreground inspired film noir, notes National Gallery Director, Marc Mayer. And Caravaggio’s emoting figures, so full of subtle glances and dark passion, draw us into the story of each painting. “A real live Caravaggio - the actual object, not a photo or something you see on the internet - is a very powerful experience,” Mayer says. “His high drama, his realism - you almost forget you’re looking at a painting”.

Caravaggio used his low-life posse - pimps, prostitutes, musicians – as models, sometimes as biblical figures. The Roman prostitute, Fillide Melandroni, posed as Mary Magdalene in The Conversion of the Magdalene, one of the ten Caravaggios in the exhibit. Although such models were considered scandalous, wealthy collectors sought his paintings, full of sex and violence, saints and sinners.

Dozens of European painters were drawn to Rome to check out this virtuoso wild man. The exhibit intends to show how Caravaggio influenced his Baroque contemporaries, called Caravaggisti The 50 paintings include works by Artemisia Gentileschi, Peter Paul Rubens and Simon Vouet; according to co-curator Schutz, “they offer challenging new perspectives on the art of Caravaggio”.

Caravaggio’s life was as violent as some of his masterpieces. He killed a pimp in a dual over a woman, then went on the lam, running from Rome to Naples to Venice, then to Malta, where he joined the Knights of Malta. Imprisoned for assaulting one of the senior knights, he escaped to Naples after a month, only to be slashed in the face by a knife-wielding attacker. He died less than a year later, in July 1610, in the Tuscan town of Porte Ecole.

The artist’s range is part of his continued appeal. He could accomplish eloquently spiritual paintings like Sacrifice of Isaac (in the show); he also painted musicians, fortune tellers and shady card players. Alongside his Card Sharp is a painting on the same subject, The Cheat With the Ace of Clubs, by French painter, Georges de la Tour.

Assembling the paintings for this show, the second largest display of the artist’s works in North America after the Metropolitan’s l985 exhibit, itself required masterful negotiating. Not a single Caravaggio painting exists in Canada, and most are in Europe’s great museums and churches, which are reluctant to lend them. In one instance, the National Gallery exchanged a Rembrandt to the Italian Museum, Pinacoteca Capitolini, which will keep the painting as hostage until it gets its Caravaggio back.
“I can’t imagine another Caravaggio exhibit in Canada”, sighs NAC director Mayer. “This will be an experience of a lifetime.”

In October, Caravaggio and his Followers in Rome will travel to the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth Texas, the exhibit’s only other stop.

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