Sunday 13th November 2016 – £16
Joined by Sinead Flament
N.B. No photography allowed in here, my lambs. Apologies.
Spheres of influence, ey? An insight into the gestalt of an artist, or an excuse by a panhandling gallery to write “Caravaggio” in four metre high letters in Trafalgar Square with an arrow pointing to the door? The man is box office crude oil, a cultural meisterstuck up there with Rembrandt, Beyonce, pulled pork, and questioning whether something is a “thing”.
Despite being called “Beyond Caravaggio”, you could count the actual number of Caravaggios without having to take your shoes and socks off. I clocked a grand total of seven in total that, from a collection of about forty, is a pretty poor show and anyone who is at least on nodding terms with the National Gallery’s admittedly impressive collection may succumb to a dizzying bout of dejavu.
“You dickhead! It’s about the repercussions of Caravaggio’s prestige and his effect on the art world.” Oh, that’s convenient. As it happens, I have an exhibition coming up about Van Gogh. Yeah. There’s no actual work by him, but I just play Starry Night by Don MacLean on loop and bang on about him cutting his ear off as a present for his favourite whore (which is, FYI, a weak present).
Caravaggio was a master of contrasting light. The talismanic phrase “chiaroscuro” is most closely associated with him and has since provided a boon for every artistically inclined lad trying to impress his date round a gallery. With Beyond Caravaggio, it seems a lot of his “sphere of influence” pertains to people who followed on from this “dark/light” approach to composition, which is like a section of The Beatles Story being dedicated to The Lightning Seeds because they played guitars and are from Liverpool.
In the paintings’ descriptions were smaller images of the paintings upon which they were based (and more expensive to loan) which left one feeling kind of bereft. It was like going through a gallery with Jim Bowen on Bullseye, telling me all the fantastic paintings I could be looking at.
I’ll concede, this is a little cruel. Some of the non-Caravaggio paintings were superb (see the two above) and his ideas were clearly absorbed and expanded upon. However! My problems start with the amount of “influenced” paintings already in the collection. I’d say half of the paintings on the wall belonged to the National Gallery. Which is fine, say, for someone who hadn’t been to said gallery many times. But I have, and I thought it was pretty fucking cheeky.
All this having been said, when we were treated to Caravaggio, it was like a dream made of oil and fine motor skills, and a stark contrast to the upstarts he’d been forced to share a wall with. The Taking of Christ, a loan from the National Gallery of Dublin, is an iridescent example of someone beyond their craft. I bought a print immediately afterwards. Another, Boy Bitten by a Lizard (part of the gallery’s permanent collection) remains a perennial delight and possibly the most fantastically camp portrait in western art.
The exhibition has been getting rave reviews across the board (including a five star from my mate, Jonathan Jones of The Guardian), but I found it a far from edifying experience. Maybe it’s me. I was feeling a little under the weather. Or maybe I was left cold by the emptiness of the experience. At seven rooms, it’s a brief affair.
Calling it Beyond Caravaggio is generous because this is beyond Caravaggio in the same way Wings were “beyond” The Beatles. Fucking Well Beyond Caravaggio might have been more apt. I accept that his paintings are highly coveted and very expensive, but this is the National bloody Gallery. Don’t get cheap on me, guys, because for £16, I’m not getting cheap on you.