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Caravaggio And His Time


For some time now, Baroque art of the Romance speaking European countries has been struggling with a blatant lack of public interest. While the enchantingly sober and enigmatic genre scenes of Johannes Vermeer or Rembrandt’s golden paintings full of light and shadows attract thousands of people to the great museums of Northern Europe, the response in the collection rooms of Italian, Spanish and French paintings of the 17th and 18th centuries is mostly limited to the echo of lonely beeping fire alarms. The devotional paintings, history paintings and aristocratic portraits from the times of absolutism and Counter-Reformation are often robbed of their colour and brightness by yellowing varnish, ageing or poor conservation and are therefore losing the battle for the audience’s attention against the timelessly fascinating still lifes of photorealistic brilliance of the Netherlands or even Germany. Not even Poussin's marvellous allegories of antique motifs can rekindle the flames of the public’s former adoration.

One notable exception to this is Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio, who has been an integral part of the middle-class art calendar for several decades now. Particularly in Italy, iconic paintings such as The Beheading of Holofernes, Narcissus Admiring Himself in the Reflection of the Pond or The Calling of St Matthew serve as reliable tourist attractions. The fascination of the chiaroscuro, of ordinary people slipping into the role of biblical figures, the uniquely eerie, beautiful and brutal pictorial atmosphere, still works today in Roman, Neapolitan or Sicilian institutions and churches.

The - what else - Italian travelling exhibition "Caravaggio e il suo tempo" now sets out to profit from the aura of these works. As the wording of the title suggests (exhibitions and catalogues such as "Donatello e il suo tempo", "Botticelli e il suo tempo", even "Matisse e il suo tempo" exist ad infinitum in the endlessly creative nomenclature of Italian art museums), the show aims to provide an overview of the entire epoch of the late 16th/early 17th century regarding painting in Rome and southern Italy. The main focus of the ambitious educational texts, whose topics range from the Counter-Reformation to still life theory, the reception of antiquity and Christian mythology, lies on several paintings that are non-jokingly presented as original works by the legendary genius, bon vivant and murderer Caravaggio. The fact that these works of art are always supposed to be second or third versions of already known paintings, such as the Young Man Bitten by a Lizard (London, National Gallery, and Florence, Fondazione Roberto Longhi), is only slightly irritating thanks to the scenographically elaborate presentation of the works with warm spotlights in front of black walls.

There would be a great need to reflect on Walter Benjamin's theories in “The original in times of its technical reproducibility”: the obvious Caravaggio copies and the lesser-known originals by his teachers, friends (a few) and enemies (many) are exhibited here in such an auratic way that the qualitative differences in the technical, artisanal execution, the conceptual or intellectual dispositions of the works basically become irrelevant. The aim of the exhibition is obviously to transport the Baroque Gesamtkunstwerk (avant la lettre) into the 21st century and to overwhelm, dazzle and seduce in a thoroughly counter-reformative gesture.

Nevertheless, a strange feeling of confusion remains. Who is this exhibition for? Quotes from art history luminaries Roberto Longhi and Ernst Gombrich are emblazoned on the walls, following Italy’s penchant for listening to wise old men, while sophisticated classical music, eclectically selected from the last few centuries, plays in the background. The erotic component of the paintings full of androgynous and undressed youths, inseparably linked to the life of Caravaggio not only since but especially by Derek Jarman's 1986 film, is only hinted at, maybe in deference to what might be thought of as morality. The erudite exhibition texts mention a spectrum of artists, philosophers and political events of the time in such a casual way that even trained historians have to fill in the gaps in their knowledge. At the same time, some of the presented works are so obviously inferior that there is no possible explanation for having them here other than a wish for an increase in the popularity of the works, pertaining to increased sales opportunities later on. After having been greeted at the beginning of the extensive show by a magnificent Conversion of St Paul attributed to Ludovico Carracci and after having made their way through numerous rooms with "Caravaggios" and contemporaries, the visitor finishes his tour in a room with depictions of church fathers, prophets and other sages. These few works alone are worth the visit: such poorly forged images have not been on public display for a long time - one hopes that the younger generation will be able to turn the inherent meme-potential of the white-haired Harley riders with halos, Dumbledores reading the Bible or ex machina trumpets out of nowhere into a fruitful internet phenomenon.