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Caravaggio: Back With a Vengeance

by Stephen Becker 14 Oct 2011 5:20 PM

He’s been dead for more than 400 years, but all the sudden Caravaggio’s everywhere. The question is: why?


The Cardsharps, Caravaggio, c. 1595, oil on canvas. Kimbell Art Museum

On Sunday, the Kimbell Art Museum opens “Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome.” The show displays 10 of the master’s works (including the Kimbell’s Cardsharps) alongside 40 paintings made by artists who were inspired by Caravaggio. The Kimbell is the only U.S. museum to host the show.

Considering that only about 75 Caravaggio paintings exist, it’s extremely rare to see this many of them together in one place. You’ve got to go back to a 1985 show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to find a better haul.

On Thursday, the museum invited the press to have a look at the exhibition. Normally at these previews you can expect 15, maybe 20 people to show. This time, there were at least 50.

So why all the hubbub? The answer: Caravaggio is hot these days. In introducing the exhibition, Kimbell Director Eric Lee said that more scholarly work has been done on Caravaggio in the last 50 years than even Michelangelo.

The question is: why?

There’s no dispute that Caravaggio is one of the masters of Italian painting. But why are we so interested now? A couple of reasons are at play here:

First, 2010 marked the 400th anniversary of the artist’s death – he only lived to be 38. Also last year, remains were discovered at a church near Tuscany that are believed to be Caravaggio’s bones.

Then this year, a new, fairly salacious biography of the artist comes out. Details of his sexuality, propensity for violence and general seediness are all included. A person who would make a great reality TV star is reborn. Which brings us back to the present and the coup of a show the Kimbell and the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa were able to procure.

At the Kimbell, I asked Nancy Edwards, the museum’s curator of European art, about the sudden interest in the artist. She said that Caravaggio’s resurgence really dates back to the 1950s and a show held in Milan. Since then, interest has steadily grown.

“For our generation, it’s this human aspect, it’s very accessible. We can relate on a number of levels, and it has to do with his physicality – being able to use the live model. They seem like real people rather than something that’s remote,” Edwards says.

The fact is, Caravaggio used real people because they were real people. Even his saints are modeled on every day people.

“Previous artists emphasized how different figures like the Holy Family were from us,” Kimbell Deputy Director Malcolm Warner says. “But Caravaggio made them like us.”

So part of us is drawn to the paintings because we see ourselves in the figures. And Edwards says another part of us is intrigued because maybe we see some of ourselves in the artist. Not that we’re all murderers like he was, but at least Caravaggio seems like a real, flesh-and-blood person.

“Just as an artist, people are intrigued by his biography – I mean, I am, too,” Edwards says. “So there’s that aspect of his life that interests you. But I think people who like Caravaggio really are looking at the work. He really was a fine, fine painter,” she said.

Proof of that is more than evident at the show. As a test, make a quick walk through the exhibition and pick out the 10 paintings you think are the best without reading the placards.

I bet you the bulk of what you pick will be by Caravaggio.

  • Grace

    Looking forward to this!