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Caravaggio’s Shadow
by Joe La Placa
"The International Caravaggesque Movement -- Dutch, French and Flemish Caravaggesque Paintings from the Koelliker Collection," June 20-July 15, 2005, at Robilant + Voena Gallery, 38 Dover Street, London W1S 4NL England

One of the aims of great art has always been to create new pictorial space free from decoration or illustration, a space in which its subject, whether figurative or non-objective, can come to life.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610) made his appearance during the late 16th century, a historical turning point, when the spiritual upheaval of Protestantism was facing the Counter-Reformation’s new emphasis on putting the stories of the scriptures into concrete form based on contemporary life and nature.

Caravaggio’s assaults on Renaissance illusionism -- the linear and atmospheric perspective characterized by Leonardo’s smoky, sculptural tenebrism -– would liberate painting from its subservience to architecture and its obsession with surface.

His paintings make us feel physical and emotional reality with a special intensity, which derives in part from his almost-miraculous realism. Caravaggio was able to invest a sensation of real action and presence into his paintings, an action that seems to project beyond the frame into the pious churchly space of their settings.

By virtually dissolving their perimeter so that both subject and viewer are engulfed in the sphere of his vision, Caravaggio’s paintings create a gyroscopic world where high contrast light and sensual shadow exalt reality and the power of life in its most humble forms.

The projective displacement of space and a unique angular type of foreshortening, combined with a high-key chiaroscuro used as a means of composition to bind separate forms into one pattern, gave Caravaggio’s paintings the kind of close-up realism we prize today in motion pictures.

Caravaggio’s all-embracing realism, unparalleled in both comprehensiveness and intimacy (witness the street urchins posed as angels with dirty feet and prostitutes as the Virgin Mary), definitively changed the way subsequent generations of Dutch, Flemish and French painters would look at art, thus signaling the advent of modern pictorial space.

"The International Caravaggesque Movement: French, Dutch and Flemish Caravaggesque Paintings from the Koelliker Collection," the inaugural exhibition at the elegant Robilant + Voena Gallery, offered a privileged glimpse at works by artists from all over Europe who were influenced either directly or indirectly by Caravaggio’s looming stature. The exhibition was accompanied by an illustrated catalogue with expert commentary by Jonathan Bikker, Gianni Papi and Nicola Spinosa, shedding further light on this little known movement.

Inspired since youth, auto industrialist Luigi Koelliker’s collecting interests expanded in the manner of Europe’s grand collections. His house-museum is crammed with countless works of art, sculpture, furniture, scientific and musical instruments, clocks and wunderkammer objects.

"I met Luigi in 1997," said Robilant + Voena co-director Marco Voena. "He came to my gallery in Milano, strictly buying portraits from the 16th and 17th century."

"But, around four years ago, he decided he’d done portraiture after amassing close to 1000 pictures," added Voena’s partner, Edmondo di Robilaint. "He began swapping them for Caravaggesque compositions. He started with mainly Italian painters, but later decided to look at foreign painters influenced by Caravaggio as well."

Although he doesn’t own a single Caravaggio, Koelliker’s passion for all things Caravaggesque has driven him to create the world’s largest collection of Caraveggesque paintings in private hands, now comprised of over 2000 works.

The exhibition broke the Caravaggesque movement into three parts that traced the increasing influence of Caravaggio: works painted in Rome; works painted by artists in their native country after residing in Rome and works painted in the style of Caravaggio by artists who never journeyed to Italy.

The first part of the show, the Italian phase, focused on international artists who resided and worked in Italy, including Finson, Baburen and Regnier.

Nicolas Regnier’s (ca. 1590–1667) Carnival Scene, a masterpiece of the artist’s Roman phase, is atypical for Caravaggeschi. Inviting the viewer outside the picture frame to be her accomplice, a mischievous woman holds her finger to her lips, imploring the viewer not to make a sound and spoil the joke she’s playing on the unsuspecting youthful sleeper. In her other hand she holds a lighted wick right under his reddening nose. The soft sfumato technique of this genre scene marks a phase in Regnier’s oeuvre when he had a strong affinity with Caravaggeschi, similar to Spadarino.

The second phase of the movement -- art painted by artists after returning from Rome -- was represented by members of the Utrecht school of painting, which reached the height of its importance in the 1620s: Hendrick ter Brugghen (ca. 1588-1629), Dirck van Baburen (ca. 1595 – 1624) and Gerrit van Honthoorst (1592-1656). These painters spent their formative years in Italy and brought Dutch art into close contact with Caravaggio’s achievement soon after they returned to the Netherlands.

The most famous member of this group was Gerrit van Honthoorst (1592-1656), who so established a reputation in Italy for his expertise at painting nocturnal effects that he was known as "Gherardo delle Notti." Unlike Caravaggio, he preferred scenes illuminated by artificial light, a style which he would latter popularize in the Netherlands. Georges de la Tour, the most original French Caravaggesque painter, was no doubt influenced by Honthoorst’s nocturnal scenes.

Merry Musician with a Violin under his Left Arm (1624) is exemplary of the popular life-size, single half-length genre figures vividly appealing to the spectator. The musician has a cheerful, open expression. The illusionistic effect is further heightened by realistic flesh tones and careful attention to drapery.

The tastes of the northern countries during the early 17th century favored genre subjects charged with burlesque, those you’d encounter in a village tavern brawl, filled with caricature-type faces -- a secular replacement for the saints and martyrs of Catholicism.

Immensely popular in the Protestant Netherlands, these single figure renderings of musicians had their origins in the 16th-century pastoral paintings of artists in the circle of Giorgione and Jacopo Bassano. It is very likely that Honthoorst may have seen paintings of such "Buffoni" in Rome in the collection of Scipione Borghese. As in Regiener’s carnival scene, Honthoorst’s boisterous musician goads someone outside the picture frame while laughing jovially. He makes a "vulgar Italian" gesture, the meaning of which is no doubt universal!

Hendrick ter Brugghen’s Violin Player with a Glass of Wine (1627) originated with Honthorst’s Merry Fiddler (1623). An intoxicated musician holds the source of his pleasures, gripping a wine glass in one hand (called a roemer in Dutch) and a violin in the other. Here again we have the visual dynamism that recalls Caravaggio’s early genre pictures of androgynous youth and bravi in striped doublets and hats decorated in plumes.

A hedonistic figure with blackened teeth, dynamically posed with head and shoulder tilted to the right, seems to lean out of the picture plane, just about to drop into the arms of the viewer. 

Such transalpine versions of Caravaggism would impact on the following generation, which featured in the third phase of the exhibition: Bronckhorst, de Coster and Van Kuyl. This phase is characterized by a more naturalistic approach, and the paintings were produced almost entirely at home, when the trip to Italy had become less crucial.

Anthony van Dyck’s book Iconograpy suggests that Adam de Coster was firmly established as a painter of artificially illuminated night scenes in Antwerp around 1630. In Mercenary Love, a bearded old man is holding the hand of an attractive young woman. She is lit by a single candle, her pointing hand partially obscuring its golden light, giving the scene the effect of repoussoir: the old man swathed in shadow in the foreground causes the woman behind to recede into space, thus enhancing the illusion of depth. The soft, golden light also has a flattering, sensual effect, gently caressing her face and generous upper body.

Her gaze is directed at the viewer, while pointing at the old man, ignoring his amorous advances. The gold coins on the table suggest this is no ordinary love. Prostitution was a popular theme among Caravaggists. However, typically both parties were shown in the prime of their lives, often accompanied by an aged procuress, whereas here we see a wide age gap. The old man’s furrowed brow was once described by Benedict Nicolson as a "dried up river bed," perhaps symbolic of his age and impotence. 

In contrast to many of the Caravaggists, Mathias Stomer remained in Italy for many years, residing in Rome, Naples and Sicily from around 1630 until he disappeared from the scene around 1650. He can be distinguished from Honthorst and other Dutch Caravaggisti by the pronounced leathery quality of his flesh tones and the metallic colors of his draperies.

Christ before Pilate reduces the famous biblical interview to a minimum, eliminating the clutter of guards and throngs of onlookers so characteristic of other artists’ versions. The facial expressions therefore come to signify the inner dialogue of the two protagonists -- particularly the face of Christ. The deep black shadows cast by the oil lamp in the foreground (worthy of Georges de la Tour) create a minimal composition that heightens the sense of Christ’s isolation, while his otherworldly expression alludes to an inner dialogue of forgiveness and compassion.

Overall, "The International Caravaggesque Movement" provided a rare opportunity see some of the principal followers of Caravaggio in one room -- an admirable achievement when you consider that both catalogue and exhibition were assembled over several months by a private gallery.

Equally impressive, despite the obvious costs of putting on such a comprehensive show, was the fact that not one work was for sale. If they had been, you would have had to be prepared to part with between €300,000 to €800,000 -- a small price to pay when you consider the pictorial gulf that separates a Caravaggesque masterwork and Damien Hirst’s Spot painting Amodiaquin, which sold for over €700,000 at Sotheby’s on Nov. 9, 2004.

"The trouble is a spot painting is immediately recognizable," says Robilant. "The message is the man hanging it on his wall has spent €700,000. The Caravaggesque paintings, on the other hand, are more of an intellectual challenge to recognize. They require more subtlety and research. Most people don’t have the faintest idea whether they’re worth £500 or £5 million."

Robilant + Voena’s future shows will attempt to bridge the ever widening gap between the old masters and today’s top contemporary artists. "We plan to do shows with a mixture of both," explained Voena, "which will hopefully bring in a younger audience for the still undervalued old masters market." 

JOE LA PLACA is Artnet’s London representative.