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State galleries' Caravaggio shows the National Gallery how it's done

By Jane Rankin-Reid - posted Friday, 23 January 2004

Circumstances prohibit me from visiting the Art Gallery of New South Wales’s superlative exhibition, "Darkness and Light, Caravaggio and His World”, but a number of magnificent frescoes and paintings, detained in Roman’s principle churches and collections, have proved more than adequate consolation.

Michelangelo Merisi dai Caravaggio may have been born in the northern village of Caravaggio and, while apprenticed to Milanese artists’ studios, assumed the name of his birthplace. He moved to Rome at a formative period in his working life in later 1592, and stayed until 1608 when he fled to Malta, Sicily then the Neopolitan coast where he died in 1610.

An artistic and spiritual rebel, Caravaggio struggled to keep church patrons happy with his confrontational vision throughout his working life. His exquisite Madonna dei Palafrenieri was removed from St Peter’s after only two days. Scandals constantly threatened his career in response to his outrageous behavior. He was vain, deluded, decadent, drunk and needy, and an acutely courageous artist whose paintings turned European artistic expression from its stylized Baroque luxuriance towards a piercing naturalism that threw new light upon humanity’s best and worst characteristics.


Caravaggio’s current presence in Australia is a triumph of scholarship and gallery stewardship. Securing loans from prestigious European galleries is never easy, particularly for institutions without similarly esteemed collections. Clearly, the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the National Gallery of Victoria’s team of borrowed Caravaggio experts had sufficient international pull to draw these precious art works to Australia.

In comparison, the National Gallery of Australia’s “The Italians” exhibition was assembled privately in a short space of time with a fairly simplistic curatorial brief to support some of its less-than-magnificent inclusions. Although “The Italians” was believed by some insiders to be a vehicle to have been made available so swiftly to Australia’s National Gallery to promote works of art for sale, when probing questions were asked in international media, Dr. Brian Kennedy, the National Gallery’s Director went on the attack. Supported by Sylvio Berlusconi’s maniacally vain Under-Secretary for Culture, Vittorio Sgarbi, Kennedy jeered at The Australian’s art critic Benjamin Genocchio, with the force of a school yard bully.

Since then our nation’s principle keeper of pictures’ better qualities have remained obscured, particularly in the current round of applause for “Carravaggio and His Kind”, and no more so than when the National Gallery of Ireland’s conservator Sergio Benedetti arrived in Sydney some weeks ago and recalled in less-than-fulsome voice the then Assistant Director Kennedy’s claims of a central role in the rediscovery of the magnificent lost Caravaggio, “Taking of Christ”.

From an international standpoint, the two state art gallery hosts of “Caravaggio and His World” have raised the bar of critical excellence so far above Kennedy’s eyeline, proving his most vociferous critics’ worst fears. It’s an act that also directly challenges what John Howard’s arts ministries have been trying to pass off as a credible and economically responsible cultural policy for several years now, with little success. Australian institutions’ critical contribution and scholarship matters less now in the international community it did than 25 years ago, sliding further and further from cultural relevance under Howard’s neurotically mediocre leadership.

Santa Maria del Popolo’s “The Martyr of St. Peter” has an old and complicated friendship with Caravaggio’s most significant painterly languages for me. When I lived in Rome partially during the 1980s I’d visit it frequently, but recollections of its sheer force as a painting had faded somewhat since those days.

Peter, nailed to his cross, is thrust diagonally downwards towards the painting’s lower right corner in an intriguingly awkward but near perfect example of the structural dexterity typically found in Caravaggio’s slyly unbalanced compositions. Three male figures, two with their backs to viewers, one bearing the cross on his shoulders, the others hauling it, characterise Caravaggio’s acute insight into the human body as it reflects momentous spiritual incidents. Peter’s prophetic struggle to rise from his cross is in vain. One man’s face ripples with the weight of effort but the others’ turned backs subtly negate the moment’s emotional force with palpable insouciance. Christianity with attitude is one more of the artist’s enduring legacies.


In a perfect world, Australia would have spawned a contemporary independent figurative painter who would survive outside the grant system to portray some of the monstrous egos currently charged with shaping our nation’s cultural destiny, with ironic savagery. Caravaggio caused more outrage by inviting parochial characters to play leading parts in his politically charged sacred settings.

In its day, the artist’s subjective neighborhood reveries created fiercely divisive scandals. But Caravaggio also painted with an extraordinarily intuitive understanding of the theatrical role light must play in art to build visual conviction, and even his most despised enemies could see his gift. A greedy sensualist, he was in love with the drama of illuminated color and wrapped his subjects’ bodies in glorious pinks, reds, indigos, umbers and brilliant golden yellows. Inky dark backgrounds are another of his artistic specialties and Caravagio’s darknesses are alive with the repressed aroma of untold secrets.

Caravaggio’s passionate contribution to Baroque art is evident in almost every painting he completed. Dramatic scenes pregnant with emotional power and layered human contradictions enunciate personal dilemmas, some fictionalised in the excellent novel “M”, author Peter Robb’s detective thriller about Carravagio’s racy artistic life.

Much lately has been made of the artist’s love of younger boys but Caravaggio’s depictions of women are as exquisitely sensual and finely observed. Perhaps my favorite of all of Caravaggio’s Roman frescos is Santa Agostino’s “The Virgin Mary of the Pilgrims”. Dressed in sumptuous rose and indigo robes, Mary answers the door, holding her baby wrapped in a towel, fresh from bathing. Two elderly worshipers kneel in supplicant adoration while she crosses her legs impatiently and stretches her foot as if to say, “Oh go on then, if you have to, worship, worship, worship!”

One more masterpiece fortifies my enduring affection for Carravagio’s bruising artistic truths. “The Calling of St Matthew” at San Luigi dei Francesi is charged study of political betrayal. As Christ points to the apostle, Matthew’s own hand asks an age-old question: “Why, me?

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About the Author

Jane Rankin-Reid is a former Mercury Sunday Tasmanian columnist, now a Principal Correspondent at Tehelka, India. Her most recent public appearance was with the Hobart Shouting Choir roaring the Australian national anthem at the Hobart Comedy Festival's gala evening at the Theatre Royal.

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