For the third time in North America and for the very first time in Canada, Caravaggio will be the protagonist of the North American exhibition organized by the National Gallery of Canada and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of his death.
From June 17 to September 11, 2011, in an effort to deliver a broader knowledge of Caravaggio, the curators of the exhibition, Dr. David Franklin, Director of the Cleveland Museum of Art and Dr. Sebastian Schütze, Professor and Chair Department of Art History at University of Vienna, will offer Canadians the opportunity to (re)discover the artist through an extraordinarily original approach.
With approximately 60 paintings, some of Caravaggio’s masterpieces will establish a dialogue with other equally great paintings by Caravaggisti or Caravaggesque painters, artists who were directly influenced by Caravaggio’s realism during his stay in Rome.
“This is not about showing Caravaggesque painters to illuminate their role in Roman painting,” says Schütze “but to use those Caravaggesque images to sharpen our view of the importance of Caravaggio himself.” Works by painters such as Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi, Bartolomeo Manfredi, Gerrit van Honthorst, Jusepe de Ribera, Valentin de Boulogne and Simon Vouet will be some of the highlights of the exhibition.
The juxtaposition explores four main themes spanning through almost all of Caravaggio’s subjects: Early Youth’s and Musical Subjects, Genre Scenes, Individual Saints, and Religious Narratives. The topics were conceived to offer an overall understanding of the Old Master.
Dozens of institutions and museums have been contacted in the past four years to obtain loans and convince directors to allow their most appealing paintings to travel overseas. Today, thanks to reciprocal favours, the NGC can proudly host Caravaggio’s master-works such as The Fortune Teller from Musei Capitolini in Rome, in exchange for some Rembrandt works, apparently non-existent in Roman public collections.
The difficult process of obtaining a Caravaggio painting is partly connected, according to Dr. Schütze, to the extreme popularity of his art, rediscovered in the second half of the twentieth century: “It has to do with a change in aesthetics. It’s certainly not by chance that Caravaggio is also so important for photographers, and film-makers: he has a sort of dramatic close up, an illumination that comes really close to films and photography. He has so much to offer to contemporary artists and audiences,” explains Schütze.
Since the first 1951 Caravaggio exhibition in Milan, the artist became a ‘blockbuster’ celebrity as his paintings still managed to entice its viewers even after nearly 350 years had passed. In The Conversion of Mary Magdalene, for example, the woman is not depicted as a saint, but as a symbol of what happens to her at a psychological level in the moment of her conversion; an interpretation that drastically changed the traditional religious iconography of the seventeenth century.
The NGC is offering a sensorial experience that viewers can only have in front of the original paintings. “Their protagonists,” Schütze says, “seem to connect immediately with us by just looking at the pictures, and that is because of their strong physical presence, the dramatic foregrounding of action, the psychological and spiritual intensity these pictures express and also because of their sheer virtuosity of execution. These are all qualities which no reproduction will ever be able to communicate.”
Only a closer approach will reveal some hidden details of correspondence between his life and art. When his life became more dramatic, his religious paintings became more spiritual, and the fact that he was always running away from place to place and did not have a studio influenced his brushing technique: “His technique became more pictorial – larger brush strokes – compared to what he would do in the beginning,” comments Schütze.
Caravaggio has always been in the spotlight for his turbulent and dissolute life which involved an alleged murder, several imprisonments and prostitutes (he used well-known prostitutes to paint religious figures). The intent of the exhibition is to forget the gossip and lead the viewers from a first stage of excitement for Caravaggio’s extraordinary talent to a deeper observation of his paintings. It will truly be a unique experience, as Canadians will witness original masterpieces conceived by one of the most influential masters in art history.