CARAVAGGIO AND FOLLOWERS

Missing links steal the show

by Victoria James

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it is also a dubious honor. For some 15 years, until his death in 1610, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s brooding and beautiful works scandalized Church and patrons alike, and left a generation of followers — and copycats — in his wake.

“Sleeping Cupid” by Giovan Battista Caracciolo, known as Battistello, 1610 (above) and by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1608 (below)

The Teien Art Museum’s new exhibit, “Caravaggio and His First Followers,” is an intriguing collection of eight of the master’s works, and some 30 Italian canvases of the 1610s and ’20s that reveal artists struggling to absorb the techniques, themes and passion of their groundbreaking precursor. A few are impressive artists in their own right, many more are competent pupils and some have missed the point completely.

Both Caravaggio (in 1608) and Battistello (1610) painted works titled “Sleeping Cupid,” but while the latter’s, on show at the Teien, is a rosy, drowsy infant, Caravaggio’s baby Cupid lies gray and limp, as if drained by a precocious night’s debauchery. No innocence here — perhaps unsurprising from a man whose favorite model, often cast as the repentant Magdalen but also as the Virgin Mary, is believed to have been a prostitute.

This contrast will strike few of the visitors strolling though the Teien, however, because the Caravaggio piece is not on display. Neither are the works that so plainly inspired Baglione’s “Judith and Holofernes,” Battistello’s “David With the Head of Goliath,” Manfredi’s “Bacchus and a Drinker” or Dirck van Bauren’s “The Taking of Christ” — and pretty much every other canvas on show. The whole exhibition is haunted by the ghost of artworks unseen and, given this, the question is how did it come to be conceived at all.

“Super at Emmaus” by Caravaggio, c. 1606 (above) and by Alonzo Rodriguez, 1610 (below)

The visitor has just one chance to make a comparison. Alonzo Rodrigues’ “Supper at Emmaus” (1610) captures the moment when two followers of Christ recognize their risen Lord as he breaks and blesses bread. Beyond doubt, Rodriguez had seen both of Caravaggio’s treatments of the subject. Bathed in the light of understanding, the Christian on the right gestures with surprise, thrusting his hand into the viewer’s plane as in Caravaggio’s first version, dated 1600. Even the model appears identical — or simply copied. Two servants to the left of Rodriguez’s canvas gape in peasant amazement at the revelation, while two stand to the right of Caravaggio’s second rendering (around 1606) attending to their guests.

In the latter canvas, displayed at the Teien, an oblique, illuminating light falls on all the figures alike, yet these servants continue as if nothing has happened: They are not aware of Christ’s resurrection, even though a miracle has taken place before their very eyes.

Salvation is almost arbitrary: This is the heartbreaking and quintessentially Caravaggian insight that runs throughout his later religious works, where bewildered, rapturous figures are chosen for sainthood without knowing why and the saintly go to their martyrdom seeming equally confused and uncertain. A known murderer, Carvaggio gave his own features to a shadowy observer in his “Martyrdom of St. Matthew” and signed only one picture throughout his career, the “Beheading of St. John the Baptist,” by tracing a finger in the red pigment of the saint’s blood. Yet his mature artistic life was spent producing religious works, as if trying to puzzle out this mystery that the Church demanded: faith.

This ambiguity was to be Caravaggio’s legacy. The most perceptive of his modern critics, Howard Hibbard, observed that Caravaggio’s “contribution to the history of art, in a single sentence, [is that] he was the only Italian painter of his time to rely more on his own feelings than on artistic tradition.”

How well did his followers understand this great shift? The best of the artists displayed in this exhibition share their master’s troubled humanity — it looks out of compassionate eyes in Mario Minitti’s “Christ Bearing the Cross,” not the eyes of Christ but of the soldier holding the rope around his neck.

Most, however, benefit from the lack of comparison. Indeed, judged purely on its content, this exhibition would hardly warrant the interest it has received on its world travels. There are other gems — Baglione’s striking “Sacred and Profane Love,” the tenderness of Spadarino’s “St. Francesca of Rome” and “Guardian Angel” — but too much is derivative, second-rank genre painting.

This slew of inferior imitation may be the greatest proof there is of Caravaggio’s greatness, but without his originals the viewer is unable to draw his or her own conclusions with certainty. This is an opportunity missed: The gallery-goer should be enabled to critique the judgment of the art establishment, to inquire, “Why do we revere X, but write off Y?”

For those who know and love Caravaggio, this show is, for all its frustrations, a treat — every canvas offering the satisfaction of recognition. Those who don’t would do best to equip themselves with one of the inexpensive but lavishly illustrated primers now available — but since when should you have to do homework before heading off to a gallery?

This exhibition is, sadly, unlikely to win any fresh admirers for the greatest — yet most humane — artist of Counter-Reformation Rome.