It began just before I was born. The rediscovery of Caravaggio can be dated precisely to 1951, when a respected Italian art critic called Roberto Longhi organised an exhibition in Milan called Caravaggio and His Followers, at which was unveiled a body of work by an obscure baroque painter whom Longhi had finally managed to isolate from the rest of the rioters in that boisterous pitch invasion of art that is the early baroque. People had always known about Caravaggio — he was too notorious to remain entirely unheard of — but they couldn’t spot him in the crowd. His paintings were unsigned. And so many other painters had copied his style that the outline of the style’s great inventor was lost in the dark. Longhi’s achievement was to separate Caravaggio from the Caravaggeschi, and to reveal a man with an oeuvre. The world went: “Wow!” And it hasn’t stopped squealing since.
The thing about Caravaggio is that he ticks so many contemporary boxes. There is hardly a thing we like that he doesn’t give us. For instance, we like going to the movies, and confronting a Caravaggio is like sitting in the front row. I saw a television documentary recently in which they wheeled out Martin Scorsese to talk about Caravaggio’s paintings and, although it was an effective piece of casting, it was also a thoroughly obvious one. In any Caravaggio, the lights have gone down, the curtains have opened and spotlit before you is a noirish drama that feels intensely real and is one in which the director carefully manipulates your emotions: gets you crying, gets you frightened, often by employing extra doses of 3-D.
Look how the left hand of the apostle in The Supper at Emmaus, with which the National Gallery commences its magnificent effort to understand Caravaggio’s final years, is thrust right under your nose, while his right hand recedes into the dark in the opposite direction. It’s a perspectival trick, used for exactly the same reasons that John Ford would aim a speeding train at you in a western, then have it go over you. Caravaggio’s 3-D special effects break down the divide between the picture and you. His art invades your space. It involves you physically as well as mentally.
You don’t have to do much homework with Caravaggio, either. You don’t need to understand Latin or know about mythology or be able to tell St Matthew from St Mark or be familiar with any of the concepts you need to understand Raphael, say, because Caravaggio’s paintings don’t require you to know anything about anything. They are dramatically self-sufficient. He panders to our ignorance. He suits the dumb and busy modern world.
So, even someone who hasn’t heard of Christ, and who doesn’t know that Christ was flogged by Roman soldiers before being crucified, will respond immediately to the tragic and violent sight that greets you in the second room of the National Gallery’s exciting display. As long as you know what pain is, as long as you know what a beautiful body is, as long as you have a heart, you are fully educated to understand Caravaggio’s Flagellation, from 1607. I desperately want to add that it is one of the greatest religious paintings ever made, but I will want to claim that frequently in the review ahead, so I had better resist from the off. Caravaggio’s Flagellation is merely stupendous, psychologically explosive and unspeakably moving.
Homosexuals love Caravaggio because they insist he was one of them. Actually, the jury is out on that one. The modern world wishes it to be so because we have become so mysteriously keen on outing historical figures. But there is no concrete evidence in Caravaggio’s case. Of course, the half-naked Christ in the Flagellation, or that provocative John the Baptist at the other end of the show, the one with the ragazzo eyes and the swarthy street-urchin smirk, are beautiful and showy bits of masculinity.
In my view, however, Caravaggio’s women are just as sexy as his men, though they are, admittedly, less frequently naked. Look properly at the dark beauty of the Madrid Salome, then tell me that Caravaggio didn’t love women. You could argue that covering up a love object is as possessive an act as uncovering them. Why do Muslim women wear burqas? As a jealous and possessive guy myself, I feel every bit as certain of Caravaggio’s heterosexuality as gay men are of his gayness.
What is utterly indisputable is the fact that his art converses with us on these sorts of edgy psychosexual levels. And that’s modern.
So, what are we to make of his naked old men, the wrinkly, wizened ones, whose bodies are displayed so tangibly in such cruel circumstances? A taste for S&M? Don’t be silly. Among the excitingly unfamiliar paintings brought to London for this great display is a Crucifixion of St Andrew, from Cleveland, that shows an ancient Andrew roped onto a cross for his martyrdom and refusing to be untied because it is his wish to die. Andrew is an astonishingly poignant figure, the tragic embodiment of every old man who ever coughed up blood in every hospital ward on God’s earth. With Christ, Caravaggio uses perfect nakedness to symbolise a perfect manhood — entirely innocently, I contend — but with his old men, he uses an imperfect nakedness to hook our sense of compassion, then give it a yank.
As everyone now knows, Caravaggio was among the first examples of that unfortunate but compelling breed: the sinful celebrity. He murdered a man in 1606 after an argument over a tennis game, and had to spend the rest of his short life on the run, before expiring in mysterious circumstances on a beach in 1610. He was only 37. It was the most sensational of lives. And the fact that he managed to pack as much great art into it as he did is little short of impossible. If raising people from the dead is a difficult miracle — as a shadowy Christ does to a naked Lazarus in the show’s biggest picture, a worn-out but moving image from Messina that flickers so much it seems to be on fire — then what about managing successfully to achieve a late style before you turn 40?
Caravaggio: The Final Years consists of only 16 paintings. All were done after he fled Rome. They are sparsely hung. And some exceedingly un-National Gallery-ish moody lighting picks them out. The sparseness of the hang allows every picture to involve you fully in its drama. The melodramatic lighting heightens further an already heightened experience. It all works sensationally well. What we have unveiled here is the unusual concept of a great late style being achieved by an artist who never even made it to middle age.
The show has a brilliant beginning. Caravaggio painted two versions of The Supper at Emmaus: the familiar one that belongs to the National Gallery, painted in 1601; and another, from Milan, from about 1606. Hanging them side by side forces you to compare one with the other and gain an immediate inkling of what this “late style” may have been. You see immediately that his art warmed up, darkened and maybe even blurred a tad, as if his eyesight were weakening. He certainly became less flashy. The visual fireworks of his youth are still attempted, here and there, but he’s just as interested in the soft glows of the fire going out. Above all, you sense him becoming more intensely and privately religious. There’s so much fierce identification here with the pain and the poverty he was supposed to be noticing in the scriptures. It all gets so personal. And that’s so modern too.