What a brilliant idea for an exhibition. Take an artist of great import, style and personality then look at those who came after; specifically the ones who painted in and developed his style. And so it was in Beyond Caravaggio at the National Gallery which I visited today.
Before I go any further, I have to say that it was superb.
I’m not saying it was superb just because it concerned my favourite artist or that I managed to see at least one Caravaggio I’d never seen for real before (John the Baptist in the Wilderness – who knew it was so big?) but simply because it was such a clever idea. Glimpsing the legacy left by a great artist (before and after his death) is not just informative, it is delightful.
There was even a Saint Sebastian. Painted by Nicolas Regnier somewhere around 1630, Saint Sebastian tended by the Holy Irene and her Servant is one of the rare ones to show the aftermath of his martyrdom when Irene took him home and tried to save him – some accounts claim she did. It is influenced by Caravaggio in the use of light and shade and the sensuousness of Sebastian as he lies pierced by arrows.
I’d ordered the tickets back in August and have been waiting with an excitement that belied my aching knee. Of course, that’s all behind me now and I thoroughly enjoyed wandering the exhibition rooms, listening to the excellent commentary through the audio guide. I’d already bought the catalogue so the guide was an excellent companion, topping up what I already knew of the paintings on display.
One of the things with this sort of ‘all-sorts’ exhibition is that you learn of artists you may never have heard of or seen before. So it was with me and my introduction to a female artist of the early 17th century. Her name was Artemisia Gentileschi and I figure she was quite a rare thing…a female artist in the early 17th century, I mean.
She didn’t have it easy but she was tough, resilient and one of the greatest painters to come after Caravaggio. Her painting of Susannah and the Elders is a wonderful examination of the male treatment of women in Biblical stories and other myths so prevalent in less enlightened days…the sort of thing we’re in danger of returning to, I guess. (The Elders do rather remind me of Donald Trump.)
It’s a beautiful painting yet, at the same time, dark and foreboding. Though it certainly helped knowing the story of Susannah and the Elders when viewing it. (My version of the story can be found here: Susanna and the Elders.)
I’d rather like to see a retrospective of Artemisia’s work if one ever happens. She was quite an extraordinary person from the bits I’ve read. Plus she painted a lot of gruesome subjects with no fear of the violent. Her Judith and Holofernes is an example of her strong stomach and political bias.
Having seen so many exhibitions, it’s difficult to claim one as ‘the best’ (Bosch at the beginning of the year would probably wear that accolade) but Beyond Caravaggio at the National is definitely up there at the top of the list. Apart from anything else the exhibition as a whole just flowed from one thing to another, ending with the beautiful John the Baptist in the Wilderness. A perfect painting and almost a perfect ending to this post…except for the fact that I finally had a shave last night.