The National Gallery of Canada, last summer
It’s “the most anticipated art exhibition of the year,” raved Gaile Robinson, art critic of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Yet, Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome, which opened Oct. 16 at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth (to Jan. 8, following its initial run at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa), has thus far been inexplicably ignored by most art-reviewing publications outside the localities hosting the show.
As you may remember from a CultureGrrl Video, where I left you gazing at the entrance to the show, I experienced “Caravaggio” during my visit last summer to the NGC. Better late than never, the NY Times‘ “Arts & Leisure” section this Sunday is publishing my close-looking piece—“Two Painters: So Alike, So Different”—which was, in part, inspired by that show. One of the “alike” and “different” artists of the headline is Caravaggio. The other is his near-contemporary who was the subject of another recent major museum exhibition. (You’ll have to see the piece to find out who.)
When you read the article, you may understand why I was pleasantly surprised that my text, a bit risqué for a family newspaper, survived uncensored.
UPDATE: You can read me now, here. Scroll down below the nifty multimedia feature to read the bulk of my introductory text.
It’s about time that I broke CultureGrrl‘s silence about the show, which was co-curated by Sebastian Schütze, art history professor and chair at the University of Vienna, and David Franklin, the National Gallery of Canada’s deputy director and chief curator, who left before the show opened to become director of the Cleveland Museum of Art.
With 47 loans from 13 countries, Ottawa’s show (somewhat altered in Fort Worth) was a throwback to the not-so-distant good old days when major museums regularly mounted
ambitious scholarly shows, with loans drawn from a long list of international lenders.
But like many such “Big-Name Artist and…” shows, this one is a mixed bag. Some of the 46 works by the Caravaggisti (44 at the Kimbell) are masterpieces that hold their own against the progenitor’s oeuvre; many are far less riveting.
Any show that brings together 12 Caravaggios (10 at the Kimbell) is a noteworthy event, although the Caravaggio exhibition mounted last year at the Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome, commemorating the 400th anniversary of the artist’s death, more than doubled Ottawa’s Caravaggio count, with 25 examples.
The NGC took a thematic (rather than chronological) approach, presenting many evocative juxtapositions of works within those themes—youths and musicians; dupes and thieves; saints; religious dramas. In each section, the examples were widely disparate in technical execution and emotional temperature.
This was particularly true of two Caravaggios, on facing walls, depicting the “Sacrifice of Isaac.” This one, which was the cover image for the catalogue for the Metropolitan Museum’s 1985 “The Age of Caravaggio” show, seemed to me reminiscent (in the extreme contortion of the youth’s features) of the earlier “Boy Bitten by a Lizard,” which figures in my Times piece:
Caravaggio, “Sacrifice of Isaac,“ 1602-03, Galleria degli Uffizi
© Scala / Art Resource, New York
Caravaggio, “Boy Bitten by a Lizard,” 1594-96, Fondazione di Studi di Storia dell’Arte Roberto Longhi, Florence
© Nimatallah / Art Resource, NY
The other depiction at the NGC of Isaac’s aborted sacrifice, 1598-99, shows an almost placid-looking youth who has already heard the welcome words of the intervening angel (conveniently accompanied by the ram to be substituted for the sacrifice). This was one of two loans from the collection of Barbara Piasecka Johnson (also including a “Saint Francis,” c. 1598), neither of which is at the Kimbell. (I could not obtain permission to reproduce either of Johnson’s pictures, but you can see a not-so-great reproduction of “Sacrifice” here.)
The show’s catalogue (where all the works are reproduced) is praiseworthy for Franklin’s astute close readings of key works by the artist. But the keen intellect that informs the catalogue is insufficiently evident in the gallery labels, which are largely descriptive of what we can see for ourselves, failing to penetrate the paintings’ profundities. The sensuality and haunting homoeroticism of some Caravaggios is never mentioned. The Kimbell has rewritten the labels, to more insightful, scholarly effect.
The Ottawa show was also noteworthy as the first public showing of a painting from a private British collection that has just been attributed to Caravaggio—“Saint Augustine,” 1600 (not in the Kimbell’s show). While escorting me through the exhibition, NGC curator Christopher Etheridge, author of one of the catalogue essays, acknowledged that the attribution of this “discovery” is still the subject of debate. To my non-specialist’s eyes, it looked convincing. (I was not able to get reproduction rights for “Saint Augustine,” but you can see a reproduction of it, here.)
My guess is that U.S. publications were waiting for the Fort Worth version of “Caravaggio” before dispatching reviewers. It’s a rare opportunity to experience a critical mass of this celebrated master’s work. Many of those paintings are from American collections. For a short time, though, they can be savored together.