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From the archives: few long-dead artists captivate the contemporary imagination like Caravaggio. Denys Sutton, writing in December 1951, noted the theatricality of the baroque painter's work--and presaged the cult of Caravaggio that was to come.

Following his death in April, obituaries of Sir Denis Mahon rightly paid tribute to the historian and collector's lifelong advocacy of Italian baroque art. Well into Mahon's middle age this was not a style of painting much in favour; hence he was able to make such notable acquisitions as the purchase of Guido Reni's Rape of Europa (1637-39) in 1945 for 85 guineas. Among the various artists championed by Mahon was Michelangelo Merisi (1571-1610), better known as Caravaggio. The subject of many exhibitions on the quatercentenary of his death last year, this painter's work forms the centrepiece of a show, 'Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome' (see Apollo's October issue), already seen at the National Gallery of Canada and now in Fort Worth's Kimbell Art Museum.

Caravaggio is one of a handful of long-deceased artists whose name evokes near-universal recognition, the subject of many monographs, biographies, novels, plays and films. Last December Professor Richard E. Spear wrote an amusingly waspish article in Art in America about the artist's current global popularity. He noted how the website offers consumers no less than 3,352 customised Caravaggio products and gift ideas, 'including collectible stamps with all of Caravaggio's paintings.'

Spear proposes the upsurge in 'Caravaggiomania' began in 1951 following an exhibition at Milan's Palazzo Reale, again entitled 'Caravaggio and His Followers'. This show was the subject of an article written precisely 60 years ago for the December issue of Apollo by its future editor Denys Sutton, incidentally a friend and sometime collaborator with Mahon.

Since the cult of Caravaggio had yet to get under way, Sutton's comments are remarkable for their prescience of what lay ahead. He describes the artist's approach as 'essentially scenic ... Figures make their exits and their entrances; one can almost sense the lifting of a curtain to reveal a tableau that is composed, fixed, yet real.' Spear likewise makes reference to 'the photographic and cinematographic qualities of Caravaggio's austere verism, framing and lighting.' It is surely theatricality presented as realism which accounts at least in part for Caravaggio's widespread allure: his imagery manages to combine the mundane with the melodramatic. In Art in America, Spear remarks that on a basic level, the artist's appeal is 'immediate and easy, especially in comparison with more classicising, demanding artists like Annibale Carracci and Guido Reni, who arguably equalled Caravaggio as painters and were historically more influential.' And, as he points out, the 'deceptively secular cast' of Caravaggio's oeuvre 'also strongly appeals to contemporary values of what constitutes significant art.'

The excessive emphasis often placed in critical assessments on originality has, in this instance, led to a distortion of Caravaggio's position in art history, resulting in his frequent classification as an outsider rather than as one player among many in an ongoing narrative. While what is known about his life points to a difficult temperament, this does not mean the work remained untouched by what he saw around him, or by what had gone before. 'Naturally enough,' wrote Sutton, 'Caravaggio did not arrive without artistic predecessors; he owed much to the past, to the tradition of Lombardian and Venetian painting.'

Yet even Sutton could not resist designating Caravaggio in Rome as being 'one of those urgent revolutionaries who arrive on the scene at a crucial moment,' and once there feel obliged to act 'like some hero from Balzac or Stendhal, and storm this artistic centre.' It is the supposed character of the artist, rather than his work, which has caught Sutton's imagination. In recent decades the myth of Caravaggio as insurrectionist has become so prevalent that it is now assumed to be unquestionably true, leading the Kimbell Art Museum to describe him as 'a controversial genius whose short life was rife with conflict and who, in just the last half-century, has re-emerged as one of the most celebrated artists of all time.'

Spear remarks that in our era, certain artists are judged to have 'an absorbing life story on which the public can fasten. Biography is fetishised.' This is especially true of Caravaggio precisely because documentary evidence relating to his biography is so sketchy, thereby allowing him to be packaged for popular consumption as, in Spear's words, 'the paradigmatic revolutionary, the underdog who, with bold independence, snubbed authority and won.'

It is no accident that this view of Caravaggio only started to emerge in the 1950s, around the same time as the modern youth movement made its debut. Within four years of Sutton's article, Rebel Without a Cause had been filmed. Therein lies the origin of contemporary perceptions of Caravaggio: James Dean in doublet and hose.
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Author:O'Byrne, Robert
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Dec 1, 2011
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