‘Caravaggio - A life sacred and profane’

November 03 2010 — by Keith Bradshaw
There are few artists whose work continues to influence our contemporary visual language as Michelangelo di Caravaggio. What we would now refer to as cinematic lighting was depicted in his painted scenes: scenes aching to move, change and animate. The extremes of light and dark, commonly referred to as chiaroscuro, manage to capture atmospheres of violence, anger and a sense of stress and malevolence in equal measure to suggestions of tranquillity, excitement and eroticism. The allure of his work is that it connects us to universal feelings felt our own lives. Patchy but dependable evidence suggests that his realist technique was enhanced by the skilful use of mirrors and optics (a crude form of camera obscura) but the artistry remains in capturing the scene, forming its composition and organising its narrative. Caravaggio’s recorded history of violent drunkenness, debt and social disorder suggest a life in chaos however his work suggests a clarity and sense of purpose. In Andrew Graham-Dixon’s book ‘Caravaggio- A life sacred and profane’ Graham-Dixon explores the limited facts known of Michelangelo di Caravaggio’s real life.

The strongest record of his life are not the scraps of evidence of a human life such as birth certificates and court summons but rather the painting themselves. The paintings reveal the man for all his complex and unreconstructed characteristics. The works often use mythological scenes (the fashion of mid-17th Century commissions) but in doing so they reveal the inner working of the man. Caravaggio is not only the author of the painting but he is inadvertently the lead character, usually off screen but always present like Woody Allen or more appropriately Martin Scorsese whose depictions of street life are contemporary Caravaggio’s paintings. Much is made of Caravaggio as the first film director, born 250 years too early, but his work remain a dynamic, historical record of the motivations and preoccupations of artists and patrons in during counter reformation Rome. Light and its absence is a character in the plot as noteworthy as the people and narrative of the scene. Harsh light also suggests the chaotic momentum driving a troubled life: inconsistent and flawed. This is one of Caravaggio’s greatest hidden gifts, a gift which can only be appreciated with a contemporary understanding of the role of artist in society. Contemporary artists confidently reveal themselves as members of our shared ‘real’ life rather than the mythical genius artist touched by greatness yet disconnected from conventional life. The unspoken subtlety of Caravaggio’s work connect us to the artist who, by revealing his own self metaphorically and often literally, turns a mirror toward us and our reflections of life.