I am a fan of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. I have been since my first tastes of art history in boarding school, but as a photographer it has taken me many years to get to a point where it was clear how I would approach this subject matter. It is a challenge on so many levels. There is the technical aspect of dealing with darkness and how to transition out of the backgrounds into the subjects. There is the need to build minimal sets that provide a setting, but don’t dominate the image. His work was always about the characters, rarely about the setting itself. Casting has to be right, the poses need to be deliberate, and then finally – and most importantly – there is a fine line that must be crossed again and again between beauty and content. If you are going to play with Renaissance light, then you also need to tell stories, and they must be beautifully told.
Caravaggio’s narrative and dark style attracted many artists. Unlike other painters at the time, he never set up a formal school or studio where artists could apprentice. Frankly, the man was too busy living the good life. He was attractive, talented, considerably wealthy, popular, and maintained a sultry bad-boy image. He loved hanging out with wealthy patrons as much as the sketchiest fringe members of society. His followers, dubbed the Caravaggisti, were propagators and defendants of their founder’s style, and many were inventors in their own right. Some of his most famous Italian followers include: Artemisia Gentileschi and her father Orazio, Mario Minniti (one of Caravaggio’s former models), and Giovanni Baglione… Caravaggio’s fame spread internationally, and his followers include such personalities as Peter Paul Rubens, Georges de la Tour, Valentin de Boulogne, and Gerard van Honthorst (read The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr!) Spain boasts impressively popular Caravaggisti: Velazquez, Ribalta, Ribera, Murillo, and my other favorite, Francisco de Zurbaran. Many Caravaggisti established and deserve fame and recognition in their own right. One you’ll definitely have heard of is a Dutch painter called Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn.
Baglione and Caravaggio got into a really nasty feud. Caravaggio loved the good life, and enjoyed getting into sword fights (and is accused of murder) whereas Baglione was a blow-hard religious painter for whom violence was considered below his station. At some point Caravaggio was accused of circulating some nasty scatological poetry. Actually, rather than defend himself Caravaggio trash-talked Baglione’s work in front of the magistrate, which led straight to jail for Caravaggio… for two weeks.
How did this start? There was a general harsh rivalry between artists at the time. The well-timed put-down was as much appreciated as the witty repartee. Much of it was ultimately good-natured, but Caravaggio and Baglione hated each other. At some point, Caravaggio painted a wonderful image called Love Conquers All. It shows a beautiful boy as Amor, happy with his arrows and a mischievous smile. It became the pride of the patron’s collection, who displayed it proudly…
But moralists were outraged. The model had previously been featured in a religious work, and there wasn’t sufficient conscience of piety for their taste. Baglione, a conservative painter, created a counter piece… for the brother of Caravaggio’s patron no less, a cardinal! Baglione’s Triumph of Heavenly love over Earthly Love shows the original Amor being slain by Heavenly Love. So much for conquering all.
It didn’t work. If anything, the attempt to humiliate Caravaggio backfired. Baglione’s patron ignored the rivalry, and the Caravaggisti scorned and insulted him. Baglione then created a second painting, nearly identical, but he changed the faceless sinner at bottom left into Caravaggio as the Devil, ostensibly interrupted by Heavenly Love as he was in the middle of sodomistic acts with the young Amor.
This is what ultimately led to Caravaggio distributing leaflets with tawdry poetry about Baglione, but it was hardly the only example of creative competitiveness. And just because one artist hated another, it was no reason to give up a certain style.
I will show my own work in October 2013, although I’ve already teased out a few work-in-progress images on this blog. For better or for worse the world has become too big for real artistic rivalries, and frankly I respect and admire the few artists out there doing narrative photography.
But one final comment… I live in Berlin, a city known for its art community. We have more writers, musicians, photographers, and painters per capita than any other place in the world. But through a number of very odd circumstances, Berlin also has one of the biggest collections of classical art in the world. We don’t quite have the Louvre, but in terms of numbers, and certainly in important and well-known work, the Gemäldegallerie is one of the top museums in the world.
BUT… the place is empty. No one ever goes. I go all the time, I have an annual pass, and I will just go and wander the big halls for hours by myself. When I read the story that I just repeated here, I realized something… both these paintings are here in Berlin! Hanging next to each other. Here’s a picture I took with my phone yesterday afternoon:
Come visit Berlin. And visit the Gemäldegallerie… because the plan is to convert this museum and replace the work with modern art. I’m a realist, I get that Berlin is well-known for contemporary art as well as modernist, surrealist and expressionist work from the early 20th century, and that we need to show the collections the city has. But no new home has been found yet for these classic masters, and chances are they will disappear in storage for years to come.