Art: Master of the Gesture

At the Metropolitan, Caravaggio's turbulent genius

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"The Age of Caravaggio," the Metropolitan Museum of Art's big show this winter, may come to be remembered as a marker in the history of exhibitions. Not even the Met, this time, could get the loan of his greatest work. Owners and curators are getting more conservative, especially in Italy, and the days when uniquely important works of art could be flown around the world like greeting cards, even for scholarly purposes, are fading.

In 1951, when the Italian scholar Roberto Longhi mounted the crucial show that brought Caravaggio's turbulent genius out of three centuries of neglect and obloquy, this was not a problem. But 34 years later, thanks to the enthusiasm generated by Longhi, more people probably go to, say, the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome to worship Caravaggio than to worship God.

There are splendid things in the Met's show: nobody could say that rooms holding Caravaggio's Uffizi Bacchus or the London Supper at Emmaus or the Thyssen Saint Catherine are underoxygenated. Moreover, the Met has done some good to scholarship by setting Caravaggio against what was painted in Italy, and especially in Rome, when he was alive. Other exhibitions have focused on how the artist influenced 17th century painting all over Europe. This one shows the painting that influenced him when he was growing up--and the visual pedantry he had to contend with. Except for Lotto, Tintoretto and Bassano, and some beautiful works by Annibale Carracci, Adam Elsheimer and Guido Reni, most of this is deadwood and of interest mainly to specialists. Moreover, the climactic efforts of Caravaggio's career, like the Beheading of St. John the Baptist in Malta (which must be the most sublimely concrete work of the tragic imagination painted between the death of Michelangelo and the maturity of Rembrandt), are not here. So it is best to treat the Met's show as a preparation for pilgrimage and to ignore the blatant copies, pastiches and restored wrecks, such as The Magdalen in Ecstasy, The Toothpuller and The Martyrdom of St. Ursula, with which its closing rooms are unfortunately padded.

Today, Caravaggio almost ranks with Rembrandt and Velasquez as the most popular of all 17th century artists. Mythmaking has something to do with this. We have a proto-Marxist Caravaggio, the painter of common people with dirty feet and ragged sleeves. There is also a homosexual Caravaggio, moved into the spotlight during the '70s by gay liberation: the painter of overripe, peachy bits of rough trade, with yearning mouths and hair like black ice cream. Most of all, there is Caravaggio the avant-gardist.

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