Art: Master of the Gesture

At the Metropolitan, Caravaggio's turbulent genius

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No other Italian artist of the day had such mastery of gesture. Caravaggio was a minute observer of body language: how people move, slump, sit up, point and shrug; how they writhe in pain; how the dead sprawl. Hence the vividness of Abraham's gesture in The Sacrifice of Isaac, holding his wailing son down on a rock like a man about to gut a fish, even though the landscape behind them is Venetian in its pastoral calm. In The Supper at Emmaus, the characters seem ready to come off the wall, as Christ makes his sacramental gesture over the food. This insistence, this feeling of a world trying to burst from the canvas, is epitomized in one detail of the Supper--the basket of fruit, perched on the very brink of the painted table and ready to spill its contents at one's feet. Later, Caravaggio would learn how to combine poses seen in real life with those sanctified by tradition: hence the contrast achieved in the Louvre's Death of the Virgin between the onlookers, as grave and classical as any quoted from a sarcophagus, and the dead Mary, sprawled like a real corpse. He learned to run variations on the idea of decorum; to achieve effects of the utmost stateliness and play them off against the "merely" documentary. His enemies thought this showed a taste for the banal. Today it suggests how little, in art, can be more radical than a hunger for the real.

Yet like many great aesthetic radicals, Caravaggio had a deep conservative streak. He had come from the northern provinces, in his early 20s, to an art world in recession. Rome in 1592 had a great past but a mincing present. The accepted style was a filleted if showy kind of late mannerism, turned out by the frescoed acre by artists like Caravaggio's early master Giuseppe Cesari, alias the Cavaliere d'Arpino. Limp, garrulous, overconceptualized and feverishly second hand, Roman art in 1590 was in some ways like New York art four centuries later. Against its pedantry--the seicento equivalent, perhaps, of our "postmodern" cult of irony--Caravaggio's work proposed a return to the concrete, the tangible, the vernacular and the sincere. For all the theater and guignol in his work, Caravaggio had far more in common with the great solidifiers of the Renaissance, from Masaccio to Michelangelo, than with the euphuistic wreathings of late mannerism. He reclaimed the human figure, moving in deep space in all its pathos and grandeur, as the basic unit of art--the one that provokes the strongest plastic feelings by mobilizing our sense of our own bodies. He freed it from the musty envelope of allegory by % putting it in common dress and lighting it "realistically," from outside the picture.

Above all, he brought to it a renewed sense of design. Caravaggio's work moves from clutter toward the irreducible: tracing their signs for energy and pathos in the dark, his bodies acquire a formidable power of structure. Sometimes it is very clear; the figure of David holding up the head of Goliath (the Goliath is a self-portrait, a striking rehabilitation of a "monster" as heroic victim) has the abruptness of an ideogram. Elsewhere it is subtler: the geometry of his Saint Catherine consists of two triangles, one formed by the saint's gleaming upper body and dark skirt, the other by the attributes of her martyrdom: the sword tipped with a red reflection from the cushion, meeting the palm frond at an angle subtended by the arc of the broken wheel.

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