Prince of Darkness

Caravaggiomania! Say that five times fast. Then say “the bad boy of Baroque is back” five times fast.  Well, according to ARTnews, he is. Carravaggio has all the making of a legend:  explosive talent with an even more explosive personality, self destructive tendencies, and an untimely and mysterious death. As one of my professors used to say, “We don’t know how he died, but it was probably how he lived – in a bar fight.” Now we know it was likely from malaria, but that’s a bit lame…like a low rent tuberculosis.

So why is Caravaggio having a moment? The immediate answer is that 2010 was a very newsy year for the artist. In march, Canadian art historian Philip Sohm argued (somewhat wryly) that based of the number of published material devoted to him, Caravaggio’s popularity had exceeded Michelangelo’s. Then in June, his bones were found in Tuscany. But the real question is why do are we even uttering phrases like “why now?” Considering Caravaggio’s genius, is it not strange that loving him is a fairly recent phenomenon?

It turns out that the artist’s badassery did not help him out in the first three hundred years following his death. He was seen as common, scandalous, and unclean – especially in the Victorian era. His talent was not disputed, exactly, but critics seemed to think his art was in no way elevated or transcendent. In the nineteenth century he started getting the treatment other landmark artists might:  a few major exibitions (one in Milan in 1951 and one in New York in 1985), a movie, and a solid number of scholarly texts.

bill viola quintet of the astonished caravaggio

A still from Bill Viola’s “Quintet of the Astonished.” Caravaggisti 2.0?

The ARTnews article argues, however, that the intense fandom is a modern development. We can see in Caravaggio what we recognize to be a modern artist. In his own day, artists were often thought of as sort of creative engineers:  putting out or inventing a product for the benefit of a consumer (i.e. the Church, nobles, etc). Nowadays, we value artists who create for themselves, because they have to, because they need to. We see in Caravaggio this internal propeller of creative dynamite. The stories of his dark personal life also conform to our ideas about artists, albeit a bit of a stereotype.

Caravaggio, “Narcissus”

Other ideas for the Caravaggio boom include his theatrical use of light and composition, which could appeal to the modern, film accustomed eye. Then there’s the possibility that his interesting personality and life story give him an edge in a time where people want memoirs and rich background.  We can also relate to his use of “real” people as models for his paintings. You won’t find any marble coolness in a Caravaggio work.

It’s always amazing when it seems like the world is sharing the love for one of your favorite artists. The really good news, though, is that if Caravaggio continues to inspire modern artists and modern art lovers, that spotlight isn’t moving any time soon.

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