Caravaggio: Art that has been through the wars

"In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

This famous quote from the 1949 movie "The Third Man" emphasizes the connection between creativity and violence, or between the wildness of the spirit and artistic output. Few artists epitomize this synergy better than the Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, now the subject of "Caravaggio and His Time: Friends, Rivals and Enemies" at The National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo.

Not only was Caravaggio one of the most influential painters of the Baroque period, with a technique that combined intense realism with dramatic lighting, but he was also, by all accounts, something of a hooligan. Once, he had to flee Rome with a price on his head, after killing a young man in a brawl.

However, there are few signs of this violent nature in his paintings, 11 of which — out of a total of 60 surviving works — are on display. The rest of the exhibition is padded out with works by contemporaries and those influenced by him. These include the French artist Georges de La Tour, who shared his love of chiaroscuro, and the woman painter Artemisia Gentileschi, represented here by a very erotically-charged "Penitent Magdalene" (mid-1640s to early 1650s).

Perhaps the piece that best hints at Caravaggio's aggressive nature is "Medusa Murtola" (c. 1597-98), which shows the enraged face of the famous snake-haired monster. This is given added impact by being painted on a convex wooden surface that bulges out toward you.

But greater violence can be found in the works of other artists at the exhibition, such as Orazio Borgianni. His depiction of the Biblical legend of "David and Goliath" (c. 1609-10) shows the young shepherd beheading the Philistine giant with grim, sadistic relish.

A typical subject for Caravaggio, by contrast, is "The Supper at Emmaus" (1606), showing Jesus, after his death and resurrection, meeting his disciples. Viewing this poignant and sombre work, it is hard not to think of Caravaggio as some kind of Jekyll and Hyde character — a man of violent moods who found serenity and peace in painting religious subjects.

There is a similar tranquility — with a touch of homoeroticism — in some of his nonreligious works, like "Narcissus" (c. 1599) and "Bacchus" (c. 1597-98), painted using adolescent male models.

This element of homoeroticism may explain why this now well-known painting was largely forgotten until it was rediscovered, unframed and uncatalogued in a storeroom of Florence's Uffizi Gallery in 1913. One wonders if it was kept next to a discarded cuckoo clock.

"Caravaggio and His Time: Friends, Rivals and Enemies" at The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo runs until June 12; 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (Fri. until 8 p.m.) ¥1,600. Closed Mon.


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