Category Archives: National Gallery

Gauguin – Tate Modern – Winter 2010

Though ephemeral events, exhibitions can have powerful effect in redressing the reputation of an artist, uncovering previously hidden gems or revealing new aspects of a known master, perhaps. In the case of the current Gauguin show at the Tate, it has utterly destroyed his reputation as an artist of the first rank. In his poor sense of composition, complete mishandling of colour and his inability to develop a sense of narrative, Gauguin has revealed himself to be, at best, a brave decorational painter, and at worse, an over zealous amateur.

The Tate exhibition parades numerous chapters of his incompetence. Take a picture such as Te Poi Poi. From a distance, a vibrant splash of colour. But up close the painting falls apart; a mad rainbow in a blender.

Te Poi Poi, 1892, private collection

The woman in stark red (whom I presume is cleaning clothes in the river, but her unfortunate posture makes it seem as if she is relieving her bowels) provides some focus in the foreground, but all around her is a maelstrom of confused colour. The blurry morass of black, blue, green and white in front of the woman makes it unclear what is land, stone or water; where does she actually exist? Above her head, daubs of livid green form a tree, painted in a manner of a ten year old copying Howard Hodgkin. The river is a bizarre colour – a creamy white giving way to an unforgiving dark blue. Further back, nothing much happens – just more application of bright colours, with an ill painted stick figure on the other riverbank. What is this picture about?

Te Pape Nave Nave, 1898, National Gallery of Art, Washington

Gauguin’s insistence on using as many colours as possible detract from the paintings. There is no articulate use of the palette to encourage a particular emotional environment. Rather, he is like the primary school pupil let loose on the colouring set, a meaningless melange of reds, oranges, purples, yellows etc etc. Sometimes, the colours coalesce in a blackening mess. In Te Pape Nave Nave, the characters become lost; to work as as a painting, the characters need to be bigger and dominate the canvas; instead they are overwhelmed as the kaleidoscopic landscape prevails over them, reducing their presence to bystanders.

Of course it wasn’t Gauguin’s aim to create realistic or perspectivally true images. As contemporaries such as Cezanne and successors like Picasso would explore with far greater rigour, there was a lot painterly mileage in such investigations. And perhaps I am being unfair to him in criticising him for his obvious weaknesses as a figurative painter, when his oeuvre is part of the pathway to abstraction. You can see Gauguin in this exhibition (which really emphasises the experimental nature of his art, his constant dallying with different media and styles of depiction) trying to explore the ramifications of the flatness of the canvas he is painting on. But it becomes sloppy. So instead of the landscape spitting up and then reforming itself in renewed and different dimensions, the landscape itself just falls apart, leaving its unhappy combination of colour.

Arearea No Varua Ino, 1894, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

Arearea No Varua Ino is perhaps beguiling at first glance, but quickly becomes ludicrous. The woman leaning downwards has no facial features; she is a just a chunk of body, seeming to wash her hair in the inexplicable pink flames. The other woman, on the left of the canvas, is surly in expression, possibly under the malign influence of the totem behind. But it’s difficult to unpack why. Two figures in the background gesticulate aimlessly. As happens elsewhere, his characters lack in an emotional narrative – they become passive, shorn of activity and Gauguin ends up not painting individuals but cyphers. It is difficult to read, empathise or admire Gauguin’s paintings; any sense of drama evaporates in the coloured fuzz of Gauguin’s own view of paradise.

Overall, his treatment of women is ludicrous, reducing them to mutes with a squashed inner life (although, at least they appear – apparently men hardly exist in Gauguin’s world). They are sometimes sensuous, sometimes brooding, occasionally anxious, but nearly always one-dimensional. There are no clues as to why such characters are acting in a particular way. Do any of the women in Gauguin’s visual universe actually talk or interact? Or are they simply vehicles for Gauguin’s own narrow binary views about the innate goodness and badness of women, tarted up by some cliched myths? Despite the nudity and the presumed sensuality, his females lack much trace of tenderness. Closer inspection indeed reveals something a little more interesting, a touch more ambiguous – their eyes are often askance, hinting at a kind of suspicion of the world around them. The figure at the very left of The Bathers glances out of the canvas – as if berating Gauguin or the viewer for invading their territory. At least Gauguin had the gumption to include a degree of self reflection.

Ondine, 1889, Cleveland Museum of Art

Or perhaps it was simply the fact that Gauguin could not paint faces very well; providing the nuance of tone that would allow for the nuance of emotional expression was just beyond him. Have a look at the lumpen, boiled down profiles in the late paintings, Two Women and The Escape. He even resorted to turning females around to avoid painting their faces, such as in Ondine / In the Waves and The Bathing Place.

And yet Gauguin continues to be popular. His myth embodies the industrial dream of escaping to a personal and geographical Eden. The inclusion of text (always a handy anchor for those uncomfortable with the strangeness of the image) provide a faux philosophy to underpin such a myth, easy reference points for the cliched mind. The question “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where are we Going?” is not very original.

The exhibition does an intelligent job of deconstructing all this. Not only did Gauguin cultivate his own myth (Gauguin calls himself seduced by Tahiti’s “virgin land and its primitive and simple race .. the Eve of my choice is almost an animal”), but it blossomed after his death, Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and the Sixpence being only of many cultural productions that allowed the romantic notions of Gauguin to spin out of control.

Equally, Gauguin suits the age of reproduction. His paintings and his colours often appear in print, on television. The actual paintings are so flat, with the paint to thinly applied on the canvas (Braque is another painting in this mode), that one actually loses little when the painting are printed in miniature – the bright colours fluoresce and attract the roving eye. Compare this to Van Gogh whose shares a richness of palette but whose fecund, passionate impasto becomes lifeless when printed in a book.

Te Faaturuma, 1891, Worcester Art Museum

Is there anything to save him? Occasionally, Gauguin achieves success when he reduces the complexity of his paintings – fewer figures, fewer colours, a more confined space. Te Faaturuma sticks out. By ditching the coloured foilage that pollutes most of his paintings, replacing it with solid planes of colour, Gauguin attains a must greater psychological impact – this is one of the exhibition’s paintings where the characters inner selves have much greater resonance – it’s interesting to note that Gauguin’s paintings set inside are almost always more powerful than those set out of doors. There is a closer link with abstraction, and the destination of Gauguin’s oeuvre becomes clearer. More broadly, the colours themselves are superficially attractive, and his experiments in colour are a part of the link between the Impressions and the Cubists. I can see an argument that says every gallery in the world should have a Gauguin. But I think one is enough.



Filed under Gauguin, National Gallery, Tate Modern, Uncategorized

Keeping Titian Here – National Gallery – Winter 2008

The National Gallery and the National Gallery of Scotland, suddenly thrown into panic by the Duke of Sutherland’s inevitable decision to sell Titian’s Diana and Actaeon, have not chosen a great time to try and raise £50m from, frankly, anyone who can stump up some cash. The year 2008 will always associated with a downward graph showing some vertiginous descents – a year when money evaporated. There is no jangle of spare cash for art.

Diana and Actaeon - Titian
Titian, Diana and Actaeon, Late 1550s, National Gallery of Scotland

And yet public opinion towards the gallery’s begging bowl has been, on the whole, largely positive. There have been the usual discussions in newspapers and television shows, as well as blogs and websites, and the expected comments about wasting-money-on-art-when-there-are-sick-children-to-be-cured-has-surfaced. But £10 notes continue to be stuffed into the boxes at the National Gallery.

In particular, the UK tabloid newspapers, generally accepted as the voice of the man in the street, have, in their own way, been supportive of the so-called Titian Campaign. One would expect a instinctive anti-elitism to kick in – the tabloid newspapers are usually the loudest voice to articulate the common sense pragmatism that is outraged when would see museums receive money instead of hospitals, and regards both old master and avant-garde art as elitist pretension wrapped up in the emperor’s new clothes.

Instead, the Daily Mirror happily showed the inventive recreation (commissioned by the Beeb I think) by the photographer Tom Hunter, and made some cheerful marks about the nudity on show with a typical red-top headline, ‘Nice Titians’.

Diana and Actaeon - Tom Hunter
Tom Hunter, Diana and Actaeon, 2008

The Sun made its lo-fi version of Diana and Actaeon, tailored to suit its readership

Diana and Actaeon - The SunThe Sun, Homage to Diana and Actaeon, 2008

A connoisseur may splutter about the irreverence – but it’s harmless stuff – and a million miles away from much more damaging headlines, e.g. ‘Arrogant art critics demand £50m during credit crunch’ or ‘Money diverted from dwindling health budget to pay rich aristocrat’ etc etc.

Does this reflect a change in dynamics of class and culture in Britain? Or are there some very bright people working in the Titian Campaign’s marketing office? Or is just the chance to embrace some gratuitous nudity (something the tabloids have been doing for years)?

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Pompeo Batoni – National Gallery – Spring 2008


When the new director of the National Gallery, Nicholas Penny, came on board in early 2008, he made some splendid noises about the importance of ‘connoisseural’ exhibitions but also some more worrying ones about the end of the blockbuster. If one accepts this rather artificial division (I suspect that to many of the public all Old Masters paintings have the whiff of the connoisseur about them), surely any ambitious curator should be able to handle both. One would certainly not want to drop blockbusters like the National Gallery’s Caravaggio, perhaps the gallery’s most significant exhibition so far this century, but nor would want to lose gems like the 2001 exhibition on Pisanello.

Pompeo Batoni, Gregory Page-Turner, Manchester Art Gallery, 1768-9. I had always presumed the surname was a joke.

However, having seen the recent exhibition focused on the refined, aristocratic and lifeless portraits by Pompeo Batoni, one would fall down to ones knees and beg any curator never to touch a specialist exhibition again.

It is one of the most least engaging exhibitions the National Gallery has ever put on, soporific Madonnas, tiresome history paintings and a bevy of rotund British men prancing around Roman ruins and looking as pleased as Punch. The images all form useful evidence if one is doing a PhD on eighteenth-century Rome, but they carry little aesthetic weight. It is the very definition of an exhibition that is ‘of academic interest only.’

The exhibition is also reflective of a time when the artist had full control of what a portrait could do, in terms of documenting a patron’s appearance and foibles in a flattering way. Thousands of stately portraits, some done with with deft brushwork, others executed with cold-hearted automatism, were churned out in the eighteenth century by Batoni and his ilk. The rich wanted their identities and achievements recorded; the painter needed a wage and could deliver images that satisfied the patron’s gradually expanding ego. The needs of any general viewer interested in art do not come into this formula, and this is patently clear in this exhibition.

Batoni’s paintings are theatrical but in a rather disastrous way. They remind one of a primadonna actor who thinks himself more important than the play. The sitter makes some rather hammy gesture, head pushed to one side (as if disdaining the viewer), shoulders thrust out, fingers pushed out in some needlessly expressive way. The sitter sees himself as an actor in a grand setting (more often than not with echoes of glories of classical Rome, so he bask in the magnificence of Caesar or Hadrian). But in actual fact there is no narrative, no actual story attached to this grand gesture, no other players around who could provide a context for grandiloquent movements of Batoni’s customer. And so the painting falls flat and the gestures seem ridiculous; it is all empty rhetoric.

Pompeo Batoni, William Gordon, Fyvie Castle, Aberdeenshire, 1765-6.

The painting of Colonel the Hon. William Gordon says it all.

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Velazquez, National Gallery

Exhibition held in Winter 2006

The little catalogue handed out to visitors at the National Gallery’s Velázquez exhibition was at pains to chart the painter’s ascent to artistic genius. Not only were the breathtaking leaps in ability mentioned but also the youthful slips and errors defects that accompanied this climb. “Although they are endowed with great presence,” it say speaking of the early Adoration of the Magi, Velázquez cannot yet relate a convincing space around them.” It’s almost as if the aesthetic merit of each canvas could be determined by Velazquez’ age at the time he painted the work in question.

Such a thesis may be tenable in the ultimate Velázquez exhibition, with every one of his glittering jewels exposed in some fabulous uber-gallery. But what struck me more about the collection of paintings on show at the National Gallery was that the artist, whilst working within a broad familiar approach (some very familiar, others largely unknown, some very obviously absent), was keen and able to explore different paths, exploring different manner of painting over time. The dark, metallic colouring of An Old Woman Cooking Eggs contrasts with the washed-out pastiness of Joseph’s Bloody Coat Brought to Jacob; portrait styles subtly adjust themselves – the fleshy, mottled jowls of the caustic poet Luis de Góngoray Argote; the soft-focus view of the haughty collector Camillo Massimo; or the cold, precise intimacy afforded the nun Jerónima de la Fuente.

Velázquez, Joseph’s Bloody Coat Brought to Jacob, 1629-30, El Escorial, Madrid.

Velázquez, Portrait of Camillo Massimo, 1650, The Bankes Collection, London.

Rather than delineate a smooth trajectory towards the glories of Las Meninas and the other late portraits, Velázquez seems to have zig-zagged. This makes him a more interesting painter for me, not less.

Velázquez, Detail of Apollo at Forge of Vulcan, 1630, Prado, Madrid.

Velázquez, Detail of Mars, 1638, Prado, Madrid.

One can look at different styles in Velazquez’s paintings. One can also draw much from the incredible variety of body-sizes in the exhibition – how the painter manipulated the body’s dimensions and appearance to provide added magnification of the sitter’s character. So we see the petite frames of the unsuspecting princesses, their fragile innocence already ruined by their exposure to the mechanics of royalty; the deflated sagginess of Mars, God of War contrasting with to the trim, muscled bucks working in Vulcan’s forge. Don Balthasar Carlos, a youth gilded with adulthood before his time is hoisted up on swollen horses, his frame expanding outwards on each canvas, dressed up in clothes and concepts that no child should have to face. Or the huge balloon-like frame of the courtier Don Pedro de Barbernana y Aparregui, puffed up by the large collar and jacket that seemingly holds a tumultuous body in place. And of course the tall elongated portraits of the regal but apprehensive Philip IV. In these, and with many other of Velazquez’s portraits of noblemen, the head almost touches the upper part of the frame, and the feet the lower. So the viewer, when observing a portrait correctly hung, sees the royal personage stretch below and far above him – a king of truly grand stature.

The continuing appearance of dwarves and jesters allows Velázquez to provide an additional corporeal perspective. Here were people of actual low or misshapen stature being represented next to those whose dimensions Velázquez was rearranging in pigment. So while Velazquez’s manipulation of size allowed him a certain freedom in how he visually expressed his sitters, the juxtaposition with the miniature or the crippled allowed him to emphasise the reality or truthfulness of this situation. ‘My sitters are all different shapes and sizes, because this is how reality is,’ he seems to say. As with the best artists, Velázquez mimics not the external world nor fabricates an idealised, perfect world, but fashions a glorious space somewhere in between.

Velázquez, Portrait of Abbess Jerónima de la Fuente, 1620, Private Collection.

And then there’s the Nun – Abbess Jerónima de la Fuente, submerged in intensity. The lined, suspicious face, with two piercing dark eyes, wrapped in the tight folds of her off-white skullcap. A small rope clasping the folds of her cloak in place. The veined, pulsating (and huge) hand cradling the bible. Further down, a knotted rope slips out, a small and almost unnecessary reminder of her Franciscan ideals. She is a painted personification of the religious super-ego, ready to take the harsh, disapproving line at the merest hint of disobedience. Indeed, there’s a knowing weariness on her face. She has seen and she expects disobedience.

And perhaps most auspicious of all is Jero’nima’s hand, tightly clasping the crucifix, not with reverence or piety, but as one would hold a hammer. The beam of the cross is pushed upwards (as if to give added purchase) and the curved banner that issues from Jero’nima’s neck could equally describe the trajectory that this crucifix/weapon will follow. The text along the bottom, presumably added by another hand, contributes to the power of the painting as well. A ceaseless, inexorable flow of words, pushed around by her folds of her cloak. Even with painted words, the Abbess Jero’nima de la Fuente can dominate the shape of things. Bonum est prestolari cum silento salvatare dei reads the motto above – very (very) roughly, “it serves you well to speak to God in silence”. The tight-lipped Abbess will strike at the merest hint of noise.

Another interesting question this exhibition of the Spaniard’s paintings raised – does Velazquez’ difficulty in presenting comprehensive narratives work to his advantage? Does that fact that storylines are rarely clear in his paintings give the characters added psychological depth? For you’re never quite sure what story Velázquez is trying to convey. While he shares with other Catholic painters of the era a fascination with intense psychological states, there is none of the insistence on a bland, unambiguous storyline that is to the detriment of painters such as Guido Reni, Guercino or Murillo.

It’s the early paintings in particular, gathered together in the first room for the National Gallery exhibition, that focus attention on this question. Characters don’t engage with one another visually; they seem distracted, absentminded, as if reacting to their (troubling?) thoughts rather than an actual event. Such pictures are indeed strange, but they have much stronger resonance for it. Paintings seem artificial when characters are just puppets for a storyline or moral tale. In Velazquez, the storyline is opaque, thus imbuing the characters with a confusing reality. The experimentations with the secondary images placed in the corner, (are they windows, paintings, thought-bubbles?), such as in Christ in the House of Mary and Martha only augment this uncertainty.

Velázquez, The Water Seller, 1618-22, The Wellington Collection, London.

In The Water Seller, we see the boy gaze intently not at the water he is trying to sell (or maybe drink), but inexplicably, at the cloak of the older man. And the man himself engages not with the boy or the water, but gazes moodily at something above the glass of water. In the background, a man drinks, but his eyes are not focussed on the drinking vessel, but on some other distant event.

Velázquez, Old Woman Cooking Eggs, 1628, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh.

And in the Old Woman Cooking Eggs, the boy approaches, hands full with flask and barrel, but his eyes gaze away from the direction he walks, past the ken of painter and viewer. The woman, famously, stares into the far distance, instead of watching the eggs being fried. This has often been interpreted as blindness, but fits in more easily with the mood of the other paintings – the everyday worker, engaged in mundane tasks, disturbed by more weighty thoughts.

And this is exaggerated by the stark, physical immediacy of the objects around them. For the viewer, these are painted with such calculated brilliance that they are pleasure to behold. Curves, textures, reflections, droplets and shadows are painted with a forensic beauty. But for the characters within the paintings, these knifes, jar, onions and barrels are nothing compared to the thoughts within their heads.

Velázquez does that tricky thing – he represents the interior life; one sees that his figures think, reflect, judge. How many artists have attempted to do such a thing and failed dismally! And here Velázquez has no need of props like books or globes or character dressed as philosopher or mages. A thoughtful life belongs to everyone. Like Chardin over a hundred years later, Velázquez imbues the common man or woman with a weighty sense of being.

A note on the exhibition space. Four lighter, airier rooms of the main gallery were used, I think for the first time. Ignoring the fact that this meant pushing some of the permanent collection to the dungeons downstairs, I think this helped the exhibition. There was more space for the paintings to breathe, especially the large history paintings which benefited from their juxtaposition with each other in the same room. But it’s still not good enough for a world-leading museum. There’s still too many visitors peering over each others shoulders, heads and hairpieces. Only with spacious, well-lit dedicated exhibition space will one gain enjoyment that one would wish.

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Filed under Baroque, National Gallery, Velazquez

Caravaggio: The Late Years, National Gallery

Exhibition held early 2005

I’d always had the feeling that, as Caravaggio fled and journeyed through southern Italy, his technique suffered. Somehow, I imagine him applying paint with unprofessional haste; instead of being focussed on the canvas, his eyes would twitch and dart rapidly, always checking the authorities weren’t about to storm in and nab him.

And in such a position, my thinking went, he obviously was not in the correct mental state to repeat the masterpieces of the Roman years. He didn’t have time to organise paints, canvases and ideas. As a result, the colours become more milky, skimmed of the primary brilliance and the stark chiaroscuro that illuminates the Roman paintings, while the characters become ponderous and half-hearted.

Or so I thought. Caravaggio: the Later Years places a stomping big question mark next to that thesis. Certainly, the paintings do not show quite the same consistency as there exists in the pre-1606 work. But whole chapters of his latter oeuvre shine through with the same clarity and intensity that characterises, say, the Contarini Chapel or the del Monte paintings.

Caravaggio, The Raising of Lazarus, 1609, Museo Regionale, Messina.

There were several hypnotic paintings in the exhibition – the silent retreat of the meditative St Francis, the melancholy of the second Supper at Emmaus, the spiralling whiplash composition that animates the Flagellation – but it was the trio of massive canvases in the National Gallery’s central room that took the breath away.

To begin with, their sheer size. The Raising of Lazarus, the Annunciation and the Adoration of the Shepherds stand well over three metres tall and towered impressively over the spectator. At last the National Gallery hosts an exhibition where the dimensions of the walls are sympathetic to the paintings.

Of course, size is no testament to quality, and one can think of numerous baroque putti-fests where cramming the surface with joyant, radiant angels serves to make the painting more than faintly ridiculous. But Caravaggio used all this space in a much more effective manner.

Just as he employs dramatic contrasts in light, so he does the same with space. One is struck at how little of the painting features the actual figures of the narrative. There is no attempt to fill the entire canvas with dramatic action. Great chambers of space surround and contrast with the narrative focus of the paintings, those tight balls of human energy.

The Raising of Lazarus is noticeable in particular for the great empty space, nearly half the painting, which sits wordlessly above the actors of the scene. As in a giant Rothko, a sober field of paint, muted by centuries of incense and candle-smoke, hovers in the darkness. And then in the flat, almost relief-like, space beneath, light bursts on to the 13 characters (a coincidence? the original gospel mentions that the apostles follow Jesus to Bethany, but obviously the twelve featured in the painting are not all apostles), crammed into a single, central strip. And once Caravaggio has locked the viewer onto this part of the painting, there is no letting go. Lulling viewers with his manipulation of space, he can unleash the emotional intensity of his characters, an intensity that is magnified several times once jammed into this tiny area.

The group of six characters that cluster around Jesus are particularly astonishing. Seven faces in all, one calm and six torn with emotion, are pressed into a small segment of the painting that is perhaps three percent of its surface. Fleeing from the empty space above, the eye comes across this group and whoosh – is hit by the astonishment, fear, shock and resolve of those following witnessing the miracle of Lazarus’ resurrection.

Compare this with the formulaic patterns of Poussin, where each actor in the painted narrative has his own little circle of personal space, and the responding emotion of the spectator becomes diffused, switching from raw instinct to rational understanding. Caravaggio grabs the spectator and makes her react before she knows she is reacting.

It’s a bit of a cliché to say it, but the gritty humanity of Caravaggio also shines through. The use of space plays a part in this. Nearly all the action takes place at eye-level. Man’s physical dimensions are clearly mapped out; his position on the ground confirmed. Nobody here is floating to heaven. Indeed, the shaft of light and the gaze of the spectators clearly indicate that any heavenly manifestation takes place outside the frame of the canvas. (It would be interesting to know what is to the left of the painting in its original setting in Messina)

One gets the sense of the crowd, the jostling, the shouting, the shock of the event. How the characters were feeling or what they were doing prior to witnessing this resurrection. Compare again to many other baroque paintings where the presence of the divine is taken for granted and each character is trapped in a permanent reverie of piety. Caravaggio’s characters develop and respond with recognisably human emotions. The astonishment that the figures exhibit reflects not only on the miracle occurring but their doubt, the everydayness of their position, beforehand.

Another feature: I love how Caravaggio has so carefully calibrated the responses of his characters in reaction to their physical position in the scene. I’m struck by the figure at the top left of the left-hand group. Stuck behind the rest of the crowd he has not quite seen all that is happening. He cranes his neck forward to gain a better view and his mouth just begins to open in astonishment. In order to make the character more visible, another artist may have positioned him awkwardly elsewhere, thus making the narrative more explicit but puncturing the sense of realism. Caravaggio, instead, revels in the narrative problem of having so many characters in so small a space and manages to produce spectacular solutions.

The man crouching down to lift open the tombstone is another convincing figure. His neck has turned in response to the shaft of light behind Christ. Obviously, he is witnessing something divine. But Caravaggio does not forget where he came from, what he was doing previously, in picking up the huge stone that covers Lazarus’ tomb. Even in the presence of the divine, the man has to deal with the physical, the earthly. He remains crouching, the tendons in his fingers strain as he pulls on the heavy slab.

It requires a special visual intelligence to present so many expressive faces and bodies, capable of being understood by the spectator without sacrificing their potency and realism. And to fit so much into such a tiny space! Famously, Caravaggio has left us no drawings. Yet it is difficult to understand how such a complex scenario could have been constructed without some prior sketched planning.

Like many great painters, Caravaggio triumphs not only in composition but in the details. He has an extraordinary sensitivity to how movement and aging effect not just facial expressions, but the entirety of the body.

Wrinkles are a common feature; on the shepherds staring intently at the baby Jesus; on the mother of Salome; curling around the eyebrows of the Maltese Knight; lacing the face of Jerome, as he struggles to work in the face of his own mortality. Caravaggio had a sure way of transmitting the passing of time.

But it is the fingers of Caravaggio’s protagonists that struck me most. (Indeed looking at the fingers always seems to be a good way to distinguish the Caravaggios from Caravaggios’ copyists – digits on the latter appear unarticulated and pudgy.) They seem uncannily significant, expressing the movements or emotions of their owners in revealing fashion. Thus we have, almost directly in the middle of the painting, the clenched fist of the swordsman who decapitated John, his fingers wrapped tightly around the Baptist’s hair, emphasising the heavy, dead nature of John’s head. In the same painting, the hands of Salome’s mother are folded together in contemplation, managing to express satisfaction at a job completed, but also hinting at a guilty wring of the hands. The long finger of the angel in the Annunciation does more than point, but implies the calling that defines the narrative. It juts out from the hand, as if preparing to swoop and complete the spiritual union between Holy Spirit and Virgin Mary by the merest touch of a fingertip. In Caravaggio’s world, the whole body is animated, not just the soul.

And finally back to the Raising of Lazarus, where the most potent finger resides. With a single movement, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, his finger tracing a line toward Lazarus’ soul. With this gesture orchestrating the painting, so familiar from the context of the Sistine Chapel, Caravaggio not only articulates his own vision of Jesus, but also shows himself a worthy heir to Michelangelo.

(A note on the catalogue. The printing good and the photographs of a good quality. The translation is middling, although it appears as if it is still stuck with Italian syntax. But the layout is shocking, with no line breaks between paragraphs. And then the content; how many readers are really interested the dusty questions about provenance that seemingly feature in every catalogue entry? I’m astonished how art historians miss the point, almost deliberately, in catalogue entries.)


Filed under Baroque, Caravaggio, National Gallery