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The Invention of Realism: Beyond Caravaggio at the National Gallery of Scotland

The Invention of Realism: Beyond Caravaggio at the National Gallery of Scotland

The title of this exhibition – if you’re inclined to be pedantic – could be questioned. The word beyond could imply development; but the exhibition revolves more around the relatively immediate influence of Michaelangelo Merisi de Caravaggio on his contemporaries and near contemporaries rather than on a significant evolution or lingering influence of his work. Courbet or Ingres might be better examples of what lay beyond Caravaggio, but that’s nit-picking. The curatorship of an exhibition like this must inevitably find a compromise between historical and aesthetic contexts.

In any case, it’s an excellent show. While there are fine works by other artists – notably Gerrit Van Honthort’s Christ before the High Priest, a beautiful composition of light, shadows and space, or Nicolas Regnier’s St Sebastian tended by the Holy Irene – the three Caravaggios on show dominate.

Boy Bitten by a Lizard epitomises the immediacy and realism that made Caravaggio’s work so radical: a boy, his face crumpled with shock, flinches from the bite of a lizard hiding in a bowl of fruit, in an allegory of the potential pain to be found in the pursuit of sensual pleasure. The Supper at Emmaus captures the moment where the resurrected Christ has revealed himself to two of his disciples: the figure on the left is thrusting his chair back, the figure on the right has thrown his arms out in disbelief; the dramatic foreshortening of that figure’s left arm together with the angle of the first apostle’s back form a triangle that masterfully draws the viewer’s eye to the face of the weary looking Christ at its apex.

The highlight of the exhibition, though, is The Taking of Christ. It’s a rather crowded, restless painting with Christ, St Peter, three soldiers, and two other men – all, with the exception of Christ, are moving or facing to the left. More so than even Boy Bitten by a Lizard, this painting captures what made Caravaggio’s work so new – that dynamism that shines from it. It’s not so much a painting of Christ, or of St Peter or of any of the other figures as it is a flashing glance at a moment – that split second where the armoured man with his back to the viewer is, by arresting Christ, initiating the events that will lead to the crucifixion. For the devout, this is no longer some nameless soldier dragged from his bed at dawn to arrest a Jewish troublemaker: in this instant he is God’s right hand, and the redemption of humanity hinges on his actions. Even through the lenses of enlightened scepticism and 21st century secularism the power of the image radiates.

Beyond Caravaggio will be at the National Gallery of Scotland until September 24th. As an illustration of the artist’s seeding of naturalism in art, as a thoroughly enjoyable experience, I can’t recommend it highly enough; and – as always – the excellent permanent collection next door is well worth a visit.

The Beyond Caravaggio exhibition runs until 24 September 2017 at the Scottish National Gallery. For tickets and more information click here

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