THE TROUBLE WITH CARAVAGGIO

In his heyday he was hailed as the best painter in the capital of art, Rome. But he was always in trouble.

When he executed big church commissions he painted revered saints and holy figures as if they were crude peasants and scruffy street people. Ecclesiastical minions found the pictures brutal and vulgar and regularly rejected them. His loyalists were refined private collectors and fellow artists. The cognoscentti were titillated by his irreverence when he recast a figure from Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling as a seductive combination of cupid and pre-pubescent male Lolita.

Artists were awed by a provincial youth who made complex dramatic scenes appear without so much as first drawing on the canvas. Even they, however, must have been dismayed at his brawling and brushes with the law. In 1606, he fell into a petty quarrel over a tennis match with one Ranuccio Tommasoni and murdered the hapless fellow. For the rest of his brief life he was on the run.

He continued to be lionized as he painted in Naples, Sicily and Palermo. Such was his talent and charm that he was made a knight of the Order of Malta. Such were his ways that he was unknighted and jailed almost immediately. When he returned to Rome believing he had been cleared, he was once again tossed in the slammer. Upon release, he wandered the river bank where he contracted malaria and died July 18, 1610. He was just 39 years old. After this brief moment of glory and pain, his reputation went into an eclipse that lasted nearly 2 1/2 centuries.

His name was Michelangelo Merisi. But he was known as Caravaggio after the provincial Lombard town where he was born in 1571. Today the name kindles reverence in the hearts of all those nurtured on the doctrinaire modernist version of art history. It was not always thus. Not long after Caravaggio's death, reigning classicists accused him of "unforgivable breaches of decorum." An 18th-Century ranking of 57 leading artists topped by Peter Paul Rubens put Caravaggio fifth from the last. Even 19th-Century romantics who should have been attracted to his energy and individualism were put off by his apparent lack of ethical goodness. The critic John Ruskin put Caravaggio among "the worshipers of the depraved."

It was not until 1905 that the pioneer modernist critic Roger Fry began Caravaggio's redemption by declaring, "He was in many senses the first modern artist, the first to proceed not by evolution, but by revolution."

Caravaggio was cast in the same mold as the poet Jacques Villon. He was the creative outlaw, the Bohemian anti-saint who is permitted to cheat, seduce and steal as long as he serves the higher law of creativity. It is a curious, dark and unwritten aesthetic cannon which nonetheless has played a signal role in our times with their conventional service and secret attraction to an absolutist ego and lawlessness.

Caravaggio's shade has not simply colored the work of hyper-realist artists from Courbet to Duane Hanson, it has touched the mystique of everybody from Picasso to Mick Jagger, the Hell's Angels and the films of Sam Peckinpah. It is a curious and contradictory mixture; a moralizing love of the poor and downtrodden, an irreverent iconoclasm that jeers at convention and a tainted neurosis that is at once exquisitely sensitive and lumpishly violent.

Yet, despite its crucial if somewhat repellent place in our cultural ethos, the Caravaggio syndrome did not formulate into a major exhibition until 1951 when Caravaggio and the "Caravaggeschi" appeared in Milan. Even more surprising is the fact that there never has been a major Caravaggio exhibition in this country, at least not until now. Just opened at the Metropolitan Museum is "The Age of Caravaggio." Its cast of 101 paintings constitutes a capital event, although only 41 pictures are even supposed to be by the master and only about half a dozen of those are among his trademark works.

We do not, for example, see the famous "Entombment" from the Vatican, "The Death of the Virgin" from the Louvre or even the renowned "Still Life With a Basket of Fruit," which was supposed to be on hand but was withdrawn at the last minute by its guardians at Milan's Picacoteca Ambrosiana. Well, never mind. Nobody can complain of a show that includes the androgynous "Bacchus," two famous renditions of "The Supper at Emmaus" and the tragic late-period masterpiece "The Flagilatin."

The show is an event that will reward pilgrimages by the faithful, although they would be well advised to wait until closer to its closing April 14. At the moment, the weather in New York is charitably described as filthy. Later, the show moves on to Naples. It will definitely not come to Los Angeles.

By now, anyone glancingly familiar with the history of art knows that critical drubbing notwithstanding, Caravaggio's artistic influence was immense. Rubins was impressed, as were Spanish realists like Rivera. In France, his mantle came to rest on the shoulders of Georges de la Tour, and in Holland his dramatic light fulfilled itself in both Rembrandt and Vermeer.

The present extravaganza, however, reflects recent scholarly concerns with Caravaggio's immediate predecessors and contemporaries in Italy. A chunky 350-page catalogue has entries by over two dozen scholars, who chip away at the details with great diligence. For the general viewer, the exhibition may serve to illustrate the old saw that every epoch has a generally available set of ideas which are distilled into a vision by one or two great talents.

Caravaggio flowered during the counter-reformation. The embattled Catholic Church was looking for a way to get back in touch with the ordinary Catholic. To achieve this goal, they approved of a popularized imagery that would touch people directly through strong emotional reaction, rather than through complex intellectual dogma.

When Caravaggio gave it to them, the church, of course, recoiled in prissy horror. But, it is the measure of the artist's greatness that the introductory galleries show us the pool of talent from which he formed a vision that was both a turning point in the history of art and a fresh chapter in the psychology of human expression. There had been nothing like it since Hellenistic Rome.

In the section devoted to precursors in Northern Italy, we see Caravaggio's naturalist inheritance in Bassano, his eccentricity in Lamazzo and his flickering theatrical light in Tintoretto. In the large group of works by his contemporaries in Rome and Naples, we find not only the formidable competition encountered by the young provincial artist but also a yeasty pool of inspiration and, finally, influence. The kinkiness of such an early Roman-period Caravaggio as "Boy Bitten by a Lizzard" can be explained stylistically by such late mannerist survivors as Bartolomeo Manfredi, whose "Cupid Punished by Mars" is a classic of elegant perversity. The violence that becomes so awkward and frozen in Caravaggio's "Judith and Holofernes" is everywhere present in sensational scenes of holy suffering by everybody from Annibale Carracci to Orazio Gentileschi.

In short, everything that Caravaggio became can be explained on stylistic grounds by the nervous art historian. In the beginning, for example, Caravaggio obviously had trouble with movement. By the time of the great "Flagellation," he was as fluid as he was profound. It's easy enough to say that he had finally absorbed the lessons of Rubin's great flowing space. That is true, but an inner voice insists that Caravaggio was more than simply the brilliant distiller who combined Baroque grandiosity with down-and-dirty narrative.

What is finally so striking about Caravaggio is his inescapable subjectivity. It is still possible to talk about Michelangelo, for example, without recourse to his psyche, interesting as that is. With Caravaggio, something in the work insists that we deal with his personality.

When Caravaggio first came to Rome, he was miserable and poor. Early self-portrait-like images of young men are twisted and tense. He paints a still life with the salivating awe of somebody who hasn't eaten for a week.

His buoyed spirit is just as obvious when he gains the patronage of the refined and intellectual Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte. His painting is more than bright and clear; it is cheeky and arrogant. It is no problem to imagine the painter of the "Bacchus" carousing around the city, brawling over the least insult. The early "Supper at Emmaus" is a breathtaking rationalization of space, but it is also an expression of intense aggressiveness.

It is easy to forget that Caravaggio was, by our standards, still a youth when these amazing works were painted. We would expect a temperamental young superstar like this to have a certain amount of trouble--compounded by his probable homosexuality--but finally deepen into maturity.

That is exactly what happened when Caravaggio, like some brash youth from "Romeo and Juliette," murdered Tommasoni and fled. His work grows dark and thoughtful, but it only gains tragic wisdom in "The Flagellation."

In a thoroughly weird work like "The Tooth Puller" he is masochistically perverse. In much of the rest, he does not allow us to escape a subtext of personal self pity and a sense of martyrdom. (In a strange twilight-zone turn of events, Caravaggio actually was personally martyred. Cornered by his enemies in Naples, his face was severely cut, leaving him badly disfigured.)

Ultimately, something repellent laces Caravaggio's art, even though that does not stop its being great art. It is the projection of the mind of a street-smart little tough who happened to be a pictorial genius. He invented a form of hyper-realism that always carries about it an aura that is both cynical and morbid, because it says that life is nothing but a battleground for animated sides of beef doomed to death and oblivion.

Basically, art is a constructive activity. It wants its outlaws to be rebels of the mind and spirit, not ordinary criminals. The whole trouble with Caravaggio, the man and the artist, was that he really was just a little too real. Of course, the trouble with life is that it, too, is just a little too real.

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