Pushkin Museum Hosts Baroque Master Caravaggio
- By Joy Neumeyer
- May. 25 2011 00:00
In a coup for the Russian art scene, the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts is preparing to host an exhibition of paintings by early 17th-century artist Caravaggio, the Italian master who — in between pub brawls and bisexual love affairs — revolutionized European painting.
"All the countries in the world try to show Caravaggio," said Pushkin Museum deputy director Zinada Bonami. "It's a great event." Although the museum is still negotiating individual loans with the Italian Culture Ministry, it hopes the exhibition will include the artist's 1602 masterpiece, "The Entombment of Christ."
The exhibit will be the biggest exhibit of Caravaggio ever outside of Italy, organizers say, a follow-on from huge celebrations in Italy in 2010 on the 400th anniversary of his death. Among the works that will definitely be on show are "St. Jerome Writing," "A Boy with a Basket of Fruit" and "Sleeping Cupid."
Caravaggio was born in 1571 and trained in Milan. In early work such as "The Cardsharps," Caravaggio demonstrated a knack for capturing everyday street life through a close-up focus on expressive action. The young artist's gift for light and detail quickly found favor with powerful patrons in Rome, who began commissioning canvases to fill the churches cropping up in Italy's Counter-Reformation construction boom.
The artist first achieved fame in 1600 with his "Calling of St. Matthew" and "Martyrdom of St. Matthew." His work represented a radical break from the conventions that had dominated Italian art since the Renaissance. Rather than drafting pain-staking studies of idealized forms, he preferred to paint directly from models, capturing the texture of their skin and the expressions on their faces.
In another innovation, Caravaggio moved figures close to the picture plane and cast them in dramatic shadowing, or "chiaroscuro." Such techniques imbued his pictures with an intense theatricality that found opponents among some religious authorities, who deemed them inappropriate for devotional practice.
Caravaggio demonstrated a knack for capturing everyday street life through a close-up focus on expressive action.
But most of Italy was mesmerized, and works such as his "Beheading of St. John the Baptist" and "Denial of St. Peter" continued to lend surreal emotional force to familiar religious scenes. Today, his work still "evokes a strong response among viewers," Bonami said.
Caravaggio's flair for scandal was no less pronounced than his gift for painting. The artist served multiple stints in jail, carried out a series of public love affairs with members of both sexes, and spent many nights drinking and carousing at local taverns. During one of these evenings in 1606, he stabbed a tennis competitor in the thigh, resulting in a death warrant from the pope. He remained on the run across Italy until dying of malaria in 1610 (following false rumors of his fatal stabbing after an enemy slashed his face).
During his life Caravaggio spawned many imitators, known as the Caravaggisti, and helped usher in the Baroque era. However, following his death he was nearly forgotten until the early 20th century, when a circle of art historians renewed interest in his work.
Bonami said assembling the Pushkin exhibit has been "pretty hard work," since Caravaggio's paintings are scattered across a variety of Italian churches and museums and must by attained one by one. But when the works finally arrive in Moscow in December, the Russian public will enjoy a rare look at the master once accused by more traditional French artist Nicolas Poussin of trying to "destroy painting."