Bodies and Shadows: Caravaggio and His Legacy
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Through Feb. 10
Everyone is calling this "The Caravaggio Show," although only eight of the 57 paintings on display are attributed to Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). Since he first hit the big time in America (about 1985, when the Metropolitan Museum mounted the first major show of his work in the U.S., and Derek Jarman released his sordid biopic a year later), Caravaggio has all but edged out the other, earlier Michelangelo as the most written-about, filmed, documented, danced and exhibited of all the Italian Old Masters. Caravaggio is often credited with beginning Italian Baroque painting, with his nonidealized street-people models painted from life, his precisionist style, and his dazzlingly theatrical use of light amid darkness.
There are only about 65 (or possibly more—art historians disagree) surviving authentic Caravaggios. (His style, however epoch-making, turned out to be not that hard to copy.) Half of them are in Italy, and the best Caravaggios—mainly altarpieces in churches—don't travel. Only six U.S. museums own certified works of his.
My main problem with the Lacma exhibition, despite the value of our being able to survey an important, rarely seen movement in art, is that its eight Caravaggios include only three I would consider to be major: "St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness"—which plays a big role in Mr. Jarman's movie—from the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Mo.; "Ecce Homo," Pilate presenting a tortured Christ to the crowd before his execution, from Genoa, Italy; and the swooning, brilliantly back-lit "St. Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy," from the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, where the show will travel next. (A more extensive version of the exhibition was divided earlier this year between two French museums, which got the idea first.)
On a second level I would place works like "The Denial of St. Peter"—one of six paintings on the subject here, and not the best; "Martha and Mary Magdalene"—a dramatic encounter between the two legendary sisters—which seems more about rich fabrics and a beautiful woman's face than anything spiritual; and "Salome Receives the Head of St. John the Baptist," a masterpiece of differing expressions and the play of light. The two losers, I thought, were a stiff portrait of Maffeo Barberini (later Pope Urban VIII)—this fiercely independent artist rarely painted portraits of his patrons—and the ghastly "The Tooth Puller," which Lacma has hidden away in the exit gallery, and which I hope isn't genuine.
Which leaves the gallery-goer with 49 other paintings, most of them by artists one has probably never heard of, to look at between the Caravaggios. The museum pushes on to Velázquez and Georges de la Tour, whom we do know, but who hardly need Caravaggio to prove their worth, any more than do Rubens or Rembrandt.
Of the 49, one could vote on which artist succeeded best with a few popular emotion-rousing Counter-Reformation subjects. Of the four chopped-off heads (there were 10 in the French version of the show), I would give first place to Orazio Gentilleschi's "Judith and the Head of Holofernes." (His daughter Artemisia painted a more frightening version of the beheading itself.) Of the four grisly crownings of Christ with thorns, my vote would go to the one by Bartolomeo Manfredi, in which a single torturer in the dark forces Christ's bowed head almost horizontal. Of the several humbling images of St. Peter, denying on a dark night that he ever knew Christ, I responded most actively to that by the unknown "Tenant of Saraceni," because of his tight, brilliant focus on St. Peter and his accuser.
Following Caravaggio's bisexual path, artists working alongside or after him painted recumbent, spot-lit male nudes pretending to be St. Sebastian or the naked man saved by the Good Samaritan. (Orazio Riminaldi's "Daedalus and Icarus" is as homoerotic as any important 17th-century Italian painting I've seen. I give high marks to painters who did justice to aging, wrinkled, thin-limbed subjects, like Simone Vouet's St. Jerome and Jusepe de Ribera's St. Mary of Egypt.
By the next generation, Caravaggio's once-shocking realism (see the filthy bare feet of the saint in Claude Vignon's "Martyrdom of St. Matthew") and dramatic film-noir spotlighting had spread over all Western Europe—notably to Holland, France and Spain—and were being used for vivid secular paintings of prostitutes, pickpockets, gamblers, gourmands, smokers and drinkers. There have been bigger and better Caravaggio & Co. shows, from New York in 1985 to Rome in 2010, but this is a first for California. Lacma owns six of the paintings on display, including "The Magdalen With the Smoking Flame," a perfect work by Georges de la Tour. The paintings' own brilliant lighting is brought to life by the high skylights of Lacma's new Resnick Pavilion, their images well spaced along white and yellow walls.
Mr. Littlejohn writes about West Coast cultural events for the Journal.