The Art of Getting it Wrong: Caravaggio

Obviously, being me, I couldn’t let pass the discovery of 100 ‘new Caravaggios’ without comment. (See an excellent summary of the story so far on Elliott in Gotham.)
The Higgs boson, and now this.
Truly, tempus mirabilis.

There are a host of reasons to admire Caravaggio; no need to list them: we all know what they are.
But what I love, really love, about him, is that, in some ways, he sucked.
Adriana Conconi Fedrigolli, one of the Milan researchers:

“…the work of the adolescent Merisi… is powerful, realistic, but still messy… Some errors were so deep-seated they reappear years later in more celebrated paintings..”

Criticisms of Caravaggio’s style and technique were rife from the off. From Bellori’s Lives of the Artists (1672):

“…They [the old painters] spread it about that,… poor in invention and design, lacking in decorum and art, he painted all his figures in one light and on one plane without gradations.”

Bellori, while recognising his ‘innovations’ and ‘influence’, agreed.
More recently, Hockney has cited (in Martin Gayford’s excellent A Bigger Message) Caravaggio’s ‘mistakes in drawing‘ (sic) as evidence for the artist’s use of the camera obscura, that being the reason for:

“…anatomical and spatial oddities: arms too far, too short or too long; crammed into a visual space that is simply too small to contain them…”

All of which is neither here nor there.
I challenge anyone to stand in front of a great Caravaggio and not be moved beyond measure. The last thing you’ll remark upon is the disegna, the draughtsmanship. The sum is always greater than the parts.

Great art, for me, does not exist in ‘perfection’; it exists on the cusp, in that fine no-man’s-land between hanging together and falling apart. It’s human, and thus infinitely humane.
Michelangelo will always trump Bernini, in my book.

So again, Caravaggio: not the greatest ‘painter’, but arguably the greatest artist.

“He repudiated every other precept and considered it the highest achievement in art not to be bound to the rules of art.”

That, my friends, is why.


7 July: See the latest from Elliott here. The sceptics weigh in.

9 July: Is it all Utter Bollocks?

8 thoughts on “The Art of Getting it Wrong: Caravaggio

  1. I read of these paintings and am amazed. Wonderful. And yet- if they are, or if they are not, does it matter? If they are later imitations they would be uninteresting; if they are contemporaneous, do they not have the same value whoever painted them?

    (for the avoidance of doubt) a genuine question, I would like to know what you think.

    • Hi Clare! I think it matters very much who the works are finally attributed to, above all the sketches, much more so than the paintings. We have no drawings, ’til now (?), by Caravaggio, and it has been axiomatic that he painted ‘alla prima’ ie straight onto the canvas without the usual preliminary sketching. If the sketches are his, and if they’re pretty damn good, then it would make a nonsense of the criticisms levelled at him as a lousy draughtsman, and would add to this view of him, which I share, as the ultimate ‘rule-breaker’.
      Exciting stuff, which would, I believe, necessitate yet another re-writing of the Caravaggio story.
      Thanks for stopping by, Clare – appreciate it.

  2. What an inspirational review. Well considered and from the heart too.

    For me figures in drawings, paintings, sculpture which are too close to our expectation of what is real life are boring. I believe Caravaggio didn’t give a damn what people thought, even important people who ultimately paid the bills, he created art that suited him. That lived in him.

    I really like your blog.


    • Thanks so much, RR! Totally agree – he certainly didn’t give a damn. I think that all great art must contain a degree of ‘F**k You’, and he had it in spades.
      All the best.

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