First Look: Beyond Carvaggio

It’s finally here. Hailed by The Irish Times as the Spring blockbuster exhibition where “painting’s bad boy rock star comes to Dublin,” Beyond Caravaggio opens this weekend.

If Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio had been a rock star, he’d be a deranged mash-up of Jerry Lee Lewis, Sid Vicious, Leadbelly, Iggy Pop and Marilyn Manson. Caravaggio shot to fame at the turn of the century in 1600 at Rome, becoming one of the most revolutionary figures in art history and inspiring future generations of painters and artists.

The first work the visitor sees is Boy Peeling Fruit, painted about 1592-3 and believed to be Caravaggio’s earliest existing work. A boy calmly peels nectarines, peaches and cherries. The contrast with the next painting couldn’t be greater. Boy Bitten by a Lizard, about 1594-5, captures an effeminate looking boy recoiling with horror after being bitten on the finger by a tiny lizard.

Boy Bitten by a Lizard, The National Gallery, London

The exhibition moves into Caravaggio’s success and patronage in Rome, documenting Caravaggio’s meteoric rise to fame and prominence. Two of his best known works, The Supper at Emmaus, 1601, and the National Gallery of Ireland’s signature piece, The Taking of Christ, 1602, hang side by side.

A widow named Marie Lea-Wilson donated it to the Jesuits in Dublin in the 1930s. Her husband, Captain Percival Lea-Wilson, had been shot during the War of Independence. The fascinating back story of the painting is retold in detail during free tours of Cabinteely House by Dún Laoghaire- Rathdown County Council, which will commence this year on the week commencing April 24, as an intriguing copy of The Taking of Christ by a former gardener to the house, Niall O’Brien, hangs in this stunning mansion.

It is astonishing to view both these masterpieces together the result of a monumental joint endeavour between the National Galleries of Dublin and London. In the very same room, there’s another painting with a lesser known but equally intriguing back story.

The Denial of Saint Peter was erroneously bought by the 9th Marquess of Sligo for Westport House as a Caravaggio, and acquired by the National Gallery in Ireland in 1948. It was only established and confirmed that it was not a Caravaggio by experts in the 1960s.

The next room curates Caravaggio’s admirers, followers and imitators. One of the most striking paintings is The Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Orazio Gentileschi, c. 1620. A donkey’s head is framed by a broken wall, lending a slightly surreal air to a very atypical and strange religious painting.

Gentileschi, The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Birmingham Art Gallery

The final room further explores Caravaggio’s enormous influence and impact. Amazingly, Caravaggio never painted a picture featuring a candle during his short but eventful career (The Taking of Christ features a lantern), which is surprising considering he pioneered the chiaroscuro technique of dramatically capturing light. However, many painters inspired by his works took chiaroscuro off into fascinating new directions.

The penultimate painting is The Dice Players by La Tour, depicting an illicit gambling game. The sources of light are hidden, giving it an enigmatic and spooky sense of mystery.

George de la Tour, The Dice Players, Preston Park Musuem

There is a lot to take in, so repeat visits to fully savour the forty-nine works on display will be rewarded.

The show opens to the public this Saturday, February 11, 2017. I’m told by the National Gallery booking is already exceptionally brisk. They are also hosting a busy schedule of talks, lectures, workshops for all the family and a Shadow Puppet Theatre performance on Sunday, April 30.

Irish art lovers are in for an absolute treat. Bellissimo!

For further information and booking, visit the National Gallery of Ireland’s Beyond Caravaggio page here. It runs from February 11 to May 14, 2017. 

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