Caravaggio, between shadows and light

8 mars 2017

A crazy life, at a crazy speed, divided between artistic success, excesses and personal demons, to end up with amnesia. Light, then shadow. Caravaggio revolutionized painting, inspiring artists even more than 400 years after his death.

A social immortality

Overwhelmed by a leak of water in April 2014, the owners of a house located in the suburbs of Toulouse did not imagine making such a discovery by opening a sub-slope of their roof. Resting quietly in their attic, a canvas was quickly said to be painted by the hand of Caravaggio and estimated at more than 120 million Euros.

(Devant l’huile sur toile de 144 x 173,5 cm, les experts du cabinet Turquin)

Although never officially authenticated as a work by Caravaggio, numerous analyzes were carried out by expert committees - the last one was in February 2017- the canvas is still a great deal more than four centuries after the disappearance of the painter. Like a wink to an artist who has always known how to talk about himself. From his revolutionary paintings to his stays in prison, from his peculiar technique to his numerous fights, Le Caravage has never left anyone indifferent from the sixteenth century to the present day.

When Michelangelo Merisi became Caravaggio

Michelangelo Merisi, born in 1571, was born in September 1571. Caravaggio was named after his native city, a small village in Lombardy near Bergamo, although History is still unaware whether he was born in Milan or Caravaggio. One thing is certain: he spent a good part of his childhood in the alleys of the latter city, where his father officiated as foreman, mason, architect, and steward of the Marquis de Caravaggio. Despitehis birth in a modest family, Michelangelo literally discovered misery when the plague carried away his grandfather, his father and one of his little brothers. Widow and in charge of four children, her mother, Lucia Aratori passed away few years later. Michelangelo was just starting his thirteenth year.

During 4 years, when he was a familiar of Simone Peterzano's workshop, the young Merisi learned the Venetian style, the Lombard school with its expressive light and its true details, drawing, oil painting, frescoes and, above all, portraits and still life. In 1592, he went to the capital of the world and of Art: Rome. He had a hard and difficult life in the city to the Seven Hills, working for painters like Giuseppe Cesari, known as Le Cavalier d'Arpin, the official painter of the Pope. His early works were mostly enigmatic portraits. He also painted scenes like Boy with a fruit basket (1593) or Les Musiciens (1595). He was noticed by Cardinal Francesco Maria Borbone del Monte, who bought Les Tricheurs (1595). The Caravaggio, thanks to this encounter, made his entry into a new dimension.

A chiaroscuro painter

The Caravaggio, which is now a protected artist, is housed in the Palais Madame, the current building of the Senate, property of the Cardinal del Monte and, after honoring numerous paintings for private collectors, he obtains prestigious commissions Religious paintings thanks to his new relations. However, many of them are regularly denied for their excess of realism which is considered blasphemous by its ecclesiastical sponsors. His singular approach, it is true, upsets all the codes of the time. If it arouses admiration on the one hand, on the other it attracts the wrath of the purists who vehemently criticize its lack of formal learning and the absence of sketches of preparation because it draws directly on the canvas and then painted. The choice of his subjects is also controversial. Indeed, far from the idealized representations of the biblical characters, he chose human models and especially popular, marginals, prostitutes, beggars, street kids... His painting contrasts with Mannerism and his greatest innovation is then in the use of light and shade.

Caravaggio plays enormously with the light-dark contrast. On a dark background, the main stage is illuminated like a theater scene. Lighting, when it does not come from a source that is hardly identifiable within the work itself, is often lateral and violently participates in the chiseled modeling of bodies. Caravaggio creates depth without resorting to the artifices of linear perspective. The dark background and the absence of second-stage makes the scene particularly intimate while producing an atmosphere in which the human being carries a shady destiny with often pessimistic accents. Its very innovative use is then called chiaroscuro. A notion that applies perfectly to the disjointed life of the painter, between shadows and light.

In 1603, the Italian painter Giovanni Baglioni, lodged a complaint against him for the voluntary dissemination of poems with defamatory accents and Caravaggio was imprisoned on September 11 and released on the 25th, thanks to the saving intervention of the French ambassador. In 1604, a new arrest happened in October, for an assault against a policeman. In May 1605, the painter was arrested for carrying an illegal weapon, the sword in this case and, in July, a complaint is again filed against him for beatings and wounds on a notary this time, Mariano Pasqualone, which Caravaggio seriously injures in the face with a dagger. He went off on the side of Genoa, then apologized and the complaint was withdrawn. The artist returns to Rome and in 1606, Caravaggio must flee again after killing a man, a certain Ranuccio Tomassoni, in a duel, he joins Naples, then Malta and Sicily to escape his condemnation to death by decapitation.

A dark end and a late legacy

Despite his excessive temperament, sanguine and brawler, despite his flight, from Naples or Malta he continues to receive orders from private collectors and explores a new approach to painting more meditative, darker and darker, probably marked by guilt and death that floats above his head. Scarcely had he been knighted by the Order of Malta, he was again caught in a fight, and arrested. Again, he would prefer to escape, which would earn him the exclusion of the order. He then went to Sicily and then returned to Naples. He is a tortured man, guided by the urgency of painting, who thinks only of one thing: to return to Rome. The shadow invades his painting, where he accentuates the simplicity of the scenes, always more striking and violent. He died of a fever at the age of 39 years in the Tuscan village of Porto Ercole in 1610 while he was on his way to Rome and that he had learned that the Pope was willing to grant him his grace.

My job is to paint. When I say that a man has talent, I mean that he succeeds in his art, so a talented painter is a painter who paints well, and who imitates the things of nature.

Present in Rome until 1606, Caravaggio brought a real pictorial revolution. His dramatic luminism, his violently contrasted colors, the exaggerated realism and expressiveness of his characters provoked admiration and rejection among his contemporaries. In Italy, he influenced many artists like Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi, or Guido Reni and Bartolomeo Manfredi. Caravaggio spread rapidly in Europe during the first thirty years of the 17th century, thanks to the numerous foreign painters passing through Rome: the French Nicolas Régnier, Valentin de Boulogne, Georges de la Tour, Claude Vignon and Simon Vouet, the Dutch Gérard van Honthorst and Dirck van Baburen. The Art of Caravaggio also had a strong influence on the creation of important painters such as Pierre Paul Rubens, Rembrandt, Murillo, Ribera and Velázquez. The Caravaggio movement was, in the 1620s, the first current of European painting after Mannerism. Today some artists of the XXI century still claim Caravaggio. Many photographers, filmmakers who recognize his influence, such as Martin Scorsese, Pedro Costa, Pier Paolo Pasolini or Jarman. The Europe of the time of Caravaggio was simply not ready to receive this crude, ordinary and trivial truth to which he wished to make room in painting. Too bad, the following generations have been able to feed on them, in their inspirations or in museums.

Virignie Mézan de Malartic, painter of contrast

"Light, natural or artificial, highlights the contrasts I want to give to my works. It is a painting of Being, with its zones of shadows and lights, playing on emotions and feelings. The person or characters, always inscribed in a present moment, pause their personal journey and leave room for reflection on themselves, on the future of their own existence.”

Like Caravaggio, Virginia Mézan de Malartic works with exaltation her artworks by playing between light and dark. Exploring this light, natural or artificial, playing with the areas of shadows and lights, allows the artist to update a panel of emotions, feelings. Taken to life, the characters that compose her paintings are frozen in a moment, suspended out of time, interrupting their course, and leaving room for reflection and introspection. Her compositions invite the viewer to contemplate the universal scenes of everyday life that sometimes remain mysterious journeys.