Saturday, November 22, 2008

Nice Picture!

Everyone wants to find a Caravaggio
IN 1990, a lost painting by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was discovered by a curator from the National Gallery of Ireland. The Taking of Christ, which was spotted hanging in a Jesuit priests' residence in Dublin, became an international sensation.
That painting's authenticity has never been seriously challenged. But ever since, complains Helen Langdon, author of a major Caravaggio biography: "They (works attributed to him] are coming up all over the place."

Caravaggio's chaotic life lasted just 39 years, lived on the run between Milan, Rome, Sicily and Malta before his mysterious death in 1610 – notorious for his involvement in stabbings, brawls and beatings, Caravaggio left Rome after killing a young man in 1606.

But, for all his roving, rapacious lifestyle, he left scores of followers and artists deeply influenced by his work. Abhorred by Victorian art critic John Ruskin for feeding "upon horror and filthiness", Caravaggio's work returned to favour in the 1950s, when he was seen as an artist for the modern age.

As a young man he also painted several versions of the same subject, a fact which may help explain why, four centuries after his death, the art world is still arguing over what is a Caravaggio and what is not. Caravaggio left perhaps 50 canvases that we know survived, but that number appears to be increasing, with newly discovered works currently on show from Rome to Scotland. Langdon comments: "Everyone wants to find a Caravaggio."

For the next three months a newly uncovered Caravaggio, The Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew, is the centrepiece of The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection at the Queen's Gallery in Edinburgh. A second work in the exhibition, Boy Peeling Fruit, is also being attributed to the artist.

The former piece has been in royal hands since 1637, but was treated as an almost worthless copy until conservation and cleaning removed layers of dirt. It was unveiled at Buckingham Palace last year as a "discovery to shake the art world".

While some experts agree the Queen has an important "new" Caravaggio on her hands, others emphatically don't. Langdon says: "I don't think it's a copy, even. I think it's by somebody else."

Keith Sciberras, art history professor at the University of Malta, adds: "I'm one of those who is very sceptical. I have seen it during restoration and after restoration and, despite initial expectations the work might be an original, my reactions to it after restoration were much cooler. I do not hold it to be by Caravaggio."

So what are the tell-tale signs? The Royal Collection's curator, Lucy Whitaker, highlights details in The Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew she says show the hand of the master. These include the way the paint and canvas was scored to save the pose of the figures. There are also the long fingers of one hand, with the white highlights on the fingernails; the stroke of pale colour under an eye, the horizontal light source. Above all, she says, "if it is by Caravaggio it has to punch you in the eyes… it hits you".

But Langdon's objections include "meaningless gestures", strange colours, a "ridiculously drawn" head and neck, boring composition and, above all, no sense of "wow" in the picture.

Sciberras doesn't like the way a big tilapia fish's head is handled, for example, but says the work is "very close to the master's manner".

However, Whitaker can cite the support of respected art historian Sir Denis Mahon, and points out that scholars who have worked on a painter for years often struggle to accept a new find.

The battles go on. In 2004, the National Gallery of Ireland's experts fought off claims by an Italian dealer that their Caravaggio was a copy because he had found the original. In 2007, an Italian art restorer claimed to have found a new work, Saint Jerome Writing. The same year, Mahon also claimed a discovery, purportedly an early version of the well-known Cardsharps.

Sciberras says: "I can tell you why a picture is by Caravaggio, but it is hard to say why a picture is not. (The Calling…] is that kind of picture that scholars will debate for decades."

Link (here)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Dublin Carravagio is undoubtedly genuine a) because of the evidence of under-painting found while it was being cleaned in Dublin b) because its provenance was proved to have originated in a major Italian collection that belonged to the family that had commissioned it.