Friday, May 17, 2013

Italian Baroque (pt. 2)

Now let us examine the art of the artist Caravaggio—"an absurd name…of course."  When studying the works of Caravaggio, it is paramount to know the term chiaroscuro, which refers to the arrangement of dramatic contrasts of light and dark value, as it dominates this artist's body of work.    Caravaggio did not invent this element but made it his own through stylistic exaggeration to the point of tenebrism.  And what religious event better to paint that involves dramatic lighting than the Conversion of St. Paul (also the title of this next work)?
You will all remember, naturally, the story of Saul of Tarsus' conversion to Christianity, becoming the Apostle Paul, on the road to Damascus.  A bright light shone from the heavens that blinded Saul, and the Incarnate Christ appeared to him with that earth-shattering interrogative, "Saul, why are you persecuting Me?"  Caravaggio takes on this subject with startling (almost offensive) originality.  All we see are Paul, his horse, and the servant.  There is no backdrop to distract the viewer, giving the full attention to the scene at hand.  But how is this scene constructed?  The horse takes almost the full breadth of the work's scale, and Saul lies at the bottom, seemingly more in danger of being imminently crushed by a horse's hoof than anything else.  Saul's arms are lifted in the air in a helpless and dumbfounded gesture.  He is totally enwrapped in the moment, as I suspect anyone would be in the middle of a meeting with God.  However, perhaps one of the most puzzling aspects of the painting is that it contains no image of God…or does it?  Remember back to the Northern European Renaissance art that showcased candles and lights as symbols for God's presence.  Inasmuch as the lighting here is dramatically prevalent throughout the painting, so this painting overflows with divine presence.  We cannot even see the backdrop, it is so dark when compared to the illumination of the scene.  Caravaggio emphasized light in his paintings.  He would literally shed light on figures, display the details of their faces and expose their imperfections.  This demonstrated the painter's commitment to render a more realistic and life-like image.  Some paintings were refused by the church officials who commissioned them, since these officials did not like that Christ and the saints were shown in untraditional ways.  These saints were supposed to look supernatural and holy; they were not just anybody!  (Says the Catholic Church).
One other artist whose technique of employing chiaroscuro that, I think, matched Caravaggio's impressively is the artist Gentileschi, who was also the first woman to significantly impact Western art.  She painted Judith and Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, a tale from the Apocrypha.
Once again, we can only barely see the scene.  Here it is quite literally taking place by candlelight, and only the figures, the desk, the back curtain, and the hideous, beheaded figure of Holofernes are discernible.  This is quintessential chiaroscuro at its most extreme.  Things become more dramatic in the dark, do they not?  The mind plays tricks on you in the dark.  The light, small and weak though it is, appears to shine brighter given the darker surrounding.  A ghostly aspect is applied to all objects at nightfall.  Hawthorne wrote about this much later.

1 comment:

  1. Ah yes, in regard to our short discussion on art recently, you did promise more to come on Caravaggio. I have waited patiently and have not been disappointed. As usual your post is very interesting. It energizes my curiosity and sends me out to revisit things I once studied and have forgotten. This painting, The Conversion of St. Paul, is a wonderful choice to 'highlight'; what a beautiful painting. I enjoyed your explanation also. Clever to select a painting showing one of Christ's disciples by an artist who would later enjoy his own sort of discipleship following; the Dutch Caravaggisti, and others. And thank you for not going straight to them, such as Rembrandt, van Honthorst or ter Brugghen.... You went one better with Artemisia Gentileschi! Now there is a progressive woman, in the 17th century! Today we seem to chronicle our lives, and sometimes poorly,(the latest celebrity biography -yawn) by putting pen to paper. Gentileschi found her path of expressed vengeance with a paintbrush. A beautifully expressive painter, her magnificent use of chiaroscuro is worthy of her following today. Thanks for the well written and creative post, I'm looking forward to reading more from you. Jodi