Caravaggio at the Getty
Ever since my art historian ex-girlfriend introduced me to the Baroque period I have become an avid lover of renaissance art. Unfortunately, my ability to get up close and personal with the works of the old world are hindered by a geographical dilemma. Los Angeles may have a plethora of artistic talent, but none of it dates past the last one hundred years, which means that our museums have to import culture from far and wide. Luckily for me, my favorite painter of all time is making a rare pit stop at the Getty right now. Born under the name of Michelangelo Merisi, he is more commonly known as Caravaggio. Godfather of Baroque. Master of the chiaroscuro, the darkening of shadows and utilization of bright shafts of light.
The Borghese gallery in Rome has lent three paintings to the Getty from three different periods of the Caravaggio’s short but proliferous career. All three are masterpieces in their own right and they do an excellent job of showing Caravaggio’s technical as well as his psychological development.
Caravaggio began his career in an art factory of sorts painting flowers and fruit for Guiseppe Cesari. This place was more of a business than an art studio and Caravaggio’s potential was limited by the hard-and-fast rules set by the business minded Cesari. They eventually quarreled and Caravaggio left the studio and forged valuable friendships with patrons that encouraged his roguish personality in both his art and his life. He was simultaneously the most famous, due to his psychologically captivating masterpieces, and the most infamous painter in Rome, owing to his penchant for boozing and brawling. In 1606, he killed a man in Rome and fled to Naples to escape a death sentence. This brings us to the next painting in the exhibit.
This phase, in my opinion, came after he murdered someone in a bar fight. This third phase is by no means devoid of violence, but death takes on a different kind of meaning. Scenes of mutilation and torture, which had been the Launchpad of his career shifted to scenes of morbid reflection. These meditations on death are, to me, unbelievably beautiful in their fearless vulnerability. The quietly contemplative portrait of St. Jerome, transcribing sacred texts with the skull on the edge of the table, is in my opinion the best example of the morbid reflection that permeated Caravaggio’s later works.
This final painting of David holding Goliath’s head was one of Caravaggio’s last. It is an eerie premonition of his approaching death. This is made all the more disconcerting by the fact that the head of Goliath is actually a self-portrait. It’s not just beautiful. It is courageous. Literally looking his death in the face. One can draw on all kinds of metaphors between Caravaggio and Goliath, but I personally prefer to imagine what it was like for him to create this painting. Caravaggio was the most famous painter in all of Italy. He had everything and had thrown it all away. What was going through his head as he sat in exile painting his own severed head on the canvas?