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Last Updated: Monday, 28 February, 2005, 18:04 GMT
Caravaggio: The Final Years
Caravaggio's Salome Receives the Head of St. John the Baptist
The iconic 17th century Italian painter's later work

Sixteen pieces from the darkest period of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio's life on display at the National Gallery in London.

(Please note this transcript of the panel's review is taken from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight Review.)

DAWSON CARR (Curator):

Caravaggio was a revolutionary because he applied realism to his art. His painting style becomes even darker in this period. He seems to be able to channel his personal emotions and experience into his work, now this is true of all artists to a certain extent but it is much more direct with Caravaggio and for this reason he is called the first modern artist.

Painters before Caravaggio had used light as an expressive vehicle but no-one before him had used it with such power. In Caravaggio's hand, light becomes a physical manifestation of divine presence. One of the last paintings that he does, represents David with the head of Goliath. Many painters before Caravaggio depicted themselves as David but no-one had cast themselves as Goliath. In this painting we find a self portrait as Goliath, who was the embodiment of evil. This must represent, on some level, Caravaggio's acceptance of his guilt and a desire for punishment perhaps.

MARK LAWSON:

It is a relatively small exhibition, 16 paintings but does it make a big impact?

SIR JOHN ELIOT GARDINER:

Huge. Colossal. The quality is amazing right across-the-board, and because there is a late style, this guy is only 39, and I think for the first time, despite what you just heard on the clip, there is a possibility of looking at Caravaggio as a painter rather than as a guy who murdered and who was known for his life. It is a bit like the notoriety of Gesualdo the composer who was an exact contemporary, because he killed his wife and her lover.

His music is famous. Actually the music is terrific and so is the painting. We should forget about that side of it. But it is a brilliant exhibition in the sense that the juxtaposition of the paintings are so clever. The two scenes of the Supper at Emmans are so different. One is incredibly sophisticated and very detailed, full of fantasy. The second one is terribly austere and painted much faster and thinner over the canvas.

Instead of being a drama, the second one is much more a kind of drama of emotions. The play of emotions on the lips and the faces of the four characters is unbelievable. It goes right through. I find that the sort of choreography, a dance like quality to the construction of his paintings is amazing. It is like a circular movement going on.

LAWSON:

There is almost a media hysteria among some of these art exhibitions, is it justified in this case?

IAN HISLOP:

There were huge queues when I went earlier. But John's right the first thing you see are the two huge pictures. The first is supposed to be the early Caravaggio. The one doing that, it is a fantastic moment. I like that. But the second one looks like an old man's picture. It's quieter, Christ is older, more bearded. The reaction of the disciples is different. In the background there are more ugly people. It seems to be a complete closing down as it were of an earlier phase of his life. I'm not sure that's biographical. It's obvious what is happening. Black and white turns into brown really. The clarity turns into fuzz.

ELIOT GARDINER:

I mean the fact is that he did write those paintings on the run. He can't have had a studio with a light in the right direction nor the models he was used to.

LAWSON:

I see you're reading the life into him now.

ELIOT GARDINER:

It's nothing to do with the murder. It's not the glitzy side that's interesting. He wanted to continue painting even though he was not in his own area. Therefore, he was just making do.

LAWSON:

Yes. You have a painter who committed murder who knows that his painting may be the last if they catch up with him.

JULIE MYERSON:

Well it's interesting. You don't have to know anything to see that this is an intense exhibition. I love its intimacy. Also you don't need to know anything about him to see the emotional realities of the pictures. You feel this man imagines himself into a scene, whether it's about Christ or Lazarus, he pushes himself a tiny bit further as great painters do and think what is the small detail that will make the person looking at it go (gasp). And you do! He puts it in the light shining on someone's nipple or the way someone's looking.

What I couldn't believe was the focus in the pictures, the way everybody's looking in one place. So you, the viewer look immediately at where he wants you to look without feeling that you're being told to do anything. The other thing I really love is all these faces, so much going on in them, you could look forever and not know what they are thinking or feeling.

LAWSON:

I think that is a key. A lot of film directors like him, Martin Scorsese is a fan. He's brilliant at reaction shots. If you look at the Lazarus picture or some others, they're not the obvious expressions at all or the conventional rapture. They look worried. 'In The Annunciation', Mary's looking down.

ELIOT GARDINER:

He takes all the decorative guff out of it and it focuses on the raw human emotions. They're ambiguous. Yes. That makes him modern.

HISLOP

But he always does the one thing, when you're looking at them, that is not traditionally put in the scene. Like with the 'Adoration of the Shepherds' the Virgin is not upright, she's on floor level. In 'David and Goliath' there is pure sadness on David's face.

LAWSON:

Goliath is a problem. The problem is though that the John the Baptist, the Goliath, these cut-off heads, they look ludicrously healthy.

ELIOT GARDINER:

But that's fine in this case, in the case of Goliath, because he's just literally that second been hit on the forehead. But one eye is dead already. The other eye has a flicker of life in it.

MYERSON:

I think there is another reality. There is a slight problem. Goliath's head isn't heavy enough. David's muscles are not strong enough. The human head is very heavy and he holds it like a balloon.

LAWSON:

I suspect the muscles would collapse in the neck and the blood would go straight away. I thought of the claims made for realism. People make such high claims for realism.

MYERSON:

It is emotional reality. Not physical reality. I think Mary holding the baby isn't quite holding the baby right. That doesn't matter it is the emotional reality, the expressions.

LAWSON:

I'm trying to avoid total gush on it but it's hard to do with this exhibition.


Newsnight Review, BBC Two's weekly cultural round-up, is broadcast after Newsnight every Friday at 11pm.

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