Saturday, March 17th, 2012

Working Space 1600: Shows in Rome of Guercino, Caravaggio and their Contemporaries

Report from… Rome

Roma al tempo di Caravaggio 1600-1630 at the Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Venezia, Rome (November 16, 2011 to March 18, 2012)

Guercino (1591-1666) at Palazzo Barberini, Rome (December 16, 2011 to April 29, 2012)

A generation ago, Frank Stella argued in his brilliant manifesto Working Space (1986) that the situation of modernist abstract painting was best understood with reference to Caravaggio’s role in 1590s Rome. Stella’s account borrowed, at key points, from Sydney Freedberg’s great formalist history Circa 1600: A Revolution of Style in Italian Painting. At a time when the capacity of the grand tradition to continue was unclear, what was demanded, Stella claimed, was a seminal new artist. Today no one would accept this view of our recent history or Stella’s attempt to present himself as our Caravaggio, a claim that nowadays not even a formalist could consider seriously.

Caravaggio. Madonna di Loreto. c.1603-1606. Oil on canvas. San Agostino, Rome, Italy
Caravaggio. Madonna di Loreto. c.1603-1606. Oil on canvas. San Agostino, Rome, Italy

Since 1986, there has been a great amount of new popular and scholarly discussion of the now widely exhibited Caravaggio.  Indeed, he has become irresistible, the one artist of this period, who speaks to modern audiences.  You see why at the entrance to “Roma al tempo di Caravaggio,” where Caravaggio’s Madonna di Loreto (1604-5) is juxtaposed with a painting of the same subject also from that date by Annibale Carracci and his studio. Where Caravaggio presents the humble supplicants kneeling before the Madonna, Carracci shows her enthroned on a house supported by three angels that struggle to lift it upwards. Caravaggio comes, one may think, almost from the same world as Courbet, but Carracci is firmly rooted in his time.

This vast exhibition presents no artist whose reputation will rival Caravaggio’s. Guido Reni’s Martyrdom of Saint Caterina (1604-6) is a wonderful picture; Agostino Ciampelli’s Pietà with Angels (1612), very affecting; and Orazio Borgianni’s David decapitating Goliath (1609-10) a remarkable, albeit much less successful variation of Caravaggio’s version of that scene, as also is Battistello Caracciolo’s David with the Head of Goliath (1612). Perhaps the most challenging picture on display is the anonymous follower of Caravaggio’s Saint Anna with Yarn and the Virgin Sewing (1620), a grand genre scene, an Italianate version of George de La Tour’s sacred scenes. And there is a Saint Augustine on display attributed to Caravaggio, a marvelous picture, which doesn’t for me resemble the portraits attributed to our artist. It certainly is astonishing to see how many followers Caravaggio had. None of these artists are remotely as good at him, not even – in this show – Rubens, whose Adoration of the Shepherds (1608), hardly stands out.

There are several Guercinos in this exhibition, and that artist is meanwhile the subject of a retrospective at the Palazzo Barberini. Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591 – 1666), to give him his proper name, had a career investigated in loving detail by the great connoisseur, Sir Denis Mahon. Here his saints, The Madonna with Child in Glory (1615-6) is a good example; his mythical scenes, Erminia and Tancredi (1619), for instance; and his portraits, like Portrait of Cardinal Bernardino Spada (1631) are displayed. Guercino does not speak to a larger public in the way Caravaggio does or, to choose a more appropriate comparison, as does his near contemporary in Rome, Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665). Guercino’s Saul against David (1646) perhaps indicates his ultimate limitations. Why in this scene of contention is the body language of the two men so elliptical? His Et in Arcadia ego (1618 according to Mahon) is famous amongst art historians, but only as a precedent for Poussin’s two versions of this conceit. But where Poussin gives philosophical weight to the scene, with his shepherds engaged in discussion about whether even in the ideal kingdom of Arcadia there is death, Guercino merely gives us an anecdotal image of omnipresent decay, his shepherds encountering a skull covered with flies, lizards and a mouse.

Both of these exhibitions are presented with the theatrical style that seems customary right now in Roman exhibitions. They employ brilliant lighting in dark rooms with intensely red walls, and use elaborate temporary displays that must be expensive to construct. The permanent installations at Palazzo Barberini and Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Venezia, and also those at such other grand settings as the Palazzo Pamphilj and the Palazzo Colonna, use natural lighting, which is kinder to aging paintings as well as to the eyes of we aging art writers. I understand the felt need for temporary shows to have an impact, but however you display Guercino, he cannot compete with Andy Warhol.  Just as Willem de Kooning inspired very many painters in the 1950s, but no one who was his equal, so with Caravaggio. Perhaps, then, his reputation fell after 1630 in part because none of his many followers were remotely his equal. At any rate, while two generations ago, Caravaggio was merely one of many great baroque artists, now, having outdistanced all of his rivals, he has become the Italian old master who speaks not just to specialist audiences, but also to the general public. Neither Guercino nor any of the followers of Caravaggio can take this role, which is only to note how very distant the visual culture of this period has become.

Guercino (Francesco Barbieri), Et in Arcadia Ego, 1618-22. Oil on canvas, 82 x 91 cm.  Galleria Borghese, Rome
Guercino (Francesco Barbieri), Et in Arcadia Ego, 1618-22. Oil on canvas, 82 x 91 cm. Galleria Borghese, Rome