Preview: Caravaggio: Behold the Man! The Impact of a Revolutionary Realist

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From the October 20, 2011 edition

In his art and his life, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio had a style that could be described as in your face.

In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, as he built a career of commissions from nobility and the Catholic Church, the Italian painter developed a reputation for drinking, carrying illegal weapons and starting fights. One ended in murder and the issuing of a papal death warrant. An influential patron arranged a pardon for Caravaggio, but too late. The artist was on his way to receive it when he died in 1610, at the age of 38.

According to Columbus Museum of Art curator Dominique Vasseur, “Some have called him the ‘bad boy of the Baroque,’ constantly wanting recognition and success, and letting it slip through his fingers.

“His life reads like a novel, but his art is the lasting thing, influencing painters and filmmakers even today.”

In the museum’s new exhibition “Caravaggio: Behold the Man!,” tidbits from the artist’s tumultuous life are shared on the walls. But the emphasis is on his sea-changing painting style and the initial signs, seen in his contemporaries, of that enduring influence.

Works have been borrowed from museums and private collections throughout Ohio for the show, part of a series of exhibitions lined up for the city’s bicentennial celebrations. The centerpiece, Caravaggio’s breathtaking “Ecce Homo (Behold the Man),” is on loan from the Musei di Strada Nuova in Columbus’ sister city of Genoa, Italy. This is only its second appearance in the U.S.

Painted in about 1605, “Ecce Homo” embodies the elements that distinguished Caravaggio from his immediate predecessors and their idealized figures. The depiction of Pontius Pilate presenting Christ to the crowd awaiting his crucifixion is one of meticulous, tightly focused realism. Dramatic lighting gives his subjects a theatrical glow and casts backgrounds in deep shadow.

Caravaggio had vehement critics, church officials who felt his visceral, sensual renderings of the human form weren’t properly reverent. But during his life and for some years after, painters who saw his works were irresistibly drawn to emulate Caravaggio’s approach, and sometimes his actual paintings (see Bernardo Strozzi’s triumphant portrait of Cupid from 1610 — it shares the title and full frontal pose of an earlier Caravaggio work).

Over time, artists such as Tanzio da Varallo made Caravaggio’s stylistic touches more fully their own. His “Saint John the Baptist,” from 1618, brings raw intensity to an iconic subject.

For comparison, the gallery features thumbnails of Caravaggio works related to the paintings on view. And for a deeper plunge into the show’s theme, there’s a mobile app available with a variety of supplemental materials.