Tag Archives: Caravaggio

Two Michelangelos

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew (1599)

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew (1599)

One lived to be almost eighty-nine; the other died before he turned forty.  One thought of himself primarily as a sculptor; the other was a painter.  Both were named for St. Michael the Archangel.  Neither was someone you’d want as a guest at your dinner party.  What they lacked in social skills, however, they made up for with creative talent:  the two Michelangelos were among the finest artists that Western Civilization ever produced.

The one you know by his first name (pronounced MEEK-uh-LAN-gel-oh by Italians and some art critics) was Michelangelo Buonarroti.  Born in 1475, he was the principal artist of the High Renaissance.  He was 23 years old when he carved the incomparable Pietà that flanks the entrance to St. Peter’s.  ( We overheard an American tourist point it out to a traveling companion, calling it “that Michelangelo thing”.)  He was 26 when he began chipping away at a block of Carrara marble, revealing the David who had been hiding in it.

Although he excelled at carving stone, Michelangelo was also a painter; he taught himself fresco techniques to do the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  He was an architect as well, and even wrote some poetry.  Incidentally, he died in 1564, the same year Shakespeare was born.  If you’re putting together a list of the all-time greatest artists, write in Michelangelo Buonarroti at #1.

Somewhere near the top of that list is where the other Michelangelo also belongs.  He is not usually known by that name, or his surname, which was Merisi.  He is commonly referred to by the name of his hometown, which was Caravaggio.

If the Renaissance was about the return to classical idealism and the discovery of perspective, you could say that Caravaggio ushered in realism and the discovery of light.  His paintings are done in high contrast — strong light and dark shadows; you Art History majors will remember the term for this approach is chiaroscuro.  For those of you who weren’t Art History majors, the technical jargon doesn’t matter.  Just stand in front of Caravaggio’s Calling of St. Matthew or Crucifixion of St. Peter and marvel at the way he “lit” the scene, and the way he captured the key moment in the drama — what photographers sometimes call “the peak of the action”.

In the early seventeenth century, contemporary audiences were shocked by Caravaggio’s use of ordinary people with dirty feet and callused hands as models for saints.  They were also shocked by his terrible behavior.  From 1600 on, he was almost constantly in trouble with the authorities, brought up on charges ranging from wounding a soldier to throwing a plate of artichokes into the face of a waiter.  In other words, if Caravaggio was living now, he’d be regularly featured on the E! Channel.

In 1607 he got into a brawl over a disputed call in a tennis match and wound up killing a guy.  He fled Rome, hiding out in Naples and Malta and Sicily.  His only hope was to get the pope to grant clemency, so he arranged a trip back to Rome.  At a place called Porto Ercole, Caravaggio literally missed the boat, collapsed of a fever, and died a couple of days later (July 18, 1610).  That probably came as a bit of a relief to the people who knew him personally, but subsequent generations of painters studied his work and said “wow”.  As the eminent twentieth-century art critic Bernard Berenson wrote of Caravaggio, “with the exception of Michelangelo, no other Italian painter exercised so great an influence.”

OK — so let’s go back to my hypothetical list of the all-time greatest artists.  I’ve already admitted my bias toward Caravaggio; who do you think is worthy of a Top-10 ranking?  Nominations are welcome in the Comments section.  Just to get you thinking… What about Diego Velázquez?  Bernini?  Pieter Bruegel?  Vermeer?  Albrecht Dürer?  Picasso?  Renoir?  Or, what the heck — the woman who painted that mural in your den?

From This Point, Your Wait Will Be…

An April morning in the Louvre

An April morning in the Louvre

A British publication called the Art Newspaper annually publishes rankings of the world’s most visited museums, based on attendance figures.  Publicizing the throngs of visitors is a little like someone telling a first date that he’s broke and has a violent temper.  Why publicize your least attractive trait?  I seriously doubt that anyone chooses to go to an art museum based on the likelihood of getting jostled by German tourists.

The figures are also a little misleading because the list only includes art museums; attractions like the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., with its five million annual visitors, are excluded.  For what it’s worth, here are the world’s most visited (art) museums for 2008, with a few comments of my own…

1) The Louvre, Paris     8.5 million visitors

Once the palace of Louis XIV, it became a museum in 1793.  This massive building displays over 35,000 works of art and houses many, many more.  In addition to European paintings, there are Near Eastern antiquities, Greek, Etruscan, and Roman antiquities — well, a lot of just about anything that is considered art.  It is not only the most visited, it is arguably the most famous museum in the world — if not necessarily the best.

Visitor Info:  Closed Tuesdays.  Admission is €9 for the permanent collections; €13 for permanent collections and temporary exhibitions.  In the past, admission has been free on Bastille Day (July 14), but I’m not sure that’s still the case.

Star Attractions:  Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, Winged Victory of Samothrace, Michelangelo’s Slaves.

2) The British Museum, London     5.93 million

Masterpieces of painting are on display elsewhere in London, so this is not what we often think of as an art museum, with gallery after gallery of canvas in ornate gilt frames.  The museum opened in 1759 when the British Empire sprawled across the globe, so loot from around the world was brought here.  Some countries are trying to get their treasures back, but in the meantime — they’re in the British Museum.

Visitor Info:  Open every day.  Admission is free, except for some special exhibitions.

Star Attractions:  The Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles (sculptures from the Parthenon), the Magna Carta.

3) National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.     4.96 million

A relative newcomer among the world’s great museums, it opened in the early 1940s, thanks to the donated collection of financier Andrew Mellon and others.  The National Gallery is located on the Mall, at 4th and Constitution.  A second wing, the East Building, opened in 1978.

Visitor Info:  Open daily; admission is free.

Star Attractions:  Ginevra de Benci (Leonardo da Vinci), Woman Holding a Balance (Vermeer), Self-Portrait (Vincent Van Gogh).

4) Tate Modern, London     4.95 million

This branch of the Tate was created in 2000, residing in what was an abandoned power station on the Southwark side of the Thames.  The original Tate, now called Tate Britain, was named for its principal benefactor, Sir Henry Tate.  (He got stinking rich by patenting a method to make sugar into cubes.)  The collection outgrew the building, so Tate Britain now has only British art; Tate Modern exhibits international modern art.

Visitor Info:  Open daily; admission is free except for major exhibitions.  A ferry runs between the Tate Modern and Tate Britain — cost for the boat ride is £5.

Star Attractions:  Water-Lilies (Claude Monet), The Three Dancers (Pablo Picasso), The Kiss (Rodin).

5) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City     4.82 million

American tycoons got a relatively late start in acquiring art — Europeans had been at it for hundreds of years before Americans jumped into the market.  The Yanks were able to make some fine purchases, though, and a lot of them eventually wound up here.  The museum opened in 1872, but moved to its current Central Park location in 1880.

Visitor Info:  Closed Mondays, except holiday Mondays.  Admission:  $20 for adults; children under 12 free.

Star Attractions:  Aristotle With A Bust of Homer (Rembrandt), The Musicians (Caravaggio), Washington Crossing The Delaware (Emanuel Leutze), Juan de Pareja (Velázquez).

In spite of my earlier grumbles about the crowds, I encourage you to visit an art museum soon.  With luck, maybe you’ll be there on a slow day.

What’s A Goya Like You Doing In A Place Like This?

Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth

Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth

Just as you wouldn’t make a pilgrimage to Butte, Montana, in search of a good seafood restaurant, you probably wouldn’t expect to find a good art museum in Fort Worth, Texas.  I haven’t sampled the flounder in Butte, but — surprise! — the art museum in Fort Worth is a gem.

It’s called the Kimbell Art Museum, in honor of its patron, industrialist Kay Kimbell.  He died in 1964, leaving behind his collection of artworks and an estate that had lots of numbers to the left of the decimal point.  Some of those resources went for a building designed by Louis I. Kahn, who not only pronounced part of his name “icon”, but was one in architectural circles.  (Among other things, Kahn’s resumé includes the national capital of Bangladesh.)

Kahn’s building for the Kimbell is attractive, if not on the grand scale of the Metropolitan or the Louvre or the Getty.  It doesn’t need to be huge, because the Kimbell houses less than 350 permanent works.  The directors made a decision prior to the museum’s opening in 1972 that they would leave to the aristocratic museums the task of collecting broadly and in depth; they defined the Kimbell’s “primary collecting aspiration the pursuit of quality over quantity”.

As a result, the Kimbell has assembled an all-star team:  Velázquez, Rembrandt, Cézanne, Titian, Goya, Monet, Bernini, Caravaggio.  Many other masters are represented here as well, usually by only one or two of their works.  It should be noted that in most cases, what the Kimbell holds is not one of the artist’s true masterpieces (although Caravaggio’s “Card Sharps” is a notable exception).  Rather, the works are representative of each artist, supplying a sort of sampler:  Canaletto painted Venetian landscapes; “I’ll be darned, here’s one now.”   The main focus is on European artists, but the Kimbell also displays pieces from Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquity.  American art is absent, since a neighboring museum houses that; that’s also the case with art works created since the mid-20th century.

You won’t find several rooms filled with paintings by Rembrandt here, as at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.  There is no “Mona Lisa” in the Kimbell.  There are also no jostling crowds fighting for position in front of a celebrity painting and then dashing off to the next one.  Instead, there is something close to solitude in the Kimbell (at least, the day we were there).  It’s possible to stand before an art work for as long as you want without distraction.  Take your time studying it, admiring it.  And if you eventually become sated with fine art, one of the city’s other major attractions is only a couple of blocks away:  The National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame.  You’re not surprised that’s in Fort Worth, Texas, are you?