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Mastering the art of immediacy

by
29 July 2016

Nicholas Cranfield on Caravaggio’s disciples

Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City © 2016. Photo Scala, Florence

“Intensity of expression”: Guercino’s Penitent Magdalen with Two Angels, 1622, one of the paintings discussed in After Caravaggio

“Intensity of expression”: Guercino’s Penitent Magdalen with Two Angels, 1622, one of the paintings discussed in After Caravaggio

After Caravaggio
Michael Fried
Yale £40
(978-0-300-21864-0)
Church Times Bookshop £36

 

IN 2002, Professor Michael Fried gave the Andrew W. Mellon Lectures, later published as The Moment of Caravaggio (Princeton, 2010). He examined 30-or-so works by the Lombard-born Michelangelo Merisi, called Caravaggio (1571-1610), concentrating on his gallery pictures, in which he often included his own self-portrait, and emphasised the self-absorption of individual characters that have a life-size feel.

The present volume is effectively a collection of essays that take forward this artist’s acknowledged influence for a generation and survey the work of the so-called Caravaggeschi. A final coda suggests how the more box-like, classically staged paintings of Poussin came to determine later styles.

The first chapter highlights those artists who followed Caravaggio in depicting single figures at the forefront of the picture-plane so that they inhabit both our world and yet remain in the painted world of the canvas.

The Mantua-born Bartolomeo Manfredi (1582-1622) depicted bodiliness; we feel the real grit as King Midas washes off the gold from between his toes, and flinch as Apollo begins to carve off the flesh from the forearm of the luckless Marsyas.

Valentin de Boulogne (1591-1632) seemingly trained in Manfredi’s studio. His work and that of Jusepe de Ribera manifest a sort of excessive almost aggressive realism.

St Peter and St Paul confront one another in two paintings by Ribera (one in a private collection and one in Strasbourg; a previously unrecorded copy of the latter passed through Sotheby’s, London, in July). These illuminate the likely tension between the apostles in a violently tense contemporary way. Simon Vouet, Nicolas Régnier, and Nicolas Tournier are the other French artists considered.

A shorter version of the second chapter appeared in the catalogue for an exhibition in Ottawa and Fort Worth, in 2010, which draws our attention to the representation of the feel and touch of cloth and flesh and to the artists’ depictions of hands.

The book’s greatest service is in concentrating on Cecco del Caravaggio (recorded between 1613 and 1620) and Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (1591-1666), called Guercino, as he was squint-eyed, at the height of his power.

Cecco may have been Caravaggio’s studio assistant, and the third chapter is an extended consideration of his extraordinarily vertical depiction of his painting The Resurrection, of 1619-20 (Chicago), which measures 339 x 199.5cm and reflects a working knowledge of Caravaggio’s Seven Acts of Mercy, painted and still kept in Naples.

The final chapter looks at Guercino’s output in the two-year period that Fried calls his anni mirabiles. Guercino is not routinely thought of as a Caravaggesque painter; for instance, he is not given any coverage in Skira’s two-volume 2010 publication I Caravavaggeschi (edited by A. Zuccari), although his works appear throughout.

In his new publisher, Fried has found an indulgent editor, and almost every painting he discusses is illustrated. The demerit is that Fried is tolerated for parenthetical writing (if it is that — and with such a good scholar it is difficult to tell as the argument [might it?] is rarely circular — rather than an excuse [when none, surely, is needed; or is it?] for padding) which is (you get the idea) plainly irritating.

 

The Revd Dr Cranfield is Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, south London.

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