BY Tim Smith-Laing in Reviews | 31 MAY 19

Extraordinary Things: ‘Utrecht, Caravaggio and Europe’

An exhibition at Munich’s Alte Pinakothek reappraises Caravaggio’s influence

BY Tim Smith-Laing in Reviews | 31 MAY 19

Though this show foregrounds Utrecht as its subject, it is really a show about Rome and its impact on the northern European artists who journeyed there in the early 17th century. In the evocative sketch given by Helen Langdon’s catalogue essay, Rome was a metropolis rising and falling all at once. While new buildings rose, cattle were sold among the columns of the Forum, pigs rootled beneath the Egyptian obelisk in the Piazza del Popolo and lime kilns across the city cannibalized old marble for new mortar. And while the city was a magnet for clerics, nobles, artists and literati, it was also one for the thousands of poor, sick and indigent who flocked to its charitable institutions. 

Against this backdrop, Rome was once again the centre of European arts, and no figure was more important on the Roman scene than Caravaggio (1571-1610). Described by the Flemish painter and art historian Karel van Mander (writing in 1603), as a child of poverty who had risen to artistic pre-eminence by hard work and boldness, Caravaggio was already famous in his own lifetime for the ‘extraordinary things’ he was achieving. In his faithfulness to reality he was the anti-academician, painting saints and sinners with the same intense realism and delight. Van Mander recorded that the artist downed his brushes to ‘swagger off for two months at a time, his rapier by his side’, to drink, argue, and fight wherever he could, before returning to work. Though van Mander thought his lifestyle the enemy of art, his ‘exceptionally beautiful style’, was one ‘for our young artists to follow’.

Valentin de Boulogne, David with the Head of Goliath and two Soldiers, 1620/22, oil on canvas, 1 × 1.3 m. Courtesy: © Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid 

Follow they did, as ‘Utrecht, Caravaggio and Europe’ makes clear. Though nominally focussing on three 16th-and-early-17th-century Utrecht artists – Hendrick ter Brugghen, Gerard van Honthorst and Dirck van Baburen – the show ranges far and wide across the terrain of the many so-called tenebrosi (‘shadowy ones’) influenced by Caravaggio’s work in the first half of the 17th century. With 78 pieces loaned from numerous museums, curator Bernd Ebert has set his central trio alongside paintings not just by Caravaggio himself, but also those by his approximate contemporaries Jusepe de Ribera, Orazio Gentileschi and a range of lesser known Caravaggisti such as Valentin de Boulogne, Simon Vouet and the sadly short-lived Giovanni Serodine. It is, almost inevitably, an uneven selection, but one reinforced by Ebert’s desire to illustrate the differences rather than similarities between master and followers.

One of the extraordinary things to emerge here is just how far Caravaggism travelled into the most unlikely territory. Utrecht was both physically and culturally a long way from Caravaggio’s Rome. A town of some 30,000 people to Rome’s 100,000 it was a village by comparison. Not a peaceful village, though: key territory in both the Thirty Years War (1618-48) and the even more protracted Dutch War of Independence (1568-1648), Protestant Utrecht sat on top of the most unstable political and religious fault-lines in early modern Europe. While ter Brugghen had returned to relative peace in 1614, Honthorst and Baburen rushed home in 1620, just ahead of the resumption of hostilities between the Dutch Republic and Spain. By that stage it was a city of dour turmoil. Amidst the ceaseless troop movements, religious authorities had clamped down on everything from public celebration of Catholic feast days to dancing and loud music in taverns and homes, along with drinking, gambling, sports and games, and gatherings of unmarried youths.

Michelangelo Merisi, Caravaggio, St Jerome in meditation, 1605/06, oil on canvas, 1.5 × 1 m. Courtesy: © Monasterio de la Virgen de Montserrat, Museu de Montserrat 

It is hard to think of a less congenial environment for a style so blowsily theatrical. And yet ter Brugghen, Honthorst and Baburen all met success at home, both with secular paintings that – like Honthorst’s Concert (1623) – depicted exactly the kind of merry mixed-sex gatherings the city was restricting, and with religious paintings that – like ter Bruggen’s Saint Sebastian Tended by Saint Irene (1625) – depicted saints no longer venerated under Protestant practice. 

It would be fair to say that none of the Utrecht trio is a household name today but, as this exhibition demonstrates, they deserve attention. At their best, all three are extraordinary painters, though it is perhaps ter Brugghen, with his strangely muted translucent palette – seen at its finest in his beautiful Annunciation (1629) – who emerges as the most individual of the three. But I found myself repeatedly more struck by works from the other Caravaggisti. Ribera in particular measures up to his model: his David and Goliath (1620) reveals how individual his take on Caravaggio’s style was in its penchant for emaciated muscularity. Several pieces by Simon Vouet, Valentin de Boulogne and Nicolas Régnier had me longing for a parallel show on French Caravaggisti

Gerard van Honthorst, The Procuress, 1625, oil on panel, 71 × 104 cm. Courtesy: © Centraal Museum, Utrecht

Inevitably, though, Caravaggio is the real star. Though there are only four of his paintings among the 78 pieces on show, they leap out at you. His Medusa (1597) howls mutely, as if still coming to terms with the shock of decapitation; the halo of his Saint Jerome in Meditation (1605-6) only highlights the fact that there is a skull beneath the skin as well as on the table before the aged saint. The museum’s major coup, however, was to acquire the Vatican’s Deposition (1602-3) on short-term loan for the show. It seems unfair to put anything near it: hung side by side, Nicolas Tournier’s beautiful version of the same subject seems staid, while Baburen’s looks actively clumsy. Three metres high and two across, it towers above you, the mourners faces composed in an arc that, descending from left to right, form a stroboscopic capture of a single swoon against darkness, its endpoint the messiah’s white corpse. It is breathtaking. You can see why everyone wanted to copy him.

‘Utrecht, Caravaggio and Europe’ is on view at Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany until 21 July 2019.  

Main image: Michelangelo Merisi, Caravaggio, The Entombment of Christ, 1602/03, oil on canvas, 3 × 2 m. Courtesy: © Cittá del Vaticano, Musei Vaticani, Pinacoteca Vaticana 

Tim Smith-Laing is a writer and critic based in London, UK. He is writing a novel based on the life of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt and a biography of Lady Luck @TimSmith_Laing