On a recent tumultuous trip to Ottawa (root canal and truck drama et al), we visited the National Gallery’s exhibition Carravagio and His Followers in Rome. Here is an extensive exhibition of the many great and not so great painters who followed Caravaggio at the height of his fame and power while painting in Rome. Michaelangelo Merisi da Carravagio lived from 1570 – 1610. He was a celebrated painter whose portraits of saints, Christ and other dramatic stories from Christianity sparked a radical movement in art. His work is considered the ‘ground zero’ of modern painting. Carravagio set himself apart by his use of stark black backgrounds, highlighting facial expressions, and gestures that seemed to glow from behind. He used light like no other and was considered daring and radical in his day. After his death his star fell and it has taken over four hundred years for scholars, critics and artists to appreciate his maverick genius.
His work in this particular exhibition is startling. There are a few pieces that I had never seen before and one in particular we had just seen in the National Gallery in London. For the most part however his work is bold, violent, compassionate and highly erotic. I love his work, it is truly the most visually exciting depictions of Christ and the saints that there is. He blends Christian belief and sensuality without any hesitation; he portrays his subjects in mid ecstasy/horror fundamentally illustrating the physical of which Christianity is based. It is a flesh based religion. And the flesh dies or transfigures or transmutes or transcends but it is always a fleshly world from which it begins and ends. Death is truly his subject matter and death is what all devoted Christians are stumbling toward both rapturously and hesitantly. Through death a Christian finds true meaning to his life. No one explores this with more vigour than Carravagio.
His life, now known widely was notorious to say the least. In and out of jail and favour with the Pope, Carravagio loved dueling, drinking and gambling best when he wasn’t painting. Beggars, prostitutes and rent boys dot his world as sparkling and fading stars rescue the darkness every night. He died somewhat suspiciously too young and with a long list of not-so-Christian deeds behind him. His flawed life and his great art are what romantics have mooned over for centuries. In our age of political correctness, the thinking is that it is hard to justify talent although there are no Caravaggios today, so our social media discussions are mute. Which brings me to Amy Winehouse: while not a profound talent that will travel centuries as Mr. C, Amy was a sad flame that flickered love and emotion. Her gorgeous voice, from the depths of a trampled heart, begged for love throughout her two great records. But, it wasn’t to be, and dead she is after years of brawling, drinking and general bad behaviour. A tragedy and also a poetic respite through death of a life lead without acknowledgement of convention or politeness, Amy died without love, M. M. da Carravagio would understand.
Chalk and Coal pt. 2
After our successful and very social time in Yorkshire we headed down south to the town of Eastbourne and the chalk cliffs. We spent two days on our own hiking up and down Beechy Head and Birling Gap where we found that we could take vista photos of those amazing scalloped white cliffs, as well as get up close and personal when the tide was out. Having spent so many times in the last five years watching documentaries about the cliffs, reading books and histories about them it was kind of emotional to actually be there. I can see what the Romans saw from their boats – a white cusp of eternity, an alabaster form of inviting riches. They are huge and very, very white. We talked about the many iconic films and stories we remembered about the cliffs, Graham Greene, Quadrophenia and of course, WWII. In fact they practiced storming the beaches at Briling Gap. It was hard to imagine guns and canons going off over such a pristine place. But there you have England in a nut shell; a land that is part of the most important events in Western history. It is geology and culture at once. And the place really fits into our ongoing thesis about landscape. Needless to say we took a load of pictures.
After Eastbourne we spent a day in London again, this time at the Tate Modern. After checking our bags at the train station we strolled down to St. Pauls Cathedral which is in a financial area so lots of suits and stilettos abound. The church is considered Wren’s masterpiece and it is amazing. I had never been there before. The grounds were packed with people on lunch eating and sunning themselves. Gary brilliantly pleaded ‘poor starving artist’ and we got in for free, thank god, it was 16 pounds!! More than Westminster Abbey. It is really nice in there and Gary walked me down the middle so I could pretend to feel what Diana felt – although quite frankly I could give a toss about what Diana felt. But it was kinda’ funny all the same. The crypts are very interesting and British Naval legend Nelson is the star. I kept thinking how my brother Andy was turning green with envy – Nelson’s crypt wasted on me!!
We then walked to the Tate through the clever and lovely urban planned walk way over the Millennium Bridge. Great, great bridge and lots of vistas of London. The Tate is what you would expect, huge and full of great stuff. They were installing in the famous turbine hall but I wasn’t disappointed since I am not a fan of airport hanger galleries. The collection in the gallery is great and they have a Rothko room you could die in, literally. Dim lighting, his haunting work played out elegantly around you – it is pretty close to actually stepping into the concept of mortality. Senses overload on so many levels!!! They also have some really wonderful Joseph Beuys pieces – so it was a trip worth taking.
At the end of the day we traveled to the east coast and the lovely town of Maldon. On the train we past the Olympic site full of a thousand cranes and gigantic so and so things. Maldon, as it so happens is famous for a pre-medieval battle with Vikings. Again my brother Andy must have been gritting his teeth knowing that that fact was wasted on me. I like Vikings as much as the next guy but I didn’t spend the first twenty five years of life obsessed with them like he did. Gary’s family were lovely and took us to the coast where I got to see how those weary Londoners spent their weekends, on boats and in pubs by the sea. It was very idyllic actually. Our last item of note was a church that dated back to 652AD, the oldest of its kind in the country. In fact it was built from left over Roman stones; a very interesting, solemn, peaceful and a truly sublime way to end our trip.
We did get stuck in Detroit and had a nightmare getting home but that is all forgotten by the amazing time we had away. And now onto work and disseminating all that we learned. We have been asked back for an exhibition and look forward to returning to our chalk and coal….