Friday, 30 October 2015

Carry On Caravaggio: Part 1

Is the journey over before it's began?

Written by Andy Ash
It would be rather pitiful if the first failure of my trip had occurred in my own back yard on the very first day.

London's National Gallery has been dogged by strike action for quite some time and the room housing the Caravaggios had been closed for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of my starting week. The National Gallery, or their new 'work to rule' security staff, decided against announcing the rooms that were going to be open for public viewing until 10.30 am on the actual day, which for someone whose journey was going to be governed by precision timing (sponsored by Mickey Mouse wrist watches) was not helpful. I decided to take no risks and I pushed my viewing of the trio of paintings in the National Gallery, 'The Supper At Emmaus', 'Boy bitten by a Lizard' and 'Salome with the Head of John the Baptist', from Sunday morning to Saturday morning.

Although a handful of people had intimated they might turn up on the Sunday morning to wish me 'Bon Voyage', no-one had been specific or in fact told me they were turning up at all. It also allowed me to get to Dublin earlier, where the schedule appeared unnecessarily tight. So I was rather dismayed as I waited at Heathrow for my Dublin flight to hear that Obi-Wan Kenobi and a strange Leprechaun were waiting at the National Gallery for me. Their rather limp attempt at recreating the 'Supper at Emmaus' certainly reassured me that my presence hadn't been missed, in fact it seemed a narrow escape, but they did write a nice email to everyone:

andy-ahs-176-drop-inMr Kenobi and a tramp reproducing the emotional scene at a dinner in Emmaus.
'Dear All,

Just as well those of you who couldn't make it, didn't. As is often the case with a much anticipated event, the much heralded start of Ash's Grand Tour was marred by the absence of the main character. It turns out that despite a much publicised schedule with specific timings on, Ash decided to jump the gun and shoot off to Dublin early, leaving the Caravaggio re-enactment society to perform alone at 10am on Sunday morning at The National Gallery. For those of you waiting to surprise Ash later in the tour, beware of this tendency to come early and leave without notice!

Premature Evacuation.

Best wishes to Andy for the rest of the adventure.'

As disappointing as my friends Charlie and Hoppo's efforts were of replicating Caravaggio's master work in London, while they were 'epic failing', the participants in Dublin, were readying themselves for replicating 'The Taking of Christ', and donning their finest drinking armour for their own creative attempt. Bemusingly, the pre-art training schedule had involved a visit to the Guinness Brewery the day before, which had apparently stretched into the wee hours, finishing at 4 o'clock. This I suppose should be applauded as a dedicated warm up routine and I myself had managed to 'squeeze in' a wedding party in Surrey, (shout out for Isabel and Ben) which had seen me retire at a respectable but inebriated one o'clock. The camera had little chance of avoiding red-eye as plenty of redness was already there.

If my Caravaggio Grand Tour was purely to be judged on the outcome of a tipsy re-creation of his art, the outcome was rather pleasing. In the original, Christ had perhaps been more impervious to Judas' kiss but kissing Danny Knowles is no-one's idea of fun, however much Guinness you have had. My son in a bright green Heineken shirt, on the far left, carried off John the Evangelist admirably; after all there is only a small gulf between crying and laughing. The rest of his university friends looked suitably menacing in their plastic cladding. Caravaggio himself was featured in this painting on the extreme right and if perhaps he had been wearing spectacles, like me in the modern re-creation, he might have spotted his rather interesting foreshortening of Judas's arm.

The straight left arm of Judas, which moves behind the soldier's armoured left arm, is impossibly short and appears to have no elbow. This is why perhaps Judas was never documented in the Bible as being a fine tennis player.

Caravaggio had to manufacture this illusion in order to 'crunch' all the characters together across the picture plane.

The nature of the composition, having Judas, Saint John, and all three of the soldiers, as well as Caravaggio himself, leaning and moving to the left, whereas Jesus stands stoically facing right, is a magnificent painterly formulation that creates movement and tension together. At this instant, the world is moving one way and Jesus Christ, emotionally still, is moving the other. The expectation of impending action is consequently tangible.

I am determined not to spoil your viewing of this magnificent masterpiece but Judas's shortened right arm is also irritating. Unfortunately, when anyone points out 'defects', it is hard to view a picture in the same way, without continually focussing on them. Similar to being told that a person has one ear lower than the other, a fact that might have been oblivious beforehand but after being told it, would dominate how you look at that person. If you imagine Judas as a dwarf who has hurled himself at Christ and clung on (or been hurled, as it would have been if in a 'Wolf of Wall Street' party) and that the soldiers are trying to pry him off, while St John is screaming, 'Oh my God, a dwarf has just jumped onto Jesus', it unfortunately works so well, one struggles to look at the painting in any other way.

andy-ahs-590-2Andy's recreation of The Taking of Christ

The mind is a fallible organ.

There is no doubting Caravaggio's prowess as an artist and we can be sure that any 'mistakes' he made were purely deliberate. Both Dublin's 'Taking of Christ' and London's 'Supper at Emmaus' show major physiological anomalies.

In the 'Supper at Emmaus', for example, the figure on the right hand side of the canvas has an impossibly large right hand compared to his left. Obviously, the right hand being farther away from the viewer than the left, should be smaller in a true perspective. These painterly tricks allow the viewer to be drawn into the picture plane, to join the scene. He was a clever chap.



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