Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Misery Memoirist

by James Hall

Wall Street Journal

September 10, 2011

In the Renaissance, a man's soul was believed to be mirrored in his body, and an artist's soul in his art works. Artists had nowhere to hide. Leonardo was said to have imbued all his figures with his own physical beauty and elegant manners—and he complained that devout artists gave all their figures bowed heads, and good-for-nothing artists painted figures who looked lazy.

No Old Master has been more praised—and blamed—for "painting himself" than Caravaggio (1571-1610), the archetypal bad-boy genius. Few commentators have strayed far from the verdict of Giovanni Pietro Bellori, writer of the first detailed biography (1672):

Caravaggio's style corresponded to his physiognomy and appearance; he had a dark complexion and dark eyes, and his eyebrows and hair were black; this coloring was naturally reflected in his paintings . . . the dark style . . . is connected to his disturbed and contentious temperament.

For Claudio Strinati, curator of last year's exhibition in Rome (one of more than a dozen marking the 400th anniversary of the painter's death), Caravaggio's art was revolutionary not simply for the bold stylistic and thematic innovations but because for the first time in Western culture the autobiographical impulse is explicit and ever present: "The master speaks of himself from beginning to end and interrogates the spectator." For Caravaggio's latest biographer, the British art critic and television presenter Andrew Graham-Dixon, the style is the man: "Caravaggio's life is like his art, a series of lightning flashes in the darkest of nights. . . . When Caravaggio emerges from the obscurity of the past he does so, like the characters in his own painting, as a man in extremis. . . . Caravaggio always paints himself."


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