Exhibition review: Beyond Caravaggio at National Gallery

These were my two favourite paintings at the Beyond Caravaggio exhibition at London’s National Gallery. Caravaggio’s Taking of Christ (below), and Orazio Gentileschi’s David and Goliath (further below).

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Caravaggio Cattura di Cristo nell’ orto [The Taking of Christ] (c.1602) oil on canvas 133.5 x 169.5cm

The exhibition contains 43 paintings influenced by Caravaggio, but only 6 that are attributed to Caravaggio himself. Those 6 stand out as exceptional, even surrounded by so many paintings that use similar devices: close cropping on figures, realistic figures, dramatic chiaroscuro lighting, etc.

The Taking of Christ usually lives at the National Gallery of Ireland and this is the first time I’ve seen it in the flesh. It’s remarkable.

Hung in the same room is Gentileschi’s David and Goliath. I like the unusual, almost frontal lighting on Goliath’s right leg, casting a sharp dark shadow onto his calf and foot, looking almost like a flash photograph, totally inconsistent with the direction of light in the rest of the picture, and with the light conditions suggested by the sky. I also like the bizarre shifts in scale, between David and Goliath, and between the different parts of Goliath’s body. Typical for painting of this time, foreshortening is not applied in the way it would appear to a camera lens, and in this case Goliath’s legs appear to be enormous compared to his head. This makes the spacial relationship between the two figures pretty confusing, which I like. I also like how unwieldy and oversized the sword looks, and how implausible it is that David would make a successful blow by swinging it at that angle. Huge concessions have been made to achieve this composition, and I enjoy the friction between the realistic and the fantastic.

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Orazio Gentileschi David and Goliath (c.1605-1607) oil on canvas 185.5 x 136cm

I think maybe I’m attracted to the shifts in scale in this painting because I’ve recently been looking closely at the work of Neo Rauch. His compositions often involve jarring collisions of mismatched scale, light, and perspective, and I enjoy them immensely. It’s pretty thrilling to find similar characteristics in David and Goliath, combined with Gentileschi’s incredible technique and Caravaggesque realism.

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Neo Rauch Das Plateau (2008) oil on canvas 210 x 300cm

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