That sanitized feeling: Caravaggio in Texas

Caravaggio in Fort Worth: All that light

6 minute read
'Card Sharps and Fortune Tellers': A shadowy underworld gets a sterile showcase.
'Card Sharps and Fortune Tellers': A shadowy underworld gets a sterile showcase.
I've long been curious to know what all the fuss is about with the lighting at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. The building, designed by Louis Kahn, is said to provide "perfect, subtly fluctuating illumination for works of art." So when the opportunity came to attend the opening of "Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome," I looked forward to the dual pleasures of not only seeing some much-celebrated works of this master of chiaroscuro, but seeing them displayed in that famed paragon of museum lighting, the Kimbell.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) created some fabulous lighting of his own in these paintings of sensual youths, dupes and cheats, musicians, saints, fortunetellers, and assorted Biblical characters. His vivid visual drama is created by casting targeted bright light into relatively darker tones of umber, ochre, gold, olive, teal, russet, wine and sepia. Textiles— including the velvets and brocades worn by his wealthier subjects— shimmer. Flesh is rendered ultra pale or kissed by golden light.

Caravaggio's paintings were admired by both the general populace and the wealthy financiers and ecclesiastical men who were his patrons at the turn of 17th-Century Italy. His style bridges the Renaissance to the Baroque by imbuing subject matter that's often spiritual in nature with a new emphasis on everyday life.

His saints brood and have dirty fingernails. Leaves have wormholes. Young dupes wear very fine clothes, richly painted with intricate folding and pleating, while cheats, less lavishly attired, wear telltale expressions of narrowed eyes and tight lips. Victims contort with horror.

Caravaggio's paintings grab the viewer's attention and hold it. It's impossible to stand in the presence of this work without engaging with it in some way.

Illustrious followers

This is an exhibition of the works of both Caravaggio and the caravaggisti who adopted his style. Caravaggio's followers hail from all over Europe and include such illustrious names such as Orazio Gentileschi, Bartolomeo Manfredi, Jusepe de Ribera, Georges de La Tour, Valentin de Boulogne, Sim Vouet, Hendrick van Horthorst and Peter Paul Rubens.

Caravaggio's canvases are the star pieces in this exhibit, however, and one can— without difficulty, without checking labeling— quickly separate the Caravaggios from the caravaggisti. The drama king really does steal this show.

His canvases torque up the emotional response in the viewer not only in the poignancy of the scenes he captured in paint, but in his particular method of fashioning light and dark contrasts. In this show, the followers never quite master what the master achieves.

Because the emotionally troubled, sometimes physically violent Caravaggio died much too young at the age of 38, only 75 certified Caravaggio paintings exist in the entire world. That makes this show quite an opportunity for Americans who cannot make the trip to Florence and Rome. Caravaggio hasn't been exhibited in the U.S. since 1985 at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. No other venues are planned for this Kimbell exhibit.

Natural light in Florence

The first time I saw a real Caravaggio painting—Bacchus— was in Room 43 of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, where, shall we say, the lighting wasn't what one could call brilliant or even what is deemed today as "natural." Regardless, the painting was glorious to behold, in an incomparable setting, installed in a room with light most likely similar to what Caravaggio must have known, and close to where his patrons and fans had lived.

But one interesting question arises: "Is the viewing experience of a Caravaggio painting improved by 'fluctuatingly' illuminating it with Texas light?" While both the Caravaggios and caravaggisti show beautifully against the travertine in this Kimbell space, I for one am happy to have had prior experience with works of this genre in lighting more appropriate to the age in which they were painted.

Caravaggio, after all, attempted to create drama through the way he painted light. When so many darkened tones are painted into a canvas, the areas of light do seem that much more compelling if one peers at them in a relatively "darkened" gallery space. Thus, a painting is optimally shown in the environment that simulates the one for which it was originally intended.

Modern mania for bigness

At the very least, viewing such a painting in a library, a study, a church or a gallery where environmentally sensitive lighting conditions exist can better reflect what the painter wished to convey visually to his or her audience. In such a setting the painting's intended powers shall be most fully evident.

We modern people have come to love airy, illumined, big living spaces. We seek it in our housing, our work environments, our places of worship, and certainly in our museums. Contemporary art is made for such light and airy spaces.

But a Caravaggio was not. Consequently, showing his work in a space such as the Kimbell, while interesting and a fortuitous opportunity for anyone, does sanitize the experience. The drama and power of these paintings are in fact diluted from what their painters intended.

So if one is lucky enough to find oneself in the Eternal City, it's worth the time to track down Caravaggios in all of those little Roman churches.

Pure Texas landscape

As for Fort Worth— if you're game to contemplate more light and airy spaces as well as the contemporary art to go with them, you should head for Fort Worth's Modern Art Museum, just across the street from the Kimbell. The Modern, designed by Tadao Ando, comprises a series of glass pavilions set upon a moat of water that reflects back upon the building. The structure actually appears to float, a sight likely to electrify a visitor who's unprepared for such sensitive visual theatrics.

Just beyond the entrance, on a swath of impossibly green grass, Roxy Paine's Conjoined, a gleaming silvery sculpture of two seemingly magnetically attracted tree forms, stands in the searing light of day. This entrance view describes the nature of a Texas landscape in a most pure way, in nature's best and most appropriate lighting.

Alas, if you happen to be so "conjoined" to the idea that all museums should be constructed to display art works in increasing levels of light, you might enjoy the Richard Diebenkorn "Ocean Park" series exhibit at the Modern (on view until January 15, 2012) better than the Kimbell's Caravaggio show. Here you can at least honestly say that everything is installed in the most appropriate light.

What, When, Where

“Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome.†Through January 8, 2012 at the Kimbell Art Museum, 3333 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth, Texas. (817) 332-8451 or

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation