Art review: Bodies and Shadows shows Caravaggio’s influence

The exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art puts the artist’s theatricality and genius on display.

If dentistry has been a big subject in the history of European painting, I’ve missed it. Religious feeling, the rhythms of domestic life, displays of political power — yes. Tooth pulling? Not so much.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio \ The Toothpuller, circa 1608-09; oil on canvas. (Galleria Palatina / November 5, 2012)

Yet there it is in the final room of a wonderfully absorbing new exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Gathered around a meticulous, carpet-covered table that is something like a secular altar, four men, an old woman and a small child watch in rapt attention as a rough-faced man reaches around into another man’s mouth with a pair of pliers and, as blood streams, yanks at a rotten tooth.

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The scene is starkly lighted, unidealized figures emerging from inky blackness. Near the center, the hapless patient’s splayed left hand explodes like an aerial grenade to form a gruesome emblem of hideous pain.

At 41/2 by 6 feet, the painting is not modest. But it is by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the genius of Italian Baroque art. During a tumultuous career that lasted barely 15 years, he transformed European painting.

“The Toothpuller” (circa 1608-09), on loan from the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, Italy isn’t in the best condition, but it does make for a marvelous coda to “Bodies and Shadows: Caravaggio and His Legacy.” The tightly drawn show sketches Caravaggio’s artistic innovations in eight paintings. That’s not many, but it’s more than most American museums have had together in 25 years.

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Even New York’s mighty Metropolitan Museum of Art couldn’t get a lot of the greatest works for 1985’s landmark “The Age of Caravaggio,” so difficult are loans to secure (especially from Italy.) Three in the show’s first room ably show him learning to push physical bodies forward in dramatic space, almost like sculptural reliefs, while making individual psychology recede into deep introspection. This theatrical tension — between a tactile human body and its shadowy phantoms of lust, ecstasy, alarm and sorrow — is the locus of his artistic genius.

Cinematic in spirit, Caravaggio’s paintings captivated the 17th century and then languished until the 20th century. Stylized German Expressionist movies and hard-boiled Hollywood film noir prepared modern eyes to see them anew. During the last 50 years, they have moved into the top-most rank of European art.

Born in a small town near Milan, Caravaggio brought the earthy but refined naturalism of his Lombard training to Rome, where the Catholic Church was driving its powerful Counter-Reformation engines. Art had a job to do in corralling the faithful — not to mention seducing wealthy patrons — and Caravaggio, who arrived in the extravagant city in 1592 at age 21, meant to oblige.

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The show’s second section introduces artists immediately influenced by his startling example, especially Italian painters such as the slightly older Orazio Gentileschi. His grouping of Judith and her maid with the severed head of Judith’s rapist, Holofernes, dumped in a wicker basket subsumes a dramatic moment of revenge into a seductive display of highly stylized business. The picture’s dominant primary colors — deep red, vivid yellow and cobalt blue — pop against surrounding expanses of near-black and crisp white.

The third section is in some respects the show’s heart. LACMA curator J. Patrice Marandel, working with his colleagues at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., where the show will travel, and two regional museums in France, where it was recently seen, focuses on Caravaggio’s legacy. The majority of the 49 paintings not by him are by French, Dutch and Spanish artists working primarily after his death in 1610.

Among them are artists whose connection to Caravaggio isn’t always direct or even obvious. A nice “Apostle Saint Thomas” by Diego Velazquez channels the Italian’s common use of peasants to enact the exalted roles of religious figures. In this the Spaniard was mostly inspired by his countryman, José de Ribera, who in turn admired Caravaggio.

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Francisco de Zurbarán likewise dismissed the classical idealization of Renaissance religious art. Instead, he favored earthier portrayals of ordinary people with whom a viewer might directly identify. But his spectacular painting, “Saint Serapion,” also exploits Caravaggio’s riveting technique of abutting dark against light to wrap the suffering martyr, his wrists bound tight with heavy rope, in a lavish white robe of nearly delirious purity.

In Gerrit van Honthorst’s placid canvas, an elegant but devious Delilah snips the hair of sleeping Samson while a candle-wielding maid stands watch under the cover of night. The momentary drama of a biblical event is quietly rendered as an eternal truth: Beauty betrays love.

Perhaps most controversially, French painter Georges de la Tour enters the exhibition mix through the inclusion of two great works — the Getty Museum’s raucous painting of brawling musicians, as well as LACMA’s own hypnotizing masterpiece showing an austere Mary Magdalene alone in the wee hours pondering mortality in an oil lamp’s smoking flame. There is no evidence that La Tour traveled from Lorraine to Rome or ever actually saw a Caravaggio painting.

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However, together with a fine pair of earlier figure studies, these two works convincingly demonstrate how thoroughly Caravaggio’s innovations had entered into common artistic consciousness within a generation of the Italian’s death. Caravaggio himself was almost immediately forgotten, perhaps because of his dissolute reputation as a braggart and brawler. (The artist died while on the lam from having killed a man during a ballgame dispute.) But his art had entered painting’s lexicon of conventions.

Those innovations are most profound in the subtlety of their theatrical nuance. The eccentric “The Toothpuller” is a wild painting, but its actual theme of treachery is poignant. A suffering man in need of help is being fooled by a charlatan posing as a healer, all under the diverted watch of a motley humanity that does nothing to intervene.

As a painter, Caravaggio’s genius is to include his own artistic bravura in the catalog of deceptiveness. His paintings willfully seduce, but should we trust them? The brutal cheat doing the tooth-pulling challenges the viewer’s complicity, staring straight into our eyes while the blood flows. Aren’t we just wide-eyed onlookers also taking our places around the altar-table?

Caravaggio’s theatricality can’t be fully understood without Rome, since so many of his paintings were made for specific architectural settings around the great Baroque city. Take “The Calling of Saint Matthew,” which shows Jesus raising his hand at the door to a tax collector’s house to recruit an apostle, a gesture that is an echo of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam’ on the nearby Sistine Chapel ceiling. A reproduction of the critically important painting is at the show’s entrance, and its elements set the stage for what follows.

The painting made the artist’s reputation (he wasn’t yet 30), not least for the powerful blast of sunlight that sweeps across the otherwise dark canvas like an earthly manifestation of a heavenly miracle. But the source of that mystic light, missing from any reproduction, is obvious when you are in the side chapel of San Luigi dei Francesi, the French congregation in Rome for which the painting was commissioned. In an interior originally illuminated by candles, the light radiates from an actual altar, site of the mystical transubstantiation of bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood.

No wonder the wood mullions in the window directly above Jesus form a cross.

That sort of site specificity can’t be witnessed in a museum exhibition, of course. But “Bodies and Shadows” makes a provocative stab at it. Rather than install the paintings in a florid pastiche of a Baroque interior, the show’s handsome installation design (by architects Frederick Fisher and Partners) is emphatically minimalist.

Unadorned walls painted mustard yellow or off-white are lined with long, low, rectilinear benches made of stacked sheets of thick felt. (Happily, this is one museum show with plenty of seating.) Think of modern pews inside a severe church, its central aisle running the entire length of the building. Minimalism is contemporary art’s stage for theatricality — an austere, stripped-down style that shifts the spotlight toward a viewer’s perceptual experience of art.

For Caravaggio’s robust work, minimalist theatricality works like a charm. Bodies call forth shadows, offering a sharp stylistic contrast while underscoring a central feature of the paintings’ original artistic intent.