Caravaggio’s Bodies and Shadows at LACMA

“Art” comes from the same root as artifice, meaning it’s all fake. In denial of the obvious, every big art movement is pitched as a new brand of realism. Few isms delivered on that claim better than Carvaggism, the subject of LACMA’s “Bodies and Shadows: Caravaggio and His Legacy.”

Zurburán’s Saint Serapion

Caravaggio’s interpretation of reality used real-people models for holy figures such as Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness (below). He dared to imagine that a hermit who walked barefoot would have dirty toenails and also look like a Calvin Klein underwear model. “Bodies and Shadows” is a major event with eight works by Caravaggio and about 50 more by followers, many big names in their own right. It tells how Caravaggio’s innovations became a scandal, an avant garde, a cliché, and finally a joke. Caravaggio himself was almost forgotten until the 20th century. A few bright curators in supposed hinterlands like Kansas City and Hartford and Cleveland bought magnificent Caravaggios for a song. There are no Caravaggios in the museums of Los Angeles or Chicago or Washington; just two in New York.

Ultimately, Caravaggio’s most enduring contribution was his use of light. His figures are spotlighted, as we’d now put it, existing in a film noir universe where it’s always midnight. The subjects of some of the paintings in the show must have been drawn from the theater. That doesn’t necessarily explain the lighting secret sauce. In the early 1600s, plays were presented in broad daylight (as at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre) or else lighted by candelabras. Nothing like a modern spotlight existed. Caravaggio’s light was an act of the imagination. It implied unnaturally bright moonlight or gloomy interiors shot by the rays of a sun setting in a thunderstorm. This poetic conception became an international style. The show has artists from Italy, Spain, France, Holland, and Flanders.

Velázquez and Zurburán are represented by a saint apiece here, and that is itself a coup. Zurburán’s St. Serapion, from the Wadsworth Atheneum, kicks up Caravaggio’s irrational lighting a notch. The saint is luminous in white robes, spotlighted in the darkest of dungeons. In “Meditations in an Emergency,” Frank O’Hara wrote of this painting: “St. Serapion, I wrap myself in the robes of your whiteness which is like midnight in Dostoevsky.”

On the other hand, the Utrecht (Dutch) painter Gerrit van Honthorst rationalized Caravaggio’s light. He invented night scenes in which a candle flame supplies credible illumination. The best such painting here is LACMA’s own, The Mocking of Christ. Honthorst may have been the nexus for Georges de la Tour, the mysterious Frenchman who probably never set eyes on an original Caravaggio.

“Bodies and Shadows” isn’t a greatest hits show, and that’s good. It goes down the food chain to show how Caravaggio’s ideas were plundered, parodied, and misunderstood by lesser lights as well as geniuses. A Theodore Rombouts from Philadelphia, of a mugging Lute Player, is a comic version of Caravaggio’s boy/castrato toys.

Even Caravaggio’s signature realism was negotiable. The little-known Giovanni Martinelli did not allow fact-checkers to dictate his naturalism. In Death Comes to the Banquet Table, the Grim Reaper will be your waiter today.

Two great Caravaggios from Florence bookend the exhibition. At the entrance is a little-known Portrait of Maffeo Barberini from a private collection. The last work you see is the monumental Tooth Puller from the Pitti Palace. The Tooth Puller has been doubted as a Caravaggio insofar as there are no documented genre scenes by his own hand. It exemplifies the harsh light and brushwork of his latest style. Caravaggio died at age 39.