In our technology-overloaded world, an Italian art gallery chose to present the Baroque paintings of an Italian genius through an innovative curatorial exhibit. Caravaggio Experience is an exciting video installation of the great Italian master’s paintings, put together by Azienda Speciale Palexpo and Medialart, running at Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome until July 3.
The emphasis is on sensory experience. Here you will find no oil, no canvas. Instead of guiding the viewers, the space is designed as a labyrinth, and the viewers are invited to explore it following their own instincts. The curators choreograph the artwork in a pas-de-deux with Baroque music and a series of scents to stimulate the senses to full potential. The visitors are encouraged to find their own point of view, following their journey through a deconstructed space filled with high resolution images of Caravaggio’s powerful paintings.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was the bad boy of Baroque. Constantly in trouble with the law, he frequently got into brawls, which eventually ended up costing him his Roman patronage. His artwork reflects the impulsive and violent tendencies of his own character. “David with the head of Goliath” (1609-10), “Judith Beheading Holofernes” (1598-99), “Crucifixion of St Peter” (1601, below) – these depict confronting violence through honest simplicity and exquisite chiaroscuro (play of light and dark). Poignant biblical scenes are unapologetic, daring and full of raw human emotion. My personal favourite is his painting of “Saint Matthew and the Angel” (1602, pictured), destroyed during World War II bombing while housed in a Berlin museum. The painting was commissioned by Contareli Chapel and, subsequently, rejected for its base portrayal of the saint, his seeming familiarity with the angel, and the inappropriate showing of the soles of the saint’s feet! Perhaps Caravaggio wanted to express the religious scenes in more accessible ways for his Italian contemporaries? Apparently, though, too controversial for the patrons!
Twisted bodies, unapologetic poses, questionable portrayals – Caravaggio was edgy! I think the appeal was human vulnerability and how fragile the beauty of the human body really is. He achieved the dramatic Baroque diagonals through these twists and sometimes awkward positions, showing real human anguish, with emotion pouring out of the canvas. How wonderful would these works look accompanied by music and aromas to enhance the experience! We can live for a moment in a scene where Christ interrupts a game to ask the skeptical Matthew to follow Him; or witness the confused and cruel world in which St Peter is crucified; or find ourselves in an intimate setting with one of Caravaggio’s beautiful youths, looking inquisitively at us. With a glass of wine, Greek draping casually thrown over his naked body, or plucking at a musical instrument – there is something forbidden and enticing in his pose, as if he is challenging us, wanting to see how much it will take for him to finally seduce us.
I love that this Italian exhibition focuses on the pure sensory enjoyment of the artist’s work. When we normally see paintings, it’s in a museum setting, surrounded by imposing walls, observed by museum staff, and keeping a respectable distance from the works. While a necessary and a practical setting, it removes the actual experience of the work. We are able to scrutinise the brushwork and to see the final product as an object of art, but we cannot re-enact the circumstances of the painting’s subject and the environment it would have been painted for – whether an altar-piece, or a commission for the home of a wealthy client. With this unique sensory approach to an exhibition, we can be the protagonist in the stories depicted! We can focus on what we want, on the details that would potentially be missed for the sake of the completeness of the piece.
This is not the first time that an exhibition uses digital approach to older artworks. In fact, in 2006 Loyola museum in Chicago gave an exhibition of 57 of Caravaggio’s works, called “Caravaggio: Una Mostra Impossibile!” The aim was to present works otherwise inaccessible to the Chicago audiences, for the impossible logistics of getting so many priceless pieces from so many different galleries, museum and private collections into one exhibition. The works were true to scale and back-lit for a more realistic experience of the master’s famous chiaroscuro. It was an example of ‘democratization of art, and not a bad approach to an artist whose works are scattered over the world class museums of Rome, London, Paris, St Petersburg.
Last year, in Florence, I stumbled on an exhibition of Van Gogh, presented through digital images projected onto the walls of a massive church building. The surrounding experience, combined with the amazing acoustic capabilities of the space, invited the viewers into the personal world of Van Gogh. Accompanied by classical music pieces and excerpts from the artist’s own correspondence with his brother, the paintings of Van Gogh came to life through the digital. I could experience the works in context of the artist’s life and personal struggles. Italians don’t disappoint – this turned out to be a highlight of my two days in the city of Renaissance.
So here’s to more exciting exhibitions that challenge the senses, defy the seemingly impossible logistics and create unforgettable experience despite difficulties!