A moment in the dark with light as a blade. That’s how I’d sum up the painting of Caravaggio.
In the Renaissance appear the rather wonderful terms sfumato (that sm0ky blended quality demonstrated by Leonardo da Vinci) and chiaroscuro. Chiaroscuro is that riveting light and dark effect, and Caravaggio (the other Michelangelo of the Renaissance) was its arch exponent.
This light and dark is not limited to his art – Caravaggio was the prototypical art rock star, living fast, dying young. There were art world quarrels, the scandalous circulation of filthy poems, threats directed at a fellow artist for ‘stealing his style’, skirmishes and difficulties with swordsmen and whores, and even killing someone in a gang fight – it was an almost ridiculously dramatic life. Simon Schama’s wonderful Power of Art series features an episode on Caravaggio’s life and there is also a compelling and florid Derek Jarman movie Caravaggio starring Dexter Fletcher, Sean Bean and Tilda Swinton.
His art was just as scandalous at the time – his realism and use of real people as models as striking today as in the 1600s. The paintings have an immediate impact – they look you right in the eye, and grab you by the scruff of the neck. No doubt the man would’ve done the same.