Posts Tagged ‘Caravaggio Sick Bacchus


Exhibition: ‘Cindy Sherman’ at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York

Exhibition dates: 26th February – 11th June 2012


Cindy Sherman society portraits (2008) to left and centre at MoMA, New York


Cindy Sherman society portraits (2008) to left and centre at MoMA, New York



Ceaselessly inventive, the bodies (literally) of work of Cindy Sherman are a wonder to behold. From film stills to head shots, from history portrait to society portraits, Sherman constantly reinvents herself, her variations of identity exploring “the complexity of representation in a world saturated with images,” her iterations into the construction of femininity and masculinity constantly “provocative, disparaging, empathetic, and mysterious.”

Where to next? Her recent series of digitally altered landscapes and portraits (Cindy Sherman at Metro Pictures, New York, April – June 2012) seem less resolved than her earlier work, becoming almost a pastiche of themselves. Despite their massive size they seem to lack resolution, the great female impersonator of our time relying for effect on Self as feminine earth (m)Other, tricked up in dubious, quasi-ethnic regalia. Sherman is almost sacrosanct with regard to criticism but it’s about time someone said it: these images are pretty awful.

After so many simulacra, so many layerings and expositions of identity isn’t it about time Sherman got back to basics and ditched these grandiose notions of identity sublime. The sublimation (an unconscious defence mechanism by which consciously unacceptable instinctual drives are expressed in personally and socially acceptable channels) of her/Self, her actual body, the energy of her (non) presence is finally starting to wear thin. Will the real Cindy Sherman (if ever there is such a thing) please stand up and tell us: what do you really stand for, where as a human being, is your spirit really at?

Dr Marcus Bunyan

Many thankx to MOMA for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.


Cindy Sherman history portraits (1988-90) installation photograph at MoMA, New York


Cindy Sherman history portraits (1988-90) installation photograph at MoMA, New York


Cindy Sherman headshots (2000-2002) installation photograph at MoMA, New York


Cindy Sherman headshots (2000-2002) installation photograph at MoMA, New York


Cindy Sherman. 'Untitled Film Still #21' 1978


Cindy Sherman (American, b. 1954)
Untitled Film Still #21 
Gelatin silver print
7 1/2 x 9 1/2″ (19.1 x 24.1cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Horace W. Goldsmith Fund through Robert B. Menschel


Cindy Sherman. 'Untitled Film Still #6' 1977


Cindy Sherman (American, b. 1954)
Untitled Film Still #6 
Gelatin silver print
9 7/16 x 6 1/2″ (24 x 16.5cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Acquired through the generosity of Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder in memory of Eugene M. Schwartz


Cindy Sherman. 'Untitled Film Still #56' 1980


Cindy Sherman (American, b. 1954)
Untitled Film Still #56 
Gelatin silver print
6 3/8 x 9 7/16″ (16.2 x 24cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Acquired through the generosity of Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder in memory of Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd



Gallery 2

In fall 1977, Sherman began making pictures that would eventually become her groundbreaking Untitled Film Stills. Over three years, the series (presented here in its entirety) grew to comprise a total of seventy black-and-white photographs. Taken as a whole, the Untitled Film Stills – resembling publicity pictures made on movie sets – read like an encyclopaedic roster of stereotypical female roles inspired by 1950s and 1960s Hollywood, film noir, B movies, and European art-house films. But while the characters and scenarios may seem familiar, Sherman’s Stills are entirely fictitious; they represent clichés (career girl, bombshell, girl on the run, vamp, housewife, and so on) that are deeply embedded in the cultural imagination. While the pictures can be appreciated individually, much of their significance comes in the endless variation of identities from one photograph to the next. As a group they explore the complexity of representation in a world saturated with images, and refer to the cultural filter of images (moving and still) through which we see the world.

Wall text from the exhibition


Cindy Sherman. 'Untitled #137' 1984


Cindy Sherman (American, b. 1954)
Untitled #137 
Chromogenic colour print
70 1/2 x 47 3/4″ (179.1 x 121.3cm)
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Purchased with the Alice Newton Osborn Fund, 1985


Cindy Sherman. 'Untitled #458' 2007-08


Cindy Sherman (American, b. 1954)
Untitled #458 
Chromogenic colour print
6′ 5 3/8″ x 58 1/4″ (196.5 x 148cm)



Gallery 3

Fashion – a daily form of masquerade that communicates culture, gender, and class – has been a constant source of inspiration for Sherman and a leading ingredient in the creation of her work. Throughout her career the artist has completed a number of commissions for fashion designers and magazines, and this gallery gathers many of these works. Sherman’s fashion pictures challenge the industry’s conventions of beauty and grace. Her first such commission, made in 1983, parodies typical fashion photography. Rather than projecting glamour, sex, or wealth, the pictures feature characters that are far from desirable – whether goofy, hysterical, angry, or slightly mad. Later commissions resulted in more extreme images of characters with bloodshot eyes, bruises, and scars. These exaggerated figures reached ostentatious heights in a 2007-08 commission, in which fashion victims – including steely fashion editors, PR mavens, assistant buyers, and wannabe fashionistas – wear clothing designed by Balenciaga and ham it up for the camera. Sherman’s interest in the construction of femininity and the mass circulation of images informs much of her work; the projects that take fashion as their subject illustrate the artist’s fascination with fashion images but also her critique of what they represent.

Wall text from the exhibition


Cindy Sherman. 'Untitled #424' 2004


Cindy Sherman (American, b. 1954)
Untitled #424 
Chromogenic colour print
53 3/4 x 54 3/4″ (136.5 x 139.1cm)
Holzer Family Collection



Gallery 5

Sherman, who photographs alone in her studio, has used a variety of techniques to suggest different locations and imaginary (sometimes impossible) spaces, extending the narrative possibilities of her images. In her first foray into colour, in 1980, the artist photographed herself in front of rear-screen projections of various cityscapes and landscapes, evoking films from the 1950s and 1960s that used similar techniques to create the illusion of a change in location. In later series, such as the head shots (2000-2002), clowns (2003-04), and society portraits (2008), the artist used digital tools to create a variety of environments. The garish fluorescent colours in a clown picture contribute to the disturbing quality of the portrait, while a fairy tale forest provides a dreamy backdrop for a well-to-do lady.

Wall text from the exhibition



The Museum of Modern Art presents the exhibition Cindy Sherman, a retrospective tracing the groundbreaking artist’s career from the mid-1970s to the present, from February 26 to June 11, 2012. The exhibition brings together 171 key photographs from the artist’s significant series – including the complete Untitled Film Stills (1977-80), the critically acclaimed centerfolds (1981), and the celebrated history portraits (1988-90) – plus examples from all of her most important bodies of work, ranging from her fashion photography of the early 1980s to the breakthrough sex pictures of 1992 to her 2003-04 clowns and monumental society portraits from 2008. In addition, the exhibition features the American premiere of her 2010 photographic mural. An exhibition of films drawn from MoMA’s collection selected by Sherman will also be presented in the Museum’s theatres in April. Cindy Sherman is organised by Eva Respini, Associate Curator, with Lucy Gallun, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Photography, The Museum of Modern Art.

Cindy Sherman is widely considered to be one of the most important and influential artists of our time and her work is the unchallenged cornerstone of post-modern photography. Masquerading as a myriad of characters in front of her own camera, Sherman creates invented personas and tableaus that examine the construction of identity, the nature of representation, and the artifice of photography. Her works speak to an increasingly image-saturated world, drawing on the unlimited supply of visual material provided by movies, television, magazines, the Internet, and art history.

Ms. Respini says, “To create her photographs, Sherman works unassisted in her studio and assumes multiple roles as photographer, model, art director, make-up artist, hairdresser, and stylist. Whether portraying a career girl or a blond bombshell, a fashion victim or a clown, a French aristocrat or a society lady of a certain age, for over 35 years this relentlessly adventurous artist has created an eloquent and provocative body of work that resonates deeply with our visual culture.”

The American premiere of Sherman’s recent photographic mural (2010) will be installed outside the galleries on the sixth floor. The mural represents the artist’s first foray into transforming space through site-specific fictive environments. In the mural Sherman transforms her face via digital means, exaggerating her features through Photoshop by elongating her nose, narrowing her eyes, or creating smaller lips. The characters, who sport an odd mix of costumes and are taken from daily life, are elevated to larger-than-life status and tower over the viewer. Set against a decorative toile backdrop, her characters seem like protagonists from their own carnivalesque worlds, where fantasy and reality merge. The emphasis on new work presents an opportunity for reassessment in light of the latest developments in Sherman’s oeuvre.

Entering the galleries, the exhibition strays from a chronological narrative typical of retrospectives, and groups photographs thematically to create new and surprising juxtapositions and to suggest common threads across several series. A gallery devoted to her work made for the fashion industry brings together commissions from 1983 to 2011. Sherman’s interest in the construction of femininity and mass circulation of images informs much of the work that takes fashion as its subject, illustrating not only a fascination with fashion images but also a critical stance against what they represent. A gallery exploring themes of the grotesque focuses on bodies of work from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s, including disasters (1986-89) and sex pictures (1992). Sherman’s investigation of macabre narratives followed a trajectory of the physical disintegration of the body, and features prosthetic parts as a stand-in for the human body. A gallery devoted to Sherman’s exploration of myth, carnival, and fairy tales pairs works from her 2003 clowns with her 1985 fairy tales series. These theatrical pictures revel in their own artificiality, with menacing characters and fantastical narratives.

Galleries devoted to single bodies of work are interspersed among the thematic rooms. Sherman’s seminal series the Untitled Film Stills, comprising 70 black-and-white photographs made between 1977 and 1980, are presented in their entirety (the complete series is in MoMA’s collection). Made to look like publicity pictures taken on movie sets, the Untitled Film Stills read like an encyclopaedic roster of female roles inspired by 1950s and 1960s Hollywood, film noir, B movies, and European art-house films. While the characters and scenarios may seem familiar, Sherman’s Stills are entirely fictitious. Her characters represent deeply embedded clichés (career girl, bombshell, girl on the run, housewife, and so on) and rely on the persistence of recognisable manufactured stereotypes that loom large in the cultural imagination.

Other series presented in depth include Sherman’s 1981 series of 12-colour photographs known as the centerfolds. Originally commissioned by Artforum magazine, these send-ups of men’s erotic magazine centerfolds depict characters in a variety of emotional states, ranging from terrified to heartbroken to melancholic. With this series, Sherman plays into the male conditioning of looking at photographs of exposed women, but she turns this on its head by taking on the roles of both (assumed) male photographer and female pinup. The history portraits investigate the relationships between painter and model, and are featured in depth in the exhibition. These theatrical portraits borrow from a number of art historical periods, from Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassical. This free-association sampling creates an illusion of familiarity, but not with any one specific era or style (just as the Untitled Film Stills evoke generic types, not particular films). The subjects (for the first time, many are men) include aristocrats, Madonna and child, clergymen, women of leisure, and milkmaids, who pose with props, elaborate costumes, and obvious prostheses.

Sherman has explored the experience of ageing in a youth- and status-obsessed society with several bodies of work made since 2000. For her headshots from 2000-2002 (sometimes called Hollywood / Hamptons), the artist conceived a cast of characters of would-be or has-been actors (in reality secretaries, housewives, or gardeners) posing for head shots to get an acting job. With this series, Sherman underscores the transformative qualities of makeup, hair, expression, and pose, and the recognition of certain stereotypes as powerful transmitters of cultural clichés. Her monumental 2008 society portraits feature women “of a certain age” from the top echelons of society who struggle with today’s impossible standards of beauty. The psychological weight of these pictures comes through in the unrelenting honesty of the description of ageing and the small details that belie the attempt to project a certain appearance. In the infinite possibilities of the mutability of identity, these pictures stand out for their ability to be at once provocative, disparaging, empathetic, and mysterious.

Press release from the MOMA website


Cindy Sherman. 'Untitled #193' 1989


Cindy Sherman (American, b. 1954)
Untitled #193 
Chromogenic colour print
48 7/8 x 41 15/16″ (124.1 x 106.5cm)
The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection


Cindy Sherman. 'Untitled #213' 1989


Cindy Sherman
Untitled #213 
Chromogenic colour print
41 1/2 x 33″ (105.4 x 83.8cm)
Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York


Cindy Sherman. 'Untitled #216' 1989


Cindy Sherman (American, b. 1954)
Untitled #216 
Chromogenic colour print
7′ 3 1/8″ x 56 1/8″ (221.3 x 142.5cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Werner and Elaine Dannheisser



Gallery 7

Sherman’s history portraits (1988-90) investigate modes of representation in art history and the relationship between painter and model. These classically composed portraits borrow from a number of art-historical periods – Renaissance, baroque, rococo, Neoclassical – and make allusions to paintings by Raphael, Caravaggio, Fragonard, and Ingres (who, like all the Old Masters, were men). This free-association sampling creates a sense of familiarity, but not of any one specific era or style. The subjects (for the first time for Sherman, many are men) include aristocrats, Madonnas with child, clergymen, women of leisure, and milk-maids, who pose with props, costumes, and obvious prostheses. Theatrical and artificial – full of large noses, bulging bellies, squirting breasts, warts, and unibrows – the history portraits are poised between humorous parody and grotesque caricature.

A handful of Sherman’s portraits were inspired by actual paintings. Untitled #224 was made after Caravaggio’s Sick Bacchus (c. 1593), which is commonly believed to be a self-portrait of the artist as the Roman god of wine. In Sherman’s reinterpretation, the numerous layers of representation – a female artist impersonating a male artist impersonating a pagan divinity – create a sense of remove, pastiche, and criticality. Even where Sherman’s pictures offer a gleam of art-historical recognition, she has inserted her own interpretation of the canonised paintings, creating contemporary artefacts of a bygone era.

Wall text from the exhibition


Cindy Sherman. 'Untitled #359' 2000


Cindy Sherman (American, b. 1954)
Untitled #359 
Chromogenic color print
30 x 20″ (76.2 x 50.8cm)
Collection Metro Pictures, New York



Gallery 8

After almost a decade of staging still lifes with dolls and props, in her 2000-2002 head-shots series Sherman returned to a more intimate scale and to using herself as a model. The format recalls ID pictures, head shots, or vanity portraits made in garden-variety portrait studios by professional photographers. First exhibited in Beverly Hills, the series explores the cycle of desire and failed ambition that permeates Hollywood. Sherman conceived a cast of would-be or has-been female actors posing for head shots in order to get acting jobs; later, for an exhibition in New York, she added East Coast types. Whichever part of the country they’re from, we’ve seen these women before – on reality television, in soap operas, or at a PTA meeting. With these pictures, Sherman underscores the transformative qualities of makeup, hair, expression, and pose, and the power of stereotypes as transmitters of cultural clichés. She projects well-drawn personas: the enormous pouting lips of the woman in Untitled #360 suggest a yearning for youth, while the glittery makeup and purple iridescent dress worn by the character in Untitled #400 indicate an aspiration to reach a certain social status. In her role as both sitter and photographer, Sherman has disrupted the usual power dynamic between model and photographer and created new avenues through which to explore the very apparatus of portrait photography itself.


Cindy Sherman. 'Untitled #465' 2008


Cindy Sherman (American, b. 1954)
Untitled #465 
Chromogenic colour print
63 3/4 x 57 1/4″ (161.9 x 145.4cm)
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Purchase, with funds from the Painting and Sculpture Committee and the Photography Committee, 2009


Cindy Sherman. 'Untitled #466' 2008


Cindy Sherman (American, b. 1954)
Untitled #466
Chromogenic colour print


Cindy Sherman. 'Untitled #474' 2008


Cindy Sherman
Untitled #474 
Chromogenic colour print
7′ 7″ x 60 1/4″ (231.1 x 153cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Acquired through the generosity of an anonymous donor, Michael Lynne, Charles Heilbronn, and the Carol and David Appel Family Fund



Gallery 10

Set against opulent backdrops and presented in ornate frames, the characters in Sherman’s 2008 society portraits seem at once tragic and vulgar. The figures are not based on specific women, but the artist has made them look entirely familiar in their struggle with the impossible standards of beauty that prevail in a youth – and status – obsessed culture. At this large scale, it is easy to decipher the characters’ vulnerability behind the makeup, clothes, and jewellery. The psychological weight of these pictures comes through the unrelenting honesty of their description of ageing, the tell-tale signs of cosmetic alteration, and the small details that belie the characters’ attempts to project a polished and elegant appearance. Upon careful viewing, they reveal a dark reality lurking beneath the glossy surface of perfection. As with much of her work, in her society portraits Sherman has demonstrated a remarkable capacity to channel the zeitgeist. These well-heeled divas presaged the financial collapse of 2008, the end of an era of opulence – the size of the photographs alone seems a commentary on an age of excess. Among the numerous iterations of contemporary identity, these pictures stand out as at once provocative, disparaging, empathetic, and mysterious.

Wall text from the exhibition


Cindy Sherman. 'Untitled #475' 2008


Cindy Sherman (American, b. 1954)
Untitled #475 
Chromogenic colour print
7′ 2 3/8″ x 71 1/2″ (219.4 x 181.6cm)
The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica



Gallery 11

Because the majority of Sherman’s pictures feature the artist as model, they showcase a single character. In the 1970s Sherman experimented with cutouts of multiple figures, in her whimsical 1975 stop-motion animated short film Doll Clothes and her rarely seen 1976 collages, which were achieved through a labor-intensive process of cutting and pasting multiple photographs. When Sherman began working digitally in the early 2000s, she was able to more easily incorporate multiple figures in one frame, allowing for a variety of new narrative possibilities. Where the early works chart the movements and gestures of a single character through space, the multiple figures in recent works interact with one another to create tableaus.

Wall text from the exhibition



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Exhibition: ‘Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome’ at the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas

Exhibition dates: 16th October 2011 – 8th January 2012


Simon Vouet. 'The Fortune Teller' c. 1620


Simon Vouet (French, 1590-1649)
The Fortune Teller
c. 1620
Oil on canvas
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa



Observe if you will:

  1. The treatment of the background behind Boy Bitten by a Lizard (1594-96)
  2. The tension of the hands in this painting
  3. The pallor of the skin of Sick Bacchus (1593-94)
  4. The colour of the bunch of grapes in the same painting
  5. The critical distance between the two apricots and the bowed sash resting on the pediment in the same painting
  6. The youthful innocence of the dupe in The Cardsharps (c. 1595)
  7. The deep, foreboding shadows under the eyes of Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness (1604-5)
  8. The astonishingly beautiful skin tones in Gerrit van Honthorst’s Saint Sebastian (c. 1623) and how the blood from the leg wound at left runs in two directions: one direction when Saint Sebastian was standing up, one when he has slumped down. Inspired.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

Many thankx to the Kimbell Museum of Art for allowing me to publish the artwork in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.



One of the most influential figures in the history of art, Caravaggio (1571-1610) overturned the artistic conventions of the day and created stunningly dramatic paintings, both sacred and secular. This ambitious exhibition explores the profound impact of his work on the wide range of painters of Italian, French, Dutch, Flemish, and Spanish origin who resided in Rome. Arranged by theme, it includes over 50 paintings, with Caravaggio’s compelling images juxtaposed with those he inspired. This is the second largest display of his paintings in North America and only the third Caravaggio exhibition to be held in the United States.


Music and Youth

Many of Caravaggio’s early paintings feature handsome youths, whether singly or in groups. He seems to have used the same favorite models repeatedly – and sometimes his own features, which a contemporary tells us he studied in a mirror. The origins of these novel paintings lay in the types of pictures – portraits, still lifes, and allegories – that were painted in a realistic style in the artist’s native Lombardy, in the north of Italy, although he blurred the boundaries between genres to suggest real-life scenes. Caravaggio’s paintings of musicians would have appealed to Roman collectors who were passionate patrons of music, and likely were created to decorate rooms used for performances. They have a dreamy, slightly melancholy air. If the songs are about love, as we can assume they are, they are surely about the painful side of love rather than its joys. Caravaggio’s early paintings of youths are usually scenes of sensual pleasure but with a built-in warning against indulgence, as when a youth has his finger bitten by a lizard lurking in some fruit. He brings us close to his figures, often having them make eye contact with us, and includes lovingly observed still-life details that enhance the naturalism and immediacy of the scene. Even when there is a visitation from the beyond, like the winged Cupid in The Musicians, he treats this in a matter-of-fact way, attentive always to breaking down the boundaries between the painted world and our own. Caravaggio’s musical paintings caught on throughout Europe in the work of his followers, who brought their own innovations to the genre.


Caravaggio. 'The Musicians' c. 1595


Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (Italian, 1571-1610)
The Musicians
c. 1595
Oil on canvas
36 1/4 x 46 5/8 in (92.1 x 118.4 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Rogers Fund, 1952



In this scene, Caravaggio shows some young musicians preparing for a concert. We are brought very close to the figures, as if we share the same space. Caravaggio breaks down the boundaries between art and life, and our reality and the painted world become entwined. The instruments are modern, but the musicians wear antique-inspired dress. The lute player tunes his instrument, and the horn player (possibly a self-portrait) catches our gaze. Another youth studies the musical score; it is no longer legible, but doubtless featured love madrigals. The winged Cupid with a quiver of arrows who is handling some grapes makes explicit the bond between music and love. Wine, like music, makes the spirits light. This painting belonged to Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, who hosted concerts at his palace and invited musicians to live in his household, along with artists like Caravaggio.


Theodoor Rombouts. 'A Lute Player' c. 1620


Theodoor Rombouts (Flemish, 1597-1637)
A Lute Player
c. 1620
Oil on canvas
43 7/8 x 39 1/4 in (111.1 x 99.7 cm)
Philadelphia Museum of Art. John G. Johnson Collection, 1917



Caravaggio’s paintings of musicians inspired Rombouts’s depiction of a musician tuning his lute. His intense expression suggests that he is both listening to the sound and sizing up the viewer, his audience. The vividly described carpet and still-life objects on the table recall Caravaggio’s similar close-up presentations. However, the colourful treatment of the costume and the robust delineation of the objects place Rombouts’s work within traditions of Flemish and Dutch painting. The still life, like ephemeral music, serves to remind us of the pleasures of life, but also that pleasure is fleeting. The artist also alludes to the five senses: hearing (the lute), taste (the tankard), smell (the pipe), sight (the musical scores), and touch (the knife).


Caravaggio. 'Boy Bitten by a Lizard' 1594–96


Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (Italian, 1571-1610)
Boy Bitten by a Lizard
Oil on canvas
25 5/8 x 20 1/2 in (65 x 52 cm)
Fondazione di Studi di Storia dell’Arte Roberto Longhi, Florence



One of Caravaggio’s biographers wrote that “he also painted a boy bitten by a lizard emerging from flowers and fruits; you could almost hear the boy scream, and it was done meticulously.” The picture has suggested various interpretations. As an allegory of touch, it provides the basis for a study of how emotion is expressed physically, and arguably Caravaggio alludes to all the five senses (flowers as smell and so on). With the still life of fruits and roses, common emblems of love, he invokes age-old adages – pain can follow pleasure, and love is a rose with thorns that prick. Poets from Petrarch onward played on the similarity of the Italian words for “love” and “bitter” – amore and amaro – to which Caravaggio adds ramarro (lizard), ingeniously enlarging the joke.


Caravaggio. 'Sick Bacchus' 1593–94


Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (Italian, 1571-1610)
Sick Bacchus
Oil on canvas
Galleria Borghese, Rome



Cardsharps and Fortune Tellers

The young Caravaggio introduced another new kind of painting to the Roman art world with his scenes from the seamy side of life, its frauds and ruses. He painted these works on a large scale with half-length figures, and they were among his most widely imitated creations. His followers played countless variations on the same themes, trying various levels of subtlety and buffoonery in the humour and facial expressions. These highly animated compositions conjure up an underworld of wily cardsharps, soldiers of fortune, foolish dupes, sensuous and deceitful gypsy women, pickpockets, and thugs. They are based partly on everyday observations in the streets, partly on the stock characters and improvised comedies of the commedia dell’arte, partly on sheer fantasy. In such works, Caravaggio and his followers developed ingenious ways of involving us in the action. We read these amusingly moralising pictures through gestures and expressions – but to unravel the trickery takes time. Despite being frozen in a static image, the story seems to unfold before our eyes like one of the popular plays that were its inspiration. The artist extends the theme of deception by painting his subjects with such a high level of naturalism that the viewer is duped and astounded by his artistry.


Caravaggio. 'The Cardsharps' c. 1595


Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (Italian, 1571-1610)
The Cardsharps
c. 1595
Oil on canvas
37 1/8 x 51 5/8 in (94.2 x 130.9 cm)
Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth



The players are engaged in a game of primero, a forerunner of poker. Engrossed in his cards, the dupe is unaware that the older cardsharp signals his accomplice, who reaches to pull a hidden card from his breeches. The fingertips of the cheat’s gloved hand are exposed to better feel marked cards. According to an early biographer, Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, a great patron of the arts, took the young Caravaggio into his household soon after purchasing this picture. It hung along with The Gypsy Fortune Teller in his palace. Together they would surely have reminded the cardinal and his guests of the story of the prodigal son, warning about the perils of greed and fraud. Caravaggio has treated this subject not as a caricature of vice but in a fresh way, in which the interaction of gesture and glance evokes the drama of deception and lost innocence in the most human of terms. He structures the picture to allow us to witness everything, implicating us in the trickery.



Caravaggio grounded his saints in everyday reality, indicating their spiritual states by means of natural phenomena, especially light. In his early painting of Saint Francis, he shows the saint’s ecstasy – his mystic identification with Christ – by directing a strong light upon his figure and the consoling angel. God’s grace is signalled by light in other images of the saints, such as the scene of Mary Magdalene’s conversion from her former life of sin. In paintings of Saints Matthew and Jerome in their studies, much emulated in Caravaggio’s circle, light is a metaphor of divine inspiration. Generally the saints seem to be emerging from darkness into light, which adds drama, symbolism, and also a sense of mass – as if they were sculpted, not merely painted. In a break from Roman and Florentine traditions, Caravaggio rejected the practice of refining his composition through drawings before he began to paint and instead worked directly from a live model in the studio, preserving that model’s particular appearance, never making the features or body conform to an ideal of beauty. The effect, central to Caravaggio’s art and that of many of his followers, was startling. At this time, many people believed that the painting of sacred personages such as saints called for a special, elevated style that set them apart from the mundane reality of the here and now. Caravaggio’s radical departure from this principle brought him much harsh criticism. He was accused of merely copying and so failing to capture a higher truth. But others recognised in his work a new kind of religious art that directly engaged the faithful and made old subjects new and alive.


Caravaggio. 'Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness' 1604


Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (Italian, 1571-1610)
Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness
Oil on canvas
68 x 52 in (172.7 x 132.1 cm)
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Purchase William Rockhill Nelson Trust



Caravaggio’s practice of painting a live model in his studio brings this young, brooding saint to life – as if his image were inhabited by the model’s being. Ottavio Costa, a Roman banker, commissioned this painting for a chapel on a pilgrimage route in the countryside outside of Genoa, where his family had its origins. We can imagine what a powerful experience it would have been to encounter the image of the scarlet-robed saint there, dramatically emerging from the shadows into a strong light. When Caravaggio delivered the painting, Costa decided to keep it and placed a copy in the chapel. But even the copy proved inspiring. An early guide described how it “moves not only the members of the brotherhood but also visitors to penitence.”


Gerrit van Honthorst. 'Saint Sebastian' c. 1623


Gerrit van Honthorst (Dutch, 1592-1656)
Saint Sebastian
c. 1623
Oil on canvas
The National Gallery, London



The Sacred Narrative

Caravaggio was a masterful storyteller who could bring home the drama and significance of a biblical event with tremendous power. In his scenes from the Old and New Testaments, he created a new kind of painting – dramatic, even theatrical, yet grounded in the observation of ordinary reality – and it proved infectious among his contemporaries in Rome. His approach was to make the scene clear and simple, with the main actors in the drama seen close-up and caught in midaction at a decisive moment, embodying the whole meaning of the event. He played down the setting, sometimes to the point that it is a mere pool of darkness from which the figures emerge. It was the actions and states of mind of the characters in the story that counted, and Caravaggio presented these with sometimes shocking directness and intensity, breaking all the rules of decorum that restrained more conventional painters. He mastered the art of concealing art, re-creating a scene with such a flavour of reality that it comes across as an eyewitness account. It was his power to draw viewers into the emotion and importance of a scene that made his work an essential object of study, even for such an independent genius as the great Peter Paul Rubens.


Caravaggio. 'Martha and Mary Magdalene' c. 1598


Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (Italian, 1571-1610)
Martha and Mary Magdalene
c. 1598
Oil and tempera on canvas
38 1/2 x 52 1/4 in (97.8 x 132.7 cm)
Detroit Institute of Arts. Gift of the Kresge Foundation and Mrs. Edsel B. Ford



Martha’s expressive hands, intensely illuminated, underscore her attempt to convert her sister Mary Magdalene from a life of worldly pleasures to one of spirituality. Several details recall Mary’s life of indulgence: the elegant dress, the ivory comb, the alabaster cosmetic jar. The mirror, a powerful symbol of vanity, becomes here an instrument reflecting the divine light that is penetrating Mary’s soul. Martha’s words seem to have been convincing, and her open mouth signals her amazement as she witnesses Mary’s transformation. The orange blossom in Mary’s right hand and the ring on her left indicate her new status as the blessed bride of Christ.


Caravaggio. 'Sacrifice of Isaac' 1602–3


Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (Italian, 1571-1610)
Sacrifice of Isaac
Oil on canvas
41 x 53 1/8 in (104 x 135 cm)
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence



Kimbell Art Museum
3333 Camp Bowie Boulevard,
Fort Worth, TX 76107

Opening hours:
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Fridays, noon – 8pm
Sundays, noon – 5pm
Closed Mondays, New Year’s Day, July 4, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day

Kimbell Art Museum website


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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, a photographic archive and form of cultural memory, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

Marcus Bunyan black and white archive: ‘Orphans and small groups’ 1994-96 Part 2

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