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Bodies And Shadows: Caravaggio And His Legacy, At LACMA

Last weekend, I drove to Los Angeles to visit with a good friend, and to indulge in one of my favorite pastimes–visiting museums.

On a warm, sunny Southern California winter afternoon, we toured the Page Museum at the Rancho LaBrea tar pits, with its unrivaled collection of Ice-Age fossils. There’s nothing like getting a real idea of the size of a mammoth by standing next to a reconstructed skeleton, tinted a mellow dark brown by millennia of immersion in asphalt, and realizing that you don’t even come up to its knee!

By happy coincidence, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is located next door to the Page Museum. And even happier, they are currently featuring a special exhibition, Bodies and Shadows: Caravaggio and his Legacy.

Now, I’ve been interested in Caravaggio since reading two compelling books about his life and art:

The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece, a real-life detective mystery about the search for one of Caravaggio’s paintings, and M : The Man Who Became Caravaggio, a controversial biography of the artist that paints a vivid picture of his life and times.

Both books paint a fascinating portrait of a man who was simultaneously sensitive and gifted with a brush, while also living the life of a street tough with a long arrest record, a hard drinker, and even a murderer. And to me, his paintings have always had more life to them than the stylized, impossibly perfect figures of saints and angels of many of his contemporary artists.

Commissioned to create paintings illustrating various incidents from the Bible or allegorical subjects, he used his apprentices, carpenters, painters, prostitutes, and other denizens of his working-class Roman neighborhood to bring characters to vivid life–callused feet, dirty fingernails, and all. ¬†Even his still-lifes of fruits and flowers are bursting with sensual vitality (and in some cases, rot).

In addition to his gift for depicting naturalistic figures in classical or Biblical settings, his use of light and shadow was unparalleled and influential. One of the interesting features of the exhibition was the grouping of contemporary and later paintings around each of the six Caravaggios on display, showing aspects of that influence.

Caravaggio died relatively young–at age 38 or 39, possibly waylaid and murdered on his return to Italy from exile abroad, though some have speculated that he fell ill and died after making landfall, or possibly succumbed to complications from lead poisoning (which might also account for some of his bizarre and paranoid behavior in the final years of his life).

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