In which Netty takes a long, hard look at a Caravaggio canvas, but still prefers Rothko. Or Pollock. Or Warhol.

July 30, 2012

ImageThis blog is a little late. Like, uh, about a month late. And, uncharacteristically, you are hearing from me before Andy. This is because my blogging partner’s PC blew up while he was trying to download a Scissor Sisters CD. Yep, you read that right. Cue pithy comments right here. Mine was something along the lines of, “Uh huh. So your computer no longer works because Jake Shears ejaculated glitter into your hard drive”. Me soooo funny sometimes …

So I finished Peter Robb’s M (The Caravaggio Enigma) a while ago; Andy even longer, in fact while he was swanning around the Greek islands a couple of months ago. Perhaps, given the nature of the material, he should have been reading it while he was swanning around Italian galleries. Because the M of the title of this hefty work of non-fiction refers to one Michelangelo Merisi (or Marisi, or Moriggia, or Merigi or even Caravaggio, after the area from which he emerged). Robb sticks with plain old M for the 16th century Italian painter who scandalised and revolutionised European art, in this radical revisiting of the (short) life and times of.

First published in 1998, M provoked considerable controversy among sniffy English art critics on its release – mostly, seemingly, because it dramatically veered away from the long-accepted historical account of Caravaggio’s life and career (one reviewer dismissed it as a fictionalised biography; Robb himself openly cops to a fair degree of speculation). Robb, an Australian author, spent a good decade and a half in southern Italy and knows his stuff; although he admits his background is not in art, the book is clearly exhaustively researched. Shortly after its release, and responding to his critics, Robb told an interviewer: “Too many writers on M accept what the early sources say at face value. In fact, they’re nearly all deeply suspect … I resist the deadening of a great and living and deeply disturbing painter, and in doing this I am much closer to his own contemporaries in the way I see him.”

Caravaggio’s tale was simply crying out for the Hollywood treatment (indeed, the maverick English director Derek Jarman did just that with his 1986 film Caravaggio, which was widely derided; it also featured the great Tilda Swinton in her debut celluloid role). To say that Caravaggio lived a ‘colourful’ life is something of an understatement – the painter was a rowdy rabble-rouser, brawling his way across a tumultuous, mid-period southern Italy, positioned against the backdrop of religious and political conflict and intrigue. He readily moved between the mean streets and the rarefied world of his monied partons. A bisexual, he bedded consorts and courtesans, along with the young male models whose images grace some of his finest canvases. Robb also revisits the events surrounding Caravaggio’s early, mysterious demise; with a murder charge hanging over his head and on the run, the standard account was that, at the age of 38, he died of a fever whilst in transit, seeking a pardon for his crime. Like a detective re-examining the evidence, Robb skilfully, controversially challenges this long-held reasoning.

Putting aside the sometimes tawdry, sensationalist aspects of Caravaggio’s life, the focus of M is firmly on his paintings, front and centre. His realistic, influential portraiture, skilfully manipulating light and dark as no artist before him had done, heralded the beginning of the Baroque movement. Ignored in the aftermath of his death, Caravaggio was not truly given deserved recognition until his rediscovery in the 20th century.  And Robb, fittingly, spends considerable tracts of his book steeped in Caravaggio’s canvases. The version I read was a small, dense paperback containing 24 plates, 16 of them black and white. The reproductions – and their paucity – have been perhaps needlessly criticised. Other readers have opined it is best to consume M with a more illustratively comprehensive collection of his work close at hand; it didn’t occur to me at the time, but I can certainly see the merit in such a move.

So yes, in the end a book like M is, as it has to be, all about the art. And maybe this is why I didn’t love it. I truly love art – as a layman rather than a practitioner or a student, I hasten to add – but my tastes are very specific and run primarily to mid-to-late 20th century American painting. Call me a heathen if you will, but I don’t have a lot of time, or patience, for the masters. I will traipse through the European galleries out of duty more than desire, and only really brightening when I get to the contemporary section. I look at the Caravaggio works, and I appreciate, respect, even admire the artistry, but I don’t love them. And that’s pretty much the only reason I can come up with as to why I didn’t love M. It’s a big, sprawling, often brilliant, often flawed monolith of a book – but, much like the paintings, it inspired appreciation in me, rather than adoration. If you love the masters, then for sure, you’ll want to put it on your to-read list. But if you don’t, well, you’ll probably just move on to the next installment of Fifty Shades of Grey. Or another one of the Game of Thrones books. Ahem.

Postscript: a colleague noticed the copy of M on my desk and launched into an impromptu rave about another Robb non-fiction book, Midnight In Sicily. As he rarely raves about, well, anything at all, it piqued my interest. There may yet be a Robb book out there that I can really love, as a writer of his talent and ambition clearly deserves.

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