Mark Hudson from the Telegraph discusses the discovery of 100 possible new Caravaggio works.
The prospect of a hundred newly discovered works by any great artist of the past is little short of astonishing. The entire oeuvres of several of great figures – Vermeer and Giorgione for example – barely gets into double figures. When you think that 200 works is a pretty respectable total for the average, world-changing old master, then the prospect of an extra hundred constitutes a massive increase, that is likely to significantly alter our view of them.
The idea that there are suddenly 100 more Caravaggios in the world is frankly mind-blowing. Quite apart from his reputation as art’s ultimate wild man – probable bisexual, almost certain murderer who died on the run from the Papal authorities – Caravaggio is one of art’s few truly essential figures: the original dirty realist, who swept away decades of Mannerist frippery, introducing a stark new honesty and intensity.
That signature harsh chiaroscuro – the highlighting of dramatic detail against darkness: how could we have had Rembrandt, Velasquez and most of the significant artists of the following century without it? Caravaggio wasn’t the first artist to use prostitutes, street urchins and grimy-soled peasants as models, but he dragged them into the great stories of the Bible with unprecedented pathos and – all too frequently – violence.
Anyone who has entered the dimness of Rome’s church of San Luigi dei Francese, put a coin in the slot and seen Caravaggio’s paintings of the life of St Matthew suddenly illuminated will have had perhaps the ultimate Caravaggio experience: a plunging sensation in the stomach at their mixture of tenderness and brutality. The final image of martyrdom shows that the Don McCullins of this world have taught us nothing about the portrayal of cruelty.
However he managed it, alongside the carousing, brawling and mild psychopathy that is retailed in endless sensationalist books and TV programmes, Caravaggio was an extraordinarily diligent craftsman, an artist of superb balance and control. Perhaps these 100 new works – and it is difficult to judge from what we’ve seen so far – will help answer that question. The best we can hope for from them is that they will help rescue one of the truly great artists from his own monstrous legend.