Lessons in art history for the uninterested. How do you make the old relevant to today and why does it matter?
In my personal battles of wanting but often struggling to engage with history, I have come to the understanding that for the past to be preserved and remembered it has to constantly be reaffirming its relevance or connection to the present. In this post I will be exploring this thought whilst touching upon two recent experiences from Rome to Watchet, Somerset that look at the art of the 17th Century Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio whose work is combined with new technologies and ideas in an attempt to illuminate his art for new audiences...
In ‘The Caravaggio Experience’ the viewer is immersed into a floor-to-ceiling projection across a number of sizeable rooms at the Palazzo delleEsposizioni, Rome. Across several separate animations (each portraying a particular theme or technique) Caravaggio’s paintings are presented anew. It aims to draw attention to his work in contemporary way and explores how he created the drama in his paintings to how he created his compositions. It also looks at how he depicted light through using extreme contrast between dark and light, a technique known as chiaroscuro, but also as a metaphor for the moral ambiguities of darkness for ‘wrong-doings’ and light for enlightenment and ‘goodness’.
Appropriate therefore that light should be the means from which Caravaggio’s work here is presented, not the illusion of light on canvas but the light itself becoming the medium in which the work is manifest. This in mind, the resulting affect does become more ‘Experience’ rather than mere projection, the 48 minute work is even accompanied by its own composed music by Stefano Saletti and scent courtesy of Officina Profumo – Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella (yet surprisingly, or thankfully none of which can be bought in the gift shop). Knowing it’s heavily tourist-based market the whole thing unashamedly wades further into gimmicky waters, but does so very endearingly and quite imaginatively too, as the animations become their own moving artworks in their own right. One piece animating how Caravaggio constructed his compositions creates drawings on the gallery walls and another leaves you in darkness with glimpses and traces of figures and light within the work. Having seen a few actual Caravaggio’s on canvas, this show is by no means a substitute for seeing the real thing (the projection is good but paint is inherently better) but offers something new, part tribute, part transcription that cleverly compliments and taps into audiences’ familiarity of the emotive qualities in film, cinema and music to appeal to all our senses not just our eyes. The music score is wonderful and begs the question of whether why all art should be viewed in silence and how music may improve, distract or ruin an artwork; an interesting thought.
‘The Caravaggio Experience’ is subject to its criticisms for being novel, gimmicky, commodified or dumbing-down, (it is somewhat unfortunately named to sound like an American theme-park ride) but for its faults bravely offers forward the idea that reverence doesn’t have to come from seeing these paintings in a religious context or even a museum one but begins with an enthusiasm for looking albeit from a projection, phone screen or book; and if that can ignite a sense of curiosity and interest in its audiences to go experience the real art work(s) or see more art generally then it can only be a good thing. I’m of the opinion that the art world should be conscious not to dumb-down to appeal to wider audiences but does need to try new ways of presenting the idea that with ‘the greater the challenge in reading art’ comes ‘greater reward’ to encourage new and returning audiences to experience art.
Elsewhere in a shipping container in sunny Watchet (better known as Contains Art)...visitors can experience another example of how ideas and techniques in Caravaggio’s paintings have been interpreted into new contemporary paintings and drawings. In 2012 James Marsden began making work depicting people using their mobile phones, locked into the world within their mobiles each individual oblivious to the presence of the others around them. This loss of direct human to human interaction being replaced with mobile technologies has generated increasing debate amongst writers, theorists and psychologists as to whether technology has brought us closer together or further apart. Marsden’s work gives visual form to this debate, the figures in his portraits hold aloft their phones with fixed, often neutral expressions so it is hard to tell exactly what they are thinking or doing; devoid of interaction with anything else beyond the screen. It is a truth of our times with the long-term effects of these new human to phone relationships yet to be determined. Is the loss of social interaction any different to how people felt when the book was first invented?
|James Marsden 'Detachment' Oil on Canvas. 240 x 200cm.|
This outward looking and self-scrutiny echoes trends elsewhere which call us to be less dependent on our phones and more 'mindful'. It is apt therefore that to counterbalance the high-technology observed in his work that it should be told through the medium of oil paint and even more ancient, silver point. Thus the human element so devoid in the people on their phones is present in the artist’s hand, of timely, painstakingly and intently capturing their portraits in oil paint. Stylistically influenced by Caravaggio and old master’s painting techniques, these paintings are intentionally built up in a similar process of layers, glazes and colour palette so that they have a sense of richness and glow to their surfaces [The history of human imagery almost being an evolution of surfaces themselves, from pigment to pixel].
|James Marsden 'The Fall' Oil on Canvas, 120 x 180cm|
The most significant likeness to Caravaggio in Marsden’s paintings for me, is the direction of light and tonal contrast. In Caravaggio’s paintings the light is candlelit or celestial, otherworldly light and in Marsden’s it is coming from the artificial glow of the phone screen that both illuminates and casts shadow on the users facial features. Interestingly however, this light is still otherworldly just in a man-made rather than in religious sense and, for me at least, alludes to a metaphorical sense of enlightenment that is generated from our relationship with technology as a tool for discovery and learning. It is the counterbalance to the argument that our relationship with technology is an unhealthy one. In another series of paintings the composition from Caravaggio’s ‘The Entombment of Christ’ [left] is directly transcribed, its figures replaced with modern-clothed people (modelled by friends and family) used to recreate the scene of Chirst’s body being lifted by mourners. In Marsden’s version the hands which once pointed upwards to heaven are now holding phones marking the shift in what our current society values as 'sacred' and how our notions of mortality has changed from the idea of spiritual and everlasting afterlife to the '15 minutes of fame' and selfie generation. They’re a bit too close in reference to Caravaggio for my liking, the painting and colour-palette is richer but compostionally I prefer taking the subtlety of taking ideas from Caravaggio in the earlier paintings or making new works which explore the violence, passion or drama of Caravaggio and reinterpreting those themes into modern day ‘phone-rage or passion’ based situations.
|James Marsden. Silverpoint.|
In his newest work, Marsden uses the ancient technique of silverpoint pioneered by masters such as Da Vinci and Raphael in a series of ‘people on their mobile phones’ drawings depicted onto specially prepared surfaces on wooden tablets in the size and dimensions of an ipad. It is a clever play on the evolution of the ‘tablet’ from being an object to write or draw on, to its modern-day equivalent which does everything. Whereas the paintings sit more awkwardly between not being a highly polished Caravaggio and a loser modern interpretation the silverpoint images here are much more suited to being inbetween high realism and loosely drawn. They bring a more human element to the scenes they depict, the time and patience taken to create each one an important contrast to the immediacy of the ‘selfie’ or ipad photo. Most importantly however, these works will last hundreds of years after their ipad predecessors are long obsolete and this is the most rewarding message in Marsden’s work; not the critique or judgement whether technology is good or bad for us, but that good art will always have permanence and a preservation to ways of seeing/experiencing the world that has already proven historically to in many cases outlive and be held with more reverence than that of technology as Caravaggio and many other artists, musicians and writers have shown though the immortality of their works. Through both of these exhibitions, it is how we utilise both that will prove the longevity of both.
"The sacredness of both life and art does not have to mean something cosmic and otherworldly-it emerges quite naturally when we cultivate compassionate responsive modes of relating to the world and each other." -Suzi Gablik
‘The Caravaggio Experience’ at Palazzo Esposizioni, Rome is on until July 3rd: http://english.palazzoesposizioni.it/categorie/exhibition-caravaggio-experience
‘James Marsden: Thousand Year Series’ at Contains Art, Watchet until June 26th: http://www.containsart.co.uk/