The Baroque style of art, which essentially spans the entire 17th century, was vilified in the 19th century and forgotten in the 20th. But it seems that the 2000’s might see a revival of my favorite style of art, and it’s just about time. Art styles always go in and out of favor, but the Baroque has spent a lot of time in the dog house. It’s the red headed step-sister of the Renaissance, but I’m hoping it’s poised to have its cinderella moment.
The evidence I’d like to present is this most recent exhibition seasons, which saw not one but two major Baroque shows, Bodies and Shadows: Caravaggio and His Legacy at LACMA and Bernini: Sculpting in Clay at the Met. Caravaggio has lead the Baroque’s rehabilitation. He suffered the same fate as the period, but his image and popularity have been on the increase for about half a century now. Major scholarship led the way, and now Caravaggio is the subject of more study than Michelangelo. Caravaggio is now a major blockbuster artist, and his show at LACMA was wonderful. Caravaggio’s popularity suffered because there aren’t many examples of his art in the US, you have to travel to Rome to fall in love with him. His artwork suffers greatly in reproduction because of the dramatic contrast of light and dark in his work known as tenebrism. Reproductions are either too dark and hide the detail you can see in person, or lightened, but then lose the blackness for which he was known. At the show the several works of Caravaggio were eye opening, always more impressive than I think they might be based on images in books. I enjoyed the focus on the Caravaggisti, you can see how widely influential he was in his time.
The other Baroque show was of the bozetti (clay models) of Bernini. It was much different than I expected. It was one: huge and two: crowded. I thought it would be small, his art is notoriously hard to see outside of Europe, and really Rome. But the Met chose its subject well, and had a huge assortment of beautiful clay models, as impressive for their craftsmanship as the full-size objects are for their grandiousity (well maybe not quite). The lovely thing about these models is that they are practically all from the artist’s hand. Bernini was at the head of a huge studio that built giant installations, works of art many stories tall. Much of the final carving was done by his assistants and loses that bravura workmanship.
Bernini is trailing Caravaggio in present day fame, ironic because Bernini in his time was the most powerful, famous, and sought after artist in the world. In my opinion he is best sculptor to have ever lived, a true genius with marble, he surpassed even Michelangelo. The trio of the Rape of Persephone, Apollo and Daphne, and David completed near the inception of his career are mind-blowingly awesome. A sculptor who had made just one of these three and done nothing else for their entire lives would still be counted among the great artists of all time.
The show at the Met was filled in my totally unscientific estimation (corroborated by my companions) with art history types. This actually gives me hope, as scholarship often leads popular opinon, more books and more exhibitions eventually translate to more appreciation. Art Historians really do have a key role to play to introducing the public to new artists and periods, and pointing out what to appreciate about them, what makes the artists of the Baroque great. One more reason that art scholarship should be published open access. People love to learn about art, but they often only get to the information that comes out in scholarly articles (locked behind paywalls) after it has trickled down, made its way into wall plaques and popular non-fiction.
All in all these two artists’ rising popularity will hopefully bring a whole period back into the spotlight. These shows are just the beginning. The Caravaggio show is the case in point, using Caravaggio to bring in the crowds, the show is actually full of other Baroque artists, his Italian collegues: Orazio Gentilleschi (unfortunately no Artemsia), Giovanni Baglione; his spanish adherents: Ribera and Zurbaran; his French fans: Simon Vouet, Georges de la Tour (an artist I think has the potential to go big next); his Netherlandish admirers Ter Brugghen and Honthorst. Caravaggio is the Baroque gateway drug.