The understated lighting and relatively dark walls of the first room set the moody and uneasy tone of the exhibition. Some reviewers have suggested the layout and dimness is soothing, but I disagree, and in any case, the paintings are anything but. His autobiography is well known; quick tempered, prone to brawling, murky associations, murderous in his cups and yet revolutionary in his experimental use of light and painting directly from life. This duality is immediately apparent in the themes of the first few paintings; duplicity, ambiguity, tension, seeming innocents being fleeced, the subjects are perhaps distasteful. However some of the portrait eye lines, cropping, angles offer a destabilising view of the world which is entirely modern, whilst incorporating some of the early modern symbolism. Although the wine and fruit that Caravaggio paints suggests exactly that, wine and fruit, not a symbol of classical bacchanalia, or anything religious.
Religion is introduced in the second room, and again there is no need for any specialist knowledge of obscure symbolism or looking for hidden meanings. The dark, human side of religion has bubbled up to the surface like an ugly anger. Where early modern paintings previously have suggested a repressed guilt or anxiety, it has finally burst out uncontrollably on to the canvas. The Taking of Christ (c1602) is dripping with dark emotion; ferocity, treachery, betrayal, aggression, and deep sorrow. The drama unfolds around the picture, and you can almost imagine it as a scene from a film. And yet these images are not remote and cinematographic, they invade our space with daggers aimed at us, and they blur the boundaries of their - and our - space. Indeed, given the artist appears in this painting as a lantern bearer, it suggests that we are complicit revealing Christ to the soldiers.
Waldemar Januszczak suggested that prior to his appearance, altar pieces, private devotional images and other religious commissions were other worldly, events which happened 'in the clouds'. He brought religion back to earth; saints with dirty feet, apostles in contemporary bars, sulky and brooding youths. They were normal flawed people that you could walk past on the street right now. They did not have the unearthly glow, or the delicate saintliness of previous imaginings. Whether the church was waiting for a Caravaggio, or Caravaggio would have succeeded regardless is a moot point, but his new realistic way of seeing the world coincided with a seismic change in the Catholic church. It's artistic reaction to the Protestant reformation was to create simple, direct, and emotionally appealing images. You needed no education to understand the stories which Caravaggio effortlessly retold, merely faith. The standout emotional piece is by a little known artist Lo Spadarino. ‘Christ's wounds’ naturalistic intensity is heartbreaking.
However there is a problem. Simple, direct and emotionally appealing is extremely easy to request, and yet difficult to carry off as easily as he did. As this exhibition confirms, there was a dearth of artists who could produce art under these new church constraints. This is partly why so many artists of this period are unknown and even when they were working with non-sacred topics, they still struggled to capture the essence of what made Caravaggio so great. As a result, with a few exceptions, his six paintings overshadow everything else in the exhibition. Not only are there some truly terrible paintings on display, but there are also some incongruous inclusions.
Strangely the best and worst are in the same room. Terrible sleeping and grinning cupids sit opposite the wonderfully angry 'Susanna and the Elders' by Artemisia Gentileschi. Whether this a deliberate piece of curating to highlight the master versus jobbing artist, or simply careless placing, it heightens the dramatic tension introduced so effectively in the first room. It makes you very uncomfortable. The tiny reproductions of the cupids that 'inspired' these cutesy travesties just make me groan to see the stunning originals, Amor Victorious (1602) and Sleeping Cupid (1608).
One of the other reasons that many of these artists are unknown is because this caravaggesque style fell out of fashion and they wound up in smaller UK collections which have not have the same levels of exposure. From Hertfordshire to Perth, Stamford to Birmingham, clearly there have been many fruitful discussions. I wonder what else might emerge from these talks in future exhibitions? The quality of what is being shown is variable, and some which are stunning are perhaps not suited to the theme of the show. Orazio Gentileschi's 'Rest on the flight into Egypt' is peacefully and enigmatically introspective, totally at odds with the dark mood, but I'm glad it's being seen outside Birmingham. The tension is partly released with the stillness of the sleeping Joseph, and the light of the feeding Christ.
At least the picture fitted in with the religious images around it. In room 5 which looked at Caravaggio's influence in Naples, there was a scene of gaming which was more suited to the earlier rooms. Amongst the contemplative Riberas, with his skill in depicting light on flesh, it was incongruous. Torture, martyrdom, flaying, these graphic pictures allowed these artists to explore the darkest crevices of the human psyche. Painting from life - or death by hanging in this case - introduces a new dimension of dark caravaggesque horror. As you entered into the next to last room, screams of saints turned into the sounds of small intimate musical gatherings taking place in dark corners.
The final large room brought together one final collection of oddities. The picture that I couldn't leave was Honthorst's 'Christ before the high priest' (c1617) which is vast in its golden warmth and subtlety. The story is conveyed with such humanity and simplicity that the only thing it has in common with Caravaggio is the unusual lighting effects. And some in this room are just horrible, for example Dirck van Baburen 'Wine Flask' (1620). Ultimately they shouldn't have put anything in with Caravaggio's John the Baptist which is breathtakingly erotic.
The National Gallery concludes that Caravaggio was important because of his use of live models and dramatic light effects but his greatest legacy was how good he was at story telling. This is why many of the paintings are pale imitations, he told familiar stories in new ways, took risks and blurred lines between sacred and profane. Some of the poor examples of his followers we see here show how unique he was. This is partly why I think this caravaggesque style fell out of favour and indeed, I can't help thinking that it was due to the weakness of his followers that it took 300 years for his reputation to be restored. The gallery also says he is unforgettable because of his imagery, inventiveness and astonishing modernity. Sadly I wonder if the images of erotica, brutality and inhumanity that we see in the media is what makes him seem so modern. The violent heart of his art is shocking in its intensity, and perhaps reminds us of our own capacity for violence.