Nobody disputes Caravaggio's immense achievement. Yet it's hard not to wonder what he might have accomplished if he had lived into old age say 45? As a young man he amassed a police record worthy of a rap star: arrests, citations, imprisonments, most of them connected to brawls and knife fights. In May 1606, when he was around 34, he killed a man with a sword, in a fight over a wager placed on a tennis match. Badly wounded, facing a murder charge and a sentence of death, he fled Rome, the scene of his early triumphs as a painter. After a four-year struggle to return, he died, possibly of typhus, on a Tuscan beach. Although the papal pardon he sought for years was finally granted, he did not live to learn the news.
All through that complicated exile, while circling among Naples, Malta and Sicily, Caravaggio managed to sustain and even deepen his intuitions about light, shadow and pictorial drama. The evidence is in every room of "Caravaggio: The Final Years," a show that runs at the National Gallery in London through May 22. Previously presented in Naples, the exhibit is small; it lacks a few of the most important late paintings. But the 15 it includes, all but one from his years on the run, are the work of a man whose "late phase" came at the height of his powers.
Caravaggio refused the idealizing principles of the Renaissance. He used ordinary people as his models and it shows: his come-hither boys dressed as pagan gods have dirty fingernails, his saints have calloused feet and sunburn. As his art evolved he learned to present them in starkly lit, deeply shadowed space that lent them majesty even as his grubby detailing kept them all too human. He invented tragic realism: his work was the great hinge upon which art turned, not just toward the Baroque, but toward us. The force and immediacy that make 17th century painters so moving the everyday people in Velázquez and Rembrandt; the strobe-lit dramas in Ribera and Georges de La Tour flow in part from ideas that Caravaggio placed before them. Only Poussin was untouched by him, which helps to explain why so much of Poussin is a classroom bore.
In the last years of his life, Caravaggio drew back from the most dramatic devices of his earlier, more theatrical work. As his personal crisis worsened in Malta in 1608 he was arrested again for another brawl and had to escape from prison his palette and his configurations of space became more subdued. His figures begin to flicker and dematerialize. Pagan motifs disappear; religious scenes multiply. Bloodshed and death turn up everywhere.
You can grasp his evolution in the distance that separates the 1601 version of The Supper at Emmaus, which belongs to the National Gallery, and a version completed five years later, soon after he fled Rome. Both focus on the moment of Christ's appearance before two astonished disciples on the day of his resurrection. The London Supper is a work of high theater, produced by a man in full use of the blazing devices at his command. The beardless, youthful-looking Jesus, dressed in red and white robes, thrusts his right hand forward in a gesture that seems to burst through into our own space. One of the apostles does the same as he spreads his arms out in astonishment, realizing that he sits with the risen Christ. At the edge of the table, a meticulously rendered basket of fruit teeters partway in air.
The later version of this same scene is more subdued. No 3-D effects, no catch-me-quick fruit basket. Christ's face is isolated against a dark background, as if to say that resurrection has not lifted the burden of his ministry. Bearded, older looking than in the London picture, he blesses the bread with a restrained hand. His blue-green garment is keyed to the picture's muted brown palette. This is what we mean by late Caravaggio, made under the shadow of his worsening predicaments.
Yet in Naples, he produced astonishing canvases like his Crucifixion of St. Andrew. The saint is shown at the moment of his miraculous death, when soldiers attempting to take him down from the cross alive (which would deny him the martyr's death he prayed for) were thwarted when God froze them in a blinding flash of light. Here Caravaggio's sharp illumination is not just a pictorial device; it's God's own light, thrown onto the scene. The mocking figure at lower right is the Roman proconsul who ordered the crucifixion, dressed in the armor of Caravaggio's day. At left is a peasant woman with a goiter who represents the faithful. Between them Caravaggio has left open a space for us to enter the picture and choose sides.
Naples was also where Caravaggio painted The Flagellation of Christ, part of his attempt to bring his innovations in line with the conventions of classical form. If he had lived longer, he might have produced the Baroque era's most powerful synthesis of realism, restless energy and Renaissance idealism. Or maybe not Caravaggio was never cut out to make peace with the past. His real instinct was forward, into pictures like David with the Head of Goliath, possibly one of his last. The victorious David, rumored to have been modeled after one of the artist's male lovers, holds the severed head of Goliath, a plain self-portrait of the artist. The painting is Caravaggio at the height of his lethal powers. Throughout his life he included his own likeness in his canvases. But in exile, as he meditated more forcefully on his fate, he appears more frequently than ever. In The Raising of Lazarus a powerful topic for an artist yearning for a papal pardon he's struck by the same shaft of light that picks out the dead man. In his somber Saint Francis in Meditation, he may even be the saint. If so, it would be a telling use of himself to give authenticity to the idea of the saint's self-examination.
But in none of his work did Caravaggio incorporate the idea of his own sufferings more fully than in the picture of David. Maybe Goliath has been converted here into a symbol of the artist's martyrdom. Or maybe this is the face of Caravaggio's subordination to a triumphant younger lover. Either way, can anybody refuse this man who tore himself to pieces?