This Weekend at LACMA: Caravaggio Opens, Kubrick Film Series, Eight More Exhibitions on View

November 10, 2012

The veritable feast of fall exhibitions at LACMA culminates on this three-day weekend in what some might consider the main course: Bodies and Shadows: Caravaggio and His Legacy (it is open to members right now, and opens to the public on Sunday). The exhibition fills the western side of the Resnick Pavilion with fifty-six magnificent paintings of the seventeenth century, made by Caravaggio and the many painters who were influenced by his masterful use of light, shadow, and visceral emotion. Along with masters in their own right like George de la Tour, Diego Velázquez, and Simon Vouet, the exhibition features eight paintings by Caravaggio himself—none of which have ever been on display in California before. Gain added insight to the exhibition by attending a free lecture Sunday afternoon by Andrew Graham-Dixon, author of Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Ecce Homo, 1605, Musei de Strada Nuova, Palazzo Bianco, Genoa, Italy, photo © Musei di Strada Nuova

Bodies and Shadows, like the Stanley Kubrick exhibition that opened just last week, is a specially ticketed exhibition (we recommend you reserve your viewing time before you arrive). Before you buy your tickets to either, consider becoming a member first. Not only will you receive two free tickets to each exhibition ($80 value right there—practically the full cost of an Active membership), you’ll also get twelve months of free admission to the rest of the museum, discounts in the stores and on events, and more. If you’re going to come to LACMA even just one more time in the next twelve months, save money—and support the museum!—by becoming a member.

Speaking of Stanley Kubrick, that exhibition has been getting rave reviews and tons of positive comments from visitors on Facebook and Twitter. Give yourself some extra time to become engrossed in the film-by-film presentation in the galleries, which include costumes, annotated notes from Kubrick, photographs, and related artworks. This weekend also sees the start of our Kubrick film series in the Bing Theater, where we will be screening all of his films throughout November and December. Tonight, two of his earliest classics: the grossly underrated The Killing (Tarantino fans: take note if you haven’t seen this clear influence on Reservoir Dogs), and the powerful Paths of Glory, starring Kirk Douglas in one his best performances.

In addition to these two most recent exhibitions, there is plenty else to do and see at LACMA this weekend. Families can enjoy our free Andell Family Sunday activities, while the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra will perform Igor Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale) at our free Sundays Live concert.

We also have seven more major exhibitions on view right now, plus numerous smaller rotations from all areas of our collection. Don’t sleep on the excellent Drawing Surrealism exhibition on view in BCAM right now, which features surrealist icons like Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, André Breton, Matta, and many others. Other exhibitions include solo shows by Robert Mapplethorpe, Ken Price, Ed Ruscha, and Walter De Maria.

Matta [Roberto-Sebastián Antonio Matta Echaurren], Original art for “Maldoror,” c. 1938, private collection, © 2012 Roberto-Sebastián Matta Echaurren Estate/ARS/ADAGP, Paris

Scott Tennent

Caravaggio in Our Time

November 8, 2012

Opening Sunday (member previews start today), Bodies and Shadows: Caravaggio and His Legacy is a major exploration of the “Caravaggisti”—a generation of diverse painters throughout Europe in the seventeenth century that was influenced by Caravaggio’s style. The exhibition brings together more than fifty works, including an unprecedented number of paintings by Caravaggio himself, which have never before been shown in California.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy, c. 1595, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut, The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund, photo © 2012 Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

The fame of Caravaggio (1571–1610) is a relatively recent one. One hundred years ago, a list of the greatest painters of the Italian school would not have included his name. Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo, or Titian were considered then to be the pillars of Italian painting. Yet today Caravaggio has become an artist whose works appeal to a large public. In Rome, where many of his greatest paintings are kept in churches, tourists line up to admire them, as they do the Sistine Chapel or the great Baroque sculptures of Bernini. His paintings captivate and engage us in a way few others from that period do. Suddenly, a painter of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries seems to speak our language, share our passions. Even if the subjects he represents do not stray from the classical canon of religious iconography, his models are clearly made of our flesh and of our blood. He is, in other words, a painter of our time.

This is also how his contemporaries reacted to his works and this is also why, no matter how successful and influential he was, his paintings ultimately went out of style and were to a large extent forgotten: other modes of representation came into favor and eclipsed what we recognize now as a true revolution in Western painting. Offsetting the neglect of centuries, no other seventeenth-century artist has triggered more publications in recent years than Caravaggio, ranging from scientific books and articles to detailed biographies. Furthermore, Caravaggio’s recent fame was enhanced by the creation of an almost mythical hero, the subject of novels and films, whose life became in the popular imagination the code that was essential to decrypt the novelty and complexity of his images. Sex, violence, murder, a life on the run—which, it should be noted, were elements Caravaggio shared with quite a few other artists of his time—obliterated the more sobering image of an incredibly ambitious artist, arriving young in Rome and working his way through the competitive world of patronage, obtaining commissions from powerful prelates and dedicated collectors. It is well known that those who owned his paintings prized them more than others in their collections: often copied, they were rarely traded, or if so, at consequent prices. Much has been speculated about the taste of these collectors and their reasons for favoring Caravaggio. One thing is certain: the beauty of his compositions struck his contemporaries as it still strikes us today.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness, 1604–1605, The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, William Rockhill Nelson Trust, photo courtesy of The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, by Jamison Miller

That beauty is owed essentially to the surprising ability of his paintings to create within the spectator a sense of expectation. Whether looking at a Caravaggio portrait or religious composition, the viewer is made aware of an immediacy seldom experienced until then in painting. A prelate, sitting on a chair, is not just shown as an image of power but rather caught in a moment as he just closed a book to reflect perhaps on the significance of a sentence, or just because an outsider called. Open mouths, a twist of the body, disquieting gazes all indicate an action suspended in time as if something had just happened or is about to happen. The naturalism of his compositions, then as now, seemed to bridge a gap between art and life, to use Robert Rauschenberg’s expression, and their novelty was quickly adopted first by a host of artists active in Rome and later by artists in other parts of Italy and Europe. The Caravaggesque revolution and the variety of responses it brought on the part of individual and original artists is the story told in Bodies and Shadows: Caravaggio and His Legacy.

As shown in Bodies and Shadows, which brings eight works by Caravaggio to Los Angeles for the first time, the artist’s career, in spite of taking place over a span of just more than fifteen years, is far from being uniform. His Portrait of Maffeo Barberini is a work recently recognized as autograph (and previously exhibited only twice, in 1861 and 2011) and displays some characteristics of Caravaggio’s early work, such as the delicate still life in the foreground, a decorative element that Caravaggio used on several occasions but that disappeared from later, more mature works. In Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy and in Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness, a strong and focused lighting gives the figures a physicality that had not been experienced until then. After 1606, when Caravaggio, accused of murder, fled Rome and escaped to Naples and Malta, he continued nonetheless to paint, but the mood of his paintings changed once again. Salome Receiving the Head of Saint John the Baptist, The Denial of Saint Peter, and the extraordinary Toothpuller illustrate a more somber mode with enhanced chiaroscuro effects and, in the latter painting, a surprising and new approach to genre painting.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Salome Receives the Head of St. John the Baptist, c. 1609–1610, National Gallery, London, England, photo © 2012 The National Gallery, London

Caravaggio did not run a studio, as many artists of his time did. His unorthodox approach to painting (without the help of drawings), not to mention the artist’s notorious eccentricity and irascible character, was not conducive to training young students. Those who came too close to him, such as Giovanni Baglione (c. 1563–1643), got notoriously burned like a moth too close to a flame. Other artists, part of a restricted group close to Caravaggio in Rome, were more successful, entertaining a respectful distance, both physical and aesthetic, from the master. Among those, Orazio Gentileschi (1565–1639) and Carlo Saraceni (c. 1579–1620) are the most salient figures. Both artists used themes familiar to Caravaggio and borrowed from him a sense of drama as well as effective contrasting effects of light, notable examples being Gentileschi’s Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes and Saraceni’s The Martyrdom of St. Cecilia.

Carlo Saraceni, The Martyrdom of St. Cecilia, c. 1610, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of The Ahmanson Foundation, photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

Caravaggio died of malignant fever in Porto Ercole in 1610, as he was trying to return to Rome. His death, rather than bringing an end to his fame, marked a surprising development of his style, or aspects of it, in the hands of a variety of artists of different origins and styles; what they have in common is a repertoire of images, a similar vocabulary of gestures, and a taste for dramatic effects.

To a certain extent, the style was codified by the prolific Bartolomeo Manfredi (1582–1622), who diffused with great sensibility the manner of Caravaggio, developing it in new directions and creating a repertoire of subjects that borrowed from Caravaggio a predilection for cropped compositions.

The genre appealed to and was in turn influential on artists, many of whom were French, including Valentin de Boulogne (1591–1632), Nicolas Tournier (1590–1639), Nicolas Régnier (1591–1667), who made a specialty of such representations. Besides Manfredi, other models were available to the young  artists who gravitated toward the Caravaggesque milieu. First and foremost the works of Caravaggio himself, many of which were visible in Roman churches and widely accessible collections, provided an example for ambitious artists to adopt a grand style, the most eloquent of whom being the French painter Simon Vouet (1590–1649). José de Ribera (1591–1652), Spanish by birth but active in Rome and Naples, also played a considerable role in disseminating Caravaggio’s lessons.

Jusepe de Ribera, The Sense of Taste, c. 1614–1616, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut, The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund, photo © 2012 Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

The Dutch, even more than the Flemish, embraced Caravaggism. This may not be as surprising as it seems: the art of Caravaggio itself had been nurtured by northern sources. The engravings of Lucas van Leyden and the still lifes of Breughel that were available in Milan during Caravaggio’s formative years had an influence on the artist, which may have been recognized by some of Caravaggio’s Dutch followers. Furthermore a long-established tradition made northern artists travel to Rome where their community was well established.

Gerrit van Honthorst (1592–1656) acquired an Italian nickname, “Gherardo delle Notti,” in recognition of his ability to depict darkness and night, brilliantly executed in The Mocking of Christ, and Matthias Stom (c. 1600–after 1652) remained in Italy his entire life, eventually settling in Sicily. Many of these artists were originally from Utrecht (and many returned there), a city with a strong Catholic minority that enjoyed a privileged relationship with the Papacy.

Gerrit van Honthorst, The Mocking of Christ, c. 1617–1620, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of The Ahmanson Foundation, photo © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

If Caravaggio is a rediscovery of recent art history, so is Georges de La Tour (1593–1652), a mysterious painter from the Lorraine whose relationship with Caravaggism is visually evident but cannot be explained entirely. It is not known whether he went to Rome or saw works by Caravaggio himself, but it is probably unlikely. As Caravaggio often translated into his powerful religious images the new kind of devotion prescribed by the Church after the Council of Trent, so did Georges de La Tour express in his own paintings, such as The Magdalen with the Smoking Flame, a private and complex spirituality that defines religiosity in seventeenth-century France. Both artists use realistic images and models, thus making the divine part of our daily life. Both artists delve into the narrow space between reality and representation, which, significantly, is the domain of the stage. Indeed, theatrical gestures, costumes, and situations that were always present in Caravaggesque compositions became particularly prevalent. Painting later in the seventeenth century—and often geographically remote from Rome—accentuates this original aspect of Caravaggio’s work and continues his legacy.

 J. Patrice Marandel, Robert Ahmanson Chief Curator, European Art

Film Retrospective: A Kubrick Odyssey

November 7, 2012

The first of LACMA’s various film series presented in conjunction with Stanley Kubrick, 2012: A Kubrick Retrospective is a complete survey of the director’s oeuvre. Screening in chronological order, this retrospective allows viewers the opportunity to consider how Kubrick’s style progressed over forty-five years of filmmaking. Perhaps no other American director since Orson Welles realized a body of work so uncompromising in its artistic ambitions yet so grand in scale within the studio system. Kubrick not only pushed cinematic technologies and conventions into uncharted territories but he also changed the public perspective of the Hollywood auteur.

Born in 1928 to a secular Jewish family in the Bronx, Kubrick was a chess prodigy, avid reader, poor student, ardent cinephile, and, at seventeen, a published photographer. He never completed college. His early short documentaries developed as an outgrowth of his work for Look, the magazine that first published his images when he was still a teenager and went on to assign him shoots all over the U.S., leading to some nine-hundred images being printed within their pages in just a few years. These three shorts offer carefully observed, photo-realist portraits of people performing dangerous occupations—a boxer, a priest who administers his rural parish by plane, and unionized mariners—and the somewhat surreal worlds they inhabit.

Stanley Kubrick on the set of “Paths of Glory,” directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1957, © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc.

Kubrick largely disowned his first-feature, the independent film Fear and Desire which he shot in the San Gabriel mountains, about soldiers trapped behind enemy lines, though many of its themes and tropes would recur in future Kubrick films, such as the use of voice-over, the encroachment of madness, the outbreak of senseless violence, the limits of indentured servitude, natural light cinematography and the tension of entrapment within a forbidding landscape. But perhaps most prescient is Kubrick’s dominance of key aspects of the film’s production: he directed, shot and edited Fear and Desire. Though he wouldn’t receive such credits in subsequent motion pictures, Kubrick would continue to command every facet of his major films.

Kubrick subsequently directed a pair of artful film noirs—one shot in New York, the other in Los Angeles—and an equally minimalist and piercing war film—Paths of Glory—before turning his formidable skills to filmmaking with bigger budgets—the epic period picture Spartacus, shot in Super Technirama 70 and color.

The two black comedies that cemented his rank atop the new generation of major motion picture directors—Lolita and Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Stop Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb—set into motion a career like few others in film history. Though he only completed six features in the ensuing three decades, each of them can easily stand on its own as exemplifying Kubrick’s singular modernist vision, which blends individualism and terror, grand production value and abstract concepts, photorealism and the grotesque, technology and the irrational, fastidious craftsmanship and psychological trauma, and lust and conscription. Each film has been studied, admired, reviled, and copied in equal measure.

A cerebral filmmaker who researched meticulously for his major works, Kubrick maintained control of every detail from preproduction through a film’s release. And whether setting his films in the trenches of the Vietnam War, the hinterlands of the American Southwest, or the furthest reaches of space, Kubrick would work from the 1960s onward in England. Not quite an exile but rather an expatriate, he made major studio pictures while never venturing more than a few hours’ drive from his home. Though many of his works were met with some confusion or even outright hostility during their initial releases, they have become touchstones for film goers, filmmakers, academics, artists, musicians, writers, and mass culture alike. To many, they define the essence of modern cinema.

Bernardo Rondeau, Assistant Curator, Film

Presented with the generous support of Warner Bros. Special support provided by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Thoughts on Caravaggio and His Legacy

November 6, 2012

This Sunday, we open Bodies and Shadow: Caravaggio and His Legacy. Members see it first, with exclusive preview days this Thursday through Saturday.

The multimedia tour of the exhibition includes an interview with Keith Christiansen, Chairman of European Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Keith tells an extraordinary story, about being invited to view a rarely-seen painting with an uncertain attribution in Florence. The portrait features Maffeo Barberini, one of Caravaggio’s patrons after he moved to Rome in 1592.

Caravaggio, Portrait of Maffeo Barberini, c. 1598, oil on canvas, private collection.

CHRISTIANSEN: About three years ago, a friend of mine in Florence said, “Keith, would you like to see this picture? Because I think you really ought to.” I said, “Oh, absolutely. I’ve never seen it.” So, it was arranged for me to make a visit to the Corsini Palace.

I took one look at it, my mouth dropped and I said, “This is by Caravaggio. There’s absolutely no question of this whatever in my mind.”

In particular, look at this marvelous hand that’s on the chair. This is really an absolute signature of Caravaggio. The way the light plays across the fingers, touching the various fingers and defining the placement of the fingers in space.

Have a close look at the eyes, which are simply beyond belief. They’ve watered up. He’s captured the light playing on the water in the eyes, and the marvelous delineation of the eyelids and of the lower eyelashes.

If you are painting from the model, you have to have some way of making an initial notation on the canvas of the pose of the figure. Caravaggio did this with a very quick brush drawing, just little notations, and this very quick brush stroke is like his handwriting. To me, it’s like looking at a letter from somebody.

The person I was with said, “How are you so sure?” I said, “First of all, it’s just plain the sheer quality of the picture. But take a look at that shoulder. Handwriting. It’s absolutely him.”

Keith also had some thoughts to share about the artist’s legendary temperament, and how his notorious personality misleads us in understanding Caravaggio’s intentions as an artist.

CHRISTIANSEN: I was looking at an interview with Alfred Hitchcock the other week. The interviewer said, “All of your pictures are about violence and crimes and fear. How does this relate to your character?” He said, “Well, actually it doesn’t. What an artist does is very unrelated to his character. What interests me is the way in which people respond to the events that I portray.”

“Bingo!” I thought. That’s Caravaggio! What he’s interested in is not transferring his life into his pictures, but of his pictures engaging people. He wanted them to attack us in the guts. He wanted to really get us. These pictures are testaments to his understanding of the way viewers respond to works of art. It changes the game in painting. It’s no longer about people’s ideas of “What is a great work of art? What is beauty about?” It’s about getting under your skin, and pulling you into a picture in a new way.

Bodies and Shadows: Caravaggio and His Legacy opens to the public on November 11th.

Amy Heibel

This Weekend at LACMA: Stanley Kubrick is Open, Good Food Conference, Ken Price Family Activities, and More

November 2, 2012

If you’ve been reading Unframed or following LACMA on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter, then you’ve been hearing a lot about Stanley Kubrick. As of yesterday the massive exhibition of the filmmaker’s body of work is now open to the public. The show includes annotated scripts, stills, promotional materials, costumes, set materials, and much more from all of Kubrick’s films—realized and unrealized. It is a feast for Kubrick fans or anyone interested in getting into the mind of a creative genius. This is a specially ticketed exhibition, so we recommend you reserve your times and tickets in advance. Don’t forget: members see this exhibition for free, and they also get free tickets and exclusive member previews of Bodies and Shadows: Caravaggio and His Legacy—also a specially ticketed show—opening next weekend. If you want to see these exhibitions, it makes sense to become a member!

Lolita, directed by Stanley Kubrick (1960–62; GB/United States). Stanley Kubrick and Sue Lyon on the set of Lolita, © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., photo: Joe Pearce

Kubrick isn’t the only director on hand at LACMA: tonight Paul Thomas Anderson will be in the Bing Theater for a conversation with Elvis Mitchell. The pair will discuss Anderson’s entire body of work, from Hard Eight up to There Will Be Blood and The Master. The evening will include screenings of two films that influenced Anderson: John Huston’s San Pietro and Let There Be Light. This event is sold out but there will be a standby line forming at 6:30pm.

On Saturday we are pleased to host the Los Angeles Good Food Festival and Conference. There will be panel discussions in the Bing Theater all day, featuring farmers, restaurateurs, food activists, and more, as well as tours of LACMA’s collections. Check out the detailed slate of panels and more info on the tours. For related Good Food events around L.A., check the Good Food website.

For November our free Andell Family Sundays will use Ken Price Sculpture: A Retrospective as its inspiration. Check out Price’s colorful forms with your family and then make your own sculptures together.

Ken Price, G.L. Green, 1964, Betty Lee and Aaron Stern Collection, © Ken Price, photo © Fredrik Nilsen

In addition to Price and Kubrick there is much, much more to see, including Drawing Surrealism, Robert Mapplethorpe: XYZ, Ed Ruscha: Standard, and Daily Pleasures: French Ceramics from the MaryLou Boone Collection. Check the full list of exhibitions on view.

Daily Pleasures: French Ceramics from the MaryLou Boone Collection, installation view, © 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA

One more note: as with every weekend we begin and end with free concerts. Tonight Jazz at LACMA enters its final month of performances for the 2012 season with the RAW Sugar Jazz Quintet. On Sunday, wind down your weekend with a free performance from flutist Susan Greenberg, cellist David Garrett, and pianist Junko Ueno Garrett at our free Sundays Live chamber music series.

Scott Tennent


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