Caravaggio Is My Homeboy
Saints and sinners inspire the imagination, especially when they are vividly brought to life by such painters as Caravaggio and Rembrandt and the modern filmmakers and photographers they have influenced. Whether rendered in a painting or captured through a lens, the worlds these artists create with carefully juxtaposed light and shadow can reveal truths, drama and no end of beauty.
Today we treasure iconic photos of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on V-E Day and clips of Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon. Four centuries ago, when even the illiterate were well versed in scripture, Europeans could derive a similar thrill from paintings of biblical scenes. Caravaggio and Rembrandt were especially adept at delivering the goods, using light and realism to theatrical effect. Rembrandt’s Blinding of Samson, in which a Roman legionnaire mercilessly gouges out the strongman’s eye, is almost as gory as the first 20 minutes of the World War II film Saving Private Ryan, so vivid that even a modern viewer’s first instinct is to turn away. Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes presents a melodramatic view of a flinching Judith as she draws a sword across her victim’s throat and the blood seems to spurt off the canvas. That image of the beautiful Hebrew widow taking revenge on her enemy probably gave the faithful a great sense of satisfaction—not unlike the pleasure of moviegoers today when they see Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’s heroine, Lisbeth, go to work on her tormentor with a tattoo gun.
Caravaggio’s use of tenebrism—the dramatic contrast of light and shadow—influenced painters throughout 17th-century Europe, but no artist after Caravaggio mastered the technique as effectively as Rembrandt. He was four years old when Caravaggio died, and he likely never set eyes on one of the Italian’s canvases. Even so, light for Rembrandt, as for Caravaggio, was both bold and mysterious. In Rembrandt’s Night Watch, a stream of light leads the eye to the three central characters, and in his Return of the Prodigal Son, light brings into sharp focus the clean-shorn son tenderly welcomed home into the arms of his father. In Bathsheba at Her Bath, light seems to emanate from the naked, erotically charged subject, suggesting her contemplation of the letter she holds, which summons her to King David’s bed. Light and shadow interact today in work by a contemporary master of tenebrism, the popular photographer Annie Leibovitz. In her nude portrait of Lance Armstrong astride a bike (1999), light plays off the cyclist’s muscular torso and thighs against a dark background, showing the sports hero (before his fall from grace) to be as powerful and determined as the biblical Bathsheba is enigmatic.
By the time of Caravaggio’s death in 1610, most likely at the hands of vengeful rivals, he had racked up debts, a couple of jail terms, an exile, a murder rap and a reputation for gambling, licentiousness, rowdiness and drunkenness. It is not surprising that this bad boy of baroque art, who spent much of his life on the dark side, employed the technique of tenebrism, the use of extreme contrasts of light and shadow for dramatic effect. He put tenebrism to especially intense use in religious paintings. In The Death of the Virgin, completed for the church of Santa Maria della Scala in Rome just before Caravaggio fled the city for Naples, he obscures Mary Magdalene and the apostles in shadow and highlights the Virgin’s corpse, with its swelling torso, stiff ankles, limp hands and lolling head. Earthbound as Mary is (and the model was allegedly a prostitute), the light illuminating her from above implies God’s presence. However, that notion was lost on church officials: Because of the model and the painting’s realism, they rejected the work as disrespectful and unfit for viewing. It now hangs in the Louvre as one of Caravaggio’s most accomplished masterpieces.
Not much happens in the film Barry Lyndon. The characters duel, do a bit of soldiering, philander, cheat at cards and sit around drawing rooms on country estates. But the titular hero (played by Ryan O’Neal) and the vacuous Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) inhabit sumptuously beautiful scenes awash in soft hues and shimmering candlelight. Cast in deep shadow, the interiors recall Caravaggio’s paintings (one of director Stanley Kubrick’s visual inspirations was the work of 18th-century English artist Joseph Wright, whose use of light is deeply imitative of Caravaggio’s). Art historians, who have plenty of time to reflect on the play of light and shadow during the film’s three languid hours, will recognize these connections and the effect of contrasting levels of light known as tenebrism. To evoke the preelectrified 18th century, Kubrick used special cameras and wide-angle lenses that NASA developed to shoot in low light. The painterly effect suggests the characters live in another world, which, of course, they do. Watching them recalls Shakespeare’s observation that “all the world’s a stage, / and all the men and women merely players”—in this case, a stage that is most artfully lit and as satisfying to view as a great painting.
Martin Scorsese is well-known for dramatic use of light and shadow, and he said he learned it all from Caravaggio. The director realized the painter’s use of strong, determined light and deep shadow—that is, tenebrism—could work as powerfully in film as on canvas. In Caravaggio’s Conversion of Saint Paul, a Scorsese favorite, the beautifully illuminated saint lies cowering beneath his horse, conveying palpable vulnerability. He is as powerless as the fully lit Jake La Motta in Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) as he awaits a pummeling from the dramatically backlit Sugar Ray Robinson, who looks like the angel of death. The director echoes Caravaggio again in The Aviator (2004), in which Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) sits naked on a white chair in a darkened screening room. Light streaming from the projector plays across his chest and face, making him look as frail as Christ in Caravaggio’s Deposition From the Cross. And the nighttime world of Taxi Driver (1976) is filled with murky shadows, suggesting the despair that lurks around the edges of each scene. Every so often, though, light falls across a character’s face to suggest a faint ray of hope—tenebrism at its most precise and effective.
Barry Lyndon is based on William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1856 novel The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq., about a fortune-hunting scoundrel who comes to no good—or, as director Martin Scorsese has commented, who “moves from the purest innocence to the coldest sophistication, ending in absolute bitterness.” The inane drawing-room antics and endless card games, enlivened by heaving bosoms and flickering candlelight, have inspired many parodies. Mad magazine did a spoof called “Borey Lyndon.” Yet Barry Lyndon is one of Hollywood’s most masterful period pieces, so beautifully filmed that viewers are seamlessly transported to a different time. Scorsese claims watching Barry Lyndon is “a profoundly emotional experience. The emotion is conveyed through the movement of the camera, the slowness of the pace, the way the characters move in relation to their surroundings.” This praise may seem unlikely from the director known for the car chases of Mean Streets, the shootouts of Taxi Driver and the boxing scenes of Raging Bull. Then again, he adds that Barry Lyndon is “a terrifying film because all the candlelit beauty is nothing but a veil over the worst cruelty. But it’s real cruelty, the kind you see every day in polite society.”
In The Calling of Saint Matthew, Caravaggio moves the biblical scene forward 1,600 years and sets the action in a room like those where he did his own copious drinking and brawling. The models, like those he used for many of his paintings, were acquaintances from his untidy life on the streets around Rome’s Piazza Navona. Martin Scorsese brings the action into 1973 when he re-creates this Caravaggio setting in Mean Streets, for a scene in which Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) walks through a bar toward Charlie (Harvey Keitel). The bar patrons look as ordinary as Caravaggio’s sitters, and Charlie is bathed in the same kind of light that washes over Saint Matthew. As Scorsese explains, Caravaggio “was there in the way I wanted the camera movement, the choice of how to stage a scene. It’s basically people sitting in bars, people at tables, people getting up. The Calling of Saint Matthew, but in New York!” Scorsese again used street people as actors, “like [Caravaggio] made paintings with them,” in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Such casting generated almost as much ire as the painter did with his use of prostitutes and lowlifes as models for religious paintings.
Photographer David LaChapelle is often called a 21st-century Andy Warhol, but that moniker is about 400 years off the mark. Clearly, this guy is a reincarnation of Caravaggio. In lifestyle choices, LaChapelle might as well as have stepped right into his predecessor’s boots, having earned a reputation for sex, drugs, partying and a stint as a paid gay escort, as well as being a great artist. He also shares an aesthetic with the painter who, he says, “always found beauty in the unexpected, the ordinary—in the street urchin’s face, the broken nose and the heavy brow.… I too try to find the beauty in everyone that I photograph.” Multiracial, tattooed and transgender, the models in Jesus Is My Homeboy (2003), his photographic series on the life of Christ, are people from the street—profane but, to LaChapelle and his fans, sacred. According to LaChapelle, both Caravaggio and Jesus would have approved of his approach. Caravaggio painted “courtesans and the street people, the hookers and the hustlers,” he explains. “That’s who he felt comfortable with, empathized with. Back then that was considered blasphemous, but actually that’s where Jesus pulled his disciples from—the street people and the marginalized.”
Art is said to imitate life, but in many cases art imitates art. Photographer David LaChapelle’s Taxi Driver series (2003) is a photographic homage to director Martin Scorsese’s iconic film of the same name. Scorsese delves into a gritty underworld populated by characters who are, as protagonist Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) describes them, “fuckin’ creeps and lowlifes and degenerates…a bunch of killers and junkies.” LaChapelle says all his subjects are beautiful, “whether it’s the kids in South Central L.A. who invented the new dance form I documented in [the film] Rize, or the transsexual Amanda Lepore, who I’ve photographed a lot.” In his Taxi Driver photos, LaChapelle one-ups Scorsese’s lowlife excesses, portraying pimps and prostitutes, drugs and sex, street fights and shootouts in vivid phosphorescent color (not much tenebrism here) with plenty of flesh and over-the-top sets. He brings kitsch and humor to Scorsese’s view of the underbelly. In this way he evokes the work of the painter he and Scorsese both admire, Caravaggio. “You never turn your head away from a Caravaggio piece, no matter how brutal it is,” LaChapelle says, “because there’s such a balance of horror, of unsightly bodies and violent scenes, with such great beauty.”