Over the weekend, The Guardian (which takes the title of best English language newspaper, sorry NYT), published a discussion between various artists and filmmakers on the Italian painter Caravaggio, and it’s must read stuff. If it’s been a while since your last art history course, here’s what you need to know about Caravaggio: active in the late 16th century, Caravaggio was the bad boy artist to end all bad boy artists. In between getting in street brawls, dueling with swords, knifing people, and probably shacking up with various mistresses, Caravaggio managed to reinvent painting with his mix of radical naturalism and dramatic, chiaroscuro lighting. According to Marin Scorsese, David LaChapelle, Peter Doig, and others, Caravaggio was also a seminal influence on their work.
If you’re looking to get a sense of Caravaggio’s work, check out the painting I’ve used for the lede here. Titled Judith Beheading Holofernes, the painting shows the pivotal moment in the tale of Judith and Holofernes. In the story, the widow Judith seduces the enemy Assyrian general Holofernes, gets him drunk, and then decapitates him. The painting encapsulates many of Caravaggio’s trademarks: incredible realism, a vivid moment of action, and dramatic lighting. It’s easy to see how this style might have influenced filmmakers.
According to Scorsese, Caravaggio was a particular inspiration for Mean Streets and The Last Temptation of Christ:
He sort of pervaded the entirety of the bar sequences in Mean Streets. He 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 St Matthew, but in New York! Making films with street people was what it was really about, like he made paintings with them. Then that extended into a much later film, The Last Temptation of Christ. The idea was to do Jesus like Caravaggio.
David LaChapelle found inspiration in Caravaggio’s focus on the underclass of the day:
He always found beauty in the unexpected, the ordinary – in the street urchin’s face, the broken nose, and the heavy brow. That’s why Caravaggio is a very sympathetic figure to me. I too try to find the beauty in everyone that I photograph, whether it’s the kids in South Central LA who invented the new dance form I documented in Rize, or the transsexual Amanda Lepore who I’ve photographed a lot. People think she is freakish but I don’t – I love her.
Check out the article for more on how Caravaggio influenced other artists, from photographers to a taxidermist.