Dr. Sam Ben-Meir visits the “Beyond Caravaggio” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Currently on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art is the first-ever exhibition devoted to the work of Valentin De Boulogne (1591-1632), a French baroque painter known chiefly as one of the great caravaggisti – the followers of Caravaggio.
Valentin thoroughly absorbed the artistic revolution initiated by Caravaggio, tenebrism, with its enhanced chiaroscuro, working from live models, dispensing with preparatory drawings, and emphasizing interiors and interiority. The title of the exhibit, “Beyond Caravaggio,” would seem to set the bar improbably high; the significance of Caravaggio’s innovations for Valentin and his contemporaries can hardly be overstated. In 1600, Caravaggio completed two paintings for the Contarelli Chapel. These were scenes from the life of St. Mathew and they would “decisively change the tradition of European art.” It has been noted that In the Calling of St. Mathew, Christ enters the tavern to take Mathew away, like a police inspector who has come to make an arrest. 1600 was also the year that Giordano Bruno was burned alive as a heretic on the Campo d’Fiori, in Rome. As a painter, Caravaggio was no less heretical, and his work was met with considerable disapproval from the Church, primarily for his reimagining of religious themes as “popular tragedies.”
Valentin could also be a heretic. In his Moses, for example, we don’t see anything of the powerful and imposing figure that Michelangelo sculpted. This is an aged and vulnerable Moses. A Moses who is not unacquainted with defeat. A Moses who knows he will never see the Promised Land. It is no overstatement to say that this collection of La Valentin is a breathtaking tour de force – yet that hardly begins to do justice to what we are in fact witnessing. And we need to emphasize the notion of bearing witness – for in some sense this is the theme that runs through Valentin’s work.
Born in Coulommiers, France, Valentin came to Rome in 1614, and joined a group of artists who were known as the Bentvueghels (‘birds of a feather’). They were a raucous, bohemian bunch that lived fast, and drank plenty – in this they took after Caravaggio as well. Valentin’s life would come to an end when he contracted a chill from bathing in a fountain during a night of heavy drinking. So it is not so surprising perhaps that our chief source of knowledge about the artists of that period comes from police records, and the testimony of the artists themselves before various officers of the law.
What Valentin does is to make the viewer complicit in the very actions he is viewing. A thief in the act of thieving looks at us as if to say, stay quiet. The viewer truly becomes a witness, one who is present to and implicated in the very events taking place. In the denial of St. Peter, soldiers are playing dice and if we look closely we see that two are still in mid-air. In Valentin’s world we are always already involved, already culpable: the die has been cast. We hover within the ever approaching-receding instant, between chance and necessity, fortune and fate.
The action in Valentin’s painting is always unfolding now, in the present. Consider, for example, Christ Driving the Money Changers out of the Temple: the way that Valentin crops the scene is startlingly new and proto-cinematic – the floor is cut out so that the action is effectively happening in our space. Christ is in the temple overturning the tables of the merchants now, before us – the movement is happening before our eyes, in the very same space that we are in. The dissolution of spatial barriers, creating fluidity, dynamism and motion is part of Valentin’s achievement. And indeed it is part of what makes his pictures seem so theatrical and alive to us today.
Valentin takes traditional subject matters – for example, David and Goliath, Susanna and the elders – but treats them in an untraditional manner. Not David in his moment of triumph, holding aloft the severed head of Goliath – but David gazing at (or past, even through) the viewer with deep and melancholy eyes. This is an ambivalent David whose victory is the occasion for a meditation on death, defeat, and the burden of killing, the burden of victory itself. Perhaps this is a David for our times especially. Perhaps this is a David that we need more than ever. A David that is unapologetically contemplative. We live in a culture which has recently taken a decided turn in favor of the unequivocal goodness of winning, being a winner – this is a David which questions that kind of orientation to the world, this is a David which sees that winning has its costs too. At the very least this is not the kind of victor who is going to gloat over the ones he’s vanquished. We need a David that thinks as intensely as he fights, and that’s what Valentin gives us.
In the Innocence of Susanna, Valentin does not depict the moment when she rebuffs the elders – he doesn’t choose the scene that painters before and since could be expected to use as their theme. Instead he shows the subsequent trial led by the young prophet Daniel. Daniel sits as judge and catches the elders contradicting each other. This is the moment that Valentin captures with extraordinary power – the moment that the tables have turned. Once again, we are standing in the same space, which is why Susanna’s child is looking out at us. Valentin’s chooses the scene that forms the moral crux of the story, not the scene that provides a backdrop for a beautiful female nude – but the moment that reminds us how the powerful and socially privileged are brought low by their sense of entitlement, their being above the law, their readiness to use and discard whomever they please. Susanna’s story is one that it is being played out time and again before the public.
Valentin de Boulogne was much more than a mere follower of Caravaggio, far more than a gifted tenebrist – he drank deep from the well that Caravaggio had provided but in terms of psychological depth he may have even surpassed the master. Valentin’s work is nothing short of a revelation – mysterious and indeclinable, filled with a deep sense of melancholy, transience and the inscrutability of fate.