Andrew Graham-Dixon brings Caravaggio to BRLSI

Some people are ‘on TV’ through luck or connections, others because they’re good at it. In the Elwin Room tonight art critic and TV arts presenter Andrew Graham-Dixon placed himself firmly in the latter category, with an elightening, humorous and at times passionate account of the 16th Century Italian painter Caravaggio.

Mr Graham-Dixon has produced a TV series and a recently-published book on Caravaggio, and as he told us, he had to work hard to prevent the latter from becoming an adventure novel, such was the colourful nature of the painter’s life.  As it was, the book, Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane, still tells a rather different story from the ‘official’ version.
Caravaggio, we learned, had a troubled childhood in Milan, losing most of his male relatives to the plague when he was six and turning into something of a delinquent, no stranger to drinking and fighting. He learnt little in his supposed apprenticeship to painter Simone Peterzan, but was influenced by what Mr Graham-Dixon called the “ecclesiastical police state” of Cardinal Borromeo, which left him with a troubled attitude to God and authority which was to drive his later work.

Full house: Andrew Graham-Dixon drew one of BRLSI’s biggest-ever audiences, overflowing into the Duncan and Murch rooms.
After an episode involving a dead policeman and a year in prison the 18 year old Caravaggio turned up in Rome, then a ‘strange, testosterone-driven city of malcontents and the uprooted’, where he was forced to work as a jobbing painter of fruit and flowers until a friendly art dealer helped to bring him to the attention of the powerful Cardinal Del Monte. Caravaggio’s response to the Cardinal’s patronage was to invent ‘genre’ painting, which represented real life in the streets, and to bring his arresting realism – and models drawn from the city’s male and female prostitutes – to the depiction of biblical scenes which were, indeed, both sacred and profane depending on whether you knew what to look for.

The speaker signs a copy of his book Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane for BRLSI event organiser Rex Valentine.
With examples of Carravagio’s work Andrew Graham-Dixon showed how the artist’s “intensity of looking” created works that “annihilate other paintings” – even those of Leonardo da Vinci, whose  depiction of the Medusa slain by Perseus seems almost staid besides Caravaggio’s portrayal of her seeing her own severed head reflected in Perseus’s shield (“like a prototype of a lorry driver’s rear view mirror”). He also attacked a few myths about the painter, particularly the  “Jarmanesque caricature of Caravaggio as a rampant gay icon” (a reference to Derek Jarman’s 1986 film).
All too soon it was over, with Mr Graham-Dixon confessing that he “never gets beyond 1598″ in these talks, due to the wealth of detail he can’t help including. We’d seen and heard plenty though, including the fact that Rolling Stone Keith Richard (recently interviewed by the speaker) thought Caravaggio sounded a “cool dude” who could have been a Stone himself. There’s little doubt that Andrew Graham-Dixon considers Caravaggio a cool dude too, as well as one of the greatest painters who ever lived.