IN recent days, news of the discovery of a painting by Caravaggio has occupied and divided arts writers and critics, world-wide. Apparently disinterred in 2014 from the roof of a house in Toulouse, France, Judith beheading Holofernes (c.1604) has been subjected to scrutiny by a number of experts, not all of whom believe the work to be genuine.
A lot is riding on whether the work is genuine, including professional reputations, art world cred and of course, lots of money. If the work is declared genuine, some people will make significant financial gains – figures in excess of US$100 million are currently bandied about regarding its worth. However, the best anyone can say, ever, is that it might be legitimate; without provenance, documented evidence that the work was in Caravaggio’s studio, or that it was created on commission for one of his many benefactors, the work’s origins will always be contentious and open to debate.
Of course, there’s a number of technical tests that can be applied to at least prove that the painting is of the right age. The idea that someone can run off a quick painting in 2010 and pass it off as something created in 1610 is somewhat far-fetched in this age of carbon dating, chemical analysis, x-ray and radar imaging and other scanning analysis technology. However, even though such tests might verify that something is around 400 hundred years old, they don’t prove that the work is by Caravaggio. But before those expert at such techniques get busy, I’d recommend those charged with the responsibility of saving reputation and generating income just take another, good, long look at the thing, first. Why? Something, as Miss Clavel was oft to say, is not quite right.
I’m talking about the composition and the emotion of the work. Sure, even Caravaggio was human. He might have been having an off month when this was created; it might have been an experiment, trying out a new composition, or perhaps a commission for an overly directing patron. Why think this? Well, interestingly, there’s another take by Caravaggio on this subject that dates from roughly 5 years earlier that is vastly superior.
There’s a parable, the Book of Judith, that recounts how a young widow, angry at the ambivalence and inaction of her community, sets out to win over Nebuchadnezzar’s evil general, Holofernes, who threatens to destroy her town. Having gained the general’s favour and trust, Judith and her maid, Abra, on the eve of battle, enter his tent and behead the oppressor, thereby saving the day. This then, is the subject of both works. Caravaggio’s approach was, typically, to choose the moment in the story of greatest dramatic impact – the instant Judith’s sword strikes Holofernes’ neck. Typical too, is the composition. Caravaggio’s figures are set out on a stage, curtain drawn back to reveal the scene, theatrical lighting striking from top left. The action set against a dark, endless background. Judith and her maid stand to the right over Holofernes, who lies vulnerable, in his bed. In the 1598-9 version, Caravaggio’s skill in portraying human emotion and engagement is apparent; Judith’s expression, a mixture of disgust and determination, combined with her arm’s length posture as she reviles from the bloody gore she creates, is thought by many to be Caravaggio at his zenith. The grim determination etched on the face of Judith’s maid, Abra, as she waits for the task to finish so she can gather the decapitated head in the cloth bag she grasps with white-knuckled intensity and the readily apparent and transfixing combination of astonishment and gruesome pain on the face of Holofernes, all combine in a scene that is at once dynamic, drama-filled and arresting. Caravaggio shows you the minds of these characters, you feel their spirit, their pain, their turmoil. Despite the awfulness of the act, Judith and Abra are united, determined and focussed in the righteousness of their triumph; the oppressed, in the face of tyranny, threat and injustice are victorious for the common good.
Take then, the recently discovered (c.1604) work. Same characters, same dramatic moment, similar (but not the same) composition and palette. So what’s the problem? There’s no drama, no reveal of the inner turmoil; I don’t believe the image I see in the same way I believe the power of the better-known, earlier work. In the 1604 work, Judith is detached, unengaged from the action – she wields the blade in the direction of Holofernes, but I don’t feel the cut in the same way I feel it bite in the earlier, 1598-9 work. Judith, in the ‘new’, work, looks to me, the viewer, not at the scene she creates; her expression seems to be questioning me – almost challenging me to pass judgement over her act. Abra, her maid, seems to be questioning Judith too – her expression is one of ‘are you sure – can you not hurry – please?’ rather than the steely support and determination of the character in the earlier work. And Holofernes? In the 1604 work, his pain and astonishment are apparent, but not with the power of the 1598-9 work. Interestingly too, his character has shrunk in size – in the better-known work, he is large, powerful, a threat; in the 1604 work, he’s just a man – no more, no less. In the 1604 composition, the focus is Abra’s questioning face, obvious (and understandable) apprehension and Judith’s apparent preoccupation with matters outside the picture – not the grisly act and the emotion of the characters that are apparent in the 1598-9 work. As for Holofernes, in the 1604 work he’s almost crying out, ‘Oi, don’t forget about me over here, in big, big pain – get on and finished what you’ve started, b****.’ Which is in complete contrast to the emotion of the earlier work.
My conclusion? staged and near-comical, not sage and near-Caravaggio. It will be interesting to see if that’s the conclusion reached by those that have reputations, money and art world prestige to garner and protect.
One reply on “A New Caravaggio – or not….”
You articulate so well a vague reaction I had when I saw this newly found painting! I am sure there will be many chapters written to explore this puzzle before the official opinion is given. But you raise exactly the right issues. Thank you, Carol