Looking back on the summer's big art shows: Caravaggio, Pollock and their cities

At first blush, the two big art shows in Canada this summer—the National Gallery’s Caravaggio and his Followers in Rome, which runs to Sept. 11 in Ottawa, and the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Abstract Expressionist New York, which closed Sept. 4 in Toronto—didn’t seem to have much in common.

But it turned out they shared at least two compelling elements. Both were about the most cosmopolitan art scenes their eras, and both drew our attention to the reliably engrossing legends of artists who mixed a revolutionary way of painting with a self-destructive way of living.

The doomed star of the show in Ottawa was, quite obviously, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, whose reputation precedes him. A drinker and brawler, Caravaggio died in exile from Rome at only 37 in 1610. He lived long enough, though, to show European artists how to paint live models in a way that captured their natural postures and expressions as never before, and how to show them off in the most dramatic lighting.

The Toronto blockbuster was not supposed to be focused on a single artist. However, I suspect I’m not the only one who came away from AbEx NY with the feeling that Jackson Pollock dominated to a perhaps surprising degree. If his major contemporaries—Franz Kline, Mark Rothco and Barnett Newman among them—were generously represented, it was the roomful of Pollock paintings that anchored the show.

Pollock died in 1957, at 44, drunk in a car crash. No need to belabour the point that, like Caravaggio, his tumultuous life and early death cast romantic shadows back over his biography. We eat up these James Deanish tales, of course. Among the recent mining of the myths have been a movie about Pollock and a bestseller about hunting down a lost Caravaggio masterpiece.

But the summer shows left no doubt that artistic accomplishment, not just biographical excitement, ultimately keeps Caravaggio and Pollock before our eyes.

The dozen works by Caravaggio on loan to the National Gallery hung alongside nearly fifty more by 17th-century painters he directly influenced. It was first-rate stuff, by and large, but the work of the followers suffered by close comparison with the master. Could any painter after Caravaggio attempt a theatrical chiaroscuro effect by using a single light source—a window, a candle—without seeming to be imitating him? It didn’t stop them from giving it a go.

The about 20 Pollock works among the 100 or so paintings in the Toronto show (which originated at New York’s Museum of Modern Art) did not outshine the competition nearly so thoroughly. Still, who could drip paint after Pollock without appearing to do his thing? And even looking at this show’s very plum selection of Rothcos felt—at least, to me–at bit too relaxing after I’d been stirred up by the exhibition’s action-packed Pollock room.

These exhibitions were about dominant cities, too. Although he was from Milan, Caravaggio is inextricable from Rome at its artistic high point; Pollock hailed from Wyoming but cannot be understood outside the context of New York when it was the world’s creative hub. They were unruly at best, but in the right cities found the right patrons. Caravaggio had the likes of Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte; Pollock had Peggy Guggenheim.

After enjoying both shows immensely, I was left wondering where a protean artistic talent might migrate today to find the mix of makers and buyers, creativity and commerce, offered by Rome circa 1600 or New York circa 1950.

Can any city’s scene mean as much anymore? Or is the action channeled out into the Web, away from bars and salons, to wherever an artist cares to connect? If that’s the case, then for all the loss of atmosphere, at least the dangers of drunken swordfights and car rides will have eased.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.