Photographing Art: A review of Caravaggio: Una Mostra Impossibile!

  • By Matt Hoffman
  • December 20, 2005 @ 12:00 PM
For its inaugural exhibit, the newly completed Loyola University Museum of Art (LUMA) has chosen an appropriate, and technically fascinating demonstration of large-format, high-resolution photographic reproductions of one of Italy’s most influential and overlooked revolutionary artists, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. This exhibit stands as a multi-dimensional introduction, and is as much about the technology at work as it is about the artist and his art. The introduction is multi-dimensional: LUMA introduces itself and its credo of “Art illuminating the spirit” to the City of Chicago; patrons are introduced to this impossibly rare, nearly complete collection of this forgotten artist’s work; and, this amazing technological achievement is introduced to the United States for the first time.

Originally created by Rai-Radiotelevisione Italiana (Italy’s public broadcast company), the exhibit demonstrates the culmination of over five years of research and application of digital-analog hybrid photography advancements in large-format, high-resolution reproductions of oil paintings. Caravaggio was chosen as the inaugural artist, both because many of his painting sit in museums easily accessible to Rai, but also because of the artist’s revolutionary use of light and subject matter. More importantly, the exhibit was put together to demonstrate that it is no longer una mostra impossibile (an impossible feat) to bring together a collection of one artist of this kind.

There is a growing reluctance of private collectors and public museums to put their most historic, precious, and valuable works of art on loan or traveling exhibit. If loaned at all, they are increasingly only to large, wealthy museums in large cities who can afford the high security, insurance, and shipping costs.

However, the ability to create photographs that are true-to-scale and as true-to-life as technologically feasible opens the doors to new venues and new patrons. Furthermore, because the reproductions are digital, they are capable of being reproduced easily – making multiple simultaneous exhibitions a possibility, even in venues which ordinarily could not meet the dim lighting, humidity control, and physical space requirements of ordinary art galleries.

The technology also facilitates the archival of damaged, fading, or even temporary works of art (such as inner-city murals), as well as installed pieces of sculpture or architecture that are incapable of mobility. Unlike photographs in a magazine or website, these accurately depict each brushstroke, capture the gradient changes between over and under painting, and are accurately back-lit to capture the illumination of the pigment on the original canvasses. The photographs are one generation removed from the originals, in every sense of the word. Each photograph is certified by a team of art experts to the tonal accuracy of its depiction.

First presented in Naples, then Rome, and now Chicago, this exhibit brings together the collective works of this seminal artist for the first time in history. Caravaggio, by all accounts a violent youth who fled Rome because of a controversial murder conviction, revolutionized the world of art. Standing in violent opposition to the customs of the time, he filled his works with stark contrasts of light and dark, not paying homage to the modulating shading of antiquity, and used prostitutes and peasants as models for his Biblical themes. His popularity spread quickly to France, Spain, and the Netherlands, but because of the controversy over his life and subject matter, his popularity disappeared. Largely forgotten, widely dispersed, and often unsigned, his work never regained the notoriety it deserved until very recently. This exhibit, then, is made all the more important and monumental for playing its part in re-introducing Caravaggio to the masses.

-Matt Hoffman