I went to London today to see Beyond Caravaggio at the National Gallery with an old colleague. Originally we were going to go and see the Abstract Expressionists at the Royal Academy yesterday, but then the RA sent out an email warning that they would be closing at 1.00 pm on Tuesday because the Queen was visiting, so the expedition was switched to Wednesday, then changed into a trip to a different exhibition but on the new date. I had to send an extra precautionary text to confirm I had kept up at the back and got all the details right. It would have been sad to come in from the garden for lunch on Tuesday and find a reproachful text and several missed calls on my phone asking where the hell I was.
I like Caravaggio. I am doubtless biased by having fallen completely under the spell of Tilda Swinton in Derek Jarman's film and remained that way ever since. It's thirty years since the film came out, terrifying how time flies. This exhibition has a small number of paintings by Caravaggio himself, but the bulk of it is works by his followers. Some of them were very good, some I was less convinced by. The midget Christ child with the glowing head like a sinister infant out of a B movie horror film perched on the gigantic shoulders of a tottering Saint Christopher was especially perplexing. Saint Peter's denial to an expostulating young woman and Tobias' meeting with the angel were especially brilliant. Some of the candlelit scenes in which the candle itself was concealed behind an arm or musical score were virtuosic, although apparently Caravaggio himself never painted scenes with candles in them, or at least none survive. And there were some excellent sheep.
The few actual Caravaggio originals stole the show for me. A pouting, indignant, faintly and sensuously chubby boy being bitten by a lizard, ripe fruit and a glass of water at his elbow, painted when the artist was only in his early twenties, was extraordinarily vivid. Judas planting his kiss on Jesus' face as the mail clad soldiers reach forward to seize him was dramatic and touching, Christ's downcast face already reconciled to his fate as a second disciple screamed towards the edge of the canvas. The composition is objectively bonkers, since why are Christ, Judas and the third disciple all sharing one great big red cloak over their heads and around their shoulders, but the painting is brilliant. Caravaggio's pictures have that indefinable extra something that most of his followers don't have, or only display spasmodically, and I left convinced he was a genius. If I have time to go back for a second look then I will. The exhibition only opened today, and I don't generally go so early in the run to give the fuss time to die down, but my friend who booked the tickets earlier this week said there were lots available. Homoerotic Renaissance chiaroscuro can't be as popular with the great British public as water lilies.
After lunch I went round the corner to catch American photographer William Eggleston at the National Portrait Gallery before it ends in a couple of weeks. I read a rave review of the show somewhere, and I like photography as an art form. If it is an art form. Grayson Perry's verdict in his short Guide to Art Playing To The Gallery on whether photography can be art is that it is problematic. According to Martin Parr, if a photograph is bigger than two metres and priced higher than five figures then it's probably Art. On that basis most of the photos on show at the Portrait Gallery couldn't have been art, but never mind. They were utterly absorbing. Two girls on a couch, one lying back and one leaning forward consoling her friend had me wracking my brains trying to remember which painting it was I'd seen recently that used almost the same composition but a hundred years earlier. Why was the dignified young black woman standing by a road with a jerry can of petrol? Or water? And why was the stony faced, immaculately coiffed young blonde woman sitting on a shabby wall next to a bollard with a chain wound round it? Who could resist any portrait of a nude man in a graffiti covered room with a caption beginning 'The eccentric dentist'? The pictures spanned a narrow range of time, only ten or twelve years from the mid 1960s, and many were taken around the small town in Mississippi where Eggleston grew up. I didn't buy the book, on the grounds that you can't collect everything and so general art books are out, but I coveted it.
I couldn't judge the photographs on technical grounds because I don't know anything about the techniques and methods of photography, but they included some tantalising images that stuck in the mind and invited you to build a whole narrative around them. Good photographers can make it look as though the image just presented itself in front of them and they pointed the camera, but the truly enormous number of bad and boring images in circulation on the internet shows that this must be very far from the truth. I don't generally take photos myself, on the grounds that the world is full of bad photos already and the act of photography gets in the way of the experience of being there.