A Filmmaker's Guide to: Artists on Screen
Part 1: The Effects of Caravaggio
Caravaggio is my favourite painter, I have read multiple biographies on him, I have also seen a number of his works in real life. I have been keen to write an article explaining how to produce a Caravaggio-like effect on screen for a few years now but I was always scared of making it too long. So, I've tried my best to keep it to the bare essentials only and not go over the top about everything. There will be some references to paintings and the life of Caravaggio and so, the book "M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio" by Peter Robb may help if you're only just starting your Caravaggio journey. However, you can read this article without having read the book - the beginning of you Caravaggio journey can start here, I would be honoured to teach you about him.
Now, we won't be looking at the biography of Caravaggio because that is not really very relevant, I'm sure that your reading of various Caravaggio biographies, like the one I just recommended, could help you understand his complex personality and lifestyle. However, we will be going through his artistic style and then how to use this in film in order to show how Caravaggio has influenced your style of work. This can create any meaning you wish, from Caravaggio's dark arrogance to the personality of the painting as something grand and yet, animated rather than the static art of the Medieval Age.
So, let's begin. The first part of our journey is to look at the artistic style of Caravaggio and pin-point some main things that could be used in a film in order to produce or replicate the style for the creation of meaning:
Caravaggio's Artistic Style:
1. The Black Background
The first and foremost thing we need to understand about Caravaggio's artistic style is the way in which he painted the background. Most of the backgrounds of his paintings are black, lit only by sharp figures that are shadowed in very particular way. Caravaggio built his own apparatus in order to see how this would produce shadow and light on the canvas so, in order to replicate this style, you would need to know about a similar method to create such a style. The black background of his art is made to represent the way in which the Old Testament is, in fact, dark. And so, here we are going to see the different paintings in which that is used. We will look at three examples:
Caravaggio's depiction of the story of David and Goliath is not only a dark painting in terms of the iconic black background but also because of the subject matter. It would make a lot of sense because of not only the dark subject matter to paint the black background, but also because of the light colour scheme atop the background. We have a more three dimensional figure of David and a more realistic head of Goliath, again, through making it seem three dimensional. This is obviously through the way in which the black background makes the lighter colours seem upon the canvas. Again, if you were using a black background, the way in which colour scheme is used would be a great way of noting Caravaggio's influence by the contrast.
Caravaggio's depiction of the myth of Narcissus is a great thing to use in order to see the black background at proper work. Here we have not only the black background, but the slight contrast towards the water. If you were making a film with Caravaggio's influence next to a water scene then you could definitely be inspired by this painting. We have the reflection which almost looks withered in comparison to the real Narcissus and even though I have already seen this used in film, there is no reason you could not try to better it. This is truly an incredible concept.
One of my favourite paintings by Caravaggio is possibly his most enigmatic as well and it is called "Boy Bitten by a Lizard". This painting does not show the classic black background, but instead it shows us the possibility for one. Here, a black background would also work, but we are given instead a black room visible through the reflection on the painting. In this reflection is also visible a window and some water. Again, the reflection is distorted like in Narcissus, but instead of being dark in subject matter, this painting shows us the human condition in a moment of great surprise. This is an emotion almost overlooked in most cinematic pieces. Your work could, plus the other examples, put this emotion back on the map in serious terms.
2. Depictions of Suffering
Caravaggio suffered a great deal in his life and so, in his works is reflected a great deal of suffering still. I find that human suffering in film, as time goes on, has gotten further and further away from what actual human suffering is. There is really no reason for there to be so much disparity. But again, you can bridge this gap by using suffering depicted in the artwork of Caravaggio in order to depict the extremes of human suffering. It is some of the greatest depictions of the subject in art history.
In "Judith Beheading Holofernes", Caravaggio paints an incredible aspect of human suffering which is the aspect of someone being beheaded whilst he is still very much alive. There is a great deal of human suffering and violence going on here, we can see the expression on the face of Holofernes and the almost confusion of Judith as Abra seems to be standing on the sidelines though in the Biblical story she is actually outside the tent and away from the action. But again, we have a strange piece of anti-realism with the splatter of blood from the neck which almost looks comical. However, the blood splatter is actually there to draw attention into the expression of the man and his suffering, shifting the centre of the painting to this. In your own film, you could decentralise your own scene in order to the facial expressions of violence and suffering to intensify human connection. This can only be successful if you make the facial expression of the victim the centre of the frame without being boring and just placing it there. It has to be a shift in the placement.
As you can tell, there are a lot of beheading scenes in Caravaggio's artwork and here we see another one. There is a stark difference between the way in which this piece of art is presented in comparison to the Judith painting. The first small difference is the central point. The central point of this painting is not the sufferance but the cloth that enrobes him. It is, in comparison to the sombre and sepia colours of the painting, a bright and vibrant red. It draws us into the painting's subject which, because of the richness of the cloth, is almost suggested to be a religious figure. Remember, the colour red is the colour the cardinals also wear and it is one of the colours of the Catholic Church. But the red robe is mixed with the red upon the floor which is, in fact, blood from the beheading. This would be an excellent way to present the religious figure being reduced to mere man in your own piece of film. However, whereas with the Judith painting, the facial expression is front and centre as something almost too horrible to look at, the facial expression on this painting is serene, calm and waiting. He is presented more as a martyr here than Holofernes is. If you were to fold this painting in half, you centre point physically would be directly in line with the centre point the painting is trying to create - the red robe. One is just above the other. One is the executed, which is created by the painter, the other is the actual centre-point - the executioner.
This image of human suffering is obviously set just after the previous painting. This is the one where Salome is presented with the head of the martyr John the Baptist on a platter. There's an easy way to tell women from the Bible in paintings when it comes to beheadings. If she's holding a platter then it's Salome, if she's got a sword or a brown rucksack, then it's Judith. This one, obviously, is Salome. The human suffering is depicted by the near-centre of the painting being a man holding a severed head in his hand. If you look at the head, you can see the same calm that came from the killing. You can see the rotting serenity. Though the head is decaying and rotting, the way in which the facial expression is presented to us shows us the way in which the rotting head can be serene at in pain at the same time.
Using Caravaggio's Technique on Screen
Example: Caravaggio (1986) by Derek Jarman
Derek Jarman's film "Caravaggio" (1986) created an outpour of Caravaggio fans everywhere going "woah" almost simultaneously. This was not because of the way Caravaggio's life was almost fantasised and created from bits and pieces of biography. It wasn't even the fact that the whole thing is told from the aspect of a candlelight vigil. But it is actually the penultimate scene in which the death of Caravaggio takes place and the people at the vigil are lined up in the style of his painting "The Entombment of Christ". There are various paintings made real by people instead of just the paintings visualised in the film. This is to present the way in which the paintings were once real people being painted. It is also a great way to portray Caravaggio's work on screen as reality. Check these out:
These are just some of the examples of the paintings recreated in the film. Some also include "The Death of the Virgin" and my favourite, "The Entombment of Christ". Some other ways to recreate the artwork would be to do this through the methods we explored in the first section as well as replication. But, if you're not making a film about Caravaggio then the earlier methods from the first section for bits of inspiration are probably easier to use.
I think that Caravaggio's works are of ultimate importance in the art world and have some real ability to make you feel a certain way when looking at them. Caravaggio's artwork was always made to make you feel uncomfortable, and if you want to explore further then I am going to leave a list of sources at the bottom of the article that are the best sources I've found to use:
1) M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio by Peter Robb
2) Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane by Andrew Graham-Dixon
3) Caravaggio by Sebastian Schutze
4) Caravaggio: The Art of Realism by John Varriano
5) Caravaggio (1986) by Derek Jarman
6) Caravaggio by John Spike
7) The Taschen Book of Caravaggio (Taschen Basics)
8) Caravaggio in Detail by Stefano Zuffi
9) Caravaggio: Master of Art by Stefano Zuffi
10) The Caravaggio Conspiracy by Walter Ellis
11) The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr
12) The Lives of Caravaggio by Guilio Mancini
13) The Bible of Caravaggio by Mario Del Bello
14) The Moment of Caravaggio by Michael Fried
15) Caravaggio's Eye by Clovis Whitfield
16) Caravaggio by HF Ullman
17) Caravaggio and His World by John Spike
18) Caravaggio Studies by Roberto Longhi
19) Caravaggio: The Complete Works by Rosella Vodret
20) Caravaggio by Patrick Hunt