Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The First Italian Neorealist

[This text integrates comments I made on the essay "All the Images" in October, 2009]

The Cardsharps (Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, c. 1594)

Caravaggio was the first neorealist, a neorealist before the realists; the fact that, like the great neo-realists of cinema, he also happened to be an Italian is just an added bonus.

I can't think of a word other than "neorealism" for his approach to the profession of being a painter: his use of ordinary-looking models (who, in the drama of Caravaggio's paintings, could just as easily / accurately be called actors); his way of developing meaning through the representation of physical reality; his interest in using the drama of the canvas to represent the social origins and repercussions of an event. And in working quickly and improvisationally (almost all of his work was done directly on the canvas, with few or no sketches), he also prefigured the directors of the 1950s and 1960s who would take inspiration from neorealism.

My favorite Caravaggio painting -- and one that's obsessed me for a while -- is an early one called The Cardsharps. The painting depicts three men: a man playing cards, the man cheating him, and an older man advising the card player (an accomplice of the cheater).

The figures are arranged in such a way that the activities of all three men can be seen clearly, as can the expressions on their faces: the cheater and the one being cheated both have innocent expressions on their faces. The young man being cheated is oblivious; he looks downright pleased, blissfully unaware of the system he is part of. It took until cinema came along for someone else to be able to use images representative of reality to so accurately depict what they felt were the unspoken forces at work in a moment.

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