M.C.- This week, ‘Yareah’s painter of the week section’ is dedicated to Caravaggio, the great Italian painter. We would like to know your opinion about his paintings and his controversial life. What do you think about it? How does artists’ life influence artists’ works? Caravaggio was, no doubt, one of the best examples but we would like to know your opinion about if it’s possible to separate life and work.
M.B.- Wow, you certainly know how to push the envelope with these questions Martin. Let me take these one at a time. First, Caravaggio, in my opinion, is one of the greatest Italian painters to have ever lived, period. His innovative departure from the “idealized” style of the 16th century into his “naturalist” style of portraying biblical characters as everyday, ordinary people, along with his volatile personal life did make him infamous. But his importance in the evolution of painting is undeniable.
As for what I “think about it”…I’ve often said “Our job as artists is to draw a line from our life to our art that is straight and clear.” My Grandmother, Violet Vallery, taught me this well and I live by it.
If you examine Caravaggio’s works they will reveal that his work passionately reflects his controversial life “off the canvas.” It’s well documented that Caravaggio, by all accounts, had a violent temper, committed at least one murder and had a lengthy rap sheet. But you have to remember, these were also violent times. His father died when he was six, his mother when he was eighteen. Is he working from an authentic point of view when determining the exact way to accurately wield his sword from personal experience in “David with the Head of Goliath?” Most definitely. Is Caravaggio inserting himself in the work as a self-portrait of sorts? Perhaps. It’s been widely accepted that this is a possibility.
Am I wielding the gun at you, the viewer on left, based on personal experience in “Shoot the Clown, Burst the Red Balloon” from my Carnevale Italiano painting series?” Yes. Am I using myself as the model for this particular piece, alternatively firing the gun at my own shattered childhood self-image? Absolutely. These are similarities I draw between the two pieces.
Caravaggio’s paintings also reflected back to the viewer the drama in his life. But despite all his personal roadblocks he still managed to stay dedicated to his craft, painting wherever he landed, despite having no set workshop or stable studio space, which is truly inspiring to me personally.
M.C.- And is it possible to separate life and work?
M.B.- For me, no. I can’t. I can’t paint what I don’t know with any authenticity and that very authenticity is what the audience appreciates most when “feeling their way” through one of my paintings. My themes also revolve around sex and violence, and like Caravaggio, I, too have led an extremely volatile life filled with many highs and lows, and some tragedies that would be unspeakable to most. My career as a painter also hasn’t been without controversy, given my infamous painting clientele, from the late John Gotti to my best pal Dominic Capone III, who just happens to be Al Capone’s great nephew. But I am who I am. It’s why I paint what I paint, and I’ll never apologize for that or for who my clientele happen to be.
As for what I think about Caravaggio…he essentially revolutionized painting by pushing darks to blacks, by intensifying chiaroscuro effects through dark shadowy scenes, dramatic camera angles and by creating what today would be categorized as “academy award winning” lighting effects. Think about classic film noir like Carnival of Souls (1962), and even more recently how directors in contemporary American television hit shows like The Sopranos light a scene. The new hallmark style is Caravaggio’s “naturalistic lighting”, depicting actors sometimes in total shadow, where it’s the scene that’s really being lit – not the actors.
For example Martin, picture this: “A car pulls up a driveway. It’s dusk. The character gets out of the car, walks past the headlights still blaring, going and out of the headlights as he passes by, heads inside to a dark kitchen. Once inside, he opens up a refrigerator door which lights the scene and the character’s face. This heightens realism and creates energy. On “the Sopranos”, you wouldn’t hear a director saying, “Are we going to see their eyes?” Everyone already knows who the character is! It’s about creating mood and mystery in scenes that are really painterly. Darkness intensifies the drama and gives scenes much more texture, just like Caravaggio did with his chiaroscuro effects in his paintings.
When I asked my Sopranos actress friend Kathrine Narducci about it she said, “As far as lighting they kept it like in life, very realistic [lighting]. I think they didn’t candy coat and that’s what made it look raw and hard.”
M.C.- Of course, you know the scandalous way Caravaggio had to choose his models, they were prostitutes, beggars… and they were going to be models for saints and sacred people. What are your feelings when you begin a portrait and what’s your relationship with the model?
M.B.- Caravaggio was revolutionary in the fact he chose ordinary people he had “access to” as stand-ins for biblical figures, but in fact, that’s exactly who they probably were…ordinary people who happened to do some extraordinary things. He depicted dramatic moments in a way that the viewer feels like they could walk right into the picture. Like in “Death of the Virgin”, Caravaggio shows her as an old woman, already a corpse. This was done from life, from the body of a prostitute found in the Tiber.
And in “Judith Beheading Holofernes”, which is one of my absolute favorites of Caravaggio’s, he deliberately, and in some accounts — for the first time in the history of art — destroyed the space between the event in the painting and the viewer. He made us actually take part in the event as either witness or accomplice. When I first saw this painting in person it was hung in the museum in such a way that wherever you stood you actually felt as though you could catch Holofernes’ head! Such a brilliant composition. I also love the blues and reds, which always work magnificent together in a piece when juxtaposed against one another just right. He gives us a direct window into life of that time through his art, and definitely “draws his line straight and clear.”
M.C.- So what are your feelings when you begin a portrait and what’s your relationship with the model?
M.B.- Well, I, too, like to work from life whenever I can, even though it’s not always possible. And I’ve painted everyone from porn stars to mob stars to the aristocracy of our times. As for my feelings when I begin a portrait I feel it’s critical for me to get to know my subjects on a very personal level, so I can bring who they really are “on the inside” to the surface of the canvas for the audience to see what I see “on the outside.” My portrait clientele trust me, and I hold their secrets sacred, while sharing glimpses of them with the world through how I paint them. And while I spend a lot of time on the surface, it’s the “inside” of my subjects I’m really after. And when you dive deep into someone’s psyche what emerges is their true self on the canvas for the world to see, and a relationship between artist and model that’s an intimate affair. Not in the context of an actual affair, but story within a story. A beautiful, therapeutic one, I think, for both artist and model. It’s a journey I think everyone should take if they can afford to.
M.C.- Baroque period is one of the most innovative periods in the History of Art. Tell us, what’s your favorite painter of the baroque period?
M.B.- My favorite? Do I really have to say…? Cara…… 😉