I recently attended an exhibition, at The National Gallery in London, of works by Caravaggio and the artists that followed immediately after him. (Beyond Caravaggio runs until 15 January.)
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was born in Milan around 1571. He moved to Rome when he was about 20 and it was here that he made his name. Caravaggio painted heavenly themes with low-life models; he told spiritual stories with earthy naturalism. We are drawn to the moral ambiguity, the proximity of the sacred and the profane. His characters are pensive, uncertain, intensely human. We see the brooding adolescent in the wilderness, the saint coming to terms with his calling, the artist complicit in the crime. Sometimes the subjects reach out and beckon us in. We are present, engaged, involved.
Caravaggio’s paintings also seem to be in suspended animation. He arrests time at the precise moment when the boy is bitten by a lizard; when the cardsharp considers his hand; when the deceiver realises her guilt. We witness the painful fall, the sudden recognition, the treacherous kiss.
These vivid effects are achieved in large part by lighting. The actors in Caravaggio’s dramas loom out at us from the darkness. They are spot-lit from above. It’s as if critical events have been illuminated by a flashbulb. Freeze-framed, they fix themselves in our consciousness.
“He invented a black world that had not existed before, certainly not in Florence or Rome. Caravaggio invented Hollywood lighting.”
In 1977 the psychologists Brown and Kulik posited the theory of Flashbulb Memory: that at certain moments of surprise or significance the brain captures vivid, detailed memories; and that these memories are more enduring, more consistent and more easily recalled than our usual, everyday recollections. We are prompted to record Flashbulb Memories at highly emotional or traumatic events. Like witnessing the death of JFK or participating in a car crash. Some have suggested that at these moments of crisis the brain records every last possible piece of stimulus because the smallest detail may be essential to survival.
You might imagine that in the world of marketing and communication, where we are engaged in the business of creating vivid and enduring recollections, we would be students of this kind of suspended animation, proponents of Flashbulb Memories. But our brand experiences are seldom heightened, our brand expressions rarely intense.
In the Content Era we seem more concerned with quantity than quality of engagement; more interested in frequency than depth of impression. Our brands are chatty, conversational, casual. We suffer from verbal prolixity and conceptual poverty. Our communication is always on, but our selectivity is often off. Why concentrate on a single moment when a hundred will do? Why focus on a single image when a thousand will do?
Perhaps we are not aware that in sacrificing selection, we may also be forfeiting intensity, and potentially therefore memorability. We do not realise that fewer, more precise, more emotionally acute images, can create deeper, more enduring, more personally meaningful recollections. Editing, selection and curation should be primary skills in the modern brand’s armory. But they seem woefully undervalued.
‘Made some bad choices, then worse choices, then ran out of choices.’
Poor Caravaggio. His character was quarrelsome and cantankerous; his life was violent and turbulent. He drank too much, brawled too often and thought too little. He was a prototype of the impetuous artist, ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know.’
In 1606 he killed a man after an argument over a tennis match and he had to flee Rome. He settled briefly in Naples, then Malta and Sicily, and then Naples again, all the time communicating with Rome in the quest for a pardon. When he painted Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, he put his own head on the platter. It was a plea for forgiveness. Or a portent of death.
In 1610 Caravaggio set out for Rome in anticipation of his long sought pardon. But he died on the journey, possibly from a fever. Some say he was, in fact, murdered by one of his many enemies; or poisoned from the lead that was commonly used in the paint of the time. Death by art, perhaps.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio had a luminous talent and his life was intensely lived. And perhaps that’s one reason why his fame has spread so wide and his reputation will endure so long. Caravaggio’s was a flashbulb life.