In a special lecture on 10 July 2018, convened in Chequer Mead to mark and celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of NADFAS (National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies, now know more conveniently as The Arts Society), the well-known art historian and television personality Andrew Graham-Dixon spoke on the subject of “Caravaggio”. More than 300 tickets were sold for the event (essentially a full house) which included a Prosecco and canapé reception before the talk, professionally catered by Lodge Coffee Shop and offering members and their guests the opportunity to socialise in the theatre foyer and outside on the lawn. Following the lecture Andrew generously agreed to hold a short book-signing session and brought with him a selection of his works, which could be purchased.
The lecture began a short account of the religious fervour in Europe in the 16th century and the resulting excesses of the Counter-Reformation that followed, as background to late 1500s Italy. Andrew has a distinct style, similar to that evident in his television documentaries, but even more animated, passionate and pithy in a live stage presentation. Speaking without notes, but with near perfect recall of numerous Italian place names and the (full) personal names of a large number of friends, associates and patrons of Caravaggio, he examined ten paintings in detail and briefly showed some others, in support of a broad outline of the artist’s career and life, but concentrating on theories concerning the painter’s brief or commission, style, subject selection and allegorical intentions, some of which hypotheses are widely accepted by art historians and others are his (Andrew’s) own interpretations, albeit the outcome of extensive research.
The principal paintings we saw on screen were (in no particular order): The Calling of Saint Matthew; Medusa; Bacchus; The Musicians; Conversion on the Way to Damascus; Crucifixion of Saint Peter; The Martyrdom of St. Matthew; Cardsharps; Boy Bitten by a Lizard; Judith Beheading Holofernes, altogether about one fifth of Caravaggio’s major outputs. In each case Andrew was able not only to identify the ostensive storyboard of the commission (whether from a patron or self-motivation by the artist), but also the political, sociological and (above all) religious messages in each final canvas, and then the ambiguities of interpretation (what the viewer wished to see in the painting, and whether this was rewarded): the last of these proposed as the true evidence of Caravaggio’s genius.
We also learned that Caravaggio’s art is keenly appreciated by celebrities as diverse as Keith Richards (of the Rolling Stones) and Martin Scorsese (the movie director, producer and screenwriter). In the process we learned that Andrew has a talent for mimicking not only both of these, but also the Chavs of our era, whose predecessors with equally shallow values were Caravaggio’s companions on the dark side of his life in his era. The dark side was mentioned, but not emphasized in the lecture, thus shining the spotlight on his great virtues and not his personal failings.
Altogether a brilliant evening. This is what The Arts Society is about.