The Observer July 26, 2010


From Martin Scorsese to Peter Doing, film-makers, photographers and artists explain how Caravaggio's prophetically cinematic paintings inspired them. 
David LaChapelle – Photographer and film director

- Caravaggio is often called the most modern of the old masters – there's a newness, a contemporary feel to his work that painting prior to him just didn't have. It's like when [fashion designer Alexander] McQueen came on the scene, everything else [in the fashion world] suddenly looked old.

Caravaggio used light like a photographer and his pictures are cropped like photographs. One that sticks in my mind is Boy Bitten By a Lizard. That's a beautiful example of the one-source light that we identify Caravaggio with, that he pioneered, but it's also a wonderful captured moment, this boy's sort of feminine reaction to the lizard's bite. It's a photograph before photography.

 The flower in the boy's hair and the blouse coming off his shoulders I think signify that the boy is a male prostitute. But in no sense does Caravaggio judge the boy. He didn't strive to paint the court and the aristocracy – he was painting the courtesans and the street people, the hookers and the hustlers. That's who he felt comfortable with, empathised with. Back then that was considered blasphemous but actually that's where Jesus pulled his disciples from – the street people and the marginalised. That's why in [my photography series] Jesus Is My Homeboy I had people from the street dressed in modern clothing, in modern settings, with Christ, because that's who Jesus would be with if there was a second coming.

It's through one of my contemporary art heroes, Derek Jarman, that I got really turned on to the artist. I'm really good friends with John Maybury whose mentor was Jarman and when Jarman's film Caravaggio came out in the 80s I was living in London. It had a really big impact on me, I wanted to learn more about Caravaggio, I just loved his aesthetic. While Michelangelo was aspirational, using bodies at the height of perfection, Caravaggio was much more of a realist. The kind of beauty he depicts isn't in any sense what we see traditionally in painting of that time. He always found beauty in the unexpected, the ordinary – in the street urchin's face, the broken nose, and the heavy brow. That's why Caravaggio is a very sympathetic figure to me. I too try to find the beauty in everyone that I photograph, whether it's the kids in South Central LA who invented the new dance form I documented in Rize, or the transsexual Amanda Lepore who I've photographed a lot. People think she is freakish but I don't – I love her.

Today, if you took a photograph with the type of bodies Michelangelo used it would look like a [Calvin Klein] Obsession advert, whereas Caravaggio depicted the elderly, the imperfect, even death. You never turn your head away from a Caravaggio piece no matter how brutal it is because there's such a balance of horror, of unsightly bodies and violent scenes, with such great beauty.

Martin Scorsese – Film-maker

I was instantly taken by the power of [Caravaggio's] pictures. Initially I related to them because of the moment that he chose to illuminate in the story. The Conversion of St Paul, Judith Beheading Holofernes: he was choosing a moment that was not the absolute moment of the beginning of the action. You come upon the scene midway and you're immersed in it. It was different from the composition of the paintings that preceded it. It was like modern staging in film: it was so powerful and direct. He would have been a great film-maker, there's no doubt about it. I thought, I can use this too...

So then he was there.

He sort of pervaded the entirety of the bar sequences in Mean Streets. He was there in the way I wanted the camera movement, the choice of how to stage a scene. It's basically people sitting in bars, people at tables, people getting up. The Calling of St Matthew, but in New York! Making films with street people was what it was really about, like he made paintings with them. Then that extended into a much later film, The Last Temptation of Christ. The idea was to do Jesus like Caravaggio.

Taken from Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane by Andrew Graham-Dixon (Allen Lane). Read our review of this book

Peter Doig – Painter

It's always a challenge for a contemporary artist to be of their time but when you look at Caravaggio's paintings you can really imagine the context, because he used ordinary people and everyday clothes.

The paintings feel very real. Edward Hopper, for instance, did the same. He was very aware of what people looked like in his time, what people were wearing. Equally Caravaggio's paintings were obviously very brave when they were made and they continue to be viewed with that spirit, and that's what's so exciting. The paintings are quite sinister – they have an air of menace, and they're obviously very sexual.

I first saw his work at the Royal Academy's Painting in Naples exhibition in the early 80s. I was in my early 20s then and I'd been aware of his work before but I'd not really paid it much attention. I found them immediately accessible, and quite different from other Renaissance paintings.

Sometimes the paintings actually don't seem quite right. I'm not talking about the straight portraits, but works like The Seven Acts of Mercy, where it looks as though he's looked at seven different incidents and then pieced together a picture out of these incidents. So there's no kind of logic to it in a realist way – it's not pretending to be a scene that you would actually see. In it two grown-up cherubs seem to be flying sideways. Initially you wonder what they're doing there because they seem very awkward. But when you twist your head you see they're obviously having sex. It's quite an extraordinary piece of painting in its own right within the full painting. I was quite excited and very surprised when I first saw that. It seemed very radical. I remember thinking that he must've enjoyed himself when he was making his work.

By Peter Doig

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