Can an object really ever be out of place? Is it not us who are out of sorts when we find something misplaced? And that jolt which occurs as the mind fails to put it where we think it should be is the sensation of liberation as we discover and think anew.
So it is with an art exhibition like Beyond Caravaggio at the National Gallery. As I write, it is about to close its doors for the last time, allowing the paintings it brought together to return to their more accustomed surroundings. Most are familiar, some because they are burdened with the title of masterpieces, and several because they did have far to travel to take up their accommodation in the Sainsbury Wing: those exhibits are ones which are more often to be found resting upstairs against the walls of the main gallery. But what their temporary residence allowed was to see them afresh and it is about one of those I write now.
It is easy to understand why Adam de Coster’s ‘A Man singing by candlelight’ was thought appropriate for an exhibition named after Caravaggio. It is a bravura display of chiaroscuro in the style we relate to the Roman artist and to Georges de la Tour.
I must have passed it several times on previous visits to the National but something about its positioning in the exhibition arrested me. Perhaps it was the fact that, even in comparison with the other candlelit scenes displayed in the room, there is something audacious or downright odd about this painting. How many early seventeenth-century artists would be willing to place at the very centre of their picture what, in effect, is black space? If it were a century later, we might compare it with the blank pages in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. As it is we are more likely to ignore it and to concentrate on the artistry of the light thrown on the man’s face. We might even consider the invisible music book as an interruption or a blemish. What, on the contrary, struck me on this occasion was how that blackness unlocks the painting, how its illegibility helps us read it.
What, it seemed to me, standing before it in the over-crowded room (more on that another time) was that it spoke of an inverted world, a place in which we are the shadows. We are invited in, encouraged to imagine that we are there before the musician — for who else could be his audience? — but also kept at a distance. We are on the other side, where the light does not fall and where what we assume are words and notes is blackness. What cave is this we inhabit? One where we are incapable of reading — oh, but surely that is precisely what we are doing, explicating the painting as if its surface was a text. Except, of course, that we, in effect, are attempting to read in dark; we are in the wrong position to dicipher fully. So, let’s draw nearer and enter the painting’s world. But if we try that, our own penumbral status would melt in the warmth of the candle; we would lose our place. We believe — we have to believe — that we are more real than the image we are facing. After all, we have our senses. We know there is, in truth, no book and no space, just daubs of paint on the canvas. We can proudly say we have eyes to see. We can see, at the heart of the picture, precisely nothing. Is that achievement? Or is that the beam in our eye which makes us see absence? We also have ears to hear but do we hear the music? If we do not, is that the painting’s failing or ours?