Five Lowbrow Reasons to See the Caravaggio Show at the Kimbell

Caravaggio was just 38 years old when he died in 1610, but he initiated profound change in European art with his in-your-face tableaux, his aggressive use of light and shadow (called chiaroscuro, which is fun to say), his use of live models, and the earthy drama of his paintings. Caravaggio made art juicy, and other artists adopted his style

"Caravaggio and his Followers in Rome" opens at the Kimbell Art Museum on Sunday. The show, a collaboration between the Kimbell and National Gallery of Canada, will hang here until January 8, its only appearance in the United States.

Ten paintings by Caravaggio and more than 40 by European painters he influenced hang in a suite of spacious galleries in the Kimbell. This show is a bound to big crowd pleaser, and here are five reasons why.

1. Caravaggiomania! That's how a 2010 article in Art in America described the artist's popularity on the 400th anniversary of his death. Caravaggio was famous in his own day, then nearly forgotten. His popularity started picking up in the 1950s, escalated in the 1980s, now he's the Monet of Renaissance artists.

2. Caravaggio was a badass. Most of what art historians know about Caravaggio comes from police records. He found many of his models on the streets of Rome and had prostitutes pose for religious paintings. He was a brawler, he was sued for libel, he had to flee Rome after murdering a pimp.

3. The paintings are like beautiful cartoons. You can practically add dialog balloons to these paintings. Some stories you might already know, like David and Goliath and St. John the Baptist in the wilderness. But you can make up your own stories for the animated tableaux of pickpockets, card cheats, and hapless rubes.

4. Caravaggio kept it real. Caravaggio painted crooks and lowlifes no differently than he painted saints. "It was a revolutionary idea, raising low life up to the scale usually associated with religious paintings," said Kimbell deputy director Malcolm Warner. And vice versa: In religious paintings, Caravaggio's saints and angels look like flesh and blood. "He plays up the real and plays down the supernatural," said Warner.

5. A room full of decapitated heads. The gallery theme is "The Sacred Narrative," and we're talking Old Testament. David looking a freaked out, holding Golaith's massive noggin; Judith and her maid with a blood-dripping basketful of Holofernes head; Abraham about to slice into Isaac. Gnarly.

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Sophia Dembling

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