Caravaggio and Rembrandt

    Against these natural differences, we can weigh a couple of artificial similarities. If you are silly enough to have a top five of old masters, and I’m afraid I am and I do, these two must be in it. Both of them are unusually popular. And if you remain generous in your definition of the baroque age, and concede that it lasted from 1600 to 1700, our nominated pair could be called the greatest painters of this age, presuming, of course, you ignore the claims of Velazquez and Rubens.

    So we’re skating on perilously thin ice here. The truth is that nobody ought to have come up with a two-handed blockbuster devoted to both of them, and particularly not the Van Gogh Museum, in Amsterdam, which has nothing whatsoever to do with either painter. They have done it, I suspect, because it is Rembrandt’s 400th birthday this year, and an ostentatious celebration was called for. Yet exhibition-making is a dark art, as you know, that conjures up strange achievements. This unlikely birthday event has unexpectedly ended up as an exceptionally stimulating show.

    It is well known that Rembrandt was influenced by Caravaggio. Every significant artist of these times was influenced by Caravaggio. But where precisely did this influence lead? To answer that question, 15 Caravaggios have been involved in a set of dramatic face-offs with a similar number of Rembrandts. In the first of these, Caravaggio’s outrageously violent splatter scene of Judith Beheading Holofernes squares up to Rembrandt’s even more violent Blinding of Samson. At the end of the show, Belshazzar’s Feast, Rembrandt’s thrilling biblical whopper from our own National Gallery, squeezes itself onto a wall with Caravaggio’s momentous Supper at Emmaus, which is like watching two semi trucks driving down the same country lane. Somewhere in the middle, Rembrandt’s lovely costume piece of his beloved Saskia dressed up as the goddess Flora partners Caravaggio’s superbly poignant fantasy of Mary Magdalene as a mother-to-be, hunched on a nursing chair, cradling a baby that isn’t there. So they both did violence, they both did banquets and they both did tenderness.

    Thus, on its most basic level, the setup delivers two old masters for the price of one, and does so in spades. Almost all the paintings involved in this carefully contrived contretemps can be fairly described as important pictures. That’s only the beginning, though. Where you might expect the hybrid to deliver uncertainty, what it actually brings is clarity. Placing one old master next to another achieves what an expanse of red does for an expanse of green in a Van Gogh painting: it heightens the contrast and gives both colours a fiercer presence. Since each of the pairings involves a different type of picture — portraits, nude boys, biblical betrayals — the bout appears to intensify and grow as it unfolds. Two geniuses are going 15 rounds for the heavyweight championship of the baroque. Who wins? I’ll come to that.

    Rembrandt not only never met Caravaggio, but, amazingly, never saw a Caravaggio painting. The show sports an amusing preamble, therefore, that reveals how Caravaggio’s revolutionary message was transported from Rome to Amsterdam in shaky fashion by a wonky bunch of Dutch groupies. These Dutch Caravaggisti are shown up immediately by the actual Caravaggio masterpiece that now hangs in their midst, and raises the show’s bar to an immodest height from the off.

    St Andrew on the Cross, released on compassionate leave from the Cleveland Museum of Art, where nobody ever sees it, is a ruthlessly compelling religious masterpiece. What a fantastic picture. It’s night-time. The body of a half-naked old man — Andrew, the first apostle — has been tied roughly to a cross, around which his murderers gather in a barging and bustling pack, like hyenas at a kill. This sweaty action is picked out for us dramatically, as if in the headlights of a car. It is happening so close to the front of the picture, you think you can touch it. Thus, Caravaggio invades our reality. What he is doing here is yanking religious art off its altar and shoving it under our nose. These are not generalised biblical types hired from Rent-a-Saint, murdering each other before us. These are flesh-and-blood heavies, glistening and howling in the dark: character actors with tangible faces and bodies experiencing tangible pain. So the first of this show’s achievements is to clarify, with its opening move, just how radical Caravaggio was. He invented a new set of rules for art. His paintings threw a bucket of water into art’s face and rudely woke it up.

    Rembrandt could never match this radicalism. Caravaggio got there before him and, in any case, Rembrandt was never a firebrand. The first painting by him that you see is absolutely tiny; it shows two old men in a dark room discussing a book, probably Peter and Paul in saintly disputation. Because it is so small, you need to lean in to examine it and, immediately, your relationship with Rembrandt’s art becomes entirely personal, in a way it never is with Caravaggio.

    Primed by the circumstances to spot some similarities, you note quickly that the two old men are impeccably knobbly and human, and that the scruffy still-life details make everything feel real and observed. This action is spotlit, too. But not by headlights. The warm glow that illuminates the two old boys seems instead to come from a roaring fire.

    Caravaggio may have taught the entire baroque age that the human imagination sees more in the dark, but his darkness is always black as tar, utterly impenetrable, a satanic backcloth against which the action is pinned. Rembrandt, on the other hand, gives us a darkness with shadows in it, and outlines and gloom. It is the actual darkness of an ordinary room, not the pretend darkness of the Donmar Warehouse.

    So, the show has immediately noted and emphasised their differences. Rembrandt is an altogether warmer, friendlier and cosier presence than Caravaggio. He doesn’t want to invade your reality, he wants to tell you a story. And you would certainly choose him for an uncle ahead of the dangerous and unbalanced Caravaggio. Yet in terms of innovation and radicalism, Caravaggio’s is the more startling art. Three hundred years before the invention of photography, he was already employing a photographer’s tricks, with his unusual viewpoints and his cropped figures pressed against the frame. While Rembrandt was basically happy to set his action in the middle of the picture, in compositions that are relaxed and practical, Caravaggio’s stuff jumps in front of you like a changing slide. He was unquestionably a more modern presence. Whether that is necessarily a good thing is utterly questionable. Rembrandt made things look real in order to speak your language.

    Caravaggio does it to scare you out of your wits. Both of them prefer the dark, but whereas Rembrandt’s gloom is homely and comforting, Caravaggio’s is sinister and nightmarish.

    Although I would score the beginning of the contest to Caravaggio, Rembrandt’s contribution becomes stronger, braver and more potent as the show progresses. He lived almost twice as long as the nocturnal Italian and had twice as much time to mature and grow. A couple of his late pieces — the astonishingly free and thick cowpat of oils that is The Jewish Bride, or Belshazzar’s Feast, in which the king sports a brooch as petite as a dustbin lid — scream with a passion for paint that you never sense in the uptight and anal handiwork of Caravaggio. In the end, Rembrandt dared to do what Caravaggio never wanted.

    So, who wins? Neither, of course. It’s a glorious draw on points. The real winner here is art.