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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Why the Trump and Merkel photo echoes a 15th century Baroque Italian masterpiece

Well, his is a face that has launched a thousand memes: defiant, petulant, uncomprehending

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is illuminated in the photo, with the statesmen around her looking almost posed - how very Caravaggio. Reuters
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is illuminated in the photo, with the statesmen around her looking almost posed - how very Caravaggio. Reuters

Our art critic takes on the photo of the week...

If you’ve logged on to Twitter recently, read a newspaper, or even just opened your eyes, you might have seen the photograph above from the recent G7 conference, showing an intense face-off between Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and Donald Trump, president, to most of the world’s dismay, of the United States.

Many Twitter wags are comparing it to a Caravaggio, or saying it’s a Renaissance painting – but why?

First of all – if we’re being pedantic, and we are – those aren’t the same thing. Caravaggio was active about fifty years after the tail end of the Renaissance, and his work is mostly seen as a precursor to Baroque painting – the wild styling of psychological states that reacted to the cool, serene images of Renaissance work.

But they both feature extraordinary verisimilitude: the Renaissance’s key invention was perspective, and European work from the Renaissance until the 19th century is characterised by extreme realism, as if the paintings were photographs. Indeed, one theory is that the invention of photography liberated painting from its need to depict; if you’re interested, the modernism room at Louvre Abu Dhabi provides a good snapshot of representationality unravelling.

However, back to our subject: lots of artists painted realistically, so why refer to Caravaggio, the enfant terrible of 1590s Italy? The reasons are threefold: the moment of high tension, the extraordinary shock of Angela Merkel’s blue suit, and the use of strong lighting.

In the photograph from the G7, taken by the German government photographer Jesco Denzel, Merkel is in the spotlight, her blue suit nearly radiating in the light. This may be taking the argument a step too far, but for the record, blue was the traditional colour of the Virgin Mary in Renaissance painting, making Merkel’s suit colour a typical shade.

All these dramatic effects add up to create a moment that looks almost fake or posed – like, I suppose, a painting.

The strong lighting is called, in art-historical circles, chiaroscuro, and Caravaggio deployed it to extraordinary dramatic effect. Indeed he used it so well and so intently that art historians have given it a new term, a kind of Chiaroscuro Mach II, or "tenebrism". He would set the important parts of the painting – here, Merkel and Trump – in brightness, and others in shadow, with little intermediate shading between light and dark.

As an example, look at the virtuosic The Taking of Christ, in the collection of the National Gallery of Ireland, where the anguished faces of Christ and the disciples seem spotlit, while those of the guards remain, metaphorically and literally, in shadow.

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