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National Gallery puts its money on Caravaggio

Hype is to the art world what a horse is to a carriage: it makes the wheels go 'round.

But when National Gallery of Canada director Marc Mayer, speaking at a media conference in Toronto Wednesday, described an upcoming exhibition at his Ottawa institution as being "a once-in-a-lifetime experience," it wasn't an exaggerated flight of fancy.

Because the exhibition in question, Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome, is truly a very big deal, dare one say a blockbuster, featuring 10 paintings by the controversial Italian Old Master (1571-1610) whose stormy life (he killed a man in 1606), virtuosity, bravura chiaroscuro and powerful narrative drive have bewitched artists, filmmakers, playwrights and authors for decades.

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The Caravaggios are going to be flanked by 50 works by sundry European Caravaggisti (the term given to those Baroque artists influenced by Caravaggio) including such notables as Artemisia Gentileschi, Jusepe de Ribera and Simon Vouet.

Opening June 17 and running through Sept. 11, the show will be the first-ever Caravaggio exhibition in this country, and the second-largest display, ever, of his paintings in North America - a feat bested only by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art Caravaggio showcase in 1985 which featured about 35 of his works.

Intriguingly, while there are an estimated 70 paintings authenticated, more or less, as Caravaggios in the world, none is held by any Canadian art institution or private collector. Unsurprisingly, it took four "long and complicated" years for the show's curators, David Franklin, former deputy director of the NGC, now director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, and Sebastian Schütze, chair of the history department at the University of Vienna and author of Caravaggio: The Complete Works, to persuade the Metropolitan, the Louvre, the Prado and the Ufizzi, among others, to loan their holdings.

Included in the show, which concentrates on Caravaggio's output during his "Rome period," from 1592 to 1606, are such famous, highly dramatic canvasses as The Musicians, Sacrifice of Isaac, Boy Bitten by a Lizard and Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy.

Another indisputable highlight is Gentileschi's gruesomely arresting Judith Beheading Holofernes, completed in 1613. To stir things up even more, Schütze is planning to include a painting that some scholars attribute to Caravaggio and others do not. (He declined to name the work Wednesday.) After its Ottawa berth, the exhibition travels to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Tex. Oct. 16-Jan. 8, 2012.

The NGC also announced that for its 2011-12 season it will host, April 11 through June 3, a mini-retrospective of the works of Louise Bourgeois (whose spider sculpture, Maman, at the NGC's entrance, has become a sort of logo for the gallery).

Starting next week and running through May 15 is On the Edge of Experience, a retrospective of paintings, installations and videos by Winnipeg artist Wanda Koop.

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Three photography shows are scheduled: 19th-century British photographs (on now through Apr. 17), Street Photographs by pioneering colour photographer Fred Herzog (June 4-Sept. 5) and Made in America 1900-1950s featuring work by masters such as Edward Steichen, Walker Evans, Lisette Model and Weegee.

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James More

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