BANGKOK — Drama worthy of the looming chiaroscuro images themselves has erupted between the art critics who’ve turned their noses up at a digital exhibition of an Italian Renaissance master and the unilluminated folks who find it inspiring.

Soon after a massive Caravaggio exhibition opened at the Bangkok Arts and Culture Centre with 40 paintings digitally printed and displayed in glowing light boxes, it drew the ire of purists who faulted it as gauche and inauthentic.

“If you like looking at the light boxes with inkjet stickers on them found at bus stations, you’ll like this exhibit,” artist and party magnate Pongsuang “Note” Kunprasop wrote in an online magazine article shared widely via his Dudesweet network. “It’s imperative that if you want to absorb Caravaggio’s genius, you must see the originals.”

If that wasn’t enough to set off a shitstorm, Pongsuang’s article was provocatively titled “The Caravaggio Exhibition at the BACC Makes Me Pity This Country’s Art Lovers.”

“I’m not trying to argue that ‘inkjet can’t be art.’ Of course it can, contemporary artists like Wade Guyton has been making famous works for a decade,” Pongsuang wrote.

For those unlikely to have encountered a Caravaggio – or have any clue who Guyton is – visiting the exhibition left many with a different impression, and a baroque drama tagged #CaravaggioOperaOmnia soon erupted on Twitter.

“Hopefully one day I’ll get to go see the originals in Europe. But even then, I wouldn’t get to put my face so close to them, since they’re up on church walls or behind ropes for security,” 24-year-old Kornhirun Nikornsaen said in an interview after tweeting passionately in response. 

Kornhirun said she was especially enamoured with the reproduction of “Saint Catherine.”

“I was really happy to go. I could see all the golden threads on her dress,” she said. “It’s an HD print, and I could see all the details, like the cracks in the paintings. I could go up as close as I wanted.”

She said people who criticise the fact the works are replicas didn’t read up on the exhibition and don’t understand that importing the originals would be impossible.

“The lightbox is an interpretation,” she said, adding that people should ignore the haters. “If you don’t care about these critics, you can enjoy the exhibition.”

The debate drew in the center’s new director Pawit Mahasarinand, who defended the curatorial decision.

“Even if we had the funds and sponsors to bring in the original Caravaggios, we wouldn’t do it, because it’s not what we do,” Pawit said Wednesday. “There’s a misunderstanding that the BACC is a museum. It’s actually a center for education. We want to present modern art and culture.”

Read: Take Risks, Include More: New Bangkok Art Center Head

Pawit, who is also an art professor, said he welcomes the criticism and debate.

“But we have to admit that the number of art critics and art theorists is much fewer than regular people,” he said. “We’re not ignoring them, but we have to be accessible and serve the people, since that’s who funds the BACC.”

“We wanted to introduce Caravaggio to normal people and inspire them,” Pawit added.

Caravaggio: Opera Omnia is a touring exhibition sponsored by the Italian government. The exhibition landed in Bangkok to celebrate 150 years of Thai-Italian relations.

Still, those critical of the presentation – especially Pongsuang – found the format underwhelming.

“A 150 years of friendship for 40 inkjet pictures? Thank you very mush [sic] ti amo me love you long time na,” Pongsuang wrote, acerbically. “If Italy could lend one real Caravaggio it would be worth queueing up to look at it, just like people queue up at the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa.”

Read: Catch Caravaggio: Italian Master Comes to Bangkok, Digitally

 

“Thank you so much for giving many people who don’t have a chance to go see the originals. At the very least we can get to know more about historical art, and inspire us to save up to go see the real thing,” tweeted @symphony_221B.


@iGattiDolci posts comparison photos of seeing the original Caravaggios with the BACC exhibition.

Caravaggio: Opera Omnia runs at the BACC until June 10. Every Tuesday until the end of May at 6pm, Silpakorn University students will perform jazz pieces inspired by Caravaggio within the exhibition.

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