Rome exhibition showcases art rebels Caravaggio and Bacon | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 18.12.2009
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Rome exhibition showcases art rebels Caravaggio and Bacon

The Borghese Gallery in Rome is showcasing paintings by 17th century master Caravaggio alongside those of the 20th century painter Francis Bacon. Centuries apart, the bad boys of the arts world meet at last.

Caravaggio 1597/1600: Giuditta e Oloferne. Oil on canvas. Palazzo Barberini. Photo: © Luciano Romano

Caravaggio's depiction of Judith and Holofernes

Rome's Borghese Gallery has defied the staid art world by bringing together a pair of revolutionary and rebellious artists for the first time in a major exhibition.

The artists do not stem from the same school of painting, nor is there evidence that Caravaggio inspired Bacon. Still, the curators decided to ignore the academic approach that demands a specific link within exhibitions, instead encouraging visitors to experience these tormented and talented artists side-by-side and come to their own conclusions.

In the exhibition, housed in a 17th-century villa, an impressive collection of over 30 paintings are spread out over nine rooms. The masterpieces convey how the two artists tackled realism in distinct ways, yet viewers will also find that - both on canvas and in life - the similarities between the two artists are striking.

"They have two extreme artistic sensibilities that were played out many years apart," said Anna Coliva, director of the Borghese Gallery and curator of the exhibition. "Bacon is one of the most spiritual and dramatic artists of the 1900s. Caravaggio, of course, is the artist that made drama a unique focus of his work."

Both artists also had plenty of drama in their own lives. Francis Bacon, the painter, is believed to have been a descendent of Elizabethan philosopher Sir Francis Bacon. His artistic works include countless distorted, homoerotic portraits, while his lover's suicide was a tragic event in his personal life.

Francis Bacon 1980: Three Studies for a Self Portrait. Oil on canvas 35,5 x 30,5 cm. Private collection. Photo: © Antonio Idini

Francis Bacon's life was dogged by violence and tragedy

Caravaggio, for his part, was a notorious brawler who ended up murdering a man. While scholars are divided about whether or not he was gay, the artist did create portraits with a homoerotic feel. His realistic portrayals of religious scenes often infuriated his papal patrons.

How to lose patrons and influence art

It is unlikely that either Caravaggio or Bacon deliberately set out to thwart the art establishment.

"He must have known that (his paintings) were completely outside any tradition," museum guide Britta Goergens said. "He must have known that people could become angry, but it doesn't seem to me that he did it to provoke people. I think it's the same case with Bacon."

Caravaggio's critics claimed his paintings were too real and natural, with the era favoring high mannerism in stylized portraits. Saints were supposed to be saintly, and Caravaggio's interpretations ended up infuriating the Church, particularly the painting currently on display entitled "Madonna and Child with Saint Anne." The church rejected the commissioned work, declaring it "indecent."

"They complained about the Virgin Mary being too beautiful," Goergens said, pointing to the Madonna with luminescent white breasts filling her bodice. It didn't help that the model was supposedly one of Rome's most famous prostitutes.

The depiction of Jesus as a little boy with genitals and St. Anne as an old, wrinkled woman further ruffled the papacy, which wanted to throw away the painting. The work was saved by another man of the cloth, Cardinal Scipione Borghese. The painting became part of the permanent collection of the gallery bearing the cardinal's family name.

Popes swinging in the 1960s scene

Francis Bacon 1949: Head VI. Oil on canvas 93,2 x 76, 5 cm. Arts Council Collection, London. Photo: © The Estate of Francis Bacon

Head VI is based on Velázquez's portrait of Pope Innocent X

Francis Bacon arrived on the art scene long after popes stopped paying for art, but he still took it upon himself to create more than 50 portraits of pontiffs. His obsession with the portrait genre was rebellious, especially in the 1960s. Artists had largely abandoned the human figure in favor of abstract art. Meanwhile, Bacon, who had studied the old masters, stepped back in time to reinvent the papal portrait, often with a sick twist.

The current exhibition in Rome displays Bacon's "Head VI," which might better be called half of a head since the pope's forehead and eyes are missing. The mouth is open in a toothy, violent scream.

Bacon created the painting from a photo of Diego Velazquez's famous 1650 portrait of Pope Innocent X. He used the photo, even though he could have easily viewed the original in a Rome gallery. Bacon said the photo freed him from the need to be exact.

Bacon is quoted as saying that the pope series had nothing to do with religion but was the result of his obsession with reproducing Velazquez's work.

"It's very improbable that he did not want to comment on the Church, the pope's position and so on," Goergens said. "After all, he chose to depict a shrewd pope who ruled in the 17th century when the papacy held tremendous power."

Painting as therapy

For both men, the canvas became a therapist's couch.

"It's life reflected in art," Goergens said. "It's not an artist following one particular theory, but the artist continuously wanting his life to be reflected in his artwork."

The 1971 suicide of Bacon's lover George Dyer is shown in a griping three-part series. In the first, life oozes from Dyer in a violet puddle of blood. The second panel shows the two men's contorted bodies intertwined, followed by the third panel of Bacon alone with the same shocking pool of blood underneath him.

Caravaggio's paintings also turn a mirror on his tragic life, with the artist's "David with the Head of Goliath" in the Borghese Gallery reflecting on far more than just the biblical story.

Caravaggio 1605‐1606: Davide con la testa di Golia. Oil on canvas 125 x 101 cm. Galleria Borghese. Photo: © Luciano Romano

Caravaggio used his own features for the severed head of Golaith

Caravaggio completed this dark masterpiece in 1610. He had previously killed a man and fled Rome, fearing he would have to face the death penalty. He then realized his art could help him rewrite the doomed last chapter of his life. "David with the Head of Goliath" became the only painting the artist ever signed, and was sent as an offer of penitence to his patrons - the collector Cardinal Scipione Borghese and the Pope.

"He painted his self-portrait into the freshly cut head of Goliath," Goergens said.

The head has black, rotting teeth, a gaping open mouth and an expression of horror not unlike that of Bacon's "Pope Innocent X." It is known that Caravaggio was sick at the time of painting. His body was never found, and speculation about the cause of his death continues to this day.

17th-century villa welcomes a modern tenant

Scipione Borghese built what he called a "villa of delights" to house his eclectic collection, which also included paintings by Tiziano, Raffaello and others.

With its frescoed ceilings and Bernini's life-like sculptures, the Borghese villa seems frozen in time. The Caravaggio-Bacon exhibition, however, brings past and present into explosive contact.

The works will be on display until January 24.

Author: Nancy Greenleese

Editor: Louisa Schaefer

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