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Caravaggio Bacon (2009-10)

Galleria Borghese, Rome. 02 October 2009-24 January 2010

Photographs by Domenico Ventura © Galleria Borghese

Essay by Anna Coliva

Extract taken from the Caravaggio-Bacon catalogue (Milan: Motta, 2010), pages 17-19. Reproduced with the kind permission of the Galleria Borghese.


This exhibition proposes a juxtaposition of Bacon and Caravaggio. It intends to offer visitors an opportunity for an aesthetic experience rather than an educational one, because this is not an exhibition of history: neither history of forms nor history of individuals in their time, that is, art history. It does not intend to study the two artists philologically in order to conjecture that Caravaggio had some kind of influence on Bacon.

An exhibition is generally conceived and prepared with a historicist mentality, but when it materialises, the simultaneous presence of the works—in the sense precisely of their hanging—opens up parallels and poses very complex and spontaneous questions, which may even be unexpected and not all stem exactly from questions initially posed by art-historical motives and theses. There are parallels that appear by themselves to the visitor’s sensibility and are not imposed by a theory of the curator. This is certainly one aspect of the vitality of exhibitions, which makes the works live and in this are necessary for the works. The display itself, in the sense of the presentation of the works that appear in an exhibition—the spectacle of their being on display—creates trains of thought that are independent of the interpretations provided by art-historical scholarship. And since for a profound experience of understanding a work these ramifications sometimes are more surprising and significant than the achievements of a specialised scholarship in its own field of action, an art raised to the status of an enigma like Bacon’s seems to require the gamble of provoking these parallels. And since at the same time, and again because of its qualitative greatness, Caravaggio’s art deserves a similar provocation, the juxtaposition thus satisfies a legitimate aesthetic desire. On the other hand, the juxtaposition is a modest and prudent solution, not so much for demonstrating, but for offering the attribute of ‘genius’—which the expressive common language attributes to the great artists of the past—opportunities to manifest itself. And the juxtaposition is induced by the Galleria Borghese itself, one of the most sensitive spaces with the simultaneous presence of genius.

Bacon’s painting makes no references to Caravaggio, except for the conjecture that the figure of the Narcissus in the Galleria Barberini, which some scholars still attribute to the latter, provided a mnemonic suggestion for Triptych—Studies of the Human Body, 1970. But this is not decisive, because the interpretative key of this exhibition is not the conventional one of formal stylistic influences. Nor does Caravaggio occupy a significant position among the artistic preferences that Bacon so abundantly and generously cited. But Bacon’s critical eye—that which forms his culture as a connoisseur of painting—certainly knows a lot about Caravaggio; not in the unconscious depths of his psyche, but in the sensitive and even instinctive ones of his intellectual taste.

Bacon distrusted the logic of stylistic descent established by critics as stories of conscious influences, and when a conversation or an interview led him to talk about an artist or a painting he did it totally and explicitly independently of his own work. His knowledge of old and modern art—of the old masters—was profound in terms of its intelligence and originality, but came above all from dazzlingly original emotions and perceptions, and even though his intellectual attractions regarding art are precious for deciphering his paintings and understanding the formation of his imagination, they are not indispensable. The fundamental reason for this exhibition stems from the observation that Bacon talked about the art of the past as the aesthetic experience of an observer of outstanding genius, but which does not necessarily produce a direct influence so much on his painting as on his personality and his critical consciousness. Therefore, the intention is in no way to describe his evolution through his works.

Bacon was very secretive about his own painting, and especially protective of its motivation and methods. When induced to talk about it, his concern was to prevent the person with whom he was talking from making inappropriate inferences, and especially from explaining his creative processes by simplifying them according to a rational scheme, and this frequently led him to talk about the questions with reference to the great, recurrent fundamental processes of art and aesthetic experience. Therefore, juxtaposition—which is one of the basic and most elementary modes of cultural action—can be revealing. Bacon had an ambivalent attitude of attraction and reluctance towards the aesthetic act of juxtaposition, as exemplified by The Artist’s Eye at the National Gallery of London in 1985, for which he ‘curated’ the mounting of a group of works he had selected, and by the mediation of photography with respect to the original painting. With the passage of time and the advance of history, it becomes almost obligatory for scholars to make the importance of a painting or an exhibition emerge from its display, create aesthetic experiences, and propose comparisons regardless of either the artist’s wish or the documentation of historical and critical philology. Like a concert in which the performer chooses a juxtaposition of pieces that in itself constitutes the original character of the event, while he brings to life the related identities of the single composers. This is a possibility when the work becomes an autonomous aesthetic value in a context that replaces the centrality of the critical thesis with the centrality of place and the juxtaposition of works it allows.