Master portraitist Gwenneth Barth describes the realist painter as one always treading a tightrope between two worlds—the conscious mind and its perception of reality—adding: “But are these really different worlds?” This is precisely the question provoked by a highly unique exhibit bringing together thirty masterworks of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 – 1610) and Francis Bacon (1909 – 1992) displayed in nine salons at Rome’s Borghese Gallery. The organizers, Claudio Strinati and Michael Peppiatt, assert that the aim is neither to connect these two figures historically nor to compare them according to generally accepted standards of criticism, but rather to give the viewer an extraordinary “aesthetic experience” on the occasion of the fourth centennial of Caravaggio’s death and the first of Bacon’s birth. Be that as it may, even those wishing merely to gawk at the spellbinding canvases of two of art’s most famous bad boys will leave pondering the relation between the conscious mind and its perception of reality.
If Caravaggio and Bacon have anything in common, it is a thoroughgoing realism. Caravaggio’s is readily visible in the filthy feet of the pilgrims keeling at the doorsill of the “Loreto Madonna” (1604-06) or the calloused hands of the fisherman exonerating himself in “Peter’s Denial” (1609-10). Caravaggio’s painstaking attention to detail stems neither from mimetic extremism nor an obsession with ugliness. Rather it performs a theological function of foregrounding the fleshiness of Christian incarnation. Even in religious paintings where Jesus does not appear, Caravaggio’s characters exude a spiritual reality precisely by means of a heightened sensitivity to quotidian messiness. The theatrical lighting, an effect which easily could have backfired, only serves to strengthen the impact. An early example of this is seen in the exquisite “Repentant Mary Magdalene” (1595-97). Situated in the lower picture frame and clothed in a heavy damask, the foreshortened figure of Mary silently reflects on her sinful past. Her downcast eyes show that she acknowledges her fault, and her gentle smile suggests that interiorly she is now able to perceive her sins as God does—sheer folly—laughing within at both her own foolishness and the “foolishness” of a God who would pardon someone like herself. A flash of Caravaggio’s brilliance can be perceived in the ray of light softly streaming from the left and entering the frame at the center. It somehow manages to infuse the figure even without striking her directly. It indiscriminately illuminates the pearls, jewelry and carafe symbolizing the life she has left behind. Caravaggio’s use of light here is far from academic. Neither is it a way of “externally” introducing the presence of the divine from “outside” the subject. Its source is always “other” even though it simultaneously radiates from its destination. The illuminated thus signifies the illuminator in the way that nature signifies grace and the visible alludes to the invisible without confusion. As is evident in “Resurrection of Lazarus” (1609), “Saint Jerome writing” (1612), and—oddly enough—in “Self-Portrait as Bacchus” (1593-94), Caravaggio’s figurative realism is a spiritual realism that views all reality as the dynamic signification of redeeming grace.
Bacon’s realism is also spiritual, but a much more complex type, bereft of redemption. His images present the unmitigated reality of anguish and pain without offering any interpretation of it. Indeed, there is nothing to interpret since, in his eyes, the visible does not signify anything: it points to nothing beyond itself. Bacon swam against the tide of abstractionism since he saw nothing to abstract either “to” of “from.” The image alone mattered, and Bacon went to enormous lengths to capture it. Even the three-dimensional boxes that enclose many of his subjects are nothing other than a technical device. “I cut down the scale of the canvas by drawing in these rectangles which concentrate the image down. Just to see it better.” Consequently, viewing the rectangles around “Two Figures” (1975) as symbolic of the isolation experienced by the two entwined figures dilutes the poignancy of their actual isolation—an isolation all the more pitiful since it is not mollified by their togetherness but rather caused by it. Similarly, Bacon’s use of distortion, unlike a cubist, is not to give us a simultaneous view from several different perspectives; he simply wishes to present the truth (which is itself distorted) unpretentiously. His ability to do so with the subtlest of changes in the contour of his brushwork was unparalleled in the twentieth century, as a close study of the hands in “Study for Portrait” (1971) awesomely reveals.
Bacon’s realism permeated even his work habits. At various points in his career he made an effort to prevent lines from giving rise to pictures other than those he intended to draw. This explains his penchant for portraiture. Most striking in this exhibit is his “Study for Portrait III (After the Life Mask of William Blake)” (1955) which, in its vertical, dichromatic simplicity, patterned after only a postcard, exemplifies the enormous depth of portrayal Bacon was capable of by using the most economical materials and means. Similar economical genius can be seen in “Head VI” (1949) and “Three Studies for a Self-Portrait” (1980).
This extraordinary exhibit shows that from a technical standpoint Caravaggio and Bacon are quite similar: ingenuous in the craft of painting, intuitive in the act of composition, and exacting in the standards of representation. Yet their shared realism is perhaps what most separates them from each another. Explaining his theory of portraiture, Bacon remarked that “the sitter is someone of flesh and blood and what has to be caught is their emanation.” What emanates from all his sitters, each in his or her utterly unique way, is the accidental and futile insignificance of human existence. We can only make something out of ourselves by beguiling ourselves, and we can only do this, Bacon remarked, by “buying a kind of immortality.” For Caravaggio, that immortality had already been bought, and at quite a high price. He, like Bacon, was fascinated by folly and irrationality, but he considered these engulfed in a sea of infinite and incomprehensible love. Bacon had no qualms about striving after a feigned immortality, and the pursuit of it quickened him with an irrepressible desire to live the game as fully as possible.
Granted, the organizers of the exhibition did not intend for visitors to connect these two figures historically or to compare them critically. Yet how can we resist? The similarity in difference could not be more extreme. Caravaggio and Bacon lived in historical epochs marked by radically different conceptions of the human person and our place in the cosmos, but they were both resolutely independent artists of extraordinarily rare talent. As for the “aesthetic experience” augured by the organizers, it seems to have something to do with the real, both beautiful and ugly, formed and deformed, rational and irrational. Whether the conscious mind and its perception of reality are one world or two depends on whether we choose to view these paradoxes as significant or insignificant, meaningful or absurd. I have never visited an exhibition that paints more starkly what’s at stake in the choice.