Unwelcome rise of a truly awful artist
Jacob Willer examines the extravagant claims made about an Italian painter hailed as the saviour of revivalism
Revivalism in art is not a new phenomenon, and nor is it always bad — indeed it would be possible to write a history of the progress of European art since the Renaissance entirely in terms of revivalism — but its merits depend on its motives. So as a broad but concerted endeavour to revive “traditional” painting is now quietly gaining momentum, it is time to ask about the origins and the direction of the movement. Is revivalist painting now driven more by artistic or by political concerns? The answer can never be as simple as one or the other; yet it is crucial to ascertain the balance.
A troubling case in point is provided by the work of Giovanni Gasparro who, at still just 36, has been heralded as the movement’s saviour in Italy. He has had considerable success. Far from lurking in the shadows, his paintings have been exhibited widely, and alongside other paintings by some of the most illustrious masters in the history of Italian art; they have even been hung in the Casino dell’Aurora of the Palazzo Pallavicini Rospigliosi, in Rome, beneath Guido Reni’s Aurora fresco (perhaps the most celebrated image of the Italian baroque).
In 2011 Gasparro also had the rare opportunity to confront the mainstream contemporary art world when his traditionalist paintings were chosen, by the celebrity art critic Vittorio Sgarbi, to feature in the Venice Biennale. By now Gasparro has been collected by national museums; and he has repeatedly received patronage from the Catholic Church.
His most significant commission was in fact for a series of 18 paintings to decorate the altars of the ancient basilica of San Giuseppe, in L’Aquila, which had lost its original artworks in the devastating earthquake of 2009.
And it is easy enough to see why Gasparro’s style, aping Caravaggio, appealed to the authorities. The religious subjects have been literally and dutifully illustrated, and the images are legible even from a distance thanks to their exaggerated contrasts of light and dark. Furthermore, with Gasparro’s monochrome palette the paintings seem relatively unobtrusive in the architectural setting — especially if we imagine how distracting it would likely have been if the commission had gone to an assertively “contemporary” artist.
Gasparro’s sort of painting, being assertively “traditional” instead, may function well enough as a stand-in for original old art; but only from a distance. Perhaps it is that very evident — and definitively modern — self-consciousness about the work’s artistic status that in the first place holds it back and puts us off. Exactly like the mainstream contemporary art that Gasparro’s work is contrived to oppose, it is in some way a counterfeit, a mere token of art to serve some other cause. We just sense it; and so we naturally worry about what that cause might be.
Obviously it is a reactionary cause — a fact that Gasparro and his sponsors would surely not want to deny — and its justification lies only within the modern context for art. The traditional context for art was never political in the same way; while old paintings were often made explicitly to celebrate a ruler’s magnificence, say, or to flatter a rich man’s education and good taste, modern art actually evolved to embody political theories and attitudes. Modernism came along with Marxism, according to many of the most prominent art historians. In their books, they have tended to tell the story — the triumph of the avant-garde — in terms of a progressive dismantling of “bourgeois” taste; and in so doing they have tended to lump together for dismissal, with less and less regard for quality, whichever modern artworks fail to conform to a determinist reading of history.
In the beginning, they were usually dismissing highly polished nineteenth-century paintings in the style that we now call “academic”, but soon enough they developed a more general disdain for representational painting as such. At a certain point, the painterly motive to represent what is seen even became a cause for modernist suspicion, as if it were an intrinsically political motive. As if, in such complicated times, representation could only be a reaction.
Hitler’s infamous Degenerate Art exhibitions became a crucial reference point and, to some extent, an excuse. Just as Hitler categorised modernist art as “degenerate”, so the modernists could do the opposite — or do the same, in reverse — and attribute an unholy stench to any art that should seem to avow, while borrowing the authority of the grand old tradition, that there is still such a thing as truth in appearances. Such historical arguments, implications and slights have all to be factored in, if we are to make any sense of the traditionalist revival in painting today.
Because traditionalists such as Gasparro now see it as their job to goad the modernists who have taken over in the “establishment” — épater les anti-bourgeois — by making sure that their work embodies whatever it is that the progressivist ideology stands against. They revel in confirming the modernists’ worse suspicions. This is the “alt-right”, in art.
Gasparro himself has now taken this goading to appalling new lengths for his latest project, which is a pseudo-altarpiece entitled The Martyrdom of St Simon of Trent in Accordance with Jewish Ritual Murder. It illustrates the most notorious case of blood libel when, in 1475, the Jewish community of Trent was tortured into confessing to the killing of a two-year-old boy, with the intent to steal his blood. The Jews were then ceremonially burnt at the stake, while the cult of Simon spread far and wide.
Gasparro has illustrated the libel in his usual manner, and the result is quite the most antisemitic painting ever made
Gasparro has illustrated the libel in his usual, literal-minded manner, and the result is quite the most antisemitic painting ever made. Hook-nosed Jews with bloody fingers crowd around the blond Christian boy and cackle maniacally as their pliers edge ever-closer to his pure little penis. The work is already listed as in a private collection, so perhaps it was a commission — one shudders to imagine from whom — but there can be no doubt that the painter approached his task with enthusiasm. And he has been eager to promote what he has done. Pointedly, Gasparro only unveiled the painting on his website and social media on 24 March, which was Simon of Trent’s feast day until 1965, when he was officially removed from the Roman martyrology as part of the Second Vatican Council’s attempt to effect a reconciliation with Judaism.
The painting has been widely condemned. But in the Italian press, a few radical-traditionalist Catholic voices — those who see the the Second Vatican Council as a historic betrayal, the ancient Church’s act of surrender to modernity — have leapt to Gasparro’s defence. Il Foglio — actually a mainstream newspaper — complained that Gasparro, “the little prince of the new sacred art”, has been made to suffer accusations of antisemitism by “those who will not tolerate the existence of a preconciliar catholicism.” (It is almost as if they want to claim antisemitism as a fundamental tenet of their faith.)
Other Italian journals have defended Gasparro in decidedly secular, supposedly liberal terms. The online arts supplement to Il Giornale described how the reaction to Gasparro’s painting amounted to an “inquisition by the politically correct”, and descended further into hysterics: “The ‘guard dogs’ of the new ideological ‘truths’ which have by now become absolute, are those same knights [paladini] of the modern and postmodern philosophies.” Gasparro’s apologists may mix their metaphors and messages but, as they resort to medieval imagery even in their secular arguments, we can guess how their basic sentiments align.
And with this we may begin to wonder whether Gasparro ever employs his religious subjects as anything more than a foil. It could be that for Gasparro the aesthetic struggle of traditional — or traditionalist — Catholicism has in itself become just a metaphor for the aesthetic struggle of his traditionalist painting. This is grievance culture, amplifying grudges and lashing out, all to bring on that comfortably familiar sensation of victimhood.
So when Gasparro and his followers rant on social media about how shameful it is that the image of St Simon has been censored — even though the image has not been censored and it is still available to be seen all over the internet — they are really boasting.
Gasparro wants nothing more than for his painting to be censored; he yearns for this censorship as an acknowledgement of his efforts, and he would take it as a sort of acceptance — as proof of his relevance and, ultimately, his importance. Making this painting was his own vain plea for martyrdom, as he identifies himself with Simon of Trent: the boy whose veneration has been formally cancelled out is akin to the painter whose style has been formally cancelled out. And that is the only scandal that Gasparro and his apologists see in this hideous spectacle. To them, Simon of Trent and Gasparro have been conspired against, by Jews or by modernists, or by Jewish modernists or whatever — such paranoid thinking tends to muddle everything up.
Even Gasparro’s racism is sentimental. It too is a harking back, another part of this traditionalist fantasy game. But it is the hardest part for us to shrug off. The injury he means to do to Jews is as old as time, so we may say that he is only poking around in a wound. Yet as he has done this in the name of art there is the fear that his work will have a permanence, and a different sort of credibility; his painting seems to dig a little deeper because, however simplistic it may appear, it is still more elaborate in its articulations than any of the antisemitic cartoons in perpetual circulation online.
Thus it effects a further serious injury — and stands as a lasting insult — to the beleaguered cause of representational painting for which Gasparro was purported to be fighting. For those of us who genuinely care about artistic standards, who love paintings from all ages, and who know that novelty value obscures true and essential qualities, this is doubly painful, and so it needs addressing. We cannot equivocate. Many of the articles criticising Gasparro’s painting have warbled on about the responsibilities of art, and the difficulty in separating out the ugliness of Gasparro’s sentiments from the beauty of his technique.
But that is completely wrong. Because when we look more closely, Gasparro’s painting turns out to be horribly bad — almost as ugly as his sentiments — and so the best way to minimise the impact of his sentiments is actually to discredit the preposterous claims that are made for his technique, now by his apologists and by his critics alike.
There is nothing traditional about the way that Gasparro paints. Put his St Simon next to any painting by Caravaggio or Rembrandt — the best of the tenebrist painters he means to emulate — and this should become immediately apparent. There is no harmony in Gasparro’s tones, so no atmosphere is evoked. His jumps from dark to light to dark to light are violent, crude, and so uncalibrated — so completely unjustified, in the pictorial sense — that they appear chaotically incoherent. And everything quickly dissolves back into dark brown sludge because he, like all phoney traditionalist painters today, thinks that brown paintings are always to be taken more seriously.
But he has not bothered to notice that the neutral tones in old paintings were always modulated in temperature — from pearly cool, to velvety warm — summoning the whole spectrum of colour by carefully orchestrated oppositions, creating truly meaningful contrasts. As Ruskin wrote: “Even among simple hues the most valuable are those which cannot be defined; the most precious purples will look brown beside pure purple, and purple beside pure brown.” That is what real painting is like. Yet in Gasparro’s painting, the hues can be defined with depressing ease: mud; grey; chalky “flesh-tint”. There is no life in them, no mystery.
These grim hues die another death when Gasparro applies them so coarsely to his canvas. Caravaggio’s and Rembrandt’s brushstrokes were decisive, and incisive — exciting, because in them we see how acutely aware the artists were of their object — and they were delicate, dancing through paint that varied in transparency and impasto just as it varied in colour temperature.
Why paint, if you go about it so joylessly? Perhaps the answer is vanity, and Gasparro has plenty of that
Thus they communicate the sensitivity, passion and purpose required to make real art. Gasparro, on the other hand, hardly varies his mark, let alone his paint quality — he hardly ever even cares to pick up a different brush — so every inch of his painting seems just filled in. The paint is so blandly caked on that it appears mere confectionery; paint like this would always cover over any honest artistic response, were Gasparro even capable of such a thing.
Why paint, if you go about it so joylessly? Why paint, if you have no curiosity? Perhaps the answer is vanity, and Gasparro, who has been told all his life that he is a prodigy, has plenty of that. Part of the blame, therefore, lies with all the professional art critics who have flattered him because they themselves know nothing about painting. Gasparro actually benefits — as much as any other contemporary artist — from the modern decline in artistic standards.
If we still had standards, he could not get away with painting like this; ironically — tragically, even — his work is the final proof of the problem that it is supposed to be solving. The musical world still has its standards, so this analogy may be useful: the way Gasparro paints is equivalent to a violinist evidently taking pride in how fast his fingers are moving and, with his extravagant phrasing, thinking himself some sort of Paganini even though he plays out of tune and has no sense of where he is going — no sense, that is, of form.
It would be impossible for anyone who truly loves art, to reduce painting to this. But there is no conspiracy; it has happened almost inadvertently. The loss of artistic standards is the dropping of our guard, culturally; subtlety of sentiment is forgotten, along with subtlety of craft. And Gasparro’s sort of painting will always appeal — it is designed to appeal — to people who want easy answers, to art’s problems and everything else. People who instrumentalise art, will always brutalise art; then they themselves are brutalised by the art they favour. They soon go blind to all that art should be.
Usually, the likening of traditionalist painting to Nazi tastes is inapt, but in Gasparro’s case it is inadequate. Because even the Nazis took a little more care to keep their art seeming artful. They mostly sponsored paintings of classical subjects that managed to appear dreary and sleazy at once — paintings that we can laugh at, now, for their naively pornographic quality — while they saved their hardcore racism for the cartoons. Their paintings were there, then, to numb the public’s sensibilities with gross sentimentality, in preparation for striking with what really mattered in the cartoons. But as Gasparro’s racism is at one with his sentimentality, the pornographic quality of his depiction — actually emphasised by the altarpiece format — becomes more and more revoltingly apparent.
Gasparro may have done a bit of homework and studied the sixteenth-century Germanic depictions of Simon of Trent, from which he borrowed the central motif of the boy’s arms spread out in Christ-like fashion. But the Jewish types he has depicted never appeared in any such older artworks, no matter how anti-Jewish the subject matter. These types come instead from nineteenth- and twentieth-century racist cartoons. That Gasparro made use of such sources surely exposes who he is, but it also exposes the more general lie in this particular revivalist movement.
Its protagonists are not proposing a viable return to the real tradition (they do not even care to look back far enough to find out what that tradition was); they are simply thumbing their noses at modernism, pointlessly, much too late. Their project is not a refutation of modernism, it is merely a denial. And their art is just another inferior product of our shallower culture, like the trendy “conceptual” art that they deplore. They are postmodernists too — all signification, no significance — but unwittingly so, which somehow makes it worse.
It went wrong for them from the very start, with their notion of a “traditional” technique — the notion that the essence of the tradition could be encapsulated in any one procedure, as if painting itself were a ritual to be solemnly repeated. Because when you really look at the Old Masters you cannot fail to notice that they were vigorously experimental, painting in an enormous variety of ways in order to achieve certain naturalistic, dramatic and decorative effects; and they were always discovering their subject in form as they went.
The Old masters never painted with a fixed idea of what good paintings look like; after all, they still believed in progress. Today’s phoney traditionalists only paint as they do out of a fixed idea — and a fantastically mistaken idea at that — of what good paintings used to look like. So in the end it almost seems fitting that Gasparro thought to use his horribly pre-conceived performance to sell horribly prejudiced ideas.
When Gasparro’s paintings were used to fill gaps in damaged churches, we knew that they were there only as substitutes, so we did not feel compelled to look at them too closely; but it is different when they scream for our attention, like this St Simon. Now we see his work for what it is: a caricature of painting — “ye olde worlde” painting — making a mockery of art.
And for that — no matter what subject Gasparro should paint — he deserves to be mocked himself. But he also needs to be understood, if we are to remedy the state of painting today. It is one thing to lament the loss of standards in art through the modern period; it is quite another to think that the old standards can simply be reapplied to make the problem of modernity go away. The belief that history can be rewound is dangerous because, as it is doomed to failure, it leads to bitterness and scapegoating. So we have urgently to argue for a living tradition that grows.
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