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April 10, 2021

On the spiritual in art

Caravaggio was a controversial artist. Impulsive up to murder, familiar with the world of cardinals, but also with that of interlopers, coveted by ecclesial patrons, but also prey to the suspicion of inquisitors, the young painter coming from northern Italy to the capital of the Popes certainly had a taste for challenge. Some saw him as a successful protagonist of Counter reform, capable to keep under the influence of the Catholic church the masses tempted by religious and social changes. Other regarded him as a corrosive revolutionary who undermined the traditional religious culture.. In any case, the western painting was not the same anymore after Caravaggio’s paintings. But, beyond his artistic lesson, the ‘accursed’ painter still fascinates through the contradictions of his personality. Especially the relation between religious passion (as long as it is not hypocritical, imposed by the conjecture of commissioned works and of a dominant spirit) and the radical populism, generating not just a particular aesthetic (in the direction of a hyperrealism avant la lettre), but also of a new anthropological perspective.

The ‘authentic’ human being then acquires the traits of a non-transfigured reality, where the ambiguous beauty of adolescents coexists with the wrinkled skin of old people, poverties dictate other criteria of noblesse and the sordid day-to-day existence becomes a surprising metaphysical eloquence.
The actuality of Caravaggio recently inspired playwright Visky Andras and American theatrical director Robert Woodruff for a new play of the Magyar theatre of Cluj. `I am Caravaggio,` Visky said like Flaubert, referring precisely to the tension between religious preoccupation and theatrical passion. Of course, there was a savvy discussion about the religious origins of theatre, but the reality between faith and art is tenser and more disharmonic. The show `Caravaggio Terminal` is also witness of this discouraging difficulty.
First, it is a temptation cultivated by postmodernism: the classic criteria of the symbolizing process are abolished and contradictory radical realities are joined. A temptation doubled by another: speaking about religious faith ‘undercover,’ as if the promiscuous atmosphere makes more acceptable a discourse many would find boring. In a certain sense, it is an influence of Beckett, with the minimalist world of his beggars reduced not to ‘essential dialogues,’ but to inevitable existentialist situations (like an ever-renewed wait). At the bottom of human life, in the degradation of promiscuity, everything seems to acquire a different resonance, far from the ‘bourgeois’ futility of moral honorability. Wounded souls, burdened by despair, immune to self-sufficiency, exasperated by an unlikely salvation. But this case is more influenced by Dostoyevsky, who reinstated, in modern times, the religious dilemma as legitimate literary theme. But the contemporary world is more schizoid, the religious discourse making furors in certain milieus and being avoided in others, with disinterest or irony. This is why the challenge of speaking about the religious inebriations in a theatrical play often risks being a failure. Others choose a different path: they only use a subtle suggestion, without any explicit reference to religious problems. Precisely in order to avoid facile interpretations, following the obsolete blueprints of theological symbolism. Several directing solutions are remarkable in `Caravaggio Terminal`. A transparent basin (like a tomb) filled with water, containing the body of a woman – an allusion to the drowning of a prostitute which had served the painter as model to represent the Death of the Virgin. This type of expressiveness is very close to the spirit of Caravaggio’s art, as it tries to concentrate the wide stage of the world within the limits of an apparently artificial interior space (in the sense of an agglomeration of theatrical gestures). Another suggestive theatrical proposition is a dialogue over skype, the filmed image of one of interlocutors being projected on a screen the size of a large portrait. A picture like an ‘informed’ Big Brother that can communicate more than its apparent mysteries.
What probably preoccupied Caravaggio, this relation between religious and artistic, also preoccupies some painters of today. In an art world dominated by postmodernism, by the fashion of installation and the use of less than noble materials (this is the very name given by an Italian art critic to one of his articles: `Using any material. The language of contemporary art`), there also exist those named with pride, or mockery, ‘conservatives.’ In 1985, at the peak of communism dusk, `Grupul Prolog` was born, composed of several Romanian painters interested by a specific asceticism of sight, by spirituality and certain traditional landmarks. Somehow to the antipode of avant-gardes expressing the conceptual art, promoting rather and adequacy to an ineffable reality, both spiritual and extremely material. Some spectators of this form of art do not like the frequency of landscapes with a cross discreetly displayed in the background, or the still life (stylized and slightly abstract) with objects having a clear Christian resonance (chalice with grapes, bread, fish, cup of oil), nor the iconic portraits of some theological personality. And they don’t like these because they feel the tendency of circumscribing a particular world, explicitly dominated by religious spirit. But these painters are, for instance, remarkable successors of impressionists when they represent gardens. The garden is itself a reality with large symbolic resonance, but it has a materiality beyond intellectual interpretations. In fact, even the name of the group, prologue,’ denotes something anterior to the ‘logos,’ i.e. to rationalization. Which imbues the garden with a particular existential density. A density which postmodernism was unable to dislodge, in the name of an ambiguous holistic aspiration. But the more than esthetic lesson of the garden (nature tended by humans) is still fertile.

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