I just completed Francine Prose’s lucid biography Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles. I have always been drawn to Caravaggio’s stunning paintings and the defiance and innovation with which he approached traditional religious subject matter. I was curious to know more about his work and infamously troubled life after seeing the Caravaggio / Francis Bacon exhibition at the Galeria Borghese in Rome, and this biography provided great insight into his work and life.
Esthetically, the pairing of Francis Bacon and Caravaggio was a brilliant choice by British curator Michael Pippiat. Both Caravaggio and Bacon unflinchingly plumbed the depths of the human condition. Each in his own unique and extraordinary way painted the sordid and debased, exposed the flesh and decay of the human body. Both artists simultaneously eroticized and laid bare the vulnerability of the human condition in forms that challenged the sensibilities and conventions of the contemporaries and patrons of their respective eras. Beyond this esthetic connection both artists’ lives were notoriously difficult, conflicted, and enormously self-destructive. Each perpetuated the myth of the tortured genius to the furthest reaches of their capacities. Bacon and Caravaggio were iconoclasts, virtuosos, addicts, and criminals – their very myths defined by the raging intensity of their personal turmoil and the extravagant beauty of their work.
Caravaggio seethed against the constraints of 17h century Italy. He embodied the sacred and profane and with each professional success his life spiraled deeper into brutal street fights, vendettas, exile, and multiple murder charges. His life, like his work, treaded a fine line between the sublime and the beautiful, the sacred and the profane. In Prose’s words “Caravaggio insisted on his freedom to defy categorization, his right to make art according to his convictions and out of whatever engaged his intellect and his soul, as well as his creative, religious, and erotic impulses.” Bacon, too, lived a contradictory and despairing existence. As described in his biography by Pippiat, Bacon was “generous but cruel, forthright yet manipulative, ebullient but in despair: He was the sum of his contradictions. This life, lived at extremes, was filled with achievement and triumph, misfortune and personal tragedy.”
It is fascinating that both artists have transcended their times to remain among the most important painters in the history of art. In Prose’s words, describing Caravaggio but also apt for Bacon, “all of these centuries later, the sense of connection, of communication—of communion—that we feel with the long-dead painter seems almost vertiginously direct and profound. Having spent his brief, tragic, and turbulent life painting miracles, he managed, in the process, to create one—the miracle of art, the miracle of the way in which some paint, a few brushes, a square of canvas, together with that most essential ingredient, genius, can produce something stronger than time and age, more powerful than death.”