The crisp, bright ambiance of the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) has recently received some dark, morbid and downright creepy additions. These new pieces are masterpieces by one of Italy’s most controversial artists, Salvator Rosa.
You can tell a lot about an artist from a self-portrait, and Rosa’s are no exception. Always featured with a dour, contemplative and somewhat sassy expression, Rosa’s self-portraits tell the story of a 17th-century Che Guevara.
Perhaps his most famous self-portrait features Rosa looking characteristically surly, clad in an artist’s smock and beret. He holds a sign written in Latin that reads, “Keep silent unless what you are going to say is more important than silence.”
Another self-portrait shows Rosa standing over a human skull, quill in hand and scrawling the words “Behold, wither, when” on the deceased’s head. The skull rests on a book by Roman stoic philosopher Seneca, and Rosa’s own head is adorned with cypress, a symbol of mourning. Although Rosa was selective with his voice, when he wanted to be heard, he certainly wasn’t subtle.
The artist brought this strong personality into his other paintings, beginning with appraisals. In a time when artists were restricted by their patrons, Rosa boldly went against the norm. His contemporary, art historian Filippo Baldinucci, explained:
“No one could ever make him agree a fixed price before a picture was finished, and he used to give a very interesting reason for this: He could not instruct his brush to produce paintings worth a particular sum, but when they were completed, he would appraise them on their merits and would then leave it to his friend’s judgment to take them or leave them.”
This “take it or leave it” attitude was a luxury Rosa could afford, given his endless pool of talent and creativity. It is this audacity that led to Rosa becoming one of the best-known artists of his time and an innovator in his field, being one of the first to paint romantic and picturesque landscapes.
This is a good time to mention that, despite the time period’s name, paintings from the Romantic period were not always cheery, colorful things, but rather emphasized intense emotions, such as apprehension, awe, terror and horror, along with the aesthetic beauty of nature.
If this sounds like a strange combination, one look at Rosa’s paintings shows that these emphases are not only functional, but manage to connect with an instinctual corner of the human mind. Rosa’s art combines unnatural happenings and places them in natural settings, leaving the viewer to believe that any of these bizarre, fantastical situations are not so outlandish.
According to the CMA website, the paintings featured in this particular exhibition “reveal Rosa’s interest in literary and philosophical traditions, the antique, magic, satire and a desire to create images of novel subjects.”
As with most artists, the most important underlying aspect of his work is its reflection of his time period. Guest curator Hannah Segrave, who organized the exhibition, said, “One of my hopes for this show is that people will spend some time really looking at each of these paintings … to discover the whimsical and gruesome details that can all too easily go unnoticed. Close looking at these paintings will lead to a deeper understanding of the diverse visual culture of witchcraft in the 17th century.”
The exhibition features Rosa’s series of witch paintings and are all circular, or tondi, which gives them a voyeuristic quality. The viewer is allowed to peek into a forbidden, supernatural world, which only adds to the sense of anticipation and apprehension.
The paintings are also surprisingly varied, featuring subjects so different from each other that the works almost seem to come from different artists. On one end of the spectrum are crooked old men and women slaughtering overgrown salamanders and being tormented by something that looks like it came out of the “Gremlins” movie.
On the other hand is a bored-looking, illuminated maiden casually stabbing an overgrown frog in the mouth, giant birds looking on in horror at her flippant attitude.
The underlying element, however, is the skill with which Rosa handled his brush. His paintings are heavily textured; the meticulous strokes he used to create a sharp contrast of smoothness and roughness are highly visible.
He played with light and shadow, bringing forward figures and cleverly concealing others. Rosa’s planned and beautifully eerie paintings are reminiscent to Francisco Goya’s “Black Paintings,” and a work like “Saturn Devouring His Son” would look at home in this dark collection.
Rosa himself declared, “[I paint] purely for my own satisfaction. I need to be transported by enthusiasm, and I can only employ my brushes when I am in ecstasy.”
Those who wish to view the results of Rosa’s efforts and see some of this unorthodox artist’s most famous works are encouraged to stop by one of the CMA’s most ghastly exhibitions.
Event: “The Novel and the Bizarre: Salvator Rosa’s Scenes of Witchcraft”
Location: Cleveland Museum of Art
Dates: Now through June 14