WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE; Salvator Rosa Is Not as Famous as Some of His 17th-Century Contemporaries but the Terrible Beauty of His Landscapes Has Proved a Powerful Influence on the History of British Art; EXHIBITION OF THE WEEK

The Evening Standard (London, England), September 16, 2010 | Go to article overview

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE; Salvator Rosa Is Not as Famous as Some of His 17th-Century Contemporaries but the Terrible Beauty of His Landscapes Has Proved a Powerful Influence on the History of British Art; EXHIBITION OF THE WEEK


Byline: Brian Sewell

SALVATOR ROSA Dulwich Picture Gallery, SE21 AS a working painter born in 1615 and buried in 1673, Salvator Rosa spanned the extraordinarily fertile middle years of the 17th century in Italy, the century of the Baroque, the century in which architecture, painting and sculpture developed a dramatic aesthetic unity, the century in which great artists at last achieved the underlying ambitions of the Italian Renaissance.

Rivalled by a thousand painters in his day, Naples, Florence and Rome were all his bailiwicks, and in these he was quite certainly the beneficiary of influences from such established older contemporaries as Ribera, born 1591 (and through him the lurking presence of Caravaggio), of Poussin, born 1594, and of Claude, born 1600. He may, indeed, have been Ribera's pupil in Naples, where he was born -- and if not, the link with this great Spanish painter of the terrible was made through Francesco Fracanzano, born 1612, Rosa's brother-in-law, who had worked in Ribera's circle before becoming Rosa's tutor.

Whatever the case, Ribera remained for Rosa a presiding influence in the occasional brutality of his subjects and in the richly characteristic brushwork that he developed. There were too, perhaps, influences from Rosa's immediate and precocious contemporaries Mola and Testa (both born 1612), and from Poussin's brother-in-law and pupil Gaspard Dughet (also known as Gaspard Poussin), born 1615 -- though for these kinships, a pervading aesthetic climate may have been the reason. Of his imitative response to Dutch painters working in Rome, whose subjects were the graceless but amusing daily lives of the peasantry, there is much evidence.

If this suggests that Rosa was little more than a painter who begged, borrowed and stole from others, then I must at once declare that nothing is further from the truth -- I raise the matter only because widely experienced visitors to the Dulwich Gallery's latest exhibition, devoted exclusively to Rosa, may well recognise how derivative he often was (and how inferior in his derivations), without also recognising his concurrent originality. Even my adored old tutor at the Courtauld, Michael Kitson, who must be considered the fons et origo of Rosa studies and was the curator of the last exhibition devoted to him, in the Hayward Gallery in 1973, had misgivings then. He felt constrained to ask how good a painter Rosa might be if judged by the highest standard of the time -- that is, in comparison with Poussin and Claude -- and though he left the answer to his readers, that he posed it was enough to confirm any uncertainties they might have.

Kitson offered us the choice of Rosa the brave pioneer or Rosa the wilful eccentric, and concluded that "he put his originality less into his ideas about art than into his claims for the freedom of the artist" as a far too soon forerunner of the French Romantic notion of art for art's sake. Rosa was, in modern parlance, bloody-minded, and his contempt for his patrons was outrageously expressed in his Fortuna of 1659, in which the goddess wantonly empties her cornucopia of gifts that represent wealth, power and intellectual achievement over a herd of dumb and dim-witted animals, the proverbial pearls before swine, with a boar about to trample the palette and brushes of Rosa's craft as a painter and the paper on which he wrote his poetry and satires.

It is just such a satire, Babilonia, ferociously attacking the then Pope's family and court (his potential patrons), composed while he was working on the Fortuna, that illuminates the painting and leaves no doubt as to its meaning. Openly exhibited at one of the several sites of public exhibitions in Rome in the 17th century, it was acclaimed by both the public and what then passed for critics, and the Pope's family too was generous in its response; but I must ask the Kitson question -- how good is it in the context of Roman baroque painting? …

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WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE; Salvator Rosa Is Not as Famous as Some of His 17th-Century Contemporaries but the Terrible Beauty of His Landscapes Has Proved a Powerful Influence on the History of British Art; EXHIBITION OF THE WEEK
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