PARIS — In these paintings, you’ll find wine and drunken excess, along with all the accompanying decadent behavior: insult, turbulence, transgression, sacrilege, and provocation. But just how clear a picture of louche behavior can black paint? This is the reoccurring query in the Petit Palais’ The Baroque Underworld: Vice and Destitution in Rome, a strikingly bawdy exhibition of dark Baroque sleaze.
Curated by Francesca Cappelletti, Annick Lemoine, and Christophe Leribault, the show focuses on the worldly, wayward school of post-Caravaggio chiaroscuro painters, along with indelicate works by the Bamboccianti. It is an exhibition of 70 mostly black paintings, created in Rome in the first half of the 17th century, that make dramatic use of lighting. Aptly enough, to further heighten the drama and sensuality of the work, the paintings are set within Pier Luigi Pizzi’s lush, operatic scenography, some of it based on the engraver Giovanni Battista Falda’s views of Rome.
The paintings evoke the savage Roman underworld with their sexual brashness, violence, obscene gestures, mockery, gambling dens, drinkers, and whores, set within the cool splendor of the papal palace. French artists who worshiped at this altar of Caravaggio included Valentin de Boulogne, Simon Vouet, Nicolas Tournier, and Claude Lorrain. Artists from Northern Europe included Pieter Van Laer, Gerrit van Honthorst, and Jan Miel; and from the South, Bartolomeo Manfredi, Lanfranco, Salvator Rosa, and Jusepe de Ribera.
But before reaching the paintings, the visitor is first greeted with a tour de force: truncated marble male genitalia situated at eye level. Wham! Vino veritas! The genitalia relax between the spayed legs of a robust naked male marble statue known as the “Barberini Faun” (or more descriptively known as the “Drunken Satyr”), dug up in an archaeological excavation in 1628 and once held in the collection of the Pope.
Once there, turn left for a dose of dark Dionysus in a gallery called “The Breath of Bacchus,” where a tender little drawing depicts a nymph and a satyr sleeping off their excesses. In the same room hang three very black chiaroscuro paintings about the pagan god Bacchus, Rome’s version of Dionysus, god of fertility, nature, abundance, joy, and wine. Among these is the accomplished Bartolomeo Manfredi’s “Bacchus and Drinker” (1622), where blackness and light (headedness) both literally and metaphorically pervade.
These paintings quickly produced a psychic strain in myself. On the one hand, Bacchus signifies joyful, sunny warmth, and light-footed frolicking. On the other, the gloomy Caravaggioesque blackness that surrounds these figures obstinately conceals them — black, shadowy zones I associate with the night and with what is hidden, like the darkness of the womb where life stirs, hovering between materiality and the ethereal.
The dominant black palate works perfectly well with calm, pensive portraits, such as Giovanni Lanfranco’s natty “Young Naked Man on a Bed with Cat” (1620-1622) and Simon Vouet’s chic “Woman Playing Guitar” (circa 1618-1620), but as a style for inebriated excess I found it wanting. There is nothing darkly pensive about the immoderation of Bacchus. I found the black environments in most of the Dionysian scenes creepy and forced. In fact, they tarnished slightly my permanent love of the power of Baroque darkness.
But perhaps darkness was the door to the Roman slum and netherworld in which vice, paucity, and every kind of overindulgence flourished. An excess that reflected the bohemian life led by European painters of the time in Rome, most notably that of the Bentvueghels (Dutch for “birds of a feather”), a group of young male artists mainly from Holland who gathered in Rome around 1620 and swore allegiance to Bacchus.
Adopting sordid, immoderate Dionysian rites both in and outside of their paintings, the Bentvueghels reveled in the occult and various intemperate vices, spending their time in brothels and taverns. To join the group, these artists had to go through Bacchanalian initiation rites, indulging in censured activities and performing black magic spells and enchantments.
The paintings exude an almost Punk aesthetic mixed with melancholic, dark magic. This is nicely illustrated with Salvator Rosa’s “Witches at their Incantations” (1646) where some kinky magical spells are being cast while a man hangs from a withered tree. There’s also Dutchman Roeland van Laer’s hilarious painting of debauched, syphilitic drunkards, “The Bentvueghels in a Roman Tavern” (1626-1628), and Pieter Boddingh van Laer’s crazed “Self-portrait in a Magic Scene” (circa 1638-1639) where he depicts himself as a stunned-looking sorcerer of some sophistication.
Appropriately, darkness really takes over at the end of the show with a group of paintings of poverty in the dark side of the Eternal City. These are empathetic paintings tinged with depressing melancholy, such as the poignant painting by Jusepe de Ribera’s “Beggar” (1612) and Simon Vouet’s “Gypsy With a Baby” (1625). Gone are the tipsy rascals, high whores, teasing transvestites, and magical rogues. This is solemn, deep work by artists who spent their everyday lives in close proximity to the poor, the marginalized and the criminal milieu that was poetic for some. The underworld of poetic misery and marginalization became a theme for them, if not their actual experience of life.
In the end, we are left looking into the black of the blues — that crow black associated with sadness and mourning. That all-engulfing black that evaporates nuances of shadow and light within the post-Caravaggio underworld. That deep, gloomy black through which we can just barely make out austere portraits of poverty, flushed out against diminished foreground/background distinctions. In the end, we are left with the black backdrop for downtrodden figures. But also with the sense that our eye has abandoned itself to that black abyss of infinite space — deprived of Bacchus’s sunny and joyful spirit.
The Baroque Underworld: Vice and Destitution in Rome continues at the Petit Palais (Avenue Winston-Churchill, 75008 Paris) through May 24.