The Paschal Passerby
On the week after Easter Sunday, also Pasch or Resurrection Sunday, artist Robert Besana opens his solo exhibition at the Galerie Anna. The title is simply and mysteriously billed as “Passerby,” someone who happens to be going past something, especially on foot. The artist shares that his show is simply about man’s mortality and the transient nature of our life on earth. An intensely meditative suite of paintings serves as Besana’s reflection on the meaning of life.
Indeed, there is a species of still life painting known as “vanitas,” an assembly of inanimate objects meant to suggest the transitory nature of life. To be sure, still life painting has existed since ancient Roman times, as part of a larger canvas of nature, but it became an independent form when the 16th century Dutch and Flemish painters began to paint objects such as flowers, vegetables, vases away from their natural setting, and presented them indoors, usually assembled on top of tables. These paintings showed objects that are symbolic of death, the most universal being the skull. These included guttering or melting candles, butterflies, and the hourglass or watch, meaning that time is limited and passing. The term “vanitas” comes from a quotation from the Ecclesiastes, “Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas.” Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. The message is clear: all of man’s vanities and obsession with luxuries will in time come to pass. For this reason, we may be surprised to see in “vanitas” paintings, such objects of luxury as “rich vases, oriental carpets, gilded cups,” silk and velvet table cloths. Books were also depicted to imply that knowledge is temporary. So too were musical instruments to suggest that music is an indulgence of the senses, and that “beauty, wealth, wisdom” are all of temporary nature.
Are we justified then to regard Besana’s paintings as “vanitas”? Judging from the work with two skulls, unnervingly titled “Man and Woman”, there is no evading that it is a vanitas painting. The sight of the couple’s skulls insepararable even in the afterlife, still bound by the marriage vows - ‘till death do us part” - is extremely touching and not at all bizarre. In fact, we have been so numbed by the familiar sight of a skull that the controversial British artist Damien Hirst succeeded in shocking us with the ultimate “vanitas” – a diamond-encrusted skull!
In Besana’s show, there are two paintings, however, which conjure the works by the Baroque painter Caravaggio (1571-1610). Interestingly, Caravaggio lived a fairly short life – was he merely a Passerby? Caravaggio was commissioned to paint two pictures of Rome’s patron saints, Peter and Paul. The painting which Besana confronts us with is “The Conversion of Paul on the Way to Damascus.” The image is sliced, a sharp jump cut devise, which jolts us away from those early Roman times to an awareness of contemporary life. Besana’s vision is ornamented by the presence of a looming rose, starkly forlorn. In the Acts of the Apostles, it is narrated that Paul fell off his horse, when he heard the voice: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Indeed, the same may happen to modern man. One day, out of the blue, you may suddenly hear your own name, and there you go tumbling out of a jeepney, a tricycle, or worse, thrown out of an excursion bus, plunging down a deep ravine. The rose, too, which will inevitably wither, is a symbol of transient life. Through the example of Paul, we are anchored on the thought that the time for conversion is never too late.
The other Caravaggio painting is titled “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas”. The narration is based on St. John’s Gospel, where St. Thomas the Apostle, who missed one of Jesus’s appearances to the Apostles after his resurrection, declared, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my fingers where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.” The painting is a realistic depiction of Christ forcing Thomas’s finger into his wound.” Besana christened his painting “The Paschal Lamb,” which of course directly refers to Jesus whom John the Baptist proclaimed: “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul wrote: “Christ the Paschal Lamb has been sacrificed.” The viewer’s reading is ignited by these constantly intersecting and expanding allusions and references, attesting to the richness of the paintings’ content beyond their visible aesthetic appeal. Again, the specter of the rose looms, allusive of death lurking just beneath: Repent, for we know not the hour.
In the website “Theology Forum,” a discussion on the inspiration of religious art, a respondent remarked, “Death is our enemy. We were made to live. I want to live forever. But I cannot save myself from death. That’s why the resurrection of Jesus is so precious to me.” Thus are we consoled by the words of the Lord: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”
Instructive still is the life of Caravaggio (the name comes from the town in Lombardy where he was born). The baptismal name, however, is Michelangelo Merisi. His biographers describe his life as “turbulent and tempestuous.” Socially he was “belligerent, rude, violent, a homicidal hothead”, but artistically he was “a daring rule breaker, who thwarted the classical rules of art.” His style of painting was called “tenebristic chiaroscuro,” suggestive of shadows and darkness, with the dramatic contrasts of light and dark, marked by “resolute realism, meticulous attention to naturalistic details, approachable.” In 1606, Caravaggio had to flee Rome “with a price over his head after committing murder.” The mystery of his death has never been resolved until some years ago, when his remains were found in Tuscany. Thanks to carbon dating and DNA checks on the excavated remains, scientists are “85% sure.” Caravaggio’s suspected bones were found to have a level of lead “high enough to have driven the painter mad and helped finish him off.”
In his painting techniques, Besana sought the same resolute realism that Caravaggio achieved, in a process that one can call, alluding to the recent Lenten season, penitential and punishing. The artist uses, not the fluid and fluent paintbrush, but the tedious instrument of ballpen, limned not on smooth canvas, but on roughhewn wood panel. A viewer might think of it as artistic self-flagellation, but such is Besana’s passion for his medium that, once understood, the viewer can belie the labor of the execution, and share in the joy and jubilation of the artist’s creation.
“Passerby” is the perfect Easter show!