Bernardo Aparicio García
Discovering Giovanni Gasparro’s work last year—it was brought to my attention by our managing editor, Karen Ullo—has been one of the most exciting moments of my tenure as publisher of Dappled Things. Since founding the journal more than a decade ago, it has been largely my responsibility to seek out and select the visual art we publish. In fulfilling this task, one of my guiding convictions has been that popular notions of what innovation means in the visual arts usually tend toward self-indulgence and mediocrity. Though there are notable exceptions, the modern rejection of past forms and artistic traditions has not led to an explosion of creativity, but to a dead end that has made much of what passes for high art irrelevant to ordinary people—not because it is too demanding or too shocking for them to stomach, but because it is too boring. To compensate for the aesthetic deficiencies of the works themselves, “artist statements” laden with jargon or political banalities have proliferated. Dappled Things has almost always avoided publishing them, because if an image lacks the resources to powerfully affect the viewer simply by virtue of what it is, then it has no business calling itself visual art and is probably something closer to a stunt. Rather, our view has been that true innovation not only isn’t in opposition or even in tension with tradition, but rather depends upon it, just as new technologies become possible thanks to earlier advancements.
Throughout the years of publishing Dappled Things, our goal has been to highlight art that reaches that standard—that has the power to provoke wonder in the viewer with a combination of technical mastery grounded in artistic tradition and a fresh outlook that builds on that foundation. One artist who can do this like few others is Daniel Mitsui, whose work has often appeared in our pages. His work was already exemplary when Dappled Things was just starting out, being at once thoroughly traditional and strikingly original, but as Mitsui has deepened his understanding of medieval art and culture, his work has matured even beyond my high expectations for him, reaching what I would not hesitate to call the level of genius. That his illustrations are little known outside Catholic circles is, in itself, a harsh condemnation of the contemporary art world’s standards.
When it comes to the tradition of art that stems from Renaissance painting, however, I have often been frustrated by modern attempts. Many figurative artists who courageously buck mainstream art schools to study at traditional ateliers may achieve some level of technical virtuosity, but their work is often merely pretty, lacking in spiritual and emotional vigor, and tends to rehash the achievements of great masters without ever rising to their level. This is the reason, perhaps, why so many present-day artists shy away from that tradition: because it is too demanding for artists of middling talent who can more easily achieve career success through shock value and cleverness, or by flattering current sensibilities.
Anyone who believes the great masters are gone forever, however, need only look at the art of Giovanni Gasparro. Like no other living artist I know about, his work is imbued with a freshness and power that brings new life to the tradition of figurative painting going back to the Renaissance. Yet he isn’t content just to meet the demanding standards of that tradition; he also builds upon it and pushes it in new directions. Seeing his work for the first time made me nearly giddy. “He exists,” I couldn’t help thinking, “he really exists!” Then, when I learned that Gasparro is a Catholic, and one of the John Paul II generation (with, God willing, many years’ work still ahead of him), I must admit the thought crossed my mind that after publishing him, Dappled Things might as well close up shop, as our work would be all done. (Lest any subscribers get worried, yes, that’s hyperbole.)
The pages that follow feature a selection of Gasparro’s secular and religious works. In accordance with my conviction that visual art should speak for itself, I’ll refrain from commenting in depth about most of the paintings, though I’d like to make a couple of comments in case readers find them useful in contemplating the collection. First, I want to make a note about his technique, used in several paintings, of depicting subjects with multiple limbs. Some of my fellow editors found this off-putting or nonsensical, but I understand what Gasparro is doing as painting in four dimensions, both across space and time. There are not really multiple limbs, but rather a single one that is moving over time. In presenting them all at once, one might say these paintings give us a glimpse of their subjects as God might see them, He who dwells in the eternal present encompassing all movement and change. The payoff of this approach, for me, is that it imbues these works with strangeness that allows us to glimpse a supernatural dimension beyond the naturalistic portraiture. In addition, when he applies this technique to iconography, it has the additional benefit of allowing a saint to appear with all of his traditional symbols, as is the case with the painting of Saint Joseph the Craftsman. It is also worth noting that there is ancient precedent for this approach in iconography, as the famous Byzantine icon of the Theotokos of the Three Hands attests.
One painting I want to mention in particular, because it is at once so magnificent and disturbing, is Saint Hildegard von Bingen’s Vision of the Church. The painting, which Gasparro completed in 2018, depicts a mystical vision reported by the saint in the year 1170—a terrifying image of the Church deformed. I leave you with St. Hildegard’s own words describing what she saw:
I had a vision of a woman of such beauty that the human mind is unable to comprehend. . . . But her face was stained with dust, her robe was ripped down the right side, her cloak had lost its sheen of beauty and her shoes had been blackened.[. . .]
And she herself, in a voice loud with sorrow, was calling to the heights of heaven, saying, ‘Hear, heaven, how my face is sullied; mourn, earth, that my robe is torn; tremble, abyss, because my shoes are blackened!’
For my Bridegroom’s wounds remain fresh and open as long as the wounds of men’s sins continue to gape. And Christ’s wounds remain open because of the sins of priests. They tear my robe, since they are violators of the Law, the Gospel and their own priesthood; they darken my cloak by neglecting, in every way, the precepts which they are meant to uphold; my shoes too are blackened, since priests do not keep to the straight paths of justice, which are hard and rugged, or set good examples to those beneath them. Nevertheless, in some of them I find the splendor of truth.