UPDATE 3/27/20: I was saddened and distressed to learn today that Giovanni Gasparro has turned his considerable talents toward an evil purpose. The ugly, disgustingly antisemitic painting he recently unveiled, in which he reproduces dangerous lies against the Jewish people, left me in disbelief. Such lies have quite directly contributed to the murder of innocent people both in the past and recently, and learning that an artist whose work I have highly praised in the past has used his gifts for such a purpose makes me sick. There is nothing Catholic about such a work, and the fact that Gasparro dresses his lies in religious trappings (alongside gross stereotypes of Jews, well-worthy of Nazi propaganda), is not just a betrayal of the Church, but really an act that I would not hesitate to call satanic. In dehumanizing Jews, he has debased and dehumanized himself.
Mr. Gasparro, as is clear in the article below, once seemed to me a great hope for the revival of Catholic art. While the paintings we selected for publication in Dappled Things, and which I lavished praise upon in the article below, cannot in themselves lose their qualities, a pall is inevitably cast over all of Gasparro’s work. Let it be further evidence that great art is not, as we often romantically hope, evidence of great (or even decent) moral perception. Then again, it is also evidence of how a twisted vision does have the power to destroy great talent, as the painting in question is an artistic embarrassment—an exercise in applying technical proficiency to the most mindless propaganda. Those of us who have admired Mr. Gasparro’s work in the past should pray for his repentance. As for Mr. Gasparro, he should remember that the ultimate judge of his art is one Jewish carpenter who once said of a worthless servant who wasted his talents that he would be cast “into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”
After seeing the painting, I considered with the editors of Dappled Things whether we should remove his art from our website and my accompanying essay. At present, we have chosen not to do so. I do not like to rewrite the past, and the fact remains that the paintings we selected share none of the ugliness of this latest work and are rather betrayed by what he has done now. I can no longer look at his old work in the same light, but let it stand as a testament to what might have been.
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.