Refinding the Great Tradition

Roberto Ferri's Paintings

by Donald Kuspit

The  Decadence  of  Modern  Art

Liberaci dal Male, 2013, Courtesy of the Artist“The great tradition has got lost,” Baudelaire wrote in 1846. Deservedly so, he suggested, for it had become the “dogma of the studios,” the cause of “the present decadence in painting.” It involved the “idealization of ancient life,” picturing individuals with a certain “gravity” in their “movements” and “majesty” in their “attitudes.”1 Yet modern life, with its crowds of “floating existences,”2 is not so ideal. “By ‘modernity’ I mean the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent,” Baudelaire wrote, arguing that tradition means “the eternal and the immutable.”3 Old master art extended the great tradition, but “every old master has his own modernity.” Nonetheless, he held up the old masters as models for the new masters, for they were able to find the eternal and immutable in their modernity: ephemeral life became eternally beautiful in their art. But the new modernity was more “absolutely ugly” than the old modernity, making the aesthetic “task of distilling from it the mysterious element of beauty”—the sign of the eternal and immutable—“that it may contain, however slight or minimal that element may be,”4 more difficult. (Baudelaire thought of himself as a midwife to the “tradition of the new,” as it has come to be called, “not yet established” in his day, as he noted, but now the establishment art.)

Already in Baudelaire’s day—the industrial revolution was well under way—the balance between the ephemeral and eternal had tilted sharply toward the ephemeral, so much so that the idea of the eternal had become all but meaningless, and with it the idea that the task of art was to transform the ephemerally modern into the eternally beautiful. Slowly but surely, art became incapable of idealizing human beings, their majesty suggesting the immutable, their gravity the seriousness with which they took life. Today, modernity—the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent—has become the very substance of art, destabilizing it. It becomes harder and harder to take it seriously, to find the majesty in it. Without a sense of the eternal, there is no way it can avoid

“ephemerization…the phenomenon of nonpermanence, that is, the fleeting, transitory, and ephemeral nature of situations in postindustrial society,” making it “more and more difficult,” as the psychoanalyst André Haynal writes, “for the individual to anticipate events, to foresee the consequences of their acts, and, especially, the value that will be attached to them.”5

In such a society, art is made for the transitory moment rather than eternity. Unable to hint of eternal values, it becomes insidiously valueless. Constantly modernizing to keep up with a constantly modernizing society, it becomes more and more ephemeral—at best a passing fancy of an artist struggling to be aucourant, at worst an ingratiating panderer to the crowd. Lacking an ideal reason for being—an anchor in eternity, as it were—works of art become so many “floating existences.” “Life is short, art long,” Hippocrates famously wrote, but today art has become much shorter than life.

Baudelaire wrote when “democracy [was] not yet all powerful, and aristocracy [was] only just beginning to totter and fall.”6 Today, democracy is all-powerful (at least in name), and democracy is a world of crowds—those floating existences, all peculiarly ephemeral, fugitive, contingent and thus “modern.” The artist must have crowd appeal—“the crowd is his element,” Baudelaire wrote. His art must have a democratic aesthetic—a crowd aesthetic—to be convincing. Art is no longer “high,” and thus presumably in the service of the aristocracy, that is, the high born, but “low,” and thus presumably in the service of the people, that is, the low born. In a democracy, to transform the low into the high is to be reactionary rather than revolutionary. It has been said that traditional art served the aristocracy, whether religious or secular, but the aristocracy represented the ideal—however much they may have failed to live up to it, or corrupted it—and the artists served the ideal they represented. The ideal is unchanging; particular aristocracies change with time. It requires a certain maturity—a sort of aristocratic, “elevated” state of mind—to become aware of the ideal. It was the state of mind the great old masters were capable of, and conveyed in and through their “aristocratic” art.

Roberto Ferri, Redenizone, 2011, Courtesy of the artist

In a sort of democratic twisting of values, Baudelaire held up the immature child as the model for the modern artist, for the world and life are always modern—ephemeral, fugitive, contingent—to the imaginative child. Seen for the first time and with fresh eyes, they could not help arousing a “sensation of newness,”7 the so-called shock of the new, that is, the shocking newness and immediacy of the world and life to the curious child seeing them as though no one else had seen them before, and as though there were no need for a second, reflective look at them. The cult of the new and the cult of the child, inseparable from one another, and fundamental to modern art, begin with Baudelaire’s celebration of “the fixed and animally ecstatic gaze of a child confronted with something new,” adding that “the child sees everything in a state of newness; he is always drunk,” leading Baudelaire to argue, famously, that artistic “genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will.”8

Baudelaire’s idea of the “high imaginative power” of children is echoed in Kandinsky’s idea of their “unconscious, enormous power,” often making “the work of children…much higher than the work of adults,” leading him to argue that “the artist…for his whole lifetime resembles the child in many ways.”9 Later, Jean Dubuffet groups together “the art of children, of primitives, and of the insane,” contrasting them with adult “cultural art.” Abandoning “the highroad of culture,” he follows the lead of primitive, insane, children’s art downward into the unconscious.10

The basic belief of all these modernists, desperate to make a new, untraditional art, is that one has to become drunk on the unconscious, and with that primitive, insane and childlike. All one needs is one’s inborn imagination, which “play[s] without playthings,”11 as Baudelaire said, suggesting that making art is child’s play, demanding little or no “deliberation,” as he dismissively called it, and the work of art is a sort of plaything in an imaginative game the artist plays with himself. Thus, to use Freud’s language, “imagination, liberated from the domination of reason [deliberation] and from any moderating control [exercised by the adult ego], leaps into a position of unlimited sovereignty.”12 The dream is the “artistic work”—Freud’s term—that the imagination produces, and there is an “indisputable analogy between dreams and insanity.”13 We are insane children when we dream—“Schopenhauer called dreams a brief madness, madness a long dream,” Freud notes in agreement14—suggesting that an artist can become modern simply by dreaming, that is, regressing to an “unreasonable” childlike state of mind.

André Breton, who lifted Freud’s idea of the dream imagination almost verbatim, argued that all one had to do to become “involuntarily” or “automatically” creative was to derange one’s senses, as Rimbaud, a precursor of Breton’s Surrealism, suggested. One’s senses deranged, everything became ephemeral, fugitive, contingent—modern and new: one became a mad child. The child has no ego ideals, to use Freud’s term, let alone self-control, only uncontrolled, uncontainable, unfocused sensations, “expressively” discharged as fast as possible in every direction, as though with blind spontaneity. Modern art had to be “sensational,” that is, “playfully” and uncontrollably—with a sort of manic, aimless energy—to engage the uncontainable, unmanageable, ephemeral, fugitive, contingent, not to say random. The function of art is no longer to transform the modern into the memorable, to find lasting meaning in passing experience, affording a certain perspective on it, but to generate new sensations, their ephemerality confirming one’s own. The idea caught fire with Impressionism, which is not exactly child’s work but pretends to have an “innocent” childlike dreamy inner “vision,” however much it may structure or contain or aestheticize its seemingly raw “sensational” impressions—a sort of calculated, ambitiously naive experience—of the outer world.

I will argue that since the sensational old “avant-garde” days—a time when it seemed progressive and revolutionary to make art as though one were a freespirited child (although, as Freud pointed out, the child was even more “psychically overdetermined” than the adult), to call upon the child in oneself in creative defiance of and defense against the adult world, to make works of art that seem irrepressibly expressive and emotionally outspoken, compared to tediously artful and reserved traditional works, to believe that every new dream would save art from its long history (but Freud pointed out that dreams deal with the same old aggressive and sexual instinctive wishes everyone has)—the idea that making art is child’s play has become decadent, and with it modern art and the modern artist, and even “modernity.” As the psychoanalyst Michael Balint writes, the infantilization of art—and the artist—has led to its desublimation.15 More pointedly, it fails to satisfy what the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm calls our existential needs.16 The modern artist’s regression to childhood is not what psychoanalysts call a regression in the service of his ego, but suggests that he does not know what it means, and how, to be an adult.

The Horseman of the Apocalypse, 2011 Courtesy of the Artist

If one had to become like a child to make avant-garde art—Gauguin and Picasso suggested as much17—then avant-garde art is made for immature children, not mature adults. Avantgardism has become institutionally reified— unquestioned and firmly “established,” to again use Baudelaire’s word—suggesting that the development of art has become arrested. As the “insider” mode of art, avant-garde art has become peculiarly outmoded, and with it the idea of making art that conveys modernity, which keeps up with the ever-changing times, for avant-gardism is its standard bearer, the expressive tribute to its ephemerality. Avant-garde art has become retardataire art, as the infantilistic art of the British artist Martin Creed, recently given a retrospective at the prestigious Serpentine Gallery in London, makes clear. The retrospective was coyly titled “What’s the Point of It?,” which is exactly the right question to ask about Creed’s work.

Starkly contrasting with Creed’s work are the paintings of the Italian artist Roberto Ferri (b. 1978), called a “radical anachronism” by Maurizio Calvesi and “a passionate academic painter” by Vittorio Sgarbi.18 For me, they are compelling revelations, deeply humanist and existential. Ferri is among the best of the emerging “outsider” artists dialectically using what pure modernists would probably call the relics of old master art to develop a mature postmodern art—an art made for thinking adults rather than impetuous children. Creed’s works show the emotional disaster and immature farce that avant-garde art has become; Ferri’s works show that art is once again capable of becoming mature—rising above the primitive, mad, uncultured child in us to address the serious adult in us, an adult made more seriously conscious by culture.

In 2001, Creed won a Turner Prize for “an installation that involved a room’s lights flicking on and off again every five seconds (Work No. 227).”19 The installation was clearly an insult to Turner’s art and the intelligence of the audience. Creed began his career “with a work comprised entirely of a wadded sheet of A4 paper enshrined in a glass case (Work No. 88, 1995).” The critic Kelly Grovier suggests that the climactic work of Creed’s career was “a looped film of a girl in a pretty pale dress, her face turned in embarrassment from the camera, defecating on the floor of an empty room (Work No. 660, 2007).” Creed seems to projectively identify, to use a psychoanalytic concept, with the Asian girl, as artists are prone to do with their models, suggesting that he is arrested in what Freudians call the anal phase of development. The work may be an anal sadistic attack on woman, as some rapes are, and as such deeply misogynist, or a hate crime against Asians as well as women—the alien “others”—but the key point is that Creed is fixated on excrement. Making an outrageous spectacle, as many late modern artists do.

Made entirely from a narcissistic position—he “produce[s] things to help [him] live,” Creed states, which is not exactly to produce them for anyone else, nor, as Victoria Segal says, to make works that have “a life of [their] own” that “will survive the artist”—his works cannot help but have little or none. They are likely to be forgotten as soon as he is, or remembered, if they are, as symptoms of pathological narcissism—a narcissism so absolute that it precludes adult relations with others, that is, the serious audience. The artist’s attitude to his audience cannot help but inform his art. “Creed’s existence as an artist,” Grovier writes, seems “to rely on the humiliation of others and in particular on the debasement of those who devoted time to staring at his work.” “An art world in which anything goes,” he adds, “goes nowhere.” It is ridiculous, all the more so when it ridicules the audience.

Pure abstraction may be the most aristocratic modern art, populist rep resentation may be the most democratic modern art, but Creed’s provocative exhibitionism is modern art at its most narcissistically nihilistic. Without a hierarchy of values, there is only nihilism, and Creed has neither aristocratic nor democratic values, which leaves him with his valueless self. Pure art may be a defense against the impure content of life, and populist art may be a defense against traditional ideals, for they look like idées fixes in dynamic modern society, but Creed’s nihilistic “postart,” to use Allan Kaprow’s term,20 implies that there are no ideals, which trivializes both life and art. Infants and children are invariably narcissistic and nihilistic. To become an adult—and to make art for adults—one has “to transcend one’s self-centered, narcissistic, isolated position to one of being related to others,” as Fromm writes.21 Flaunting feces in mock shame—and mocking the audience—is not the best way of doing so.


The  Restoration  of  the  Great Tradition

Ferri’s art goes somewhere back—or is it forward?—to the great tradition to restore adult meaning and value to art. He makes what one might call “depth art,” on the model of “depth psychology.” Depth art acknowledges eternal existential issues—inescapable human concerns, which every individual has to deal with, whatever his circumstances—in contrast to “superficial art,” which stays on the social surface of everyday experience. Depth art tends to be allegorical, superficial art tends to be descriptive. Superficial art tends to treat human beings as embodiments of their environment, products of their circumstances and unable to rise above them—a meaningless idea from the environmentalist point of view. Depth art tends to regard them—and their bodies—as independent of their environment, however marked by it, individuals having to face existential issues on their own, with a kind of fearless intelligence and emotional daring, and with that to “heroically” face and “realize” themselves, thus achieving authenticity.

Ferri’s works are psychological allegories that address eternal existential issues and concerns, like the works of the Renaissance and Baroque masters who are his models. Ferri’s works present them with a more resonant clarity and insistence, and even with greater freshness and persuasiveness, I would argue, because he has rediscovered, through his engagement with his Renaissance and Baroque models—in effect his artistic peers—those deeply human issues and existential concerns. He shows that they remain the “legitimate” concerns of art, however much modern art has made them seem “illegitimate.” No doubt the ephemeral is more readily “verifiable” than the eternal, but the eternal is subjectively  “verifiable.”

Just as the great tradition has been left behind by “advanced” modern art, these deeply human issues and existential concerns have been left behind in “advanced” modern society, where technology is idealized as the solution to all human problems, even as it causes more problems. The Renaissance and Baroque masters took inescapable existential matters routinely because they were socially mediated by a common Christian religion, taken for granted in European society, certainly in Catholic Italy. There was a secure place for the sacred in society, for “the space of wonder and awe, of the noumenal which remains a mystery and the numinous which is its aura,” as the cultural historian Daniel Bell calls it,22 however profane the rest of it was. In modernity, there is no such securely sacred cultural space—certainly not Creed’s art, “art” that profanes life and art, and suggests that life is irredeemably profane.

The Christian Church mediated the eternally human verities through the conventions of the story of Christ, especially Christ’s Passion, with its Stations of the Cross, moving through suffering and isolation to death and forgiveness. Religion has always addressed these universal verities, however formally and dogmatically. “Religion,” Bell writes, “is a set of coherent answers to the core existential questions”—“recurrent questions,” he emphasizes—“that confront every human group…conscious of the finiteness of existence: how one meets death, the meaning of tragedy, the nature of obligation, the character of love.”23 “The eternal, for Aristotle, was aneu logou—without words,” Bell continues: “That is also the source of kairos, which breaks into time,” and, one might add, words and images.

Ancient Greek had two words for time, chronos, sequential, quantified, worldly time, and kairos, permanent, qualitative, eternal time. In the New Testament, kairos means “the appointed time in the purpose of God,” a time sacred to God, as it were, in contrast to the chronological time of the profane world, where words and images exist. Some signal the purpose of God, as though their appointed time has arrived. “Necessary to the sacred is…the principle of distinction, of the realm which is reserved for the days of awe and lament, and the realm of the mundane and profane.”24

Like all artists concerned with the sacred, Ferri maintains this distinction. On the one hand, there are works of awe and lament, when the eternal tragically collides with the worldly, works grounded in the Christian narrative, particularly his Stations of the Cross (2011–13), and also St. Sebastian (2006) and St. Jerome (2010). On the other hand, there are works that deal with the profane and mundane, works grounded in classical mythology, particularly myths in which desire and fear become uncannily perverse and uncontrollable, above all Salmacis and Hermaphroditus (2009), a remarkable group of three paintings, and, from that same year, The Gorgon and Hector and Andromache (2010). Sometimes, the Christian and the classical fantastically fuse, as in the astonishing Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (2011).

Station IX (of the Cross), 2011, Courtesy of the artistFerri is an old master original, as it were, a grand master whose time has come. His art is timely, for it rescues art from the decadence of modern art. The modern revolution against the great tradition became a reign of terror, supposedly advancing art by brutally repressing it. But the repressed always returns, often fearlessly, as in Ferri’s art. It confirms that the modern revolution was in bad faith, false to art because it betrayed its transcendental purpose, and with that its existential value. One might say that Ferri is the necessary revolutionary, the revolutionary necessary when art no longer seems necessary, a fate foretold by modern art, as the Dadaist-turned-psychoanalyst Richard Huelsenbeck presciently wrote at the height of its social success.25

Dismissing Ingres as “an eloquent amateur of beauty,” Baudelaire argued that “the antique ideal” had become a “pedantic style” in his art, stripping it of “that energy of temperament which constitutes the fatality of genius,” and with that lost all credibility, becoming merely a matter of “good taste.”26 The antique ideal, and the sense of permanence—the eternal—it brings with it, seemed like empty rhetoric, and unrealistic, in an art devoted to the ephemerally modern. What Baudelaire called the “epic” quality accorded the human figure in the great tradition, and the old master art descended from it, seemed like absurd exaggeration in mid-nineteenth-century Paris: the “floating existences” in the modern crowd were hardly epic. But T.S. Eliot distinguishes between “a rhetoric of substance” and “rhetorical bombast.” A rhetoric of substance deals with “variation in feeling and thought”; rhetorical bombast is “monotonous” because it is “inflexible to the alterations of emotion.”27 Like the Renaissance and Baroque artists who are his models, and like the grand tradition they build on, Ferri is a rhetorician of epic emotional substance, not a bombastic, monotonous, inflexible rhetorician.

He offers us two rhetorics of substance, each radically different from the other, and each dealing with radical alterations of emotion, extremely discordant emotions that nonetheless dialectically inform each other in a discordia concors. Thus, in the Christian paintings, Ferri represents, with a rhetorical intensity that convinces us of their reality, the contradictory feelings of awe and lament, arising when the eternal becomes historical, that is, when the sacred enters the chronological world—when Christ made and became history, sacrificing his physically real body to convince us that the eternal is more real.

In the classical paintings, Ferri represents the rhetoric of the visceral passions—especially passionate sexuality—eternal in their own way because they are as inescapable and strangely paradoxical as Christ’s body, which seems to have been unmoved by them, which seems to lack sexuality. The classical works are more luridly imaginative, indeed, inventive in their iconography, than the Christian works, where the iconography is prescribed and fixed. “The end” of rhetoric is “persuasion,” and there are “three modes of persuasion,” according to Aristotle, by way of “character,” by eliciting “emotions in the audience” and by the “arguments” one has constructed or invented to make one’s case.28

Ferri makes the case that the idealization of ancient life in the great tradition and the idealization of Christ and the Christian saints in great Renaissance and Baroque art could not have been persuasive without a rhetoric that gave bodily substance to the variation, range, complexity and inflections of feeling in their psyches. More pointedly, he shows that they gave fatality to temperament, whether it expresses itself through the imitatio Christi or the passions. He is clearly drawn to both Christian and classical bodies, suggesting his split personality. Both are informed with his temperamental genius, which is why they have character.

The human body—sometimes nude, sometimes draped—is the basic subject matter of Ferri’s art, as it is in the great tradition and Renaissance and Baroque art. Even when it is only half human—when its upper half is human and its lower half animal, as the devilish mermaid Salmacis is—or mutely suffering, as Hermaphroditus, the object of her lust, seems to be, it is always peculiarly dignified and beautiful, that is, idealized. Even the grossly bestial female in Theater of Cruelty (2010)—her lower body is that of a lioness, suggesting she is a sort of Sphinx—has a certain beauty and dignity, adding to her grandeur. Is the male figure she has hung upside down and sadistically beheaded— implicitly castrated—Oedipus, but an Oedipus who did not know the answer to her riddle (what has four legs, then two, and finally three?) and so was destroyed by her? Ferri is fascinated by the human riddle that is Christ as well as the Sphinx, another monster composed of an animal body and a human head. In a 2006 painting, she blows a sort of ram’s horn, her eyes closed as a gigantic black bird mounts and merges with her, a moment of sexual metamorphosis in which she is transformed into a monster, sexual experience giving her knowledge of the human condition.

He retells the classical and Christian stories—ancient and archetypal— that address the human riddle, without claiming to solve it, for it is an unsolvable mystery. The animal and human, the profane and sacred, maleness and femaleness, are tied together in a Gordian knot that no one can cut or untie, suggesting that we are all monsters, that is, grotesque hybrids, always paradoxically untrue to ourselves.

Ovid tells the story of the relationship of Hermaphroditus and Salmacis in the fourth chapter of the Metamorphoses. Overcome by lust for the handsome adolescent Hermaphroditus, the beautiful nymph Salmacis tried to seduce him in her pool, but he resisted her. When he thought she had left, he undressed and entered the empty pool to bathe. But she was hidden behind a tree, and jumped into the pool after him, wrapping herself around him, forcing herself on him with kisses and touches. Hermaphroditus again resisted, but Salmacis called upon the gods, asking that they should never be parted. Her wish was granted, and their naked bodies became one, “a creature of both sexes,” suggesting that, after all, they had sexually consummated their relationship, that is, Salmacis had successfully seduced him. Aristophanes jokingly thought that the first human beings were hermaphrodites, but the gods felt threatened by them, for being bisexual, they were godlike, and so they split them in half.

Ever since, every half is eagerly looking for its other half, as though to restore the original integrity. As noted, Ferri paints the Salmacis and Hermaphroditus story three times. In the first painting, Ferri shows Salmacis seductively approaching Hermaphroditus, her claw-like right hand voraciously grasping the flesh of his right thigh, her smiling face thrust close to his sleepy one, her parted lips revealing glistening white teeth and approaching his closed lips. She has long blonde hair, some of it tied in a braid; he has brown hair, cut short and neatly combed. He is seated on a rock in the pool; her dragonlike tail rests on a lower rock as she raises herself toward him. Intriguingly, his legs are linked together by a kind of golden band, each end piercing each leg, causing a trickle of blood, just above the ankles, where Christ’s legs were pierced when he was on the cross.

The Gorgon, 2009, Courtesy of the artist

In the second painting, Salmacis has ravished and conquered Hermaphroditus, who is now completely submissive to her. His hair is rumpled, hers hangs loosely to her waist. They are both upright, she standing on her huge tail, he standing with one leg on it. She coils around him, one arm wrapped around his neck and reaching his chest. A slithering reptilian form punctures and enters it, its snaky other end emerging from his right forearm. He has been impregnated by her, as it were, and he no longer resists her. She is dominant and active, he submissive and passive. It is as though he is at rest after intercourse, his penis still aroused, as it was not in the first painting, but she is restlessly insatiable.

In the third painting, she has vanished: he is alone, and seemingly dead, one arm covering his eyes. Stretched out on the dead rock—not a bit of moss grows on it—near her spring, his body has lost its youthful beauty. In the other two paintings, his body glowed with light; now it is almost completely in shadow. His genitals, conspicuously evident before, are now smothered in darkness, almost invisible, as though he has been castrated. Vulnerably naked—not a shred of drapery appears, as it does in the other paintings—he grasps, in his right hand, a shred of black hair, a token of death. In the first painting, Salmacis has blonde—truly golden—hair, suggesting her sacredness and divinity. In the second painting, she has luridly red hair—she is a changed woman, as her changed face suggests—as if inflamed by passion. And in the third painting, the black hair, and her disappearance, confirm her deadliness.

Ferri’s women are invariably monstrous femme fatales and murderous dominatrices, as The Gorgon (2009) makes clear. She stands upright, holding a snake, increasing in bulk and power as it descends to her feet, where two men lay huddled and humiliated, all but dead, as the dead tree next to them implies, its branches echoing their bony bodies. The white flower in a sort of golden candleholder that one of them holds suggests their purity, in contrast to her perversity. It is the same purity and innocence that Hermaphroditus had before the sex-mad Salmacis forced herself upon him, in effect raping and sullying him. Salmacis and the Gorgon confirm the fatal attractiveness of Ferri’s lustful females. Fatal Melody (2010), with its triumphant winged female and abject, fallen male next to her, and The Death of Love (2010), with its naked dead male figure, most of his body in shadow, make a similar point. The atmosphere in the Salmacis and Hermaphroditus series and The Gorgon is somber; the atmosphere in Fatal Melody and The Death of Love is black—altogether bleak and dismal, however highlighted the figures, or some of their parts, are.

Thus the sacred and the profane are mixed in Ferri’s paintings, each seemingly metamorphosing into the other, a process of merger in which they finally become one and the same, or at least indistinguishable. Ferri is a master of graphic detail—the blood on the flayed body of Christ and on the white wing of an angel are startling examples, leaping from the canvas with a life of their own. He is a master of mood and atmosphere, exquisitely attuned to the interplay of light and shadow, in all their varying intensities. But all of his brilliance exists to convey the profane in the sacred, the sacred in the profane, for him, the ultimate mystery of being.

Lucifer (2013) is a Fallen Angel (2011), and as such sacred, however profane. His wings grotesquely blackened, his youthful body glowing with light, he is a contradiction in terms, a riddle or paradox. He seems to have undergone some inexplicable metamorphosis, like the male figure in Metamorphosis (2008), his upper body human, his lower body a snake’s tail. It seems metamorphosis can be spontaneously generated, although it typically occurs during sexual intercourse, as shown in the drawing At the Gates of Heaven (no date). In the act of copulating with a young woman, an older man is transformed into an insect below his waist, suggesting that it is the heat of their passion that effects the alchemical transformation, even as it suggests that the woman has bewitched him. Like many of Ferri’s other works, the image is an ironical play on the copulation of Leda and the Swan, showing Ferri’s creative and inventive freedom. Ferri is a traditionalist, but he is an innovative traditionalist, deepening the meaning of tradition by his imaginative treatment of it.

Ferri’s startling originality becomes clear when one compares the banal nineteenth-century renderings of the story of Salmacis and Hermaphoditus by François-Joseph Navez (1829) and Giovanni Carnovali (1856) with Ferri’s unusual rendering. Compared to their “normal” Salmacis, a standard nude with an ordinary body and pretty face going through the motions of showing feeling, Ferri’s “abnormal” Salmacis, with her fish’s tail, making it clear that she belongs in the pool, and conveying her monstrousness (after all, she is a sort of man-eating amphibian) tells us more about her meaning and character than theirs do. She is also a very particular person, highly individualized, with distinctive features, vividly realized through her intensity, pervading her body, as well as expressed in her face. She is fantastically—urgently—real, one might say, or rather a realized fantasy, that is, a dream come perversely true, reminding us that Ovid’s stories, like all the ancient myths, are obscene fantasies (generally forgotten when they became “classicized” and “scenic,” clichéd and picturesque), making them emotionally real.

The ancient myths are timeless fantasies, charged with psychological truths. Reviving them by showing just how fantastic they are, Ferri makes it clear that they are emotionally realistic. Navez and Carnovali turn the tale of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus into another tepid love story, while Ferri makes its complex psychodynamics clear, especially by ending it with the death of Hermaphroditus, unexpected and not in the story, yet implicit, for he lost himself to Salmacis when she made him half a man. Ferri’s addition of the death scene gives us a new perspective on the story, transforming its meaning and forcing us to reflect back on it, and with that to gain deep insight into it. In Ferri’s hands, the ancient myths, classical or Christian, can no longer be taken for granted, for they have once again become what Freud said dreams are: royal roads to the unconscious.

Ferri is a master of the monumental format (as Shattered Delights, 2008, among other physically grand tours de force, makes clear), but also of the intimate format, as his numerous drawings show. Whatever its position, the figure always holds its own in the space, transcending it in the act of defining it. For Ferri, the figures and beliefs of classical religion and Christian religion converge, resulting in a new kind of epic religious painting.

An obvious example is Ancient Enigma (Last Supper), 2004. A young, feminine-looking Dionysus—resembling Ferri’s Hermphroditus, implicitly indiscriminate in his sexual appetites, as Dionysus was—holds a bunch of wine grapes in one hand, while posing to the right of the mature Christ, holding a piece of bread as he declares that the bread and wine of the Last Supper are his body and blood. As Euripedes’ The Bacchae makes clear, the worshippers of Dionysus became drunk on wine and ate the raw flesh of an animal they tore apart, the wine implicitly the blood and the animal implicitly the body of Dionysus. As scholars have pointed out, the Dionysian ritual has an uncanny resemblance to, and sets a precedent for, the ritual of drinking the wine/blood and eating the bread/body of Christ in a sort of intoxicated trance. No matter how refined and spiritual the Christian version may seem, Christ meant, at least according to some interpreters, for it to be taken literally rather than metaphorically. The metamorphosis that Christ and Dionysus effect, and that is the theme of Ovid’s “tall tales,” has its parallel in the metamorphosis that the artist—at least an artist working in the great tradition, like Ferri—effects: under the spell of his intoxicating art, the figures and objects seem undeniably real, even as they remain miraculous representations.

Pope Francis, 2014, Courtesy of the artistChristianity’s many transformative borrowings from classicism have been much noted—perhaps most famously the naked heroic body Michelangelo gives Christ in The Last Judgment, a body that is at once ideal and realistic, an ideal physically realized and the physical body perfected. Some of Ferri’s bodies are Michelangelesque, others are indebted to Caravaggio’s “cutting” realism and dramatic tenebrism. Each has its own integrity, even as they suggest that the great tradition is divided against itself. Ferri masterfully integrates them, so that their separateness becomes unthinkable: clearly his “artistic products” are the result of a “meaningful internal intercourse”—an aesthetic and cerebral, as well as a bodily and impassioned, intercourse—between them that transforms both, which is why they have a life of their own, and will survive, as the great tradition has. The fresh union of ancient opposites gives his paintings an uncanny grace and dignity, like those of the old masters.

Ferri’s masterpieces remind us that there is an intensity of conviction in the old masters that the modern masters lack, for their intensity masks their lack of serious conviction, however seriously they may take themselves. But without religious conviction—taking existence with religious seriousness— they cannot have a serious sense of self.29 Above all, he takes the ancient universal narratives seriously enough to believe in them, which makes his art believable. Using them to contain and shape his personal existential needs and anxieties, he gives the human riddle, manifest in the riddle that is the human body—most conspicuously in the bodies of Hermaphroditus and Christ— seductively enigmatic ideal form.

Ferri’s two portraits of Pope Francis have been officially accepted by the Governorate of Vatican City and will be installed in the entrance of the Governorate and the Sala della Consulta in the Vatican.



  1. Charles Baudelaire, “The Salon of 1846,” The Mirror of Art, ed., Jonathan Mayne (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1956), pp. 126–27.

  2. Ibid., p. 129.

  3. Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life,” The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays (London and New York: Phaidon, 1999), p. 124.

  4. Ibid., p. 28.

  5. André Haynal, Depression and Creativity (New York: International Universities Press, 1985), p. 64.

  6. Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life,” The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, p. 28.

  7. Baudelaire, “The Salon of 1859,” The Mirror of Art, p. 235.

  8. Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life,” The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, p. 8.

  9. Wassily Kandinsky, “On the Question of Form,” Complete Writings on Art, eds., Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994), pp. 251–52.

  10. Quoted in John M. MacGregor, The Discovery of the Art of the Insane (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 296.

  11. Baudelaire, “A Philosophy of Toys,” p. 199.

  12. Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (New York: Discus Books, 1972), p. 116.

  13. Ibid., p. 124.

  14. Ibid., p. 122.

  15. Michael Balint, “Notes on the Dissolution of Object-Representation in Modern Art,” Problems of Human Pleasure and Behaviour (London: Maresfield Library, 1987), pp. 122–23, noting that “modern art” involves “narcissistic withdrawal,” argues that it “cannot remain on the mature level,” operating on “the analsadistic level… degrading the dignity of the object.”

  16. These are the need for relatedness, for transcendence, for rootedness, for identity or unity, for a frame of orientation and an object of devotion, and for effectiveness. See Rainer Funk, Erich Fromm: The Courage To Be Human (New York: Continuum, 1982), pp. 60–66.

  17. As Gauguin famously wrote, he prefers the “wooden hobbyhorse” of his “infancy” to “the horses of the Parthenon.” Quoted in Herschel B. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), p. 84. In a similar vein, Picasso declared that “the beauties of the Parthenon…are so many lies.” Ibid., p. 271. “Visiting an exhibition of children’s art,” Picasso said that “it took me a lifetime to learn to draw like them.” Dore Ashton, ed., Picasso on Art: A Selection of Views (New York: Viking, 1972), p. 104.

  18. Both essays are in Roberto Ferri: Noli Foras Ire (Florence and Milan: Giunti, 2013; exhibition catalogue).

  19. Kelly Grovier, “Nought and Crosses: A Retrospective of Martin Creed’s Work Is Neither Shocking Nor New,” Times Literary Supplement, No. 5788 (March 7, 2014), p. 17.

  20. Kaprow “forecast the postartistic age,” and supposedly initiated it, after World War II, with his New York happenings, but in fact it began with the performances of the Dadaists, while they were safe in Zürich during World War I. See “The Education of the UnArtist, Part I,” Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), p. 108.

  21. Quoted in Funk, p. 63.

  22. Daniel Bell, “The Return of the Sacred?,” The Winding Passage (New York: Basic Books, 1980), p. 353.

  23. Ibid., p. 333.

  24. Ibid., p. 353.

  25. In “The Agony of the Artist,” Memoirs of a Dadaist Drummer (New York: Viking, 1974), p. 177, Huelsenbeck wrote that “the dada assertion that art is dead is not too far from the truth,” adding that “the Dadaist protest was based on a false premise, i.e., the assumption that mankind would not be able to survive without the artist. Yet it can get along without art as easily as without religion despite all assertions to the contrary.” p. 178.

  26. Baudelaire, “The Salon of 1859,” pp. 207–08.

  27. T.S. Eliot, “‘Rhetoric’ and Poetic Drama,” The Sacred Wood (London: Methuen, 1950), pp. 79–81.

  28. Richard McKeon, “Introduction,” The Basic Works of Aristotle (New York: Random House, 1941), p. xxx.

  29. Heinz Kohut, The Restoration of the Self (New York: International Universities Press, 1977), p. 286, argues that “the art of yesterday…dealt with the problems of Guilty Man—the man of the Oedipus complex, the man of structural conflict,” in contrast to “the crumbling, decomposing, fragmenting, enfeebled self of [the deprived] child and, later, the fragile, vulnerable, empty self of the adult that the great artists of [our] day describe.”

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2014, Volume 31, Number 3