FORT WORTH, Texas — The subtitle “Bandits, Wilderness and Magic” by itself should be enough to make people want to see a show by Italian artist Salvator Rosa (1615-1673) at the Kimbell Art Museum.
The “Salvator Rosa: Bandits, Wilderness and Magic” exhibit doesn't disappoint, offering a dazzling display of the eccentrically appealing artist's painterly and storytelling abilities. Organized by the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, the show features 36 oil paintings by Rosa.
Providing a glimpse into the world of the multitalented poet, playwright, actor and musician as well as artist, who was born in Naples and lived in Rome and Florence, is an opening section of “Portraits.”
A thoughtful Rosa, with flowing locks, contemplates his own mortality, as he delicately writes the Greek words “behold, wither, when” on a skull in a masterful “Self-Portrait,” done about 1647. More direct and realistic, but no less engaging and well-handled, is a smaller portrait of his longtime companion Lucrezia Paolini, wearing a dark hooded garment and turning her brightly lit face toward us.
Lucrezia was probably also the model for a 1641 portrait in which a woman, her wild hair barely contained by a blue scarf, looks intently at us over her shoulder, holding a book and quill emblematic of “Poetry.”
Almost equally engaging and engrossing is the next part of the show, devoted to the romantic landscapes for which Rosa became famous. Small, dark figures blend into their surroundings at the base of a rugged outcrop, at which one man points in a “Rocky Landscape,” done about 1650, to name a case in point.
One of the most startling and eye-catching works in the show is a large “Coastal Landscape,” done when Rosa was a young man, from about 1636 to 1638. The giant coastal landscape depicts people in the water, boats in a harbor and a vaguely Vesuvius-like mountain erupting on the far side of a body of water resembling the Bay of Naples, where Rosa grew up.
Cleaned and finally attributed to Rosa, the painting is making its public debut at the Kimbell, a gallery note informs us, after long being stored out of sight at the Prado museum in Madrid, Spain. But perhaps the most riveting and nearly lurid paintings are found in the show's “Witches” section that bring to mind the work of artists Hieronymus Bosch and Goya.
A hag brandishing a broom sits on the back of a strange owl with pointed, pink ears, next to a companion cutting open the stomach of a reptilian creature, in a small, circular “Scene With Witches,” for example.
Intriguing, too, are several of Rosa's works portraying “Bandits” and “armed men” in rugged terrain or on a rocky coast. It is these paintings, according to a gallery note, that led by the middle of the following century to wild stories that Rosa himself might have become a member of an outlaw gang or been held prisoner by one.
No less impressive are many of the large oils in the final two parts of the exhibition pertaining to “Philosophy and Magic” and “Allegory and History.” One memorable work in the former category is a 1662 oil of amazed followers greeting “Pythagoras Coming Out of the Cave” as if from the underworld. Another is a late painting of Jason pouring a sleeping potion on the head of the dragon guarding the Golden Fleece.
Forceful works in the latter depict a gesturing “Saint John the Baptist Preaching in the Wilderness” and a group of unappreciative animals receiving a cornucopia of riches from the goddess of fortune.
The exhibit is highly recommended during its run at the Kimbell.
— John Brandenburg