The Pseudo-Primitive, Pseudo-Childlike Art of Fr. Rupnik

Everywhere you turn in the Catholic Church of the last fifty years, you find the spirit of Rupnik. All of the pseudo-primitive pseudo-childlike church art since my boyhood has been of a piece.

“The art of [Father] Marko Rupnik,” I read in an article called “L’Arte di Rupnik a Pistoia,” which you can find on the website Discover Pistoia, “is a symbolism now universally appreciated, able to join together allusions to the tradition of the medieval East with the modernity of a decorative language that demands abstraction.” The Pistoiesi naturally want to advertise the man’s art because it is the highlight of the oratory of the Fondazione Santa Maria Assunta in Cielo, an organization dedicated to serving the handicapped. 

There you can see Rupnik’s Harrowing of Hell, wherein Jesus is pulling from the jaws of Hell—as if from the throat of a many-toothed fish—a green-robed Adam and a red-robed Eve, with Adam looking toward Jesus and Eve looking off to the side and below, possibly to the wound in Jesus’ foot, and possibly not. It is hard to tell, since Rupnik usually blacks out all or almost all of the eye in his human faces.

Rupnik has been accused of some monstrous behavior, as our readers may know, involving women subject to his spiritual authority and, in some instances, his artistic influence. The Jesuits have removed him from their order. The accusations seem credible. Whether he violated the pertinent civil laws, I do not know, and I will not speculate. 

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Hilary White, in The Remnant, has meanwhile written cogently about his artistic sins, his “childish rebellion against philosophical foundations of Christian thought, that whole body of metaphysics that says real things are real and not subject to our personal whims and preferences.” White reveals in Rupnik’s art a cult of the oddball, the off-kilter, of asymmetry without meaning, suggesting that it is weird in the same ways that his theology and sexual habits were weird. Or, as the headline of the Italian newspaper Domani screams (December 18, 2022), “Kisses in the name of the Eucharist and a threesome to imitate the Trinity.”

Many a great artist, of course, has led a life we would rather not examine too closely. Caravaggio comes immediately to mind; a violent man, very possibly given to sexual perversion, as far from a saint as it is possible to be. Or was he? 

Perhaps he was closer to Par Lagerkvist’s haunted sinner in Barabbas: for he paints himself as one of Peter’s executioners, and as the innkeeper at Emmaus looking on and not understanding. Though he may have had his equals (Rembrandt, in his series on the Prodigal Son), to my mind nobody ever rendered repentance with greater dramatic silence than he does in his painting of Mary Magdalene, a high-end prostitute, seated in her chair with all the baubles of her trade roundabout, and one tear trickling down her cheek.

Caravaggio, too, may stun us with what seems out of place, like the great flank of the horse that takes up much of the Conversion of St. Paul, but he always signifies by so doing, and our original sense of displacement gives way to a more profound sense of precision, dramatic immediacy, and sacramental reality. We see that bright flank, but St. Paul does not; he, with his eyes shut and his arms thrust out in astonishment, sees what is glorious and terrifying at once, and though we do not see what he sees, Caravaggio strikes the lock off our imagination, and we wonder.

Caravaggio, then, was a sinner in the stews, but not when he took the brush in hand to paint St. Paul, or Matthew, the well-fed tax-collector, leaning over his table in a shabby underground nook. Caravaggio was too honest to pretend. It was so even when he was not painting a holy scene: see The Cardsharps, where we find an innocent rich boy being duped by an older boy and his instructor in crime. The older boy, shabby, with a dagger in his belt and several cards tucked in the back of his cloak, is a near look-alike for the younger boy, who is gazing at his own cards and suspects nothing. 

The drama of the scene thus goes beyond the moment. It is as if Caravaggio had said, “Son, keep on the road you’re traveling, and this will be you.” And perhaps farther: if you manage to survive into your middle age, you may end up like the instructor, fingertips peeking through his worn-out gloves, leaning over to read the cards in the lad’s hand and flashing the information to his accomplice. Death is the wages of sin, says St. Paul. Disillusionment and emptiness often come before.

But in Rupnik’s works, though I sometimes find the colors visually pleasing, there is no drama; certainly not in Caravaggio’s way but also not as in the Byzantine art he imitates, where drama is the mystery of glory breaking into our world. We would not say of Theophanes the Greek’s Transfiguration that there is anything off-kilter, though the forms do not observe the anatomical dimensions of the human body. Rather, the painting is a wonder of theological exactitude in its precisely intersecting lines and its colors both symbolic and earthly; and the human faces are human, not grossly elongated, ethereal, eye-blacked aliens.

All this would be to gang up on a hapless sinner, except that, as White suggests, everywhere you turn in the Catholic Church of the last fifty years, you find Rupnik. All of the pseudo-primitive pseudo-childlike church art since my boyhood has been of a piece, from the oratorio in Pistoia to the flat kitsch on your missalette to the chubby white pigeon cut out of felt to grace the banner over the pulpit. Why must it be so? I return to the words of the Rupnik aficionado in Pistoia: his art speaks the language of modernity, and that language “demands abstraction.” What does that mean?

To abstract, in an Aristotelian sense, you gather from experience of the concrete and the specific those universal features that make a thing the sort of thing it really is. When Winslow Homer painted The Gulf Stream, he was not preoccupied with giving us a photographic depiction of some individual material thing. A shirtless black man lies in a small boat, its mast broken off, a scrap of a shroud dangling in the water, ropes lying useless at his feet, while the waves surge round him, and the sharks await. 

The brush strokes are broad, and the lines are sometimes uneasy. The artist means it to be that way. He has abstracted from his considerable experience of the sea the essence of its beauty and its terrifying power. He gives us a realistic portrayal of the human body, but what animates us is not the realism but something beyond it, something that Homer has abstracted from a lifetime of witnessing man in his heroic and often losing struggle against all the forces—natural and social—amassed against him. Oil paint can give you the sharpest details; but for the kind of abstraction Homer was attempting, the very vagueness of the watercolor, paradoxically, speaks more clearly.

But the pseudo-primitive—the kind of abstraction Rupnik engages in—is not of that sort. It does not dwell lovingly upon the physical. It does not soar beyond the physical. It sinks beneath it, or it simply does not care about it. It is like much of modern poetry, which so often and quite intentionally sinks beneath characterization, narrative, logic, grammar, and even the very idea that words have meanings that reflect what really is. Sometimes the pseudo-primitive is just silly and dull. But sometimes it is worse. It is wrong, in the etymological sense: warped, crooked.   But the pseudo-primitive—the kind of abstraction Rupnik engages in—is not of that sort. It does not dwell lovingly upon the physical. It does not soar beyond the physical. It sinks beneath it, or it simply does not care about it. Tweet This

Why should we care? Because, as Oscar Wilde quipped, nature imitates art. We conform ourselves to the art we see around us. If you wish to implant wrongness in social reality, implant it first in art. C.S. Lewis, in That Hideous Strength, exposes the spiritual and human destruction caused by our getting used to such wrongness. Such is the aim of the Objectivity Room, where the victim—the novice, that is—is meant to grow in objectivity by losing his sense of objective truth and beauty:

A man of trained sensibility would have seen at once that the room was ill proportioned, not grotesquely so but sufficiently to produce dislike. It was too high and too narrow. Mark felt the effect without analyzing the cause and the effect grew on him as time passed. Sitting staring about him he next noticed the door—and thought at first that he was the victim of some optical illusion. It took him quite a long time to prove to himself that he was not. The point of the arch was not in the center; the whole thing was lop-sided. Once again, the error was not gross. The thing was near enough to the true to deceive you for a moment and to go on teasing the mind even after the deception had been unmasked. Involuntarily one kept on shifting the head to find positions from which it would look right after all. 

It is a carefully planned room of architectural treachery against the nature of man and eternal truth. It is not involved in time, and it does not aspire to eternity. It is not like a human heart. It is not even like a good clock. It is like a bad clock, mechanical and irregular at once.Let us have no more pretenses. Bad art is bad art, and though good men may be fooled by it, do not be surprised to find other kinds of badness in its train. And let Fr. Rupnik and his project fade away.


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