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Donald Kuspit: "Beatrice Caracciolo’s Dissolution Of Pieter Bruegel’s Parable Of The Blind at Paula Cooper Gallery"

Beatrice Caracciolo, The Blind 14, 2023, mixed media on paper, 58 x 70 in. (147.3 x 177.8 cm) © Beatrice Caracciolo. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Photo: Steven Probert

The representation has become more and more ‘symbolical’, small signs must suffice the artist to express very intense emotions…This compels the artist to become more economical, to sustain more and more of an unrelenting control over his performance…A further consequence of this development is a greater freedom in using unresolved tensions in artistic representations.

- Michael Balint, “Notes On The Dissolution Of Object Representation In Modern Art”(1)

…the line’s first-ever liberation from that most primitive of instruments, the ruler.

The clatter of the falling ruler speaks loudly of total revolution.  It acts as a signal for us…the world of free graphics.

- Wassily Kandinsky, “On Line”(2)

Why pick on Bruegel’s Parable Of The Blind, 1568?  Why dissolve it into an intriguing panoply of lines, each implicated in the other in a complex matrix, as in the tour de force The Blind (Triptych), 2023—Caracciolo’s masterpiece of linear abstraction?  Each line has the expressivity of a gesture liberated from form even as it is idiosyncratically descriptive, and peculiarly personal, charged with feeling, as its urgency, and changing density, suggest.  It is not a raw, autonomous gesture, there for its expressionist sake alone, but bound to an object, a mobile sign indicative of a figure in Bruegel’s masterpiece, conveying its headlong movement into a ditch, implicitly a grave—and a mass one, for each blind beggar holds the hand of the other. They are attached to each other like links in an unbreakable chain, holding on to each other for what is left of their pathetic lives. Eyeless, they cannot see the world they inhabit, which is why they become its victims, unwittingly but inevitably. 

“Abiding in the midst of ignorance, thinking themselves wise and learned, fools go aimlessly hither and thither, like blind led by the blind,” the Katha Upanishad, ca. 800 BCE declares. Bruegel (ca. 1525-1569) was illustrating Matthew 15:13-14:  “If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”  The blind are ignorant and incompetent, not knowing where they are going—which is why they fall disastrously into a pit —implicitly a grave.  Like the Ukrainian and Russian soldiers or the Israeli and Palestinian soldiers or the Houthi and Saudi Arabian soldiers—all blindly attached to each other, all led to their deaths by their supposedly wise leaders.  Bruegel’s Parable of the Blind is a sardonic, critical statement about the authoritarian Catholic powers of his day.  In 1517, about eight years before Bruegel’s birth, Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation in neighboring Germany, and two years before Bruegel’s death the Eighty Years War began between the United Provinces and Catholic Spain.  After their liberation from Spain, the United Provinces split:  some of the provinces became Protestant Netherlands, the Catholic provinces became Belgium.  Bruegel’s The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, 1559 has been said to be a satire of the conflicts of the Protestant Reformation. The Triumph of Death, ca. 1562 conveys the horrors of the war between the Catholics and Protestants.    

It is hard to believe that Caracciolo was drawn to Bruegel’s Parable of the Blind—one of his greatest masterpieces—only because she was familiar with it from childhood, for she grew up in Naples, where it is in the Museo di Capodimonte.  She uses it to criticize, with devastating accuracy, our times and leaders, blind fools making deadly wars:  Bruegel’s painting speaks to contemporary politics and society, with a clear and decisive visual voice, to the ineptness and blindness of our leaders, and the stupidity of their devotees, following them blindly. I cannot help thinking that it applies to Trump and his followers, the blind leading the blind to disaster, certainly to civil war, already announced by their storming of the United States Capitol Building on January 6, 2021. 

In The Blind 16 Caracciolo begins by draining the color out of Bruegel’s painting, leaving the black and white figures faceless, their cloaks shells on their dissolving bodies.  Their legs remain more or less intact, the sticks they carry emphatically present.  The brownish earth on which they stand becomes a redundant series of irregular lines stretching to the distance.  The church that is there on the right remains more or less intact, however reduced to a schematic sketch.  Similarly the pyramid-like structure behind the second blind figure on the left—note that a cross is suspended from his gold necklace, suggesting that the Church is blind and will end in the ditch—remains intact, however reduced to a ghostly presence.  The buildings, like the figures, are symbolically charged:  the banal church is probably Catholic, the sturdy, solid pyramid probably alludes to Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” the first words of Psalm 46:1, which concludes with the words “always ready to help in times of trouble”—the times that Bruegel painted. 

I think Caracciolo’s handling of the trees—nature—is particularly benign, even loving, compared to the rough and ready, not to say brutal, handling of the figures, all male, it might be noted.  The lines that articulate the leaves of the beautiful trees are lyrical and intimate compared to the harsh and outspoken lines that articulate the ugly male figures.  Dare one say the trees are feminine (think of Daphne, who was turned into a laurel tree by Apollo)—that Mother Nature is beautiful and benign, intact and indispensable—while the male figures are ugly, crippled, dispensable—they will soon fall to their deaths in a grave-like ditch (perhaps the entrance to hell in Bruegel’s superstitious times), and oddly menacing, as the glaring face of the figure about to fall into the ditch suggests?  The sticks they carry can serve as weapons.  The leaves on Caracciolo’s trees are full of life, while her male figures are informed by death, as their blank—eroded—faces and blind—dead--eyes suggest. The Blind (Trees) 20 confirms my reading of Caracciolo’s treatment of nature:  centered on the paper and spreading to its edges, the lively flurry of leaves conveys joie de vivre completely at odds with the dismal doomed figures blindly going to their deaths.  Bruegel’s figures are epic; Caracciolo strips them of their physical grandeur by reducing them to oddly hollow men, already half dead—the walking dead?—before they fall to their deaths in the ditch—to be buried alive in the grave, as the fallen figure, completely incapacitated, on the right suggests.

In the climactic The Blind (Triptych) Caracciolo has removed all signs of death and suffering from the faces and bodies of Bruegel’s figures.  She has stripped Bruegel’s colorful painting to its bare linear bones, undermining its descriptive eloquence and symbolic significance, realistic clarity and social meaning—its all too human and existential import--dismissing them as masking and falsifying the inner aesthetic essence of art, articulated through her lines, arranged in an eccentric sketch.  She subverts Bruegel’s disillusioning realistic masterpiece, with its all too human subject matter—the blindness of human beings, leading them to fall to their death--to reveal the inner abstract essence of art, fraught with its own feelings, innate rather than responsive to the reality of the world.  She has shredded Bruegel’s realistic masterpiece, leaving us with its oddly eloquent abstract dregs—the autonomous lines that attest to her insight into its inner meaning and intricate construction.   She leaves us with the inner truth of art rather than the truth about society that Bruegel realistically and symbolically presents.  Her mastery of line—the variety of colorless lines in the work, some thick, some thin, some tender-minded, some tough-minded--indicates that Caraccioli is a master of what Kandinsky called “free graphics.”  It is a triumph of the aesthetic imagination:  treating line as an end in itself is the purest art, as Kandinsky writes, and the purest self-expression:  “The slightest inflection of the artist’s feeling is readily reflected in the inflection of the line.”(3)  The transformation of Bruegel’s masterpiece into the grandiose complexity of The Blind 16 and the epitomizing simplicity of The Blind 14 shows that Caracciolo has become a master of “boundless space,” the “world of pure graphics,” completely “pure art,” Kandinsky writes.

It seems worth noting that the violence of Caracciolo’s The Blind 16 has the apocalyptic grandeur of Kandinsky’s Composition VI, 1913, a work that scholars say prefigures the apocalyptic violence of World War I.  This suggests that however unconsciously Caracciolo is convinced that the blind rulers leading the blind masses will result in an apocalyptic war.  Is it overinterpreting the figures in the The Blind (Triptych) as the ghosts of the dead?     

— Donald Kuspit 


            (1) Michael Balint, “Notes On The Dissolution Of Object Representation In Modern Art,” Problems of Human Pleasure And Behaviour (London:  Maresfield Library, 1958), 121

            (2) Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo, eds., Kandinsky:  Complete Writings On Art (New York:  Da Capo Press, 1994), 426

            (3) Ibid., 427