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Sara PierdonĂ : "A Spiritual Exercise: In The Studio With Beatrice Caracciolo"

References images from Beatrice Caracciolo's studio, 2023.

'Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides [of the blind]. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.' These are the iconic words, taken from the Gospel of Matthew, with which the merciless parable of the blind man is summarised (an intercultural metaphor used even before Christianity). Pieter Bruegel the Elder was undoubtedly familiar with the biblical passage when he painted The Blind Leading the Blind (1568).

There are several elements that make the painting sublime: the compositional skill that uses the diagonal to emphasise the fall in progression; Brugel's mastery as an observer, depicting each of the blind men afflicted with a different but extremely realistic ailment; and the licences he takes, for example increasing the number of blind men to six (instead of the two in the classical parable), further dramatising the scene.

The work is a tüchlein, one of four survivors, a type of luminous painting using a tempera made of pigments mixed with water-soluble glue, unfortunately very difficult to preserve and restore. It is housed in Naples' Capodimonte Museum, the birthplace of Beatrice Caracciolo, who has been familiar with it since childhood.

Over the years, Beatrice's fascination with the painting grew, eventually resulting in a series of works that recast, in an abstract and at first glance unrecognisable way, the themes of Pieter Bruegel's original painting. An exhibition displaying Beatrice's series is currently running at the Paula Cooper Gallery in New York.

Beatrice's work is always in a series, because, as she herself declares, she insists on and reworks a subject until she gets bored with it... but this only happens when another idea, another inspiration, has taken over. So the cycle begins again.

Before talking to Beatrice, I ask gallery partner Anthony Allen what kind of artist she is. I realise even as I'm uttering it that the question is vague and awkward, but Anthony answers without hesitation: "Beatrice is a woman who lives for her work."

"She goes to the studio every day and stays there for a long time," he continues, "and when she is there, she really works." She actually has three studios: one in Paris (pervaded by a dusty and solemn atmosphere, with canvases piled above radiators and large, bright windows), one in the countryside and one by the sea.

"These are spaces that have different dimensions and, although one would not imagine it, this greatly influences the size of the paintings I make in them," says Beatrice, who is known for her large-scale drawings. "It gives me a certain satisfaction to think that paintings from all three of my studios come together in this exhibition."

"I love using paper. I like the way it resists tools and the possibility of erasing, wetting, sometimes even submerging the entire artwork in water. It is a technique that creates layers that are imperceptible in photos...but in person you can see all the passages through which a work has passed...the stripes left by the eraser, the scratches of the graphite". Sometimes Beatrice also uses collage.

Beatrice has always worked without colors, limiting herself to natural pigments, ink and powders. She loves humble materials and likes to set up a kind of 'kitchen' or 'washhouse' in the studio where her works are kneaded or rinsed. According to Anthony, the visual power of her works conceptually resembles Chinese painting, where the landscape is sparse or non-existent and a few lines are meant to suggest everything.

Growing up in Naples contributed to Beatrice's interest in folklore and lively scenes, Anthony believes. Before Bruegel, Beatrice's series had been inspired by Caravaggio, Tiepolo's drawings of Pulcinella posing as a tightrope walker, and a tumultuous Rococo painting by Trevisani, The Massacre of the Innocents. And in one case, the inspiration was even a photo by Cartier Bresson.

"It portrayed a group of people," Anthony explains. "Beatrice is drawn to choral scenes, with a lot of movement. I think it is the dynamism of the line that interests her most of all. When you take inspiration from a masterpiece of the past to create something new, the point is never to get a recognisable transposition from it. It is rather about revealing the inner movement, the invisible structure..."

For the first time in her career, Beatrice exhibits portraits, the faces of blind people remade by her. Historically, artists tended to portray the blind with their eyes closed, but Bruegel made a feature of the disability, with art historians Charcot and Richer noting raised faces in his portraits, having to rely on sounds and smell to move. 

The pictorial tradition tended to depict the blind as recipients of divine gifts, following the Greek and later medieval culture which held them in high esteem.  Bruegel's men are stumbling, helpless, shorn of any idealisation. It has been noted that the Protestant Reformation attempted to eradicate devotion to saints and miracles, including mythicised representations of the blind, and in Bruegel's time the blind in popular literature were portrayed as scoundrels or victims of pranks.

Beatrice's exhibitions have always had severe titles ('Bomb', 'Tumult', for example) and her technique has often been described as a 'spiritual exercise', but it is undeniable that over the years the themes she has tackled have become less and less playful. "The parable of the blind seems very relevant to me. We are going through dark times and are led by thoughtless leaders," says Beatrice. 

"My work is not political...but in the end everything is political, isn't it? But by dint of being immersed in Bruegel's painting, insisting on contemplation, I also noticed something else. The blind men in his painting have an irresistible forward momentum, and of course the viewer's upset is given by the despair of the inevitable...everyone will fall, even if we don't see it happening. But I also see an energy in this movement: blindness as a force to move forward, to proceed with eyes closed...a stubbornness that has a certain beauty”.

— Sara Pierdonà