The University of History: Vrasidas Karalis Reviews ‘The Savonarola Syndrome’ by Brandon Cavallari at The Shop Gallery

Retrieving the message of history in Brandon Cavallari’s The Savonarola Syndrome, an exhibition of paintings at The Shop Gallery Glebe, 5-16 March 2016.

shopping 1The current exhibition of Brandon Cavallari’s works gives the rare opportunity to study some of his most ambitious works and appreciate aspects of his most expressive aesthetics. As they are presented at The Shop Gallery, they delineate a formal continuity as it has evolved over the last twenty years during which Cavallari has intensified his struggle to restore thematic iconography to its former centrality.

For many years now, Australian art has been going through a post-object period. Robert Hughes stated that ‘most modern art is wallpaper’ indicating the constant temptation of modern artists to succumb to the allure of the decorative for popularity and sales. Cavallari’s works are about the expressive sensibility of colour, the meaningful referentiality of symbols and the political function of painting as social code.

His Savonarola paintings have a certain Renaissance feeling in them: Tintoretto and even Giotto seem to emerge as subconscious presences under the contemporary iconography of September 11, the rise of militant religionism, and the elimination of human agency in social affairs. Cavallari manages singlehandedly to bring the Renaissance love for the luminous, the lucid and the distinct to our modern world of broken images, indistinct chatter and depersonalised virtuality.

His paintings are brimming with messages, as all their symbols pulsate with the distinctness of their origin. Instead, however, of functioning as fragmented motifs they become synecdoches leading to a complete organic theory of history, aesthetics and creativity. Beginning with the strange fanatical monk of the late fifteenth century who essentially destroyed the great promises of humanist culture, Cavallari reminds his audience of the consequences of abandoning their will to the whims and the rhetoric of charismatic or indeed talismanic personalities.

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Girolamo Savonarola flattered the psychological need of his Florentine compatriots not to be ignored by history; he preached that they lived at “the navel of Italy” and that their city Florence would become “more glorious, more powerful and richer than ever, extending its wings farther than anyone can imagine” if they surrendered their freedom to him and his delusional god. And they did surrender for a time their freedom to his otherworldly, or as Machiavelli would have claimed, to his personal fantasies. The great works of the early Renaissance were destroyed, books were burnt and enlightened intellectuals were forced to ‘repent’. Pico Dela Mirandola, the man who wrote the eternal manifesto of human dignity, was forced to recant and submit, becoming a pious, sterile, anonymous believer.

Cavallari’s paintings frame the same fundamentalist exigencies through textured colours, complexity of vision and spatial amplitude. While avoiding overt political preaching, his paintings condense space and time into a new sense of subject matter and its aesthetic translation. They frame the political through the enhanced intensity of chromatic vibrancy and almost electrifying radiance. Robert Hughes again remarked that Francis Bacon’s “real peculiarity of his figurative style is that it manages to be both precise and ungraspable” – something that can also be claimed for Cavallari. The painter becomes again the moral consciousness of his time, liberating the surface of his canvases, that is their viewers, from their own anxieties and phobias. Cavallari’s painting, Widows’ Garden with its suggestive sunrise/sunset, offers a powerful visual statement against the certainties of modernity and the superstitions of progress. The other paintings in the exhibition also crystalize strong statements about our contemporary post-postmodernity depicting modern symbols not as irony and pastiche but as political weapons against complacency and a life without projects of renewal and change.

shop 4At the same time, despite their transcultural structuration, Cavallari’s paintings are expressive of the Australian experience in front of history using the tyranny of distance as a kaleidoscopic filter to look at the confused spectacle of contemporary realities. His Savonarola paintings are not simply political but simultaneously a kind of visual magic realism transforming the tragedy of history and the death of the political subject as the most pertinent way to address the lack of meaning and therefore the absence of authentic communication between human beings. In another of his paintings, seams and streams: a dialogue, Cavallari stretches word letters to form linear strings, at the same time straightforward and mysterious, precise and ungraspable.

Despite their small number, Cavallari’s paintings become the luminous spaces out of which a revelation emerges, as in the paintings of Delacroix and Goya. Their surfaces encapsulate and frame the visual fields of an anthropocentric culture immobilising the temporal identity of the artist and of his reality. Art critic Patrick McCaughey stated, “the authenticity of painting derives from the artists’ truthfulness to experience and the originality of their inspiration”.

What we see in Cavallari’s work is both the truthfulness and the originality being so triumphantly and enchantingly presented in an era of minimal expectations and diminished hopes. His sense of colour is his most empowering and hopeful contribution to the rather stagnant and self-consumed art world of contemporary Australia. His colours connect our social experience with one of the most interesting and contradictory periods in history and therefore transform artistic images into links beyond time, cultures and mentalities.

In an era of dreadful and disastrous fanaticisms, his paintings with the diversity of their stylistic forms, the eclecticism of their pictorial representations and the polyvalence of their chromatic intensity become windows to a future, probably equally problematic and also potentially transformable. From an era of nightmares, Cavallari’s works herald the sunrise of a new era; it’s up to their viewers to make it real.

 – Vrasidas Karalis


Vrasidas Karalis is Professor of Greek at the University of Sydney. He is the author of numerous books including Recollections of Mr Manoly Lascaris, Brandl & Schlesinger 2008, A History of Greek Cinema Continuum 2012, The Demons of Athens 2015 Brandl & Schlesinger and Reflections on Presence 2016 Melbourne.

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