Bruno Caruso was born in 1927 in Palermo. He showed precocious artistic talent and began painting as a child, mainly copying the works of the old masters, such as Leonardo, Pollaiolo and Ingres, from catalogues in his father’s extensive library. His classical high school studies were interrupted by the war, a tragic experience which, however, provided him with the inspiration for his first series of drawings entitled A Study of Disaster.
Travelling in Europe: discovering the Secessions and the New Objectivity
Immediately after the war, in his twenties, he began to travel around Europe, with the aim of updating his education: he visited Paris, Vienna, Munich, where he studied the New Objectivity of George Grosz and Otto Dix, and then came to Prague in 1947 for the Youth Festival. On this occasion, he had the opportunity to illustrate some of Kafka’s novels, experimenting with etching, which was to become one of his favourite techniques.
At the same time, he worked on a series of drawings reconstructing the occupation of the Jewish Ghetto in Prague during the war. On his return to Italy, Bruno Caruso enrolled in law school, but at the same time continued to cultivate his humanistic studies, with a particular interest in collecting antique books, medieval illuminated manuscripts and engravings.
Between illustration and painting: a skilful and subtle line and surreal and personal settings
In the 1950s, he began his career as an illustrator, following various art publications and gallery catalogues, work that enabled him to get to know many artists and writers of the time. Right from the start, he was a committed illustrator: not only did he work on revising psychiatry together with Basaglia, devoting himself to a series of drawings denouncing the pitiful conditions in Palermo’s mental hospital, but he was also a fervent supporter of the fight against the Mafia and the corruption that plagued his city.
Bruno Caruso’s style stems from a dry outline, inheriting the models of the European Secession and Art Nouveau, whose formalism has been familiar to him since his childhood, when he lived among the Ducrot furniture in his father’s house. He combines this with personal, sometimes dreamlike and surreal settings, but which always seek a counterpart in reality and social criticism. A subtle and skilful drawing not only characterises the drawings and engravings, but also the paintings, which have always been part of the artist’s production and reached the peak of enigmatic expressiveness and pictorial perfection in the 1960s, with paintings such as A faun’s afternoon.
Bruno Caruso’s graphic complexity combines technical tradition with thematic innovation, whose constant point of reference is the absurdity of everyday life but also the problems experienced by his modern Sicily. In 1969, he published a volume of lithographs entitled Manuscript on the Wonders of Nature, in which he reveals a careful investigation of animal and plant species, as if he needed to rediscover nature before proposing a social and introspective study of man.
Between the 1970s and 1980s, he made a strong reflection on the art of the past, through the publication of the volumes The painting days. With a text by Leonardo Sciascia and Mythology of Modern Art. In these, art history is combined with a meticulous and critical interpretation of ancient and more recent forms, as in the case of humorous and caricatured drawings. Examples of this are St. George De Chirico, who, like St. George, is on horseback, not to slay the dragon, but a mannequin, just as St. George Morandi hits a bottle.
Ancient motifs in contemporary painting
A continuous and fierce symbolism permeates Bruno Caruso’s drawings and paintings, which are always characterised by a formal perfection and chromatic clarity that make his representations even more enigmatic and magical. From the classics he arrives at a very personal modernity, in which he always combines ideology and technique, also in his criticism of contemporary artistic expressions, such as the happening, the conceptual, the performance.
The restlessness of contemporaneity is also expressed in some re-propositions of ancient myths and biblical stories, with the recurrence of particularly disturbing images of Medusa or Judith. The same applies to the caricatures of De Chirico, who appears as a naked, grey statue in Caruso’s studio, or on horseback or while painting his metaphysical works. And then there is the great production of still lifes, which evoke the meticulousness of the Flemish 17th century and that subtle and constant sense of vanitas and memento mori that remind us of the ephemeral durability of earthly things.
After receiving an honorary degree from the Faculty of Letters and Philosophy at the University of Palermo, he was awarded the Gold Medal of Merit in Culture by the President of the Italian Republic, and in 2003 he was awarded the Sicily Region prize for the most illustrious Sicilians in the world. He died in Palermo in 2018