The self-portrait
denied me

Michele Diego

In his country house, Jacques Lacan secretly kept Courbet’s “The Origin of the World”, a painting depicting the ostentatiously displayed genitals of woman lying with their legs spread open. Lacan, who had a certain taste for ceremonies, had asked the artist André Masson to paint a canvas that would perfectly cover Courbet’s painting. Then, using a device that allowed the two paintings to slide on a rail, Lacan could “undress” Courbet’s hidden painting. He amused himself by scandalizing his guests, observing the amazement on their faces, while he extended the ritual of the painting’s striptease as much as possible.

The fact that what is forbidden, hidden, concealed creates a form of fascination, is a so well-known theorem that it doesn’t need to be explained, and art history is an example par excellence of this theorem.
Today the painting “Salvador mundi”, attributed to Leonardo, is on everybody’s lips. It’s the work sold at the highest price ever, auctioned for $ 450 million at Christie’s and has currently disappeared (some say it is hanging in a yacht). A more subtle concealment in art history concerns Salvador Dalí and Jean-François Millet’s “L’angelus”, in which two farmers are gathered in prayer in the middle of a field. Dalí, obsessed with Millet’s painting, argued that the affliction of the portrayed peasants could not be attributed to a form of devotion during prayer, but only to desolation in the face of death. Sure of his hypothesis, Dalí convinced the Louvre to make an X-ray analysis of the painting, from which the presence of a rectangular shaped box hidden under layers of paint was revealed, similar to an infant’s coffin.

A very elegant man, constrained in a high collar and almost hermetically tightened by a tie; as if the suit were a shield to protect him from the outside vulgar and ruthless world.

I, too, have recently suffered the power of attraction from a work that somehow has been denied me. It is the self-portrait of Aroldo Bonzagni; one of the most intense self-portraits of Italy’s twentieth century. In books and on the internet, I had read that the work is preserved in the “museum of the twentieth century” in Milan. So, once I arrived with two friends at the museum, I started to visit it, being pleased by the great artists on display, but in my heart, I always hoped to finally find myself in front of Bonzagni. Certainly, I realize that the name of Bonzagni does not have the same echo of other artists belonging to the museum as de Chirico, Morandi, Fontana or Modigliani, but in Bonzagni’s work and life I find a reason of unconditional affection.
At the age of 31 Bonzagni died and to me, being of about the same age, I feel that hat all his work pertains to a similar age and mind. Bonzagni was the man of fashionable parties, dandy-flavoured elegance, furs and top hats, mocking smiles and short love stories. And a part of his production is this: the parade of a worldly humanity, ready to enter a theatrical premiere, decorated with long feathers, jewels, monocles and luxurious walking sticks. But there is also another Bonzagni. It is the Bonzagni whose intelligence does not allow him to enjoy life unbridled and forces him to turn to the desperate ones, those marginalized by society, painting the suffering of those who have arrived last in life. Bonzagni, in my opinion, is not a man who chose worldliness out of whimsy or frivolity, he chose it to protect himself from a cruel world that his sensitivity did not allow him to endure.
And his self-portrait is the maximum representation of what I wrote. You can see a very elegant man, constrained in a high collar and almost hermetically tightened by a tie; as if the suit were a shield to protect him from the outside vulgar and ruthless world. He looks painfully handsome – even more handsome than he really was – with his Hugh Grant hair and almost feminine scarlet lips. His eyes, however, reveal the pain he feels for his surroundings. He is perfect, but all around him the world is an overwhelming vision.
I was looking for those eyes and that perfection. When I got to the final part of the museum, however, I began to realize that the self-portrait was not there. So, I asked some museum attendants to help me. They were all kind and ready to help me, but none had ever heard of Bonzagni. One of them told me that she had never seen that work before, but she wanted to justify herself by making it clear that she had visited the entire museum. Another assistant, with my phone in her hand, with the self-portrait in question, with the name and surname of the artist on screen, exclaimed:
«Ah, Bonzaghi!»
« Bonzagni!» I said.
And she: «Ah, Aldo Bonzagni!»
«Aroldo Bonzagni!» I responded in return.
At that point I turned to a friend to tell him that a similar scene had already happened to me in Ferrara and the girl came back to say: «Ah, Ferrara Bonzagni?»
Anyway, beyond the blameless unawareness about Bonzagni’s existence by kind people who were only trying to help me, we could not understand if the painting had been sold, exhibited in another museum, or what had happened to it. Therefore, I wrote an email to the museum, which within twenty-four hours replied saying that the self-portrait is kept in their deposit. Which to me is the equivalent of saying that I will hardly ever be able to see it. Maybe this is a good thing, or maybe it is a consolation to think so. When the “Salvator mundi” will reappear definitively and will be exhibited in a museum, we will remember its history and its disappearance more than the beauty of the painting itself. When Dalí got the result of the X-ray test on “The Angelus” from the Louvre, his obsession began to fade. Of all the marvellous masterpieces that I have ever seen at the museum of the twentieth century and in Milan, more than any other, I will remember the self-portrait that I could not see.

Il tram di Monza (detail), Aroldo Bonzagni, about 1910-1915, private collection.