The Agonies & The Execution: Portraits by Adamo Macri
by Kenneth Radu

Part One:

Two recent portraits by Adamo Macri have aroused memories of a difficult period during my undergraduate years. I often walked to the Art Gallery of Ontario and spent a couple of hours between classes wandering among and pausing before various works of art. Macri’s two pictures, one simply entitled 26.12.21, and the other cryptically entitled Salvo, carry me back to a particular piece in the gallery to which I returned regularly and stood transfixed by its never-failing power. The picture is The Elevation of the Cross by Peter Paul Rubens. What I saw then, and can still see today, is a copy by Rubens of his original painting, part of a triptych, now displayed in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp. The fact that it’s a copy and smaller than the first painting in no way lessens its impact. I am trying to understand why Macri’s portraits remind me not only of that time, but also of that canvas by Rubens.


Although I had once played with the notion of entering an Orthodox monastery to become monk, a transient aberration and/or affectation, such thoughts having long passed away, I don’t think it was any residual Christianity that attracted me to The Elevation of the Cross. Some unconscious tatters of belief might have played a role, but it’s possible, even likely, that the presence of a cross in both of Macri’s portraits stirred my mind. The cross in 26.12.21 seems to be made of pewter, finely engraved with the suggestion of another cross engraved in the centre. In Salvo the cross is an ornate crucifix. Moreover, coincidentally searching my book shelves a day after I was gobsmacked by Macri’s portraits, I happened upon my university copy of Dante’s Divina Commedia. At the time of which I am writing, I was also taking a course in Medieval Italian Literature because I wanted to tackle that great spiritual epic of the poet guided by Virgil through the Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. If, on the way through Hell, I was obliged to read passages viva voce in front of my professor and fellow students, followed by rough translations, so be it. I pulled Dante off the shelf and immediately began perusing it, my notes still visible on its pages, even as Macri’s portraits seem as fixed in my mind as that cross on Calvary.


At first glance, Macri, Rubens and Dante’s spiritual journey have little in common, but I often think of Macri as a symbolist, if I may use that term, who fully understands the meaning and associations of the symbols he incorporates in his portraits. There’s always more in his portraits than meets the probing eye. Neither art historian nor critic, I don’t want to get involved in the history of art here, or le Manifeste du Symbolisme by Jean Moréas. Macri, though, often moves beyond representationalism and standard portraiture in order to create an alternative way of being and seeing. How he constructs his art and how all the elements inextricably work together help viewers to understand that more layers and meanings are present in these portraits than one may suppose.

I think it’s important to remember that Macri’s art is influenced by film, especially independent and innovative artists of the genre, more so than he is by classic painting or literature, although literary narratives are the foundation of some of his most haunting portraits; for example, Prospero Sycorax Ariel inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest. He knows so much and he knows what has preceded him. Exploring notions of identity and otherness, the unexpected and disturbing, the complicated and simultaneous levels of feeling and life that only art and symbols can fully reveal, Macri possesses a profound awareness of alternative choices, volcanic emotions and contradictory patterns of human existence. To illustrate, I direct viewers to his compelling and dark portrait accompanying the reading of Poe’s The Raven on YouTube. Of course, the mention of Poe carries us back to 19th century French symbolism in painting and poetry.

Prospero Sycorax Ariel  /  Nevermore

Incorporate is a useful word insofar as I find it impossible to separate an item, an accoutrement, or symbol from the actual body in these portraits, as the two are inextricable. To remove the cross, for example, from the body in Salvo, undermines both the emotional and intellectual impact of the portrait. And to eliminate the actual cross from the Ruben’s painting, if one can imagine such a violation, obviously and completely demolishes its import and power. The cross, or a cross of some kind, often appears in Macri’s portraits, but it’s not always religiously or spiritually symbolic. For example, the cross in Carnevale, seems to be an integral part of the elaborate and intricate costume rather than a sign of faith. Similarly, the ironic, decidedly non-Christian cross in Deus Ex Machina relates more to the satirical implications of the portrait than it does to any specific, doctrinal belief.

Carnevale  /  Deux Ex Machina

Now, sorting out my feelings and thoughts, I venture to say that works by Macri and Rubens are similar because they elicit such memories and reactions from viewers like me, transfixed, as it were, and because I have just crawled out of a bog of despond, as sluggish as anything I experienced in the past. Without going into unnecessary detail, suffice it to say that the death of several acquaintances and friends in the past couple of years has directed my thoughts to time’s passing and mortality. In that state of mind, I kept returning to 26.12.21 and Salvo, as I returned to the Rubens in the Art Gallery of Ontario all those years ago when I was going through a maelstrom of emotions, turmoil tumbling about my mind as if buffeted and agonized by those winds in the circle of Hell where Francesca da Rimini explains her love for Paolo in terza rima:

La bufera infernal, chai mai non resta,
Mena li spiriti con la sua rapina;
Voltando e percotendo li molesta (Canto V, 31-33)

Perhaps agony is too strong a word to apply to me. Given the subject matter of the Rubens, agony is too closely associated with Christ, but my emotions and thoughts had plunged into an abysm of despair and rage. I had fallen in love with an aethereal-looking woman in my Italian course, idealizing and placing her on a pedestal. Driven by my own wishes, I assumed she felt the same way. I helped her write essays and did errands for her on campus, until one afternoon I saw her kissing another student, and my heart shattered on the spot. Distressed and depressed, blinded by my own illusions, I sought escape from the winds of inconstancy and fickle fate in the art gallery. She would never be my soul’s aspiration and inspiration like Dante’s Beatrice. The scales had fallen from my eyes. And I am reminded again of the symbolic use of eye covering in Macri’s portraits, and how his art demonstrates that we too often see only the illusions we create, projections of our desires.

Aside from personal feelings of the moment, I can argue that it’s method as much as subject in Ruben’s that holds my attention. The dynamism of the figures, the central, diagonal energy of Christ on the cross, the musculature of the Roman soldiers, the horror of the onlookers, even the folds of cloth and the various hand gestures, and the colours, especially in the original triptych: all contribute to the power of the painting. Macri’s portraits, however, lack this overt, muscular energy; the figures appear still, as if they have been “taken” after the struggle, or are presented before any transformative violence has occurred. The “dynamism” in Macri is implicit, a quiescent energy either at the end or the beginning of action. Richly loaded with implications, these images seem to be at peace with themselves, even as they send me headlong into the memories of personal devastation.

Part Two:

I am not really comparing The Elevation of the Cross to Macri’s two portraits, but I am recalling my emotions in front of the former during a time of personal crisis and saying they are similar to what I felt upon viewing the latter. Memory has all come rushing back as fiercely as that wind in Dante’s Inferno. I gasped aloud when I first saw Macri’s 26.12.21. A shock of recognition, to put it in dramatic terms, in the midst of melancholy. Lines from an Emily Dickinson’s poem are relevant here, not only because I thought of them when I saw the Rubens decades ago, but also because I re-read them as I studied these Macri portraits. The first stanza can be applied to Christ figure (‘was it He, that bore,’) in the Rubens.

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

The Elevation of the Cross (Peter Paul Rubens)

It can also be applied to the speaker of the poem, perhaps the poet herself, or any reader surviving and recovering from emotional upheaval, past or present. In my case, a strange calm pervades the body, as if I am waiting. And so, I understand, at least feel, the meaning of this stanza, especially the term “a formal feeling.” I cannot know what the figure in Macri’s portraits is feeling, nor will I venture to speculate on the feelings of the artist. I can only surmise and base my thinking on composition, lighting, costume and, yes, symbols. For example, in both images the eyes are well and truly covered. Viewers cannot see them. Prominent, dark glasses cover the eyes in 26.12.21. A kind of silver mesh masks them in Salvo, similar to what we see in a series of portraits entitled AM 2022 1,11, and 111. I have written about Macri’s dramatic use of sunglasses and other forms of eye covering elsewhere (The Eyes Have It, Veiled Illusions). For the sake of brevity, I will merely repeat my contention by quoting my own words from Veiled Illusions:

Macri creates a photography of masks and veils, apparent throughout his creations, as a perusal of his catalogue of images will attest. The purpose of such an artistic enterprise is not to play tricks, but to incorporate the notion of a never-ending narrative, the seduction of the unrecognizable, a belief that fragments of stories or allusions to stories, whether fictional or real, cinematic or literary, historical or mythological, scientific or fantastic, are intrinsic to, indeed inextricable from, the very basis and nature of his art. The origin and inspiration of his work, regardless of explanations or theories, remain veiled or hidden from prying eyes of the viewer. The hero of the story, the persona in these photographs and others, cannot be known because unmasking or unveiling is never entirely possible.

Adamo Macri 2022 1, 11, 111

It's important to keep this in mind. Viewers are not meant to examine the soul of the model, as if seeking to impose a pseudo-biography on Macri the man. They are meant to enter into the dramatic symbolism of each piece to ponder, or to recognize aspects of themselves, or simply to enjoy the gathering of associations and suggestions, and to delight in the knowledge that art does more than repeat observable reality, even when, as the paintings of Mary Pratt so amply illustrate, it seems nailed to facts as tangible as bumps on chicken skin.

There’s a certain roughness about Salvo, as if the man has been taken from a prison cell, blindfolded by bands of ragged mesh, a full-grown reddish-brown beard, head tilted forward, the cross of redemption around his neck, and placed against a wall to be executed by a salvo like the unfortunate victims in Goya’s The Third of May 1808. I have no idea what was in Macri’s mind when he created this image, but I’m willing to bet that he’s not depicting autobiography. If, given the title, the portrait arguably suggests a firing squad, I also sense a symbolically spiritual implication here. The man is blind to external reality and must look within himself and beyond the observable facts of reality to apprehend a larger purpose or significance.

The Third of May 1808 (Francisco Goya)

There has been much cogitation and possibly suffering, and a salvo may in fact be the first explosion of insight or revelation of truth rather than a barrage of bullets. As I’ve already suggested, he may have reached the Hour of Lead, to use Dickinson’s phrase, the stillness after pain and sorrow, or the equilibrium that comes with full recognition that ranting and raving against the pricks of fortune serve no purpose. If this man is facing great torment, he has clearly resigned himself to the fact. If he has been reprieved, he evinces no sign of relief, as if he has reached a point of philosophic calm. The richness of the earth tones contributes to the sense of steadiness and understanding, even if he is on the verge of letting go, to quote the last words from Dickinson’s poem.

The hair and cloak in 26.12.21 blend one into the other as if they are inseparable, the result of Macri’s preponderant use of black, the colour so imbued with our notions of death that it’s difficult to see it as meaning anything else. Yet, the presentation of death in art is not always dismaying or morbid. Bergman’s black-robed and hooded figure of Death in his film The Seventh Seal, for example, is a companionable, sometimes witty figure whose purpose is not to horrify the knight to whom he appears, but to develop awareness and understanding, staying true to his purpose like the friend who never deserts us. In a similar sense, Macri’s black-cloaked figure is more connected with knowledge and resolution than he is with despair and negation. Oddly, I now begin to view the wonderfully comic Deux Ex Machina as a portrait of Death, a kind of trickster figure who appears suddenly, like supernatural intervention, to solve the mystery and end the game. And so, despite my own descent into melancholy, I don’t feel the Hour of Lead applies to this portrait as much as it does to Salvo.

The Seventh SeaL (Ingmar Bergman)

The eyes in 26.12.21 are obscured, although they remain partially visible behind the reflection of light in the lenses. The glasses are contemporary and stylish, chosen for how their colour and lines correspond with the those of the facial hair and the cross, and possibly to undercut any quasi-medieval notion of religiosity. With a well-kempt beard, unlike that in Salvo, the brightly-lit face and tilt of the head suggest not victimhood but mastery, as if this man is confident in his position and belief, immune to the vagaries of politics and social unrest. A priestly or monkish figure, his strong cross carries weight here, more than a mere piece of jewelry.

It’s a striking portrait to which I return because it counters any negative feelings I have. Instead of being dragged down by the weight of black, the figure is emergent, as if it has risen out of the depths, so to speak. Despite the lack of expression in the face, it seems to assume a somewhat quizzical look, as if intrigued by a viewer’s interpretation. Macri is careful not to force a viewer into a predetermined response in his portraits by portraying obvious emotions. In such avoidance of facial clues, however, subtle expression can become evident.

Even though art enlarges life, expands consciousness, collapses time and makes the past present, my actual time is short and there is much to do. I put Dante back on the shelf and re-examine Macri’s portraits. As for the young lady of my undergraduate dreams, she had a consistently problematic life, I have been told, and now numbers among the dead. I have stopped imagining her agonies in any circle of Dante’s Hell. Having worked through layers of memories and reactions, and my own ease of mind restored, I no longer struggle through the selva oscura of present emotions and ancient betrayals. Macri’s superb portraits, Salvo and 26.12.21, enlarging and expanding, offer an exit from the dark forest and lead me, for the moment at least, if not to Paradise, then to a narrow, well-lit path. Bearing in mind that Macri is a master in the art of illusions, unconscious forces and alternative realities, I still watch out for thorny brambles and lurking, possibly ravenous creatures.

Kenneth Radu has published books of fiction, poetry and non-fiction, including The Cost of Living, shortlisted for the Governor General's Award. His collection of stories A Private Performance and his first novel Distant Relations both received the Quebec Writers' Federation Award for best English-language fiction. He is also the author of the novel Flesh and Blood (HarperCollins Canada), Sex in Russia: New & Selected StoriesEarthbound and Net Worth (DC Books Canada).

The Agonies & The Execution: Portraits by Adamo Macri

Essay by Kenneth Radu - 2022