Interview with Alberto Sughi
Zavoli) How does an artist of your calibre, who has already gained a distinguished place in the history of painting, regard himself in relation to the idea of the increasing “marginality” of art? Do you still find it convincing?
Sughi) Today the word “art” seems to refer to more or less everything and to have lost its traditional meaning since, over a period of time, its original function has gradually become obsolete.
Modern Man’s expectations and fears have prompted him to turn mainly to science, religion, politics, and money to find answers and reassurance.
The result is that art now plays a marginal role. In other words, I have the impression of living at a time when art is no longer necessary.
Z) Does your art itself not provide a reason for contradicting your ideas? Or are you willing accomplices in this paradox?
S) My painting reflects my thoughts; I would even say that it provides them with a clearer image. It has often been said that I represent the feeling of loneliness: it is true that my work shows loneliness, the great distance between my painting and today's world.
Z) Why, when faced with such lacerating contradictions, have you never demanded a real separation - an abnegation?
S) I have never thought, neither in the past nor today, that I could possibly estrange myself from myself (and you must forgive me if, in this conversation, I consider myself and my work as one and the same thing). You equip yourself for survival on a desert island, so you will obviously continue to work on something that you love, even when the contours of its meaning seem to be fading, getting lost....
Z) In a world increasingly obsessed with the criterion of profit, practicality, and convenience, why did you imagine that you could also see the defeat of art?
S) It is a world that identifies profit, practicality and, above all, convenience, as primary values, so it does not need art any more...
Z) What is now lacking, or has changed, in the motivations that made your own artistic journey so very important?
S) Perhaps it is just that the illusion has been exposed – the illusion that art could still belong to the education process, forming our social identity. But this hasn’t been the case, and this is why I speak of the marginality of art.
Z) Is this disenchantment something unavoidable? Are you tempted to resist it, or do you surrender to its inevitability?
S) I would rather talk of being aware. We cannot simply close our eyes in order not to feel bitter.
Z) Do you remember how your first painting was created? And what inspired it?
S) It was painted on plywood, blackened by time. The painting is now hanging in the kitchen of my house in Carpineta. I remember the title well - the first title that I gave to a painting of mine: Christian charity. It represents some poor men receiving a mess-tin of soup from some monks.
I could say that for a long time, even when I was only a child, I had been drawing with a pen or charcoal, but that this was my first real oil painting.
Z) I imagine that you became a painter by drawing. Were they school-based or extemporaneous sketches? From life or from imagination? Which of these two skills is more indicative of talent? Do painting and drawing require different skills, or are they both part of the same talent?
S) There are various reasons that prompt a budding artist to choose drawing, at the beginning, or to start painting directly. Of course, it is not as clear-cut as the distinction between poetry and music. In the first place, you can choose, in the second you can only be chosen. But even the natural talent of using words, that of having an ear for music, or, in your hands, a talent for drawing can help you to envisage a possible path, but not determine whether you will become a painter, poet or musician.
Talent is a precious tool for anyone who has something to say; but it is a useless natural gift, even harmful, when it does not become expressiveness, but only virtuosity.
I don't know, in the end, if we can state whether drawing and painting are part of the same skill; to me there is a very strong connection between them.
Z) Who were your models, if there were any? Did you already have models, or did they develop gradually? Or did everything on the canvas develop solely within yourself?
S) You skim through the pages of the history of painting. Your models will become those artists who, instinctively, have kept you spellbound. Some sign of that youthful passion will be present, perhaps hidden between the lines of your paintings.
Z) You can never dismiss, in the end, what you have seen, admired, and loved…
S) I completely agree. It is an inheritance that you shouldn’t, I would even say mustn’t, waste!
Z) In forming your own identity, which visions, books, dialogues, controversies or agreements have left a trace over time in your artistic career? Or was everything created without memory or comparison?
S) Our identity is created by comparison with others, and at times through disputes. It is constructed through the formative process that offers us culture as knowledge of the world in which we are immersed: who we are, where we come from, where we are going... our intellectual curiosities keep us looking for answers to these recurring questions.
Sometimes, from young people, we believe we have found "the missing link". Through the years, everything matures. What once seemed a linear and necessary path we now observe from another viewpoint. But everything that we have been, or that we have believed, that we have loved or refused, remains in our inner conscience.
Z) Already in your early works, your paintings imposed their own clear conceptual and stylistic personality. It was a sort of painful realism, with some tendency towards a obviously human complicity, and a particular attention towards the social, political, and even the ideological. How did you reconcile yourself with that kind of representation, knowing that you started from the premise of a certain existential choice, expressive independence, and cultural freedom?
S) My previous reply, which may have seemed coherent and linear, actually contained, as almost always happens, many contradictions.
In the case of a painter, the distinctions between thought and work are more clearly noticeable. I have always thought that painting is a kind of laboratory to understand an artist even better than he understands himself; but it could also be true that art is able to unite what is apparently divided.
Z) Did the political climate of those years have any influence on your work? And the friendships you formed? Were there "companions" with whom you could share your passions and doubts?
S) The strong ideological contrasts of those years have certainly influenced the choices of some generations. Some events that are now in the distant past have left marks that do not seem to have faded. However, now that the myths have been exposed, a lot has matured and settled, and only the quality of an artist’s work remains a fixed, and hopefully comforting, point of reference.
Z) Did you ever feel that you could, or should, belong to a particular artistic group or movement?
S) At the beginning we stayed together because of the affinities expressed in our work. I have never belonged to any School of painting. I was detached from the neorealist movement because its theories seemed useless, even harmful, to me, in comparing myself freely with reality.
But there have been those, like Guttuso, for example, who must have considered this problem in a different way; and we cannot know whether some of his paintings would have been so beautiful if he hadn’t explicitly adhered to the neorealist movement.
What, for one painter, constitutes an intellectual and creative incentive, for another can be a reason for frustration, almost like a prison. Those who wish to take advantage of the widest freedom of expression have no right to censor those who have followed a different path from their own.
Z) Have you ever expressed, in your work, a particular political viewpoint?
S) The critics most closely connected with the Communist Party have regarded with great interest the work of the painters among whom, because of some affinities, I was also included.
Perhaps they interpreted my work in a distorted way, unless it was an unconscious bias in appreciating its results. Those paintings did not intend to gratify or favour anyone. On the contrary, they depicted a state of suffering within Man and society.
Z) Did you ever have, and in which circumstances or forms, an encounter or a clash with ideology?
S) As a citizen I did, even if, by inclination and character, I have lived as a heterodox, with a free and contradictory nature. As a painter I cannot, and I refuse to, indicate a particular point of view to the public, when observing my paintings. I could only suggest not paying too much attention to those who want to categorise them, critically, with an impatience that – I don’t know how to say it, and I apologize if it seems malicious – could derive from laziness or prejudice.
Z) What, for you, replaced the absence of art school, the academy, of role models? And of teachers who could, so to speak, guide your hand?
S) It is not easy to find one’s own path alone, but what significance can an art teacher have in guiding your hand if, in order to appear original, you will then have to forget his teachings as quickly as possible? In 1970 Colacicchi, director of the Academy in Florence at the time, offered me the chair of painting. I thanked him for the respect that he had shown me, but refused. I knew, to use your own words, that I would not be able to guide any other hand than my own.
Z) When did you receive the first signs of a more permanent interest in your work by the art critics? What were they struck by? How was it expressed? Were you flattered or disappointed? Was it an encouragement or not?
S) When, in 1957, I had my first solo show in Rome, in the Pincio Gallery, the Paese Sera, a reasonably authoritative left-wing newspaper, devoted the “elzeviro” (the main comment on the cultural page) to my exhibition, with the headline "Alberto Sughi and Realism". In the first lines it states that the archangel, not only of painting but also of realism, had arrived in Rome!
This would perhaps have been enough for a young painter to feel that he was flying with wings the critic had given him. Yes, I was astonished, and very tempted to give credit to the words of Marcello Venturoli.
The morning after, my artist friends came to the gallery, among others Muccini, Vespignani, Attardi and Picconi, to sing me a Roman rhyme "Albé, Albé, Alberto Pippanera è il fi, è il fi, è il figlio della portiera… "
It was once very different from today. Success didn't taint the respect that each of us felt for each other’s work.
Z) Under what circumstances did something shared develop between you and the critics – the militant critics?
S) Militante describes all criticism operating to give credit to the values in which, obviously, one believes. In Italy, however, militante only seems to refer to the critics who, not hiding their affiliation to the Left, are considered prejudicially ideologised.
I accept this convention, with all its limitations, and will try, if it is possible, to answer your question, starting by narrating - briefly summarised - a very complex story.
It is a story that begins with the strong opposition, within the Left, between painters who chose the Abstract movement and those who remained convinced supporters of figurative art. I consider the fact that each of the two movements claimed a sort of record for itself to be a distortion (that has provoked splits and damage to Italian art), and that the method to obtain it assumed the tones of a dispute, destined to produce a painful division in the cultural Left itself.
Art critics played a particular role - different from the role they have taken on today - in these disputes. They aligned themselves on one side or the other, as soldiers in a sort of battle to support one of the two sides (the Abstract versus Realism).
To increase the damage caused by this querelle, the Italian Communist Party intervened, producing the famous article in Rinascita by Rodrigo (the pseudonym of Palmiro Togliatti) which, in no uncertain terms, placed him firmly against the Abstract movement. In this way the cultural battle took on the character of a political dispute that has continued to burden, in a totally negative way, the history of Italian contemporary art.
But you asked me what my relationship was with the critics who appeared to share the judgment expressed by the Italian Communist Party’s Leader, whether it led to some shared feelings and why.
I have mentioned the split between Abstractionists and supporters of figurative art. The intervention of politics led to a real clash of ideals. The two groups interrupted a dialogue that had already become sour, and was, by then, incompatible.
Divisions then started to appear within the two factions. Togliatti’s intervention had produced perturbation and had kindered discussions even within the realist camp.
My work at that time produced consensus or diffidence from the same intellectuals and critics of figurative art with whom I had had good relations, given my affiliation to the Italian Communist Party.
I already thought at the time, and I still think today, that there was a sort of duality within the generation of Leftist intellectuals who had embraced Communism during the Second World War and the Resistance.
I would like to give you an example that seems meaningful to me, even though I perhaps attribute greater importance to it than it could really have had.
I had become friendly with Mario Alicata, president of the Gramsci Institute at the time and, in practice, the person responsible for Cultural Affairs within the Communist Party. He was a man with many qualities, scholarly and fascinating. At the Institute, speaking in his official role, he encouraged us, as painters, to take on a role that seemed to be inspired by Zdanov’s theories. But when we were together, in more convivial evenings, he recited Leopardi and Montale, discussed the cinema and aesthetics with amazing freedom of thought.
The same thing happened with art critics who had been my political companions, such as Mario De Micheli, Antonio Del Guercio, and Dario Micacchi.
I have to add that, never having found Zdanov’s theories compatible with my work, and not only my work, I also made a lot of friendships and connections outside the Party.
Z) Was critical attention directed towards you as an individual, or as a representative of a "group"?
S) I would like to use a sort of metaphor, suggested by bicycle racing in the 1930s and 40s, when cyclists were split into “members of a team” and “outsiders”.
I have chosen to race as an outsider, always careful to observe how the race was developing, but preferring to interpret it without bowing to suggestions and conventions.
An Italian cyclist, Mario Vicini, as an outsider, came second in the 1937 Tour de France race, and it was rumoured that the victory, within his grasp, was sold for 40.000 Lire to the team of the French cyclist, Lapebie.
I have followed a different career, where there were, and there are, no finishing lines to cross, no classifications to be compiled, and, paintings are sold, not victories.
However, I am proud to have run my race in natural isolation.
For many years the critics, my old companions on the Left, have ignored my work completely. I have to admit that things have changed a lot since then: our illusions were shattered, the group dissolved. Even the Fante di Spade, by Mario Roncaglia, to whom I had given my initial, and “undisciplined”, adhesion.
With some, Guercio, Micacchi and others, we rediscovered those links of friendship and respect that had been obscured by those politically prejudiced proclamations of intent.
Z) And Longhi, why don't you mention him? And Quintavalle? And Sgarbi?
S) I have tried to limit my answer to your previous question, thinking, above all, about my duty to speak about my relationship with the Left during those years, and with the art critics who represented it. However, as I said, I have also found friendships and support outside any political conditioning.
I have been fortunate enough to know Roberto Longhi, and to have earned his respect. I have carefully preserved our correspondence, and I hope you will allow me to quote some lines from one of his letters, which finished, so kindly, with this sentence "…. I just want to tell you that simply the fact of knowing that an Alberto Sughi exists within the panorama of Italian "realist" painting has cheered and comforted me considerably." Longhi has been, in some ways, the teacher who has taught me to keep holding on to my own ideas as a painter: "A work of art – he said – does not provide explanations, it can only ask for reasoned answers."
I remember the strong and close ties that I formed with Giuseppe Raimondi, a scholarly writer and expert on art, in whose studio critics, painters and poets of high standing, met, among whom there was the charming and strong presence of Francesco Arcangeli.
I have been a friend of famous film directors and writers who were interested in figurative art, such as Goffredo Bellonci, Carlo Bernari, Dino Buzzati….
They were very different times from those we live in now. The cultural world was more open, the “corporate world” seemed to have been defeated forever.
Nevertheless, we should not be totally pessimistic. Perhaps one of the most acute and intriguing critical studies of my work was written in 2005 by Carlo Arturo Quintavalle, on the occasion of my exhibition at the CSAC, at the University of Parma, and I consider myself fortunate that the curator of this exhibition was Vittorio Sgarbi, an art critic with a most sensitive and acute eye in recognizing the quality of art.
Z) To which painters, and why, do you feel most closely linked?
S) To the painters of my generation, who looked with greater interest at poetics and the extraordinary results of neorealist cinema, rather than to neorealism as an artistic movement too closely involved with ideology, for example, to formal, rigidly neo-cubist compositions.
In particular, I could mention the names of Marcello Muccini and Renzo Vespignani in Rome, Banchieri, Ferroni and Bodini in Milan, Saroni and Ruggeri in Turin, and, naturally, Cappelli, Caldari and Fioravanti in my home town, Cesena.
When I arrived in Rome in 1948, I became a friend of Vespignani and Muccini. Although they were more or less my age, they were already famous artists. From them I received new ideas that stimulated my artistic development and, as happens to young people when they have mutual respect for each other, I emulated them.
Z) What was the theoretical basis that you had in common, and the most clear-cut distinctions between you?
S) we didn't have any theories, but we had orientations, feelings, and shared curiosity, which brought us together. What made us feel close was, above all, finding ourselves at the same point of departure in setting off on the artistic journey that we wanted to make. As for distinctions, each of us carried his own tools and dreams in his suitcase. But, as I said, we started our journey on the same train.
Z) Who invented the definition of "existential realism", of which you were part? What compromises did you make, and what agreements did you reach? How much protection was there? No tricks, or shortcuts?
S) It is quite complicated to provide a precise answer to these questions, since the term "existential realism" was created in a period when that expression represented a way of redefining the word realism, which was mainly used to demonstrate the quality of social commitment.
The word existence, and existentialism, and the names of Camus, Sartre, and Kierkegaard were already familiar to us, as we “travelled” on this “train” that we had boarded. Some of us had brought books by Freud, Marx, Gramsci and Hegel with us; and then there were Russian and American novels and many, many books of modern poetry.
But there was something else, too, and that "something else" was the most meaningful part: we wanted to paint freely, without following any artistic code. We wanted to represent the bitter awareness of those who realize they are losing what should belong to them.
I seem to remember that Marco Valsecchi was the first to speak of existential realism. He expressed the mutual intention, full of meaning, of the work of a group of artists who, not having signed any manifesto, were proposing a new way of comparing themselves with reality, different from neorealism : " It has ended up that for some, the most vulnerable, realism has become a sort of Mexican neo-expressionism. In English terms, for the more subtle and complex artistic temperaments, it is like Bacon."
If it is true that existential realism was merely a definition to give the value of an artistic movement to a group of artists who substantially shared their refusal to conform, one could suspect that the declared cultural homogeneity of the group owed something to a certain craftiness, and was, to some extent, a strategic shortcut.
Z) When, and how, did a stronger, more exposed, and riskier need for artistic identity become apparent?
S) This is also a question which is not easy to answer clearly, or fully, for reasons that I will try to explain. The term “existential realism” was not invented by us, the painters. it was used to describe painting that brought substantial changes to the cultural debate of that period, detaching itself from the confines of neorealism without entering the realm of abstract painting.
I think that, from the beginning, the definition passed through various approximations in order to find a common denominator among artists who explored the subject with curiosity and quite different results, as Valsecchi had understood so well.
The expression became very popular and, despite the fact that more than fifty years has passed, it is still used to refer to a group of artists in Milan and to some other Italian artists - myself among them - who have represented the movement of existential realism in Italy. It may be that something is true, but I am convinced that our history would be better understood if, with the passing of time, we looked more closely at what has been produced, rather than what has been said.
I have already mentioned how our group was characterised by its eclectic elements, in a kind of anxious race to keep up with the rest of the world after the years of Fascism and the war.
Perhaps, but I may only be speaking for myself, it was the sort of cultural gathering that had formed our identity which distinguished us from Neorealist painting.
Z) Did your group ever really have the homogeneous - artistic and cultural - identity to constitute a "school", a "trend", or "a movement"? Did it ever wish to be defined in those terms? Was it identifiable only to some extent?
S) Would we have called our own work “existential realism”? Perhaps not.
I quote, because it seems to express quite well my thoughts on painting at that time, the last lines of an article of mine entitled Looking and understanding (“Guardare e capire”), published in the magazine Nuovo Mondo in 1960: "The newspapers, the radio, manifestos, the cinema and television, no-entry signs and underpasses keep people confined within the labyrinths of large cities. But I have the impression that behind it all there is someone laughing, someone who doesn't respect the rules; someone who eats, drinks and smokes on his own, full of self-satisfaction; someone with small white eyes, who, at night, walks around the deserted city as if he owned it all, with his hands in his pockets, satisfied with how things are going... And I am afraid he exists because, if I think about it, I also allow him to exist. I am really afraid that this man has some roots inside me; that he is also there, in my reflected image in the mirror. Can this be painted? Perhaps it can; it can also be painted."
We didn’t only look at the world around us, but also inside ourselves. It is not easy to identify where evil grows: it always seems to be produced only by others. But sometimes we are these "others".
Z) But shouldn’t art, after centuries of hieratical attitudes, be viewed and experienced more secularly, without so many liturgies and submission? That is, with a certain psychological and emotional detachment? And with a certain ideological and intellectual independence?
S) You are absolutely right. Luckily, thinking about art in a more normal and secular way has now become the norm. If we think about Goya, the Impressionists, Cézanne and Van Gogh, and then our Lega and Fattori, until we get to Picasso, to modern painting, we realize that artists themselves, even before the critics, have suggested new ways of considering art. Without ideological and intellectual independence we would certainly not be able to comprehend the greatness of their work.
And how could we appreciate art created in eras and cultures that are so far from our own, if we didn't know how to look at art freely, secularly?
Z) The question of "knowing how to look", created for Art with a capital A, has not contributed much to its understanding. It has merely celebrated the already famous and accepted the already accepted, allowing no possibility for interference, meaningful additions or subtractions. The art critic’s categorization and the museum system has frozen the communicative aspect in an intangible, sacred, reality, made of exemplary rarities, and so on. Was this the destiny of art? Does it only represent something that has already "occurred", for itself and around itself: in churches, museums, art foundations, private collections, exhibitions? Is it only history?
S) Once again, I agree with you. The questions that you raise are the same as those I myself pose, but I am also convinced that, by now, any explanation is useless. Nobody is ready to listen, and the state of things remains the same.
Z) Do you know what Mallarmé said about pessimism? "Incredulity is not genius!"
S) He was right. Pessimism can only be measured with itself... it has no rivals, and is prone to being renounced. But mine is only disenchantment.
Z) Are you reluctant to let go of a painting that doesn't entirely convince you?
S) Yes. I try to work on it, to give it that light that it lacks. It is difficult to let go, to throw away a work that you have devoted days to completing. You tell yourself you have found a way of saving it, so you continue to work on it, and the more you work, the less you know how to detach yourself from it. And then you think that it would have been better to abandon it before, when you felt that something was wrong with it. But by now you have challenged yourself to “sail your painting into the harbour”. It would be better to call it your canvas since, after so many changes, almost nothing has remained of the first version. That harbour, at times, is too far: the painting is sinking, and you with it, when you pick up the paint stripper and delete everything.
But it is never only time wasted. You, the painter, in that unlucky adventure, have used all the resources that your skill had to offer, looked for original solutions, and have thought profoundly about the mystery of pictorial expression, have carried out a ruthless critical analysis of your work. Days of absolute devotion have passed. And, in the end, you have surrendered.
You have destroyed your painting, but you will also have attended a painting course that you have given yourself.
Z) How many paintings have you left under other paintings? Have you ever added up all your sinopites? Do you think they were all to be rejected? What tells you that you have always chosen for the best?
S) It has happened more than once, and I don’t know whether I have always acted for the best. Not having the vanished painting to look at any more, I don't have the possibility of making any comparisons. The painting generally vanishes with the increasingly complex modifications that are made and that represent the dialectic relationship between the moment of creation and that in which the painting is analyzed. It’s like a thread that is unravelling and it makes the vanished image merge with the one that has replaced it. You could then say that the previous versions, the sinopites, in the end tell the history of a single painting.
Z) Without the market, how is the reputation of an artist formed? Who mediates between supply and demand? What is the role of the critic in making, concretely, the connection between the artist and the potential client? Or is good marketing simply enough?
S) The value of the work of a particular artist is only what the market dictates and it can go up or down just like any other item quoted on the Stock Exchange. So, as sometimes happens on the Stock Exchange, also in the art market, through particular operations, some groups are able to alter the value of certain products.
The role of the critic tends, by now, to make the value of an artist coincide with his/her market value.
There are, thank goodness, seriously committed artists who, although almost ignored by the market, still find their own admirers and collectors. By a strange coincidence, these artists are also almost completely ignored by the critics.
Z) What damage or benefit will an artist receive if, out of impatience, sense of freedom or arrogance, he or she refuses to follow the logic of the market?
S) If his value could be measured by a pure measurement of artistic assessment it would not suffer any damage. However, since it is not known whether this measurement still exists, or even whether someone continues to believe in that kind of measurement, I think that the artist is more likely to be damaged than to benefit from it.
Z) What opinion do you have of your relationship with your "dealers"?
S) Over the years, I have worked with more than one "dealer" (you are right to put the word between quotation marks, because they are not all equal) meeting different people from different cultures, with different personalities and professional skills.
However, I have come to the conclusion that the similarities between them are greater than the differences.
Z) How much influence does the market have on the work of the critic? And vice versa, naturally?
S) The rules of the market, with its, by now, undisputed supply and demand formula, seem to be the only reliable reference to determine the price or value of any commodity destined for sale.
It follows that, in order to stay within the subject of our conversation, art critics have been displaced, losing their authority to indicate the value of a work of art.
The majority of critics, apart from a few rare and virtuous exceptions, have ended up recognizing the supreme power of the market, taking on a role of support, consultation, and, at times, of authentication.
The whims of a certain number of very rich and unpredictable clients also influence the market.
Z) Why does the cultured, difficult, often cryptic, style of writing used by art critics seem reserved for complicity with those who use the same dialectic, syntactic and lexical constructions? Why have “militant” critics generally preserved that expressive formality which the general public does not understand and which the more expert public does not appreciate, since it represents a kind of abstruse and even elitist attitude? It reminds me of that perfidious "What are they saying? What are they saying?", which Cardarelli used to be informed about the most spectacular events...
S) The irony of Cardarelli’s "What are they saying?", like Flaiano’s comments that brought disarray to the chaste earnestness of certain intellectuals, doesn’t seem to have found an interpreter today who knows how to destroy, with a few sharp and amusing words, the castles in the sand built by today’s critics, who speak the language of shamans.
But perhaps there is no other way to give credit, as art, to works that are more incomprehensible than any abstruse comment.
Z) With knowledge and sensitivity, how easy, or arduous, is it to express yourself critically? Let us say, in front of a fifteenth century painting, and another, shall we say, from the year two thousand? How does our interpretation of the first and the second differ from the point of view of the cognitive tools we employ? Why do we have, in general, a clearer interpretative apparatus and a relatively easier way of interpreting figurative painting, compared to the abstruseness, ambiguity and obscurity which we meet when analyzing modern Informal art?
S) I would say this: when the path is well-lit we walk along it, sure-footed, when it is dark, we grope our way along it, and we sometimes stumble.
Z) How do you judge the practice of expertise? Is it the eye of the expert, or that of the artist, which provides greater guarantees?
S) When it is not a question of a cultural, systematic, value, the eye that truly understands a painting should be our own. Everyone and no-one is capable of appreciating and loving a painting.
Z) Arturo Martini, in '45, wrote that sculpture was dead. In his words, "After forty years of work, when, as for the transparent silkworm, I had reached the moment for me to lift up my head, I realized that, for sculpture, time and the possibility of a miracle had vanished forever."
You have not made any particularly apocalyptic, visionary, or dramatic predictions yourself, but do you agree that art has already used up all of its miracles?
S) If such a definitive judgment has been expressed by one of the greatest contemporary sculptors, we should pay great attention to this bitter reflection.
My thoughts, substantially akin to those of Arturo Martini, tend to turn the issue on its head: we live in an era that no longer requires miracles from painting and sculpture.
Z) You lived through the great events that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall with a coherence that did not vindicate its birthright, or display political activism, or defend predictions. Do you remember whether anything inconclusive remained from that experience, something not entirely clarified, that you had to explain to yourself?
S) The implosion of the Communist system, that is, the break-up of the U.S.S.R., buried, under the rubble of the Wall, everything that seemed allied to Communism. Even the word Socialism seemed to become seriously suspect.
The Cold War was over. The West, in the end, had won.
New scenarios appeared, and we trusted in a world that seemed finally reconciled, and freer. “La vita cammina e ricomincia daccapo” ("Life starts off and walks again"), to quote a verse from a poem by Tito Balestra. After about ten years the tragedy of the Two Towers, the "11th September" arrived. It produced terror, then more waging of wars, and the death of thousands of innocent victims threw the world into insecurity again. The opposition between the democratic West and the U.S.S.R. of "Real Socialism" no longer exists to provoke conflict: it is now a conflict between a part of Islam and the West. In other words, it is a war that wants to be perceived as a war between religions.
Z) It could be said of you, with today's hindsight, that you have never been a political activist, even for yourself, that you have only been concerned with to the need to understand reality, like Montale, what you were not, what you didn't want…?
S) Even if Montale’s verses - as always happens in great poetry - still seduce us before we have completely understood their meaning, I would be very pleased if, through my painting, it was possible to understand what I am not, and what I don't want...
Z) You remind me of Carlo Bo, in his "literature as life". You have made painting, in your turn, a part of yourself. "There is no merit in it", you say, speaking as if it was destined to be like that. There is never a warning of today's dissension, a sense of discontent, frustration, disappointment, a feeling of uselessness. Never a burst of anger, or repulsion. Why?
S) It is difficult to say what life is, since it is almost never only one thing. If some aspects of our existence have ended up representing our identity, others, kept in a kind of shadow, represent its hidden aspects.
It is true that, with the passing of time, painting has become my life. Perhaps this happened when all the contradictions that I had carried with me took on consistence, unity and duration within my canvases.
I certainly go through moments of discontent, impotence, and often a feeling of uselessness, but these are everyday things, experienced by everybody.
Z) What about very large paintings, with a great space of canvas to be painted, the scenery to be filled, the parts to be composed? You also increased the size of your works and your control over them… Why did you feel the need for greater spaces, greater complexity, silences between increasingly laconic and, in their way, silently conversing people?
S) When I started to draw or paint a large format canvas I felt a sort of excitement, as though I was setting off on a journey that would take me somewhere I had never been before. As if a film director was granted all the budget he needed to make a film.
In a large format canvas, characters, situations and images can appear as if in a sequence of uninterrupted frames in a film, narrating the hours and minutes of its existence.
Losing myself in the labyrinth of this imagination is perhaps one of the signs that characterize much of my painting.
Z) Why have you never explicitly made your figures "speak", whether men or women. Why have you kept them in the realm of the unsaid? Why have you made them so essential to each other and yet so distant?
S) It is difficult to find a rational explanation, speaking of that kind of suspension and silence in the looks of characters who seem to be searching for, but not finding, each other.
When I paint, I don't think of anything other than creating a good painting. On the other hand, painting doesn't explain, it represents.
Z) Then, slowly, the requirement emerged to confirm that painting hadn't exhausted itself, but had to coincide with a broader interest, in which you kept immersing it. When did you find yourself wanting to express your thoughts not only through your art?
S) It often happens, especially when I create a painting to which I dedicate an important part of my work. I feel under a certain stress during these moments. It is the moment when your idea shows all of its weaknesses, as you set off along a path that you hadn’t intended to follow, but that you mysteriously found. Are you near, or far? You are entirely immersed in your painting.
Z) What is, in your paintings, the ideal point of convergence between your thoughts and your painting?
S) Painting can remove or add to what you have thought, and what you are thinking. On the other hand, the thought itself is not the painting, and the painting itself is not the thought. But I can't imagine how and where they get separated.
Z) Have you ever, paradoxically, wanted to make the painting depend exclusively... on the painting? That is, only on the act of painting, the skill itself? Have you ever been nostalgic for content?
S) I am not only nostalgic, but continually give great importance to the content, knowing, however, that it has to take expression within the form.
Z) You once said to me: "You can paint while thinking about something else". What did you mean to say? What do you remove, and what do you add?
S) I only wanted to emphasise the difference between my work and that of a writer, for example. My work also contains a component of practical craftsmanship. A carpenter can sing while carefully carrying out his work. He can whistle a tune while thinking about his expenses, proceeds and other things, and his work doesn't suffer. His hands and his eyes carefully follow him. When I paint, I attentively monitor the progress of my painting while, musing, I continue to think about things that are not always directly connected with the painting I have on the easel. I would even say that these digressions, seemingly distancing myself from my painting, end up enriching it.
Z) How do you regard St. Augustine’s idea that nobody believes in anything that they haven’t previously wanted to believe in? Do you believe that "believing is agreeing", that you have to agree with what you believe in…?
S) I basically agree with St. Augustine’s words.
However, I have to add that I would be alarmed if, one day, I found myself no longer having any doubts about my convictions.
Z) When, during a certain period of your long career, the critics recognized an echo of Bacon’s painting in your work – some in the content, others in the colours, the style, or the expression - disregarding the obvious "indivisibility" of the artist’s work, did you ever recognize your work in these comparisons? What effect could the recognition, or even the flattery, of being called "the Italian Bacon" have had on your work? Did you feel that you had to counter this praise for your work so as not to damage your identity? How do you react, in other words, to this kind of appreciation?
S) It’s very true. There were years when no famous critic who reviewed my work failed to mention this subject. And this has increasingly legitimized the comparison between my work and that of the great English artist.
One could say that this excessive insistence has ended up becoming banal and showing up the lack of originality of some reviewers. To demonstrate the validity of this comparison they have even altered the character of Bacon’s painting. He is, above all, a great and tragic realist painter, oscillating between nightmare and agony. When Bacon is given as a point of reference for my artistic research, he is depicted as an artist who paints loneliness, emptiness, the suffering of existence, whereas, in fact, the scenario that stimulates Bacon’s imagination is completely different: it is a nightmare environment inhabited by men disfigured by a fierce expressionism who, between latrines and couches, show what is not really loneliness, but rather a disrespectful and terrible detachment.
If it was up to me to point out the difference in terms of content between my work and Bacon’s I would say that his painting depicts a tragically beautiful dimension, with a strong realist vision.
I would add that my work concerns loneliness - Man suffering the reality in which he is immersed.
But Bacon is among the greatest of modern painters, and I am certainly not one to favour the comparisons, and illusions, of flattering similes.
Z) Your "recognisability" is a characteristic of your whole career. I would dare to say that even the so-called echoes of Bacon belong to a precise moment in your creativeness. What else, if anything, have you had to defend yourself from?
S) I have observed Bacon, Munch, De Kooning and many others with the attentive respect that is reserved for inspiring teachers; this attention towards some artists, rather than others, could mean that I have looked for something in their work that could help my own painting to develop. I have always thought that painting continually feeds itself on painting. This is valid, I believe, for every form of art.
Z) Has the scandalous episode of the Japanese painter who copied your works, exhibiting them in Tokyo and receiving critical acclaim and a prestigious national award, which "filled the newspapers around the world", taken on a metaphorical significance that coincides with your disenchantment regarding the intangible, even sacred, value of art?
S) Yes, I was amazed by this unprecedented event in the chronicle of scandals that have shaken the art world.
The Japanese government has revoked the award. The association of Japanese painters has expelled him. The museums that had purchased his paintings have removed them from the walls where they had hung.
In an interview some time ago I said that "if we ask ourselves why a work that is considered a masterpiece suddenly appears meaningless when it is discovered that it is a fake, we have to understand that any possible answer to this question cannot concern the work of art itself, but rather our own relationship with art, that is, our ability to evoke it, imagine it, and recognize it."
Z) We spoke of "recognisability", that is, of the most easily perceivable language identifying an artist's work. Do you find it in your drawing or your painting? What is the sign in which you most often recognize yourself?
S) I am so used to mixing drawing and painting, not following any of the conventional rules, that is difficult for me to say what my sign is. In my paintings, I often continue to draw over layers of colour, and vice versa, there are layers of colour over the drawings, which can sometimes be seen as a trace of the development of the painting.
I would perhaps consider my identity as an artist to be this strong connection between drawing and painting, both assuming a vital role within my works.
Z) What meaning do you attribute to the loss - or even the renouncement - of the sign, especially what is drawn before painting? Is this the triumph of Informal painting, the defeat of form? Yet there are works, such as those of Kandinskij, which you regard with the same interest and love that you have shown for Goya or Caravaggio. Why is this?
S) We should not be imprisoned by our choices. There should always be an open window to look out of, and to see how things can be viewed through "other" perspectives, convictions, different ideas from our own. What we consider to be extraneous to our own beliefs can, sometimes, enrich us. In my studio at the Circo Massimo I hung a poster by Kandinskij to remind me of what can inspire my painting.
Z) What inspired your "thematic" cycles of paintings: The Family, The Supper, Loneliness, Pain? They are concerned with psychology and intimacy, current events and history, reality and mystery. Nature is missing. But then the Green Cycle arrived, with some painting of clouds, gardens and seas. Why so late?
S) I am basically a painter of the human form. When I lived in Carpineta, in the midst of green trees and meadows, I tried to understand what my relationship with nature was, since at the time I was captivated by its charms, without managing to analyze my reaction.
I entrusted my queries to my painting, in the hope that it would enable me to understand something more, and created a series of paintings representing the trees, hedges, and the sky above the cypresses and the great oaks. They were not vistas or landscapes, merely portraits of some fragments of nature.
Z) "Widen and multiply your points of view", you once said. Were you referring only to the large format painting that you were creating at the time, or to something more general, in a different perspective? It seems that, since that day, the relevance of this idea has returned, or am I mistaken?
S) I may have thought that the time was ripe to give energy back to my work again, to find solutions that went beyond the formal structures that I was used to. But those words could be interpreted in a different way. They could be used to understand, for instance, how insufficient the tools of conventional judgement are, when used to analyze and govern the crisis of a world that is changing at an inconceivable speed.
Z) There is something that is never lost in the ability of art to coincide with the realities it depicts. Is it documentation or transfiguration, sign or symbol?
S) Art is a word with many meanings, so each of us attributes different roles to it, that are all equally legitimate and often verifiable in those works that we universally consider to belong to the realm of art.
Often a novel or a painting, a poem, or a piece of music are viewed as documents of exceptional value, more than any other kind of document, in discovering and reconstructing the main issues of the period to which they belong.
However, these considerations do not regard the essence of art, but what art can offer to different observers.
Art cannot ask itself whether it matches its time, because it is an integral part of it.
Z) Does the concrete value of art still exist? If so, what is it? Do you believe in the power of market forces or the cultural viscosity of the phenomenon?
S) A work of art, created entirely by one individual, belongs to those who know how to evoke it, recognize it and imagine it. It is alive and essential as long as it produces intellectual soul-searching and cultural resonance that helps people to compare their own beliefs with those of others. It becomes useless and inert when, to recognize its value, we have to base our judgement on the prices reached in auctions or, like the TV ratings, the number of visitors to a well-sponsored exhibition.
Z) What, of your vocation, has remained most precious to you? What has taken other directions?
S) We are all, as individuals, the history of our own lives. In the end we keep what has taken root within us, what has found fertile ground on which to build. Everyone has arrived at a crossroads in their lives, where they thought they might be able to change direction. Would our lives have been different?
Perhaps, but only as different as the titles of different novels written by the same author.
Z) I have heard you say that today's great crises belong to the drifting of ethics, philosophy and art, just as much, if not more, as to the collapse of ideology and politics. Do you look with apprehension at the silent, ambiguous symbols of art. Do you think that art represents the uncertainty and difficulties of our time? For what special reasons should it allow itself to be intimidated, and weakened, by modern life? Isn’t this a rather neo-romantic, aesthetic and sentimental vision?
S) Art testifies to its own time: our increasingly confused moral values, ideologies that seem to have dissolved and others that survive in a state of alarm and conflict, the overwhelming triumph of reason, that seems to have lost its ancient charm, philosophy, forced to reflect on the brevity of time, politics, fighting for power, but then showing all the difficulties of governing a society that does not know, or want, to distinguish between progress and development. The wars, religions, and terrorism at least partly explain the entity of the crisis that has, quite unexpectedly, invaded a world that is in the most advanced state of wealth. This crisis has also affected, as a natural consequence, the world of art which, not being a metaphysical entity detached from the context in which it was created, bears the burden of the crisis and sends out signals that are anything but reassuring!
I don't believe that these considerations of mine, whether correct or not, can have anything in common with attitudes of a neo-romantic or aesthetic nature. Perhaps they should be included, as we said before, in what has affected our lives.
Z) I don't know of any examples of painting that has not belonged to its time. Fellini, looking at your paintings, even called your painting "filmic", seeing in it a kind of cinematic clarification and duration. "Alberto” - he told me – “sometimes sees things as if he was holding a television camera, not a brush, in his hand: he arranges the forms, the lighting, creates different perspectives, interposes them, makes them interact."
I remember that I was looking at "The Supper" and perhaps I was influenced by the origin of that unusual thematic sequence. How do you see the cinema in regard to your work? How did it become part of your expressive language? Or was Fellini simply speculating? Why, then, has more than one film director made references to your painting?
S) On the occasion of my first solo show in Milan, at the Bergamini gallery in 1958, Marco Valsecchi used, for his review of the exhibition, the rather over-explicit title, "The cinema has taught him to paint", and I think that Dino Buzzati also mentioned the relationship between my painting and the cinema.
It is interesting to note that it was an intuition of Milanese art criticism that first introduced this theme of the “cinema – painting” relationship in my work. In Rome, the city of film, where friendships, associations and cultural exchanges between painters and directors could suggest this type of contamination, it was only discussed at a later date.
In 1977, if I remember well, Francesco Rosi came to visit an exhibition of mine at the Gradiva in Rome, where I was actually exhibiting The Supper cycle. He stopped for a long time to observe the paintings in silence, then came up to me to tell me that he hadn't thought, before seeing The Supper cycle, that painting was still able to compete with the cinema in representing a large section of society. These were fine words which, when they come to mind, still make me feel proud.
Without over-emphasis on philological methods, but only to offer some help to those who ask me for advice on what to look for in my paintings, I would suggest approaching them with the same attitude of patience and expectation that we have when we enter the cinema after a film has already started; viewing the first sequences of a story that we know nothing about; trying to understand something from the setting or the characters as they appear on the screen, without knowing whether they are the main actors or minor characters in the story of the film; not even knowing if we are at the beginning or towards the end of the film.
It is like life, where each of us enters a performance that has already started. Without getting impatient, in the time that we have been given, we will eventually find out where we are.
Art critics have noticed it, film directors have spoken about it, and, finally, I myself would also suggest looking at my painting as if you were at the cinema. Yes, Fellini, and you witnessed and can confirm this, had understood my painting very well.
Published by SKIRA 2007 (Cesena, Rome) and 2009 (Palermo)
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