The Drawing and the Image,

Sergio Zavoli interviews Alberto Sughi

Sergio Zavoli I don’t suppose, Alberto, that you have ever suffered from the syndrome of Leonardo. I also doubt that you have ever painted from a model, a manikin, or from some anatomical text, with its spectacular branching of veins on a hand or a leaf. I believe, in fact, that your sign was created outside the context of any academic rules. Indeed, it is quite extraordinary that you are not the product of any school, discipline, criterion, or method. Indeed, from the collection of your drawings, even the most extemporaneous - even those in which you are practising, as if in a game or pastime, perhaps while on the phone - the foremost of your talents emerges, your line, to which you entrust, as in writing to the writer, the structure of your art. But is it always essential to have a sign that - inspiring everything that develops on the canvas - is essential to its structure, if not the actual essence of the painting? Can you be a creator of images without this talent a priori?

Of course, from the decomposition of the line, and the loss of its canonical interpretability, a great and celebrated painting can be created - if we think of Picasso, for instance. In the work of this artist - although this also applies to many other artists - form and substance are no longer coded into schools, that is, theoretical, as in his early "blue and pink periods", where his style was based on an accepted, and still traditional, figurative representation. In short: when and where was your sign created? Was it your sign that guided your hand, and have you faithfully followed it? Or have you cultivated it, putting it to the test of your talent, until it became part of the warp itself?

Alberto Sughi Your line of thought is intriguing. Starting from a problem that certainly concerns me, you ask me and, ultimately, yourself, questions that refer to a more general issue, i.e. whether the artist is the natural child of his talent, capable of producing complex and extraordinary works while remaining unaware of the reasons and procedures that have created them. Does the sign support the artist only at the moment of inspiration, or of intuition, not analysed rationally, and without which the painting, to be resolved pictorially, would not exist? Or is the artist a figure who cultivates and refines his sign, while certainly considering it an essential tool for his art, but not assigning it a founding or fundamental role, and does it therefore remain distinct from the work as a whole? I believe that an artist does not renounce any freedom, even when it seems that his sign is imposing itself on his work, but, in fact, analyses and transforms it, gathering further experience and knowledge of it while following the general development of the work.

Zangheri, Zavoli, Sughi, 1986
Renato Zangher, Sergio Zavoli, Alberto Sughi at the opening of Sughi's
exhibition in Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome, 1989

SZ Have you ever thought of using a different line, experimenting another type of "writing"?

AS I think that the fact of being able to imagine different ways of being an artist involves, together with the complexity of every subject concerned with art, a system of relationships with "your own" art that is difficult to classify. You know that I am always erasing, reworking, continually questioning the sign of my paintings, and it could be that, in order to retrieve my "naturalness", I have to follow an increasingly obstacle-ridden path. But even if the result produced a "new" sign, it would still be mine.

SZ What price have you paid, so to speak, for being such an excellent draughtsman? Anyway, it was immediately obvious that it made your painting clearly recognisable...

AS My sign, in this sense, is part of my style, the only formal element that provides the key to the interpretation of a work and the recognition of its authorship. But an artist, although always expressing himself, does not limit himself to any particular trademark or seal - the greatest artists have used different lines/signs to present their work.

SZ Why, contrary to what happened to you, were some of your fellow artists – I’m thinking particularly of Vespignani - rewarded for a sign that graphically “exhausted” the painting itself?

AS Knowing how to draw means making our relationship with the world expressive through a linguistic structure that shows, represents, but cannot deduce. Because of this, every artist who represents expressively, is, substantially, a draughtsman. I consider drawing to be a precious and necessary tool, which I have tried to refine over the years. It is certainly not a price to be paid, nor a supposed interference with painting, no matter whether this is considered positive or negative.

SZ Any painting, then, is not separable from the sign in which it unfolds, and which it expresses. Even when the sign appears to be denied by its self-destruction, that is, by so-called informality, it frees itself from the painting?

AS We observe the sign and the painting, as I understand them, when they reach full expressiveness, using the same critical syntax. If I then refer to my own work, the contamination between the two genres is so clear that it continues to intervene with signs and corrections, underlining with charcoal even the oil painting of the background.

SZ Why has the sign, in itself, principally in itself, lent itself so often to the use that ideology has made of it? Perhaps because it corresponds to a simpler eloquence, it has greater figurative expression?

AS By itself the sign does not represent reality any better. At times it can offer a poetic and fantastic interpretation of it. A drawing by Matisse, for example, will never be open to an ideological interpretation. It is true, however, that some artists have used it to illustrate an ideological stance, purely because the sign, with its more synthetic and clearer interpretation, is more easily and effectively adapted to propagandist uses.

SZ Does the insistence of a theme, and therefore of a sign, present in such a large part of your work - that is, the representation of the relationship between man and woman - belong to the "obsession with the subject", which Moravia described at the beginning of his career, when artists were questioning themselves on their role in life and society, ideology and politics, or is it something else?

AS It may be, but I am not sure. It is perhaps only a metaphor, though certainly obsessive, regarding our relationship with others: curiosity, silence, our expectation that we will suddenly understand what has always been hidden, and so many other things. It is a questioning of our existence that doesn't seek answers.

SZ The line, when it is pure and only drawn, is like a continuous fringe. It has no other means other than itself of adding and removing from the composition. The rest is made pictorially. Is it therefore fundamentally explanatory in nature?

AS There is a drawing by Rembrandt, with some vertical lines falling on a Crucifixion in the lower part of the drawing, with an atmosphere, a sinister light, a feeling of tragedy that many artists would not know how to represent. Some drawing is like the footnote to a painting that you intend to make, but another kind of drawing is a complete work in itself.

SZ Although most of your paintings contain a strong figurative element, there are those who insist on looking for assonances, interactions, atmospheres recalling other expressive art forms, which use different instruments, such as the cinema. The work of Antonioni, for example - founded upon the bourgeois, disturbing, and mutually inaccessible relations between people - or of Scola, like a socio-analyst who turns observation into introspection, between psychology and reality, poetry and documentary, or of Fellini, who was the first to call your art "an art of the image, both in the sense of the single frame and of the whole story", where the static and the dynamic, explanation and allusion, ambiguity and scandal exist in a continuum that never eludes the contrast between reality and dreaming, even privileging the idea that "imagination is the highest mode of thinking", as the great director loved to say when he was reproached for hiding behind symbolic "abstruseness", that was more or less psychoanalytical. I remember that, at Monteporzio, Federico "studied" you for a long time in the paintings at my house, and compared your works "to something filmic, like the cinema, in their creation from light". And here is my point: if all of this makes sense, and continues to exist, can you still say that your work is no longer living, that it has been expelled by its uselessness, made superfluous and debased by the huge abuse of images inflicted on our eyes every day, as if, in that monstrous incontinence, they were confused, and those produced by artists were becoming annihilated?

AS Despite everything, I follow formal structures in my paintings. Their meeting with the eyes of those who stop to look at them, and the consequent need to translate them into thoughts, concepts and subjects often produces interpretations which even I had never thought of myself. I have to say, though, that this is not enough for me to believe that painting, today, continues to coincide with life.

SZ Luigi Cavallo has interpreted your paintings, arriving at the same conclusions as Fellini by a different route. He mentions the "theatricality of daily life" (Is it just a coincidence that one of your most important paintings is entitled "Theatre of Italy"?) as the key to the continual duplicity of existence. This - I think his reasoning can be summed up as follows - explains your sharp and painful predilection for atmospheres created between strangers and silent, stunned people, in other words, the accomplices of an existential conciseness, never judged, but observed, pitilessly, in their icy, even painless, detachment. What part of this interpretation of your work, which both Italian and foreign art critics compare to the expressive forms of Bacon, do you no longer find expresses the usefulness of painting? What judgement does it refer to?

AS It reminds me of a shop containing precious merchandise (the significance of art) where nobody goes to buy anything any more. I can almost hear the noise of the shutters. The shop is about to close. And I feel a great melancholy.

SZ It is incredible, in the sense that I find it hard to accept its profound reasoning, to imagine a painter, one of the most highly reputed figurative artists of our time, feeling that his own appreciation of his, let us call it, “artistic activism”, is lacking. It seems unnatural to imagine a threshold beyond which an artist, as renowned as you are, can discover a sort of ontological unbelonging of his own painting (in the sense of its increasing ineffectiveness) in the process of deciphering and representing a reality that should require, more than ever, the interpretation of art. I’ll ask you a group of questions, but perhaps there is really only one: where have you found the concrete reasons for your disenchantment? Which is the cost of this “drifting”, if I can call it this? What could redeem the task of the painter in such a rapid race against time towards the death of so many things, starting from the imagination and beauty, from philosophy and morality, from humanism and ethics? Does art no longer serve to tell us who we are? Is everything really so subservient to the so-called exact sciences, so much more detached and sad than that "science" which emanates from every judgement that art, including yours, declares every day?

AS A certain disenchantment, painful as it is, but substantially lucid, brings me back to a question that has interested and worried me ever since I examined the significance of “drifting”, if not of actual loss, regarding the increasing decline of humanism. It may seem paradoxical, but when science actually takes on the fate of the world, when what it expresses appears to be and, I fear, actually becomes, the last bastion of humanism, we discover that there is no scientific decision that is not also humanistic, at the same time, in that it compensates for what humanism is not able to produce any more, and that the cultural tradition which we were born into, exceeds, irresistibly, even our ideas on art....

SZ That was a time when art was involved, fundamentally, in a general description of history and human destiny, while today’s art does not feel the same need to refer to it. This is because its answers can no longer keep pace with an increasingly fragmentary interpretation of the world, as we have been saying for a long time, pushed aside by the speed of new interpretative instruments provided by science and technology, and by politics and all the social sciences, starting from communication.

AS This is true. The so-called “communicative flow”, especially that expressed in images, has taken over many of art’s traditional functions. It not only informs, but also represents, selects and even judges. Therefore, an art form such as painting – in a reality that is continually consumed by the eyes – is, in fact, relegated to art shops, studios, galleries and exhibitions, that is, its communicative aspect is increasingly ignored and silenced, replaced by the stifling atmosphere of old clothes’ chests, that have too long been unused. What remains is the event, the use of painting as spectacle, its more sophisticated, intellectual, even worldly consumption. You yourself, reporting in general on the "confetti-isation" of reality, which derives from the overuse of every form and language of communication, end up including everything that is, by nature, inconsistent or too fleeting for what we really need in life, our need for literature and philosophy, to mention only the most striking examples.

SZ Carlo Bo wrote "Literature as life", which describes the highly creative development of humanistic culture in the period between the two last centuries. Today you could not write anything similar about the period covering the end of the 1900s and the beginning of the third millennium. I would like to ask you for your opinion about these aspects of the problem, although seen in different contexts, in the eyes a philosopher and of a moralist. With a touch of what could be alarm or resignation, Heidegger wrote: "In today's world everything now works. But this is exactly what risks becoming a problem: that everything functions, that this functioning creates further functioning, and that Man is increasingly torn apart and uprooted. This is already happening. By functioning so well we have already formed relationships - between each other, between reality and ourselves, between our imagination and ourselves – that are purely technical". This observation leads to another - similar, but arising from quite different reasoning, made by father Balducci, another sharp critic of our acclaimed modernity. Referring to the irresistible dominance of intelligence, he ends up fearing the thought that produces only another thought, and this thought yet another, so that at the end of a spiral of thought that only thinks of itself, there is no other reality to think about, since it has all, so to speak, already been thought about. "With the tragic conclusion that, in the end, there remains only a single reality and a single thought". In fact, science and technology have constructed a kind of planetary brain in which all artificial brains are interconnected. So, with all our electronic branches, algorithms and digital impulses, mankind risks becoming a technocrat, a mutant, searching for that other existence that virtuality is already able to represent: a “neo-reality” between the real and the fictitious that dominates our imagination more and more, producing our desires and conditioning our ideas. Where does your mistrust in the role of art stand in relation to a reality like this? What would serve to make it into a "scandal"? Is it perhaps already implicit, in your extraordinary maturity, which in itself, while increasingly better-classified, offers itself as a test of the increasing and general groundlessness of art?

AS Among all the challenges that art can take on, it cannot be self-referential. Too much painting, in our time, is in the limelight because it so noisily proclaims its own existence. It is only stupidity, a demonstration of the cultural void into whichk we have fallen. Art is something else. It is the anxious search for the path that should lead us to where we can glimpse the truth. Truth will, perhaps, always be hidden, but the work of art testifies the journey undertaen to discover it.

The Sign and the Image, Interview between Sergio Zavoli and Alberto Sughi is published in the retrospective exhibition catalogue of Alberto Sughi’s work, The Sign and the Image, presented by Giovanni Faccenda at the Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art of the City of Arezzo, from 14 April – 21 May, 2006.



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