Sergio Zavoli interviews Alberto Sughi

"Reality is what
the majority sees"
Louis Borges

A day comes in which events, thoughts, questions and answers find themselves in an almost structured order, as if, from thousands of fragments, we can arrive at a finished image, which is able to define the meaning of an experience. I thought about this after reading your latest book "God’s Socialist". You examine, in great detail, what is happening inside you and around you. You know how to identify the connections between private and public, between the time of remembering and the time of existence. You know how to construct a civil and moral representation that enters our conscience. Today I better understand the intelligent earnestness of the questions that you have always asked me; your constant need to question yourself and to question the world around you. Our paths, although going in different directions and encountering different obstacles, have brought us to measure ourselves against some important issues in life that are the greatest unresolved problems of our generation. It seems relevant that some of the many questions that, at various times, you have asked me, can appear in the pages of this book, which presents my latest work.

Alberto Sughi e Sergio Zavoli, Monte Porzio Catone, Rome, 1981

Sergio Zavoli Among the "realist" painters of your generation, you have remained obstinately faithful to a style of painting that, to many, judging by your vocation and political commitment, seemed to be an ideological choice. In this way you have gradually eluded, or frankly repudiated, many of your origins. Why have you never experienced that "horror of the apparent" which so strongly affected Picasso? Do you share his paradoxical conclusion, that "there is nothing more artificial than reality?"

Alberto Sughi I don't believe that a strict correlation exists between a painting that has a tendency to respect the contours of reality and an ideological choice. In my artistic background there will always be elements, splinters of ideology, but I would prefer my work as a painter to testify my secular beliefs. Indeed, it is for this reason, apart from my natural scepticism when confronted with such categorical declarations as Picasso’s, that I would say that nothing appals me and that I continue with great curiosity to "spy on" reality.

SZ I remember well, in the immediate post-war period, your strong criticism of "Zdanovism", later authenticated "in your painting", with exemplary coherence. Do you remember Luckas? "The centrality of the visible is only in the identification of the form." This was one of the theories on which the socialist realism of those years was founded. How did you defend yourself, ideologically, from that type of constraint?

AS There were, at the beginning of the fifties, arguments within the neo-realistic movement, encouraged by those who wanted to move towards the canons of "socialist realism" following Zdanov’s ideas. Although it is also true that these arguments led to disagreements and to a well-publicised split, "socialist realism" never really caught on in Italy. In fact, one could say that these polemics marked the crisis of the neo-realistic movement itself, provoking, in many artists, an alarmed reaction to the too restrictive interdependence between art and politics. Art and politics require very different times of reflection, and send out very different messages.

SZ The whole world of the visual arts has an initial, immediate interpretation founded on a criterion of normality. Nothing more than visual art recalls, even in a banal way, the concept of the true and of truth. When you started to paint, Aragon wrote that "only the normal can be poetic": an apodeictic way of excluding, for ideological motives, all visionary, or fantastic, art, in order to pay total and polemical homage to reality. What is your concept of normal, when referring to the interpretation of your works?

AS I have often thought that painting, to be genuine, or to be "great painting", has to express a feeling of extreme naturalness (e.g. the painting of Velazquez). Naturalness seems, in turn, to suggest a close relationship with normality. In this case, I cannot disapprove of Aragon’s words "only the normal can be poetic". My only doubt remains that, by not setting myself any ideological boundaries to define my determination of normality, I interpret that concept in a different light than he did.

SZ You are a painter who organises his relationship with painting "theatrically" through an attitude that recalls, in some ways, self-portraiture in photography. Barthes, in an article on the history of observation, would have been able to quote you as someone who, when painting, is, at the same time, painted. This is not the narcissistic issue of self-portraiture: it is as if, schizoid, you see yourself in others. It is a questionable idea, but it concerns you. Do you think it is relevant in your case?

AS Painting is also a way of acquiring knowledge. We can use our own image as an object of reflection, and obviously not only our physical being, to discover what has changed about us, and what signs have been left inside us. The image that the canvas returns to the artist is the result of an introspective investigation that can question all reassuring conventions.

SZ In "The Family" something immediately springs to mind: while "The Supper" was a representation of the bourgeois world, in which you were anxious to portray a symbolic deformation, here we see the unexpected reappearance of the image, and therefore of proletarian culture: an image and a culture no longer depicted in their original historical, let alone iconographical, terms...

AS The real innovation of this work, compared to my previous paintings, consisted in its requiring the support of my memory, which I had never demanded with such persistence, to recapture all that we had left in our old house; to understand what it was right to leave there, and what we should have brought with us. In this reconstruction it seemed essential, above all else, to capture the sense of dignity that neither discomfort, nor suffering, nor pain, could destroy. If this dignity is the existential mark of a proletarian culture, it is easy to make a comparison with the neurosis that characterises Man in our consumer society.

SZ This return to faces, places and gestures, which you had originally proposed, always firmly between the ideological and the affectionate, in your early paintings, could be seen as radical nostalgia, since it is so boldly stated, like something that you had to return to, to rebuild a lost sense of balance. Does this rediscovery of the "popular" memory refer to something that also occurred in your own life, as well as in general political and social culture?

AS It is not nostalgia. There is no desire to go back to a past life, to revive reassuring places and times. Memory, when linked to nostalgia, is not a secular memory: it simply generates illusions. I would like to use memory to bring something back to the present, because modern Man should know what he has lost without ever realising it, and what price he has been forced to pay to emerge from poverty. I don't know how, but, without losing what he has gained, Man still needs to retrieve his integrity, dignity, and humanity.

SZ But isn’t your return, in "The Family", to a world immersed in chaste poverty a "provocation" that also has political motives?

AS It seems to me perfectly legitimate that a figurative expression entrusted to the memory can create a provocation that leads to political debate. Even if the artist doesn't want to, he cannot change his own images.

SZ There is, in "The Family", a certain idea of doing things with love, devotion, sacrifice, reminiscent of a Catholic atmosphere...

AS If it is true that the values of Catholic ideology found its most natural habitat in peasant life, it was unthinkable that this would not also emerge in "The Family", ...

SZ As a painter, you have both flattered and disturbed the middle classes. Can you rationalise this relationship?

AS It may be that, as you imply, you can find a contradictory subject matter in my work. Within the bourgeois world, and the ethics it expresses, I feel as if I were someone at home, but always looking at the door and longing to leave. This doesn't make me unaware that this world has also fed my intelligence, my psychology, even my dissent. Bitter and anguishing images may have resulted from this unresolved issue, reflecting pity and detachment, sharing and separation.

SZ This "family" is therefore involved in an expressive and structural choice of "poverty", which is almost archaic. Why didn’t you choose a bourgeois family, since you have so often observed, and even privileged, the bourgeoisie, and when, after all, it is the class you belong to, and expresses your vital contradictions?

AS It is difficult for me to imagine that "The Family" could take on (as some have believed) the significance of a thematic choice that, in some ways, would break with, or even contradict, my previous work. I have always tried to conduct a tireless investigation into Man’s condition; his existential discomfort, which is evident in apparently reassuring situations. For instance, in 1967, when I painted a man's portrait, entrenched behind lines of televisions, refrigerators, heaters and telephones, I wanted to represent the danger that man would run if he did not understand in time that he should not adulate a well-being that was holding him in a dangerous grasp. Well-being should make you try to live better. You shouldn’t sell your life in order to obtain it. So, in 1976, when I painted the “Supper” cycle, I made that man's portrait again, amazed that he had not understood in time, that he was even losing the memory of his ancient dignity. His loss of 'memory' became the most alarming sign. And in my latest works I have tried to represent this lost memory. I have not portrayed a peasant family, but I have tried to recover our common memory.

SZ Our own family somehow marks all of us. You yourself show old signs of this: children changed by what happened away from you, growing adult at a distance, and even "against" you.... This family, so much both yours and ours, is apparently missing in this painting... or, is it there, if you look carefully?

AS It won't have escaped you, Sergio, that at the beginning I talked in the third person, but I have ended up saying that I wanted to recuperate "our memory". Well, I would like it to be understood that these works belong to our family, to our children, so they are less distant from us, and to us, so we can be less distant from them.

SZ You have been, and still are, a communist. Amendola was a great friend of yours. A certain amount of heresy has always distinguished the political activism of intellectuals. What is more, you’re an artist, a person who is a priori heretical because you accept, from the beginning, that everything can be different. How do you reconcile militancy with this "diversity", which almost never corresponds to your idea of what you wanted? Have you ever painted against political activists, against the party, or against yourself?

AS As regards orthodoxy, I don't feel heretical, but would rather call myself heterodox. Because of this I feel free to dissent, to infringe, to keep my distance. I have never reached a breaking point with my party. I said at the beginning that the artist’s job is on a different time scale than that of the politician. Both of them need the "patience" to respect these different times. This is an inevitable patience, because it is a "historical patience". If, at times, I have felt quite distant from the party, or the party distant from me, I don't think this has caused any great damage to anyone. My work within the party corresponds to a choice that I made in my youth, which I still consider worth following. You asked me if I have ever painted against the party, against political activism, or against myself: against myself never; and since I believe I am the same person, as an activist, a party member, it should, at least, follow that I have never painted against party members or against the party itself.

SZ Yet you are more faithful in your unruliness, since consent generally counterbalances criticism. How much ambiguity do you offload onto your works, in this sense? And to what extent do they help you to mediate?

AS I am not only a secular artist, free from every constraint. I am also a man who shares his anxieties, fears and hopes with others: a man who remembers that he has, in comparison with so many others, a job that he loves and that is also so much more than a job. Of course, my works do serve to offload a few tensions.

SZ From this point of view, do your rare flights into the imaginary have any particular significance?

AS At times, it seems to me that we could all also be something different from what we are, something that is even only hinted at. These are only moments, and often seem transgressions. What you call my flights of fancy are really a curiosity to see what kind of different person I could be. In these cases your reference to Barthes, a little while ago, seems perfectly correct...

SZ And then, why have you always returned to the identification of form, that is, to the so-called centrality of the visible?

AS Because that curiosity is easily satisfied, and also because, perhaps, I am what I know I am.

SZ Today, What direction does an artist who wants to identify himself in the centrality of the social aspect take?

AS The artist runs the risk of getting involved, as it should be, in the contradictions of society, of finding himself in a labyrinth, where it is hard to find a way out.

SZ And what if artists accepted to be so different that they didn't pose the problem of heresy any more?

AS The problem of diversity, the freedom to be different, doesn't only concern artists. It is a universal right. Nobody should be labelled heretical; in comparison to what, anyway?

SZ And if heresy were so generalised that you could no longer pose the problem of diversity? Would this not be the inverse solution to what we have just said?

AS Of course, but it doesn't only depend on us. We can only observe the "turning of the tables".

Sergio Zavoli interviews Alberto Sughi is published in the retrospective exhibition catalogue of Alberto Sughi’s work, The Family, presented by Dario Micacchi at the Gallery of La Gradiva of Rome, 2001.



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