“Oh, I could weep my spirit from mine eyes!”
“The eye truly is our most precious sensory organ and its command over others has enabled the human intellect to create civilization. Seeing means to become conscious of the environment: it is the equivalent of "knowing", possessing the world and commanding it. It is having "power" and doing something to the world, not only with the hands but also with the spirit. Through his hands primitive man became sapiens and also Homo Faber, and they would have been useless had they not been guided by his sight .”
I think it is very difficult to fully illustrate, in any clearer way, the immense importance that the eye - or better perhaps, the gaze it produces - has had in determining the historical and biological evolution of the Homo genus. It is in fact due to this feature that man is able to first of all, “know", and then to master and, finally, to modify things within the world according to his plans.
Therefore, it would be impossible to underestimate the importance the role of the eye has. This is why the photograph, taken by Waldemar Deonna, is such a perfect example: it is essentially by virtue of its "prime importance" , compared to the other sensory organs, that the eye has always somehow constituted our “medium par excellence”. That is to say it "allows the mind to distinguish and discern, to recognize and appreciate, or to reach its full potential .”
Nevertheless, it is not only in this highly practical and tangible way that the eye has influenced the creation and evolution of human society. On the contrary, while its respective contribution has perhaps not been so immediately evident, it has contributed - quite considerably - to fulfilling the spiritual side of man’s life, helping him to gather a set of conscious and unconscious beliefs. With surprising frequency these manifest themselves in, amongst other things, the events of everyday life; proof of the eye’s ability to act according to our perception, both aesthetically and in a way I would define as structurally.
Deonna has actually spoken of the covert presence, in every man, of a true “obsession" towards the organ of sight. This, for example, leads each one of us, unconsciously, to identify the eye’s familiar image with "everything that is vaguely eye-shaped (the sun and the moon, a diamond, the window of a house, the eyespots on a peacock’s plumage ); essentially, he says:
The eye, with its real or symbolic meanings, has always been a continual occupation in the life of man, both during our waking moments as well as in our dreamlike states. The mind creates a shape for this obsession in day-to-day and poetic language, in figurative art and during each mental state. These could be normal states, from childhood to adulthood, or pathological states, like feelings of alienation or clairvoyance; and even during the cultural phases of primitive civilizations - from Palaeolithic art - and the evolutionary phases .
There are many testimonies in this respect that the great Swiss archaeologist aligns to his text, which is extraordinarily cultured, full of references and yet very pleasant and smooth to read. In particular, and to avoid lingering on what is simply more interesting to read, try to think about one's habit of using the word "eye" to represent pars pro toto of the whole person. For example, this can be easily seen in the way numerous deities of the ancient world have been depicted. These could have been given as much meaning represented through, let’s say, their “entire figure" as they were represented through this one ocular-related word. Such purpose has succeeded in conveying, in simple and concise terms, to worshippers – through a magnified eye – the concepts of omniscience, omnipresence and the all-seeing eye of god.
Examples of this can be seen in the Gorgon figure of ancient Greece, which was sometimes represented through its eyes alone, while in Egypt Horus was symbolized by a solitary eye. Closer to home, it is our very same Christian god who is represented by an eye enclosed within the triangle of the Holy Trinity. But how did this happen? That is to say, (and this is the element of our discourse that interests us most) how can the eye be used to represent the entire individual? The answer is easy: because the eye – as explained by Deonna - symbolically represents "the centre of our life and of our character or, basically, of our soul" . In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Rā claims that we live "inside the divine eye" , while in the Naturalis Historia Pliny the Elder also mentions this very ancient concept:
Without doubt, the soul lives in the eyes. It is with the soul we see and it is with the soul we distinguish things: just like a channel that has obtained a visual ability, the eyes make their way through this. In all animals, no part of the body represents their spiritual quality better than their eyes, but especially in those of man.
So, it appears to me that this is the most relevant marker to be used to interpret Clelia’s faces, eyes and gazes, which have, more or less, all been unconsciously imbued with this sort of abyssal and dizzying anthropological depth. In other words, that is to say that the eyes outlined by Clelia are not simply self-representing eyes (quite the contrary, even in those cases where there is more likeness to the model it appears to me that this function is definitely a secondary, or an even an entirely marginal, one). It is rather that these gazes, emerging from underneath the paintings, seem to indicate – or better still, delve deep into – a recondite state of consciousness, an inextricable and almost material web of experience and sensation, and a hidden, maybe unconfessed, intimacy. What is more, it is no coincidence that Merleau-Ponty succeeded in pointing out that painting, and the viewing connected with it, are nothing more than “immersing oneself in things with no other reason than to grasp the truth.” Clelia, perhaps without any direct knowledge of the French philosopher’s concept, shares his judgement. This is to such an extent that – as if what she says on a daily basis about her own work wasn’t enough - she made a clear statement (also in writing) in her own presentation for a personal exhibition some years ago. Through this we learn, among other things, that:
The aim of the artist is always the same: to intervene on the support base with gestures that are completely subjective and unconditioned. […] this expression allows no predictable clichés, and allows for no hesitation but, above all, allows no opportunistic hypocritical deception: it aims directly at the truth.
To express this truth through the eyes and through gazes Clelia uses, for the most part, the traditional artist’s medium and then, within the spectrum of possibilities it offers, a language and syntax that one may aptly describe (with the odd exception) as “expressionist”. However, in this regard at least two thoughts come to mind: the first, and most pressing, concerns the real meaning these day, of an art such as painting, (although the same for instance may be said about sculpture); the second, on the other hand, is more specifically concerned with that language we call “expressionist”.
Let us begin with the first of these. For an artist, especially a young one, choosing the path of painting tout court, (that is, “pure” or traditional painting, so to speak,) is a rather courageous choice to make, especially if – as is Clelia’s case – the intention is not to explore the potential of what is sometimes, improperly, described as “abstraction” but is, on the other hand, to pursue a search for any remaining opportunities offered by figurative art. In fact, during the past five decades at least, those who have continued to explore such creative paths – often, unfortunately, irrespective of the quality of their results – have always risked being seen as dinosaurs of art; fossilized on aesthetic and taking expressive positions that have been surpassed and are now outdated. These artists are accused of being unable to interpret our modern-day concerns, which are the most immediate and pressing. Unfortunately, with the rising popularity of performances and happenings, photography and videos, and artistic installations and environmental art many in the field, a considerable number even being artists, have now come to view painting as a medium devoid of any sense. This development probably reached its peak during the Seventies when the affirmation of extreme forms of conceptual art diminished the importance of the “work” to such a degree that it could have disappeared, perhaps to be replaced by a typewritten sheet of paper illustrating the artist’s views (that is, the “concept”). In this sense, and in their own way, several critics – among whom we should at least remember Giulio Carlo Argan – helped to reinforce this hypothesis of the untimeliness of painting. Each one, for different reasons, has postulated the definitive or, at least imminent, “death of art” . (Using this, they were not saying that it would no longer be possible to enjoy satisfactory, aesthetic-artistic experiences, but that they were, in any case, singing a requiem for the traditional concept of art, or rather for the idea of art as a mainly artisan activity that – although primarily aimed at conveying thought – only becomes concrete through the creation of a hand-crafted piece, obtained by using a technical and practical knowledge).
Personally, I have always thought that painting and sculpture are not at all dead. That said – I would like to point out straight away – it is not my intention to diminish the value and potential of the new media that have flanked the more traditional forms of art. In the era of the internet, YouTube and smartphones it would, at the very least, be short-sighted to deny that a video (and that’s only one of many possible examples) has the greatest potential to get the closest to the essence of our times. That is, at least, to some of today’s peculiar idiosyncrasies that were non-existent in other eras and would have perhaps been difficult for people to interpret. However, to admit this fact is a far cry from celebrating the funeral of art forms, which possess a history spanning millennia. Naturally, many of the most significant artists of the last few decades (and I’m thinking of Joseph Beuys, of Nam June Paik, and of Marina Abramovic) have usually preferred to create using other forms of media. However, I do not think you could class as superficial, nor of being out of touch with the times, entire decades of paintings by artists such as Francis Bacon (to whom Clelia herself dedicated her thesis for her four-year academic diploma) nor Anselm Kiefer.
The problem had, I believe, already been clearly presented in 1983 by Jean Clair in his Critique of Modernity . This was, in some respects, the ideal progression from the great exhibition, which the Pompidou centre – that he managed himself – had dedicated to “Les Realismes” . According to Clair, due to the affirmation of an extreme and misunderstood interpretation of the concept of Avant-guard, at some point an absolute dominion of the “new at whatever cost” idea had been established. This firm refusal to accept any return to the past had, at the very least, led to a paradoxical “tradition of rupture” or “tradition of anti-tradition”. Essentially this consisted of the a-priori refusal of anything that had already been seen or done, also bringing with it – as its inevitable corollary – an explicit condemnation of any connection with the more traditional forms of art. However, even if we were all to agree that it would be senseless to subject artistic expression to any form of regulation, it is also clear that this concept cannot be used solely in order to defend those art forms that Renato Barilli would describe as “explosive” (or to put simply, as innovative). However, this must also apply to the defence of the so called “implosive” art forms (or, here too, to simplify Barilli’s idea, those forms that tend to rescue a certain tradition) . Therefore, if videos and installations deserve respect and ample breathing space, so too do painting and sculpture.
Nevertheless, some consideration should be given to Clelia’s choice to adopt this expressionist language. Firstly, we should point out that, in our case, by using the term “expressionism” we are not referring exclusively to the results of early 1900s to which it rightly applies (that is, to the Fauves, to the Brücke, to the Blaue Reiter or to the Neue Sachlichkeit movements, to which - as we shall see - Celia certainly nods). We are, more readily, using “expressionism” to refer to an extemporal category of communication, or a sort of evergreen visual idiom that may be seen, not only throughout the 20th century (with a particularly striking example in Germany and not forgetting developments in our own country ) but, more generally, throughout the entire history of art. This specifically includes those periods when the expressive urgency of the individual – perhaps even when shouted aloud and uncontrolled – was greater than the need for formal rigour and the quest for harmony. That being said, it is also clear that this need of the individual to communicate, in particular during the course of the 1900s, had – for various different reasons – reached the point that, in the introduction to one of his works, and citing Konrad Fiedler, Mauro Corradini hit the mark by describing the “change in the ‘point of view’, from ‘outside us’ to ‘inside us’” as being the main and underlying feature of 20th century art. Corradini goes on to say that the 20th century, described in history as “the short century”, is perhaps best described as “the short century” in art because the late 19th century and the early 21st century are still, to all effects, strongly tied to it.
I think we can say that, these days, painting and sculpture – catastrophic forecasts aside – are not dead. However, it cannot be denied that a considerable part of their social visibility has been eroded by other apparently (or perhaps substantially) more “current” media. Yet, on the other hand, the concept of untimeliness, as Nietzsche taught regarding Schopenhauer, is something that does not affect the intrinsic value of things or thoughts.
Therefore, Clelia paints. She does so, as we have said, by relying on the syntax and language of expressionism, which was, in its time, created especially to enable the artist to enter, almost as an external spectator – although one in tremendous suffering – into the most hidden recesses of their inner self, and to bring these into the light. In particular, Clelia paints faces, eyes and gazes. This is perhaps because memories of ancestral knowledge are stronger than conscience, and then eyes still have those almost magical qualities we have spoken about, allowing us to see them as the windows of our soul. There is just one distinction to be made here. The soul that Clelia sees in the eyes of her model is not just the soul of Paola or of Tecla, of Luciana or of Nadesh; if anything, to paraphrase Cassius from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, in the soul that cries out from the eyes of each of these girls, Clelia sees through, above all, her own soul, her own personal restlessness and her internal battles. Moreover, according to the psychology of art, in the depths of the artist’s subconscious each portrait painted is actually nothing but a self-portrait, a lookalike or a double of oneself. In fact, if the artist wishes to portray those who stand before her without stopping at their mere visual appearance, she must always have a deep understanding of their most intimate essence, and may do so only if she projects “parts of her own Self onto the model, because this is the way to assimilate it, to make it congenial and thus to understand it” .
But how did Clelia arrive at this type of painting? That is, when did the need arise within her to assimilate its codes of expressionism and to make them her own? Although the route has naturally been a short one (simply due to her young age, as she has yet to reach the age of twenty-eight), we can still detect, even in the works shown in this exhibition, a stylistic progression that Clelia herself, with remarkable clarity, explained in her final specialised academic thesis . This is a useful document for understanding the ultimate inspiration for her art, and thus a starting point for my analyses. In her thesis, Clelia suggests a journey marked out by thirty paintings (as well as five sculptures that I will not deal with here), identifying, along its pathway, both the decisive turning points and her most problematic moments of stagnation.
Naturally, it is not possible to examine all her works here (while it would prove interesting to do so due to Clelia’s explanations of the reasons why she adopted one technique or another). I feel, however, that the subtitle of the introduction to her thesis, “From technique to expression” is already rather significant at this point. Here, with an effective and vivid formula, Clelia has condensed the meaning of her research into just four words. Beginning with the pure and simple application of technical methods, she then progressed to expressing her own individuality, taking a path that is quite common among young artists who attend an art school. Somehow, in order to find her own way, Clelia needed to break those academic rules and techniques – but only after she had acquired a solid grounding in them. This was based on her own proviso that such a break is not sufficient in itself because it then risks simply becoming an unjustified action resulting in a “shortcut to be placed on the same level as the traditional technique” . In other words, although she has arrived here through her own personal route, Clelia is saying exactly what Jean Clair maintained with regard to the ineffectiveness of a statement that is trying, at all costs, to be anti-traditional.
Lastly, let us look at possible models for Clelia’s inspiration; those artists who most interested her and who may have, perhaps unconsciously, influenced her. To begin with, I would like to underline how photography has had a rather clear influence on the framing of Clelia’s works. Like many painters from Toulouse-Lautrec onwards, Clelia often works from a photograph of her subject in order to create her paintings. In fact, if you look at her paintings, you can clearly see how the perspective and the viewpoint is, in most cases, typical of a photograph: for example Nadesh and Espressionismo, or of Intenso and Occhi colorati. More generally, this can be seen in her choice of the close up or, even better, in her detail, which is typically photographic and cinematographic rather than painterly, (so much so that if you look to the portrait tradition of the centuries before photography and cinema, it is easy to notice an almost total lack of close-up framing).
A first significant reference point is declared explicitly in the title of a painting: Schiele. In fact, the expressionism of the Viennese master may be detected in more than one of her works, as well as in the painting that portrays him, (in which the tone of the drawn and suffering face of the painter is lifted and made even more dramatic by the use of acid colours). The nervous graphic strokes of Schiele are evident, for instance, in the “Volto”. This is drawn with charcoal and with features dug out like a sort of terrifying funereal mask, and with charcoal powder shaded just enough to create restless shadows on the face, which has large eyes conveying acute desperation. Such an influence is also visible in the “Donna in Bianco e Nero” of 2005, and in which the livid, yet rosy tones so typical of Schiele take on bluish hints instead.
A second, clear reference point made by Clelia, and also referring to the Secessionist world of the Austrian capital, is Oskar Kokoschka. In comparison to his younger friend and colleague, Kokoschka opted – partly due to a much longer lifespan, which provided him with many different experiences – for a heavily materialist type of painting. This had a more “baroque” style, which is more chromatically intense and energetic. Among the works exhibited, a Kokoschkian tone may be recognized in the paintings of “Tre Corpi” and of “Ballerina Piccolo”, and partly seen in “Donna di Colore” and in “Volto di Donna”, in which – on the black skin of Luciana – the white highlights generate a highly atmospheric chromatic power. No less frequent are the references to German expressionism, and above all to that of Die Brücke and also to the Neue Sachlichkeit: sharp Kirchner-like profiles, for example, creep into the faces of “Espressionismo”, “Volto Piccolo” and “Giovani Contadine Thailandesi”, (the latter being a jute with an unusual subject and style for Clelia, but on which the impetuous brushstrokes lend an atmosphere of anxious restlessness). In other works, she seems to capture certain surface techniques similar to those of Nolde (“Corpo Blu” in acrylic on paper), or also some faces that recall those of Beckmann (“Dipinto 1”).
Lastly, although Clelia is for the most part faithful to a form of depiction that – while just as deformed in the expressionist sense – is ¬still easily recognizable, in some of her last sketches the features of the faces are at times more confused (as, for instance, in the case of “Donna su Acciaio” and “Mistero di Iniquità”). For a brief moment, if it were not for those eyes and those gazes that are always scrutinizing the spectator, we can feel that we are in front of an almost abstract explosion, or at least – shall we say – before certain De Kooningesque examples of “abstract expressionism”. Nevertheless, Clelia’s paintings have undoubtedly less aggressive effects than those of the Dutch master. Therefore, while it is obviously impossible to forecast the path she may take in the future, I would not be at all surprised if expressing her concerns were to lead her precisely down this road. That is to say, lead her towards creating pure bundles of matter and pure tangles of incandescent colour. Nevertheless, even if this were to happen, it would not mean she would be renouncing what she had done before then: instead, during her journey from technique to expression, this abstract painting matter would simply correspond to one more gaze into the soul. Although, in that instance, the soul would be the deepest and most ancient, yet no less modern, one of the matter itself.
Waldemar, Deonna (2008), “Il Simbolismo dell’Occhio”, Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, p.3.
Sauvageot, Anne (2000), “Sguardi e saperi. Introduzione alla sociologia dello sguardo”, Roma: Armando Editore, p.13.
Deonna, W., “Il simbolismo dell’occhio”, cit., pp.4-6.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1962), “Senso e non senso”, Milano: Il Saggiatore, p.35.
Concerning the introductuion to the personal showing of “Senza condizioni”, Concesio Communal Library, 24 May-6 June 2009 (Concesio, Artist’s archive).
Giulio Carlo (2001), “L’arte moderna. Il secondo Novecento”, Firenze: Sansoni per la Scuola, p.60.
Clelia Adami, “Corpo & Sensazione tra Artaud, Bacon e Deleuze”. Painting Phenomena, four year academic degree course, rel. Eugenio De Caro, Santa Giulia Academy of Fine arts, Brescia, School of Painting, AY: 2004-2005. Additionally, in the introduction to the thesis itself, (in which Clelia quickly analyses her journey and the difficulties she encountered in trying to abandon the route of academic figuration, which is significantly subtitled "Against figuration: daring to go further"), there is an interesting opinion - that is worth quoting - concerning the influence that her knowledge of Bacon's work had on her training. This appears as: "Without doubt, the work of Francis Bacon has been declared as an incisive and very convincing proposal, which presents a type of painting that made me reflect on the possibilities that had opened up in front of me, encouraging me to adopt a more decisive attitude towards painting itself, and therefore to dare me to go further. I have taken note of how the uncertainty of a figure, different from one respecting the classical canonical and perspective laws, disappears, and how the will to fulfil this developing relationship becomes so strong and conscious. I think that the (more or less successful) result of this process will lead me to a sense of satisfaction. This is because arising from the image of a figure, which, while not the most beautiful version of the truth, can exert all its force, value and charm through the power of its expression of feeling "(pp. 1-4: 4). We will come back later to the question of the artist's training.
Clair, Jean (1984), “Critica della modernità”, Torino: Umberto Allemandi & C.
Les realismes (1919-1939), “catalogo della mostra Parigi”: Georges Pompidou Centre, 17 December 1980-20 April 1981; Paris: Georges Pompidou Centre, 1980.
For the concepts of “explosive” and “implosive” See, for example, Barilli, Renato (2006) , “Prima e dopo il 2000. La ricerca artistica 1970-2005”, Milan: Feltrinelli.
With regard to the continuity of the expressionist language in Germany throughout the entire 20th Century, see “L’espressionismo. Presenza della pittura in Germania 1900-2000” (2001), Exhibition catalogue, Palazzo Bricherasio, Turin, 25 October 2001-27 January 2002, Milan; Electa.
See Renato Barilli (1990), handled by, “L’espressionismo italiano, TurinExhibition catalogue, Mole Antonelliana, 12 April-17 June 1990, Milano: Fabbri.
Mauro Corradini (2010), “Lo sguardo interiore”. Compendio di Storia dell’Arte dalle Avanguardie storiche all’Informale, Roccafranca: Massetti Rodella Editori, pp 5-8: 5.
Stefano Ferrari (2002), “La psicologia del ritratto nell’arte e nella letteratura”, Roma-Bari: Laterza, p.60.
Clelia Adami, “Segno e materia. La mia ricerca di purezza espressiva, tesi di diploma accademico di II livello”, rel. Pietro Ricci, Santa Giulia Academy of Fine arts, Brescia, School of Painting, AY: 2006-2007.
Ibidem, p. 10.