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Magical Symbols and Fantastic Scenes:
The Italian Transavanguardia in the Collection of the Deutsche Bank



Francesco Clemente
Up and Down, 1984
© Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zürich


After having been declared dead once again at the beginning of the nineties, painting has recently begun experiencing a revival both on the art market and among leading cultural institutions. The powerful reactions that countless new exhibitions on painting are currently provoking have been contributing significantly to the contemporary art discourse. The Return of the Giants, a major exhibition of works from the Heftige Malerei movement taken from the collection of the Deutsche Bank and previously described in detail by db-art.info, is currently on tour throughout Latin America; now, we're taking the opportunity to introduce another group of artists from the collection whose works can currently be seen in the Castello di Rivoli in Turin. Maria Morais is presenting Francesco Clemente, Sandro Chia, Enzo Cucchi, Nicola de Maria, and Mimmo Paladino, representatives of the "Transavanguardia" movement who, together with the "Neue Wilden," brought about an international revival of figurative painting twenty years ago.


"Conceptual and Minimal art were so pure; we had to do something forbidden, impure, vital." With these words, the Italian artist Sandro Chia summarizes the original position of an entire generation of painters that created an upheaval beginning in the mid-seventies – well beyond the New Figuration movement in Germany. In Italy, as well, the artists of the Transavanguardia simultaneously brought about a remarkable return to painting, which had long been declared dead, meeting with enthusiastic response among the international art establishment.

In 1981, in the first exhibition of its kind in Germany, Westkunst Heute (Western Art Today) presented the works of the German and Italian "New Painters" in the Cologne Art Fair's halls on the Rhine. The show, which attracted considerable attention, soon inspired numerous presentations that followed worldwide. The works of this young generation of painters, which brought new vitality to an art discourse in a state of standstill, rapidly became part of numerous large international art collections. Paul Maenz, who showed these new painters from Germany and Italy in his Cologne gallery from the onset, soon amassed one of the most important private collections of this type of art; now a foundation, it can be visited today in the art collections of Weimar.



Nicola de Maria, Giardino Azzurrino, 1978
© Kunsthaus Zürich, Zürich 1985


The exhibition Le Stanze, organized in 1979 by the art critic Achille Bonito Oliva in the Castello Colonna in Genanzzano, is considered to be the birth of the Italian movement. Here, Oliva introduced the term "Transavanguardia" for the first time to designate the new current; more than anything else, it gave expression to an attitude among artists consciously seeking to break with Minimal Art and the scanty materialism of Arte Povera. Distancing themselves from any idea of the avant-garde, the new painters unabashedly made use of outdated styles, themes, and manners of figuration and played on historical and mythical subjects. Their paintings, dominated by grandiose gestures and pathos and by ironic distance, plundered both the art historical canon of forms and popular imagery from commercial art, including comics. They deliberately left the public in the dark about the seriousness of their motifs.

In contrast to the more raw and edgy Neo-Expressionism of the German painters of Heftige Malerei, the artists of the Italian Transavanguardia conquered the art world with magical symbols of fantastic scenes and poetic compositions. Among the chief protagonists of this painting movement are Francesco Clemente, Sandro Chia, Enzo Cucchi, Nicola de Maria, and Mimmo Paladino, who works are part of the collection of the Deutsche Bank, as well.



Francesco Clemente
In the mouth, 1983/84
© Galerie Thomas Ammann, Zürich


Francesco Clemente's (*1952) works count among the most visually powerful and erotically charged works of the Transavanguardia. Continually playing upon the forms of the human body, Clemente, who lives and works in Italy, New York, and India, is concerned with developing a metaphoric vocabulary for the contradictions of life – wholeness and fragmentation, freedom and limitation. Imbedded in surreal dream worlds, the self-portrait of an artist visibly torn on the inside confronts us again and again. In the Mouth from 1983/84 appears as a fragmentation of the self, while it is primarily the artist's eye that keeps turning up among the various pictorial elements in the background. To a certain extent, the lack of background in the pictures intensifies the hallucinatory character of the subjects portrayed, as is the case in Up and Down from 1984, which seems to illustrate Clemente's theory of perception: "For me, perception is the constant changing of states in a single moment… as a painter, I'm interested in this state of perception in various simultaneous moments. I cannot see my own body in a pre-determined frame of reference."



Sandro Chia
Untitled, 1981
from the portfolio "Tresoro"
Etching on paper
Collection Deutsche Bank
  

Sandro Chia
Untitled, 1981
from the portfolio "Tresoro"
Etching on paper
Collection Deutsche Bank

Sandro Chia's (*1946) work is also difficult to ascribe to any particular framework. Understanding his works as a place of transition from one style to another, he displays virtuosity in painterly skill, is happy to plunder the treasury of mythological and art historical motifs, and unifies all the various elements present to form an amalgam of the abstract and the figurative. For these reasons, Chia is quite rightly considered to be the most "postmodern" among the movement's painters. Not without a certain degree of irony, he displays an array of lonely heroes and heroines in his pictures. Left to their own devices, Chia often places them in Arcadian landscapes reminiscent of his native Tuscany, such as in the two works Untitled from the series Tresoro from 1981. In contrast to these lucid compositions, there is another, equally self-evident and extensive work, this time painted in expressive, brilliant colors, in which Chia's search for the essence of painting comes to expression: "One has to find a new composition that carries the many essences of painting traditions; one has to bring the colors, the themes, the problems and elements of one's own life into the painting – even when it is sometimes about the impossibility of painting anew again and again."



Mimmo Paladino
Untitled, 1982
Lithograph on paper
© Mimmo Paladino, Mailand
Collection Deutsche Bank


Enzo Cucchi (*1950) also returned to painting in the mid-seventies out of a conviction that it had lost nothing of its original power. Self-taught, he'd already begun dedicating himself to painting in the sixties, but then he turned away entirely to commit himself to poetry. His drawings and paintings appeal to our subconscious knowledge of myths and intuitive forces. In radical opposition to a thinking increasingly determined by technocratic functionalism, Cucchi developed a magical and mythical language of signs in his paintings, which he pitted against the progressive disintegration of our culture. In his starkly reduced figurative works, he often depicts a metamorphosis brought about through fire, such as in Carro Celeste from 1986. This acquires a central symbolic meaning that Cucchi connects to the religious function of paintings. In the context of the work DIO from 1995, Cucchi writes: "God is also a word. A word that turns into a frame that draws a border which is fragile, yet nonetheless real and inevitable. God is also an image, an eidolon or simulacrum that pushes beyond geometry in a sinister way, an error in planning. The painting… is the fragile circle that separates us from the uncertain but does not keep us away from things."



Enzo Cucchi
Carro Celeste, 1986
from the portfolio
"For Joseph Beuys"
with works by 30
artists
Etching and aquatint
on rag paper
© Galerie Bernd
Klüser, München
  

Mimmo Paladino
Untitled, 1982
© Mimmo Paladino, Mailand
Collection Deutsche Bank

Italy's art history and inexhaustible wealth of religious painting also inspired Mimmo Paladino (*1948) to make the mask-like, stylized figures which populate his clay-colored, subdued paintings like so many icons. His pictorial forms deliberately refer to Christian traditions and techniques: tondi and triptychs, mosaics and encaustic are the preferred formats and media of Paladino's work. Yet symbols from other cultures and religions repeatedly appear as well, combined with archaic rituals, archaeological finds, and art historical quotes. Thus, enigmatic signs, fabulous creatures, and new worlds of images arise whose intrinsic power, symbolism, and systems of signs refer to a mystical world in which the living exist alongside the dead.

The metaphor of becoming and passing is also the central theme of Nicola de Maria's (*1954) works. Among the artists of the Transavanguardia, his paintings particularly stand out because of their sprightly lightness. Oscillating between painting and graphics, de Maria's works, however, seek to appeal both to the intellect and the emotion. In direct reference to Casper David Friedrich, de Maria sees himself in the role of the lonely painter close to nature, "for that is the truth: a painter is always alone," as he explained in connection with his series Parole Cinesi from 1983/84. Trees and plants often make up the painting's themes. In sign-like reduction, de Maria sometimes makes branches and leaves resemble stars – an impression that becomes deliberately enhanced by the insertion of "cosmic ciphers" such as circles and spirals of glowing color or countless sprinkles of white dots. Each of his paintings gives the impression of being a part cut out of a larger whole, which exaggerates the emphatically lyrical mood characterizing all his paintings and carries it into the romantic.



Nicola de Maria
Regno dei Fiori, Parole Cinesi -
Chu Huai-Chin, 1983/84
© Kunsthaus Zürich, Zürich



    

Nicola de Maria
Pax et bonum semper tecum, 1993
from the portfolio "Artists against torture"
with 19 sheets
Aquatint on paper
© Kunsthaus Zürich, Zürich
Collection Deutsche Bank

Today, the clear allegiance to the traditional concept of the work, to the role of the artist as the exemplary sufferer, the openly announced bent towards the romantic appear somewhat ambivalent. Obviously, the Italian painters of the eighties made a show of this role with some degree of irony. Yet despite this, their works seem like attempts to mobilize the sensuous and spiritual powers of art in order to pit them against the increasingly technological nature of nearly every aspect of life. Thus, to some this position may seem to be a well-calculated anachronism. In view of the current revival in figurative painting, however, we can also ask whether the works of the Transavanguardia fulfil a longing that continues to be up to date, even today.


Selected Reading:
Exhibition catalogue Francesco Clemente - Bilder und Skulpturen, Hannover 1984
Exhibition catalogue Nicola de Maria - Parole Cinesi, Zürich 1985
Exhibition catalogue Mimmo Paladino - Arbeiten auf Papier, Salzburg 1987
Exhibition catalogue Sandro Chia, Berliner Nationalgalerie, Berlin 1992

Translation: Andrea Scrima