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BEYOND THE AVANT-GARDE: NOMADS AND HEROES IN THE PAINTING OF THE EIGHTIES.
"For Italian artists the past is always present. There is scarcely a town in Italy that does not have an important altarpiece, or an interesting quattrocento fresco." T. Godfrey (in: T. Godfrey, The New image. Painting in the 1980s, Oxford 1986, p. 65.)
The artistic dogma on both sides of the Atlantic, which proscribed traditional figurative painting had become particularly painful for Italian artists by the end of the Seventies. Even though the so-called tabula rasa of the Sixties had not even prevented Arte Povera artists from consciously referring to their overwhelming cultural past during this evolutionary period.
Together with a renewed fascination for their painted history, the influence of Arte Povera on the younger generation of artists born after the Second World War was to prove decisive as this generation would find a dynamic inspiration in their elders' elegy to the primal forces of nature.
The first artist to change track had been Sicilian Salvatore Mangione (a.k.a. Salvo) who refuted his conceptual pursuits in 1973 to create large coloured drawings based on Renaissance masterpieces. Alongside Salvo's visions of a dream world in acid technicolor, young painters paid allegiance to Italian imagery from antiquity to the early 20th Century, and rediscovered in the work of de Chirico and Savinio a taste for myths and fantastic imagery. Among them were the rising stars such as Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, Nicola de Maria, Sandro Chia and Mimmo Paladino who were rapidly praised as the peninsula's equivalents of the young guns of Germany and the USA.
These Champions of the 'New Image' would also have their own Celant, in the figure of Achille Bonito Oliva who, in 1979, attempted to theorise their work in a typically post-modern epic; The Italian Trans-Avantgarde. For Oliva, art had gone beyond the rigidity of the Avant-Gardes to regenerate into a driving flux of poetry, colours and myths borrowed from nomadic life and eclecticism.
Even if they shared a common interest in returning to traditional forms of painting and sculpture, exhibited together at numerous shows, notably in Cologne, and actively participated in the New York Hype, the Transavanguardia artists never really worked as a group. In fact, the term Transavanguardia is certainly more of a vivid metaphor for Italian genius scattered across the globe than for a unified artistic movement.
These artists' history can be read through the brilliant yet narcissistic personality of Italian cities: In Florence Sandro Chia reinvents the artist's heroism and mythology. The legend saying that, when he was 13, he awoke from the trauma of an accident to discover he was a painter. This original inspiration - true or false - serves as the centrifugal alchemy for Chia's chalky surfaces and Futurist technique for movement. In Chia's oeuvre, the character - often the artist himself - is a metaphor for his personal quest - one echoed by the solitude of Cucchi in the Central Adriatic harbour of Ancona. Brought up on a farm and rooted in his vernacular culture, Cucchi's art embodies a sensual proximity with his native land.
Transavangardists' delight for colour and light is truly what differentiates them from the solemnity of the German neo-expressionists. This is particularly true in the work of the Neapolitans: Clemente, de Maria and Paladino. In Naples, a city of light and violence but also a confluence of cultures and myths, these artists developed a taste for cross-culturalism. In their oeuvre, quotations of Italian art and culture are constant. While metaphysical skulls and pre-Christian motifs intermingle in Paladino's death metaphors, de Maria's all-over compositions are more serene and recall Baroque ornament.
The most versatile of all, Clemente, juggles with techniques, fables and religions in an initiating journey that has brought him to New York, Madras and Rome. Clemente's skills emerge in his watercolour and fresco work, where his deep self-introspection is at its most emotionally charged. Passionate, bohemian, solitary and literate, Clemente exemplifies his generation's aspiration to transgress dogmas and convey their Italian inheritance to the world.
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