Antonio Del Guercio:
Alberto Sughi: forms and meanings.
"Ce ne sont pas les idees...qui sont
generatrices des formes; ce sont les
formes qui sont generatrices des idees."
Ivanhoe Rambosson, Le modele
et le mouvement dans les oeuvres
de Rodin, La Plume, 1 er Juillet 1900
For the second time in only a few months - for reasons that will later be explained - I start this article by quoting the words of an astute young French critic, defending Rodin from a too strictly "content-based" interpretation, whether hostile or apologetic, at the exhibition held in Paris to celebrate the advent of the 20™ century. I did, in fact, use this quotation last November, in the catalogue presentation of a Parisian exhibition of recent and contemporary works by some of the most influential French artists in the cultural field of European "critical figurative" art.
This cultural field, mainly represented by French, Italian and Spanish artists, also has strong ties with British Pop Art, which deserves mention in this context. In fact, it appeared before its American counterpart and is generally closer to the European vision of complex past-present-future connections within the modern world, than the agile superficial "surfing over the glossy surface of urban iconography" of much American Pop Art.
Alberto Sughi, throughout his artistic development, essentially supported this diverse figurative artistic area, that refused to be regulated by any "ism", with his uninterrupted search for transparency of expression. I would not say that Sughi so much "belongs" to this field, but rather that he developed some of its essential aspects in an original and precursory way.
Of course, for Alberto Sughi and Rene' Monory, for Gilles Aillaud and Peter Blake, for Edoardo Arroyo and Paul Rebeyrolle, for Leonardo Cremonini and the unorthodox American Eric Fischl - to quote only a few examples - the critical aspect, which has, understandably, concentrated on the importance of the phe- nomenological representation highlighted in their work, too often does not seem sufficiently concerned with concrete objectification and, therefore, the original specificity of the figurative compositions, earning real, non-generic, meanings to be interpreted by the observer. It almost seems as if the realm of expression, and form, were considered the exclusive and indivisible domain of other areas of contemporary art. For an entire and important cultural field within the artistic landscape of our time, the comment that Rambosson felt compelled to make on behalf of Rodin, a century ago, does not always seem to have been regarded as equally pertinent to any other form of art.
At the centre of this misunderstanding there is, perhaps, a lack of attention to the particular modes of expression of the various figurative art forms during a period also characterised by - once again widely differing - abstract art forms. This derives from the completely misconceived idea that the most powerful European critical figurative art forms have arisen and developed as a reaction to abstract art, and merely express a return to the values of representational art. This is not correct. If they are a reaction to anything - as they effectively are, and often ahead of their time - it must be to the commercial optimism of a consider able proportion of American Pop Art. However, I would rather suggest that they arise from, and owe their initial inspiration to, their critical questioning of various other movements on the contemporary art scene. This is particularly evident in the work of Sughi. One only needs to observe how, in his early maturity at the end of the 1950s and during the early 1960s, he seems to be making a clear statement of the divide between his figurative creations and the philosophy behind Renato Guttuso's figurative work or the figu rative leanings of Corrado Cagli. Neither Guttuso's belief in a realistic restructur ing of cubism, grafted onto a revival of the great artists of 18* century romanti cism and realism, nor Cagli's theories, of an open experimentation oriented
towards mythographies and archetypal evocations, were in any way reflected in Sughi's art at that time. It seems clear, in fact, that his work was not connected to the post-war debate on figurative or abstract forms (the plural here intentionally suggests a plurality of possibilities), but to completely different themes, relating to the European context from the 1930s to the immediate post-war period. These themes are tackled in different ways by different artists, in Giacometti's and Germaine Richier's figurative art, in Michaux and Fautrier, for instance, for non-representational art.
Sughi's questions and solutions seem, indeed, to point towards certain structures and forms, both referring to his artistic experience responding to critical preju dice against representational art, and to what, in the most dramatic or tragic non-representational feelings, produces an artistic language that could more exactly be defined as "figural": not strictly figurative, in fact, but completely different from all the various forms of modern abstract art. In other words, in Sughi's clearly figurative mode of composition, the expressive transformation of reality, that is, the definition of his artistic language, is immediately shown to be a form that produces and demonstrates an "idea-feeling" of existential unease. This can neither be compensated by a realism based on human fulfilment renewed by ideological means, nor by a journey through pos sible mythographies, nor the purity of abstract forms. At the same time, this "idea-feeling" is linked to the theme of resistance to the processes of de-humani-sation, though marked by a pessimistic view of human thought. A perpetual movement of figures and their environment pervades all Sughi's work, of light and shade, of the level of definition and contours of his figures and their merging into a space that eludes any logical geometry,between monochro- matism and insinuating hints of colour. Through the variations in form produced by this perpetual movement, his compositions find their solutions in an original and expressive sense of space, different from the work of other influential contemporaries, such as Giacometti and the abstract artists. The main observation that should be made concerning Sughi's work and ideas is that, within his dynamic world, the composition and sense of figurative space are never defined once and for all, as occurs with some of the most influential non- representational works, in which the disconcerting lack of reference to space reveals the implacable immutability of the human condition, while, at the same time, demonstrating its indecipherable nature with their rough textures and scribbled lines.
Whereas Sughi's work shows continuous stylistic development, opening and clos ing the figurative "outlines" of his characters and structural elements, as though in systoles and diastoles, and in a different way each time. These mutations occur in response to the changing and transforming existential condition, within a cultural and historical context that cannot be regarded as fixed within categor ical immutability.
In this way, his development, from the frayed shapes of many of his works during the '60s, quite unexpectedly returns towards a clearer definition of form. This deliberately occurs in works in which the powers of the world are called into question. Unmade beds, ghost-like figures, misty, nocturnal visions are followed by a solid consistency of objects in a more directly recognisable context, explicitly deformed expressions on faces and glaring lights, in a new synthesis of forms introducing new meanings - and new ideas - into his work. Some of his still lifes are particularly worthy of note. An Indian-rubber plant, some shoes, or some furniture are sometimes placed in compositions also containing figures. These are dense, coagulated shapes, with clear and precise figu rative allusions, punctuating Sughi's work at irregular, but clearly significant, intervals, but burdened with the significance of Sughi's artistic language. The subject of man's problematic, frayed presence, in the dark struggle between shadow and spotlight in a nocturnal interior, gives way to the subject of absence, even included when the work contains the physical presence of human figures. At an early stage in his work, Alberto Sughi decided to depict intrinsically metro politan existential subjects. He did not consciously choose to represent the chaos of urban life, or the complexity of the urban iconosphere, but rather the pro found effect of metropolitan life on the heart of existence itself. If a fundamental historical reference can be found to explain this choice, it must be "(la) vie moderne", as expressed by Baudelaire in the mid-nineteenth century in his poetry and critical works - especially those of art criticism - and, in the 1930s, Walter Benjamin's description of its images: the megalopolis, the press, crowds, street advertising, trade, the end of walks without a purpose, city nights, the cult of the human body, especially the female body. Like other artists of a whole area that is central to the history of modern and contemporary art, with his own solutions of form and ideas, Sughi, from his earliest maturity, worked with themes typical of the historical, but still relevant, subject of "(la) vie moderne". This subject will certainly not be abandoned by decree of the contradictory and often amateurish "post-modern" theories, which generally seem to refer to a mechanical transposition of the present post-industrial society. During the 1970s, Sughi produced an unexpected series of paintings that are known, from their dominant colour, as the "green" paintings. These no longer depict the environment and lights of the city, but show fragments of nature, as well as some wider views, reminiscent of Bocklin, and some parts of gardens, sometimes containing isolated figures in strange or unusual poses.
In this series, which I described in detail on the occasion of an exhibition in Tliscany ten years ago, it is important to note the emphasis on the subject of "melancholy" (of the kind that was defined as being "heroic" by Melantone in the sixteenth century).
From that particular feeling of existential unease and from a situation of loss and/or absence expressed in a metropolitan context, that is strikingly alluded to rather than clearly described, in these paintings Sughi developed towards an expression of the symbolist-metaphysical aspect of modern life. In keeping with his basic vocation, this did not lead to any return to the mythical, nor to any yearning for lost myths, even critical or despairing myths. This "melancholy" is actually reflected in nature, not seen as the place in which the seed of the myth is sown, or where lost Gods may reappear, but as the place within which mankind, marked by "(la) vie moderne", demonstrates his incongruity and the fact that he is incapable of living with nature.
Later on, in the second half of the 1980s, that momentary respite from urban and artificial "nature" and that opening onto the "real natural world" returned in works in which Sughi expressed new concepts. A light palette that, in the penumbra of his studio, between the interior and a glimpse of nature outside, in the gilded half-light of a road running past ruined buildings, or in the evening contemplation of the natural world just outside the studio, uses softer hues in the palpitation of the image. Once more a kind of "melancholy" is expressed, but of a more direct and personal nature than in the "green" paintings. It is a kind of intimate confession of the solitude inherent to the artist's work, that is destined to be linked to other examples of studio interiors, in which modern art, from the romantic period onwards, has periodically underlined the artist's difficulty in relating to society- in an iconography of "self-commissioned" works. Sughi thus opened another chapter in his work, in which, at a later date, a new, bolder series appeared. This no longer depicts isolated meditation in a suffused light, but a brightly lit interior, in which the forms it contains are situated in an increasingly deconstructed context. The latter term is used here in its exact analytical meaning, as it is used within the present theoretical debate. An analytical point, until then reabsorbed within the organic fusion of his work, became openly visible in Sughi's painting, giving new force to the existential and cultural issues treated in his work (the painting, its meaning, its destiny) and dominating this new form of "melancholy". Along with this development, there is a subject-matter that increasingly becomes a close-up, confused view of mobile, tree-like forms. This is then re-annexed - as I shall mention when refer ring to his most recent works - to places of urban solitude. Naturally, the analytical aspect of these works, with their bright palette and obvious deconstruction of space, is what may be expected of a way of painting that has never abandoned its tendency to intervene in human matters, its aim of "reaching out to the world". Therefore, no concessions are made to the self-referential aspects of contemporary artistic trends, that are defined as being analytical. It is, in fact, a working reflection on the basic structure of his artistic expres sion, illustrated in his figurative compositions and simultaneously projected towards the psychological and cultural horizons of "(la) vie moderne", at critical moments in the artist's life.
Confronted with what Italo Calvino defined as the "ocean of objectivity", the subject of Sughi's paintings does not merely reject its annihilation in the work, as does the majority of American Pop Art. On the contrary, it defends its presence in the real world, refusing a passive role, in an urban iconosphere crammed so full of symbols that it becomes hoarse, and a city with no visible symbolic and community values, but reduced to a "mere road network" of de-cultured locations, as shown in an excellent book by Joseph Rikwert (entitled, in the Italian edition, L'idea di citta).
Sughi has returned to this theme in his most recent work, choosing a few places, objects and figures within that iconosphere, all rapt in solitude. A hat, the corner of a bar, some chairs, bottles, a sign, a man or woman, some men or women, his concentration on a piece of clothing or furniture - and little more than that - is sometimes depicted alone and sometimes collected together to form whole com positions. Selected, extrapolated from the general muddle and from the sound less chaos it generates, these rarefied iconographic contexts, and the objects and figures contained in them, become charged with powerful meanings in true anti-rhetorical monumentalisation.
The strong connection between these more recent works and other phases of his work is quite clear, particularly as far as iconographic art is concerned - con crete expressive solutions, about which it is important to add that they, too, are expressions of form.
In these recent works, we nevertheless find ourselves confronted by the develop ment of a new artistic language, generating poetry and ideas, that is highly orig inal.
In fact, Sughi's figures seem to be marked by a different sculptural consistency, compared to those of other phases of his work, when they were partly frayed by impetuous effects of light, and partly reabsorbed into the soft hues of the background. Now they almost seem to be jutting out, and are characterised by a more decisive stereometry and a stronger sense of volume.
In keeping with these new solutions, the whole perception of the image offers a plastic synthesis in every detail, within which the essential volumetry consists not of the external design, but of an inner sense of solidity. And the weight, or rather the burden, of these solid figures is the immediate result of this complex and subtle mode of expression.
One could even say that the "open space crammed by figures", that Francesco Arcangeli, in a memorable description, presented as a sort of Jakobsonian idea of past artistic trends in Emilia, reappears in this work in reverse. Or rather, it is re- evoked within an existential condition that differs widely from the one that Arcangeli describes. Here, in fact, we find a condition that retains its own clear reference to existential suffering and to the contrast between the constant possi bility of defeat and the non-rhetorical and non-euphoric resistance of the sub ject. An expression that had already been seen in the subject of the" open space crammed by figures" - both physical and psychological - in the 1930s, in the debate and contrasts within artistic and cultural circles including, among others, Bataille, Benjamin, Klossovski, Giacometti and Balthus. Sughi can certainly be compared to the latter, although placed in a very different situation from that of the 1930s, to which he provides his own response.
This response is, in fact, illustrated in these remarkable recent works, as I have tried to demonstrate, in images marked by a solid and essentially plastic consis tency. It is therefore clear that, when compared to pre-war circles - from the tormented "emaciation" of Giacometti's figures to the rigid mechanical nature of Balthus' early work - this response is essentially new and original. At the same time it takes on new and striking relevance within the context of the European critical figurative cultural field, considering that it is founded on what has been defined - with an oxymoron that I find perfectly justified - as the usual paradox of art: the power that can be obtained from incarnating, in robust and tactile plastic art form, in its static strength of presence, the inverse condition of an absorbed absence, or distance, from social rites, in which vitality and sociability undergo derisory simulation.
Antonio Del Guercio
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