Monday, October 18, 2010

Chiarismo: Or, Luminosity in Dark Times

Davide Panagia
Trent University

This past summer’s “Il Chiarismo” (pronounced “Kiarismo”) exhibit in Milan, Italy (at Palazzo Reale; June 16 – September 5, 2010) presented the work of some of the principal figures of a painterly movement that lasted all of five years, between 1930 and 1935. The “Chiaristi” were mainly associated with Milan’s Brera Academy, one of Italy’s premiere fine arts institutes and also the home of one of Milan’s most extensive and stunning picture galleries. Curated by Elena Pontiggia, the exhibit brought into full view some of the more significant Chiarismo works, and especially those of the artist Francesco De Rochhi (1902-1978). 
But it’s not De Rocchi’s paintings that I want to discuss. While on the whole compelling, his works seem to me to remain trapped in a mannered romanticism that dreams of an escape from realism – but doesn’t quite make it. 
One painting at the exhibit, however, stood out amongst the other masterworks: “The Church of Fossacaprara” (“La Chiesa di Fossacaprara, 1934). 
   This work belongs to De Rocchi’s contemporary Goliardo Padova (1909-1979), a lesser-known figure of the Chiarismo movement. In contrast to De Rocchi’s works, Padova’s Chiarismo is realism all the way down – but it is a non-representational realism that plays with the tensions between light and line that are some of the basic elements of the medium of painting. 
Meaning “clearness” in the sense of “brightness” – but also (as we shall soon note) in the sense of “clearing” – the characteristics of Chiarismo lie in painting the luminosity of light through the use of attenuated colors so as to express “a fusion of light with form and color” as De Amicis, one critic of the period, describes it. Elena Pontiggia’s essay that accompanies the exhibit’s catalog recounts how the basic technique of Chiarismo is that of mimicking fresco murals by applying paint on a moist, white-washed canvas; humidity and white paint that were (and are) the characteristics of the city of Milan itself, surrounded as it often is by a moist but intense light due to Milan’s location at the foothills of the Alps and at the beginning of the great Po River valley that is the agricultural heartland of Italy. Another characteristic of Chiarismo that Pontiggia notes: the complete disappearance of mythological subjects that were the dominant themes of much Italian painting in the early part of the twentieth century, and the taking up of portraiture, landscape, and still life motifs in their stead. 
But as the Padova painting above makes evident, there is a third characteristic to Chiarismo that has remained impervious to critics and commentators alike: namely, the committed effort to elide or dissolve the boundedness of lines through the painting of luminosity. Here space and light collide and irradiate one another. Notice how Padova has to thicken his strokes in order to show that the church has columns that support it, that it is a structure that can actually stand up. Neo-classical painting would have given much more weight to the support of architectural structures than Padova’s Chiarismo ever does. This, because emphasizing support is no longer the objective of Padova’s paintings. Luminosity has no (needs no) support, though it projects a weightiness of its own. By this I mean that the clash between light and line characteristic of Padova’s Chiarismo period defeats the demand to anchor his figures or his structures in anything that looks and feels like a traditional grounding support. I might push the point further: his depiction of luminosity ultimately reduces the painted line to a barely visible trace: it is there, it is not overcome, but it is not central or primary either. 
Notice also the contrast between the smoothness of the church’s façade, the fluidity of the street and sky, and the almost flaccid but certainly frail erection that is the bell tower. It seems clearly detached from the church and as such loses all sense of support and structure. [Having visited that church several times, I can attest to the fact that this portrayal is entirely an invention of the artist.] Within Italian cityscape imaginaries, the bell tower has a long history of prominence as both grounding a city’s source of time and as an omen used to warn away evil spirits. Here, any pretense to structural magnanimity has been completely elided. 
Padova, I should add briefly, was also a member of the Brera Academy until he was sent to an internment camp during the Fascist regime. Upon his return, after the war, he suffered a period of intense depression and though emerging from it with some wonderful works, he never revisited Chiarismo. Thankfully, however, I managed to track down some other examples of his Chiarismo period. 
“Strada Bassa” (Lower Road) is stunning and I would consider it one of the masterworks of Chiarismo. It depicts a typical landscape scene outside of Padova’s home town, Casalmaggiore, located some 150 kilometers (80 miles) south of Milan, on the shores of the Po River. The road is, in fact, one of the many winding footpaths that meander along the river.
Goliardo Padova, Strada Bassa (1934, private collection) 

   Strada Bassa puts on display a realism emphasized (in this case) by the lines that designate the path. The foliage that brushes upwards from each side of the road also give the lines of the road presence and definition. But notice how that presence is not at all authoritative or commanding, almost as if line here is complicit with the lightness of luminosity. Another noteworthy point: the road leads no where, as do the lines of the road. In fact, they disappear behind an outcrop of bush. The viewer is looking at the road from an angle away from the path, and therefore she or he is not directed by the path’s lines. In other words, light and line work together to make the painting feel as flat and as two dimensional as possible. And this feeling of two-dimensional flatness is accomplished despite the road’s apparent three dimensionality. What Padova offers us here, in no uncertain terms, is a line on a surface; but it is a line that does not trace or bind a territory. At the very most, it hints at a trace that cannot (once again) support the weight of the painting. Rather, the entirety of the painting is supported by its luminosity rather than its sculptural traces. 
I’ve certainly not said enough about these two works, or about the relationship between line and luminosity. Indeed, in light of such works, one’s imagination is sparked to consider how our contemporary egalitarian ambitions are grounded in a genealogy of line and light, of partition and appearance; and here I’m thinking especially of Rousseau’s famous “this is mine” and his acts of partition that trace a line in the dirt to designate property and hence inequality. Nor have I hinted at the contemporaneity of these paintings, despite their not being a part of our contemporary condition: the disappearance of line in the face of Chiarismo’s luminosity resonates family resemblances with our own commitments to line and light, or position and spectacle, in an age of new media corporatism. 
By stating this, I don’t mean to suggest that Padova’s Chiarismo paintings are political objects that we might turn to in order to solve our own political woes; there is nothing that I have found which would license such instrumentalizations of his aesthetic ambitions in that way. However, I do want to suggest that the aesthetic features of such works carry with them the possibility of political insight on the contemporaneity of our own valorizations of the relationship between luminosity and line. In this regard, one only has to consider the number of lines we draw every day – or, indeed, that we encounter and acknowledge every day – and their indexical role in making the world (and ourselves) intelligible to others. It’s almost as if for us, in our contemporary condition, lines are solid objects that work only and exclusively as indices of clarity and boundedness: a ‘clear line of thought’, or ‘a definite line in the sand’, and so forth. 
Rather than clarity, Padova’s Chiarismo offers irradiancy and clearing. Perhaps I might better state my point this way: the meeting of line and light in Padova’s Chiarismo works irradiates the territoriality of line, clearing the way for things, peoples, and events to appear; and it is the appearing, rather than the intelligibility, of things, peoples, and events that these paintings give weight to. Irradiancy and clearing (both terms that adequately capture the somatic sense of “Chiarismo”) are thus the modes through which appearances are sensed and through which we encounter the world in all its immediate finitude – this, without the demand or expectation of intelligibility. 
I haven’t mentioned two further things worth raising regarding these two masterworks of Chiarismo. The first is a point that the French theorist, Michel Foucault, had noted in his lectures on Manet’s paintings (1971) and that I also find available in Padova’s Chiarismo works: namely, the fact that though there are places where the viewer may stand and view these works, the tensions between luminosity and line characteristic of Chiarismo canvases makes it so that there is no one place where the viewer must stand in order to look at them. In this regard, the sense of flatness of these works places them in direct contrast to classical painting, with its normative systems of lines, perspectives, and vanishing points. In those lectures Foucault calls such works of art “picture-objects.” 
The second point worth raising is the white elephant in my discussion of Padova’s Chiarismo paintings: 1930s Milan was a time of heightened attention to line, contrast, and shading, the major formal elements that accompanied Fascism’s return to a neo-classical, sculptural form. Indeed, between Futurism and Fascist Neo-Classicism, there was little room for imagining light in terms other than bounded line – that is, light must illuminate in such a way as to draw outlines of contrast between, say, the ripples of a male statue’s muscles, or the lines of an industrious worker’s face, or the athleticism of the human form in its tense exertions.
Mosaic at Rome’s Foro Italico indoor swimming pool.

Chiarismo’s luminosity, I want to say, is a direct challenge to a Futurist hyper-fancy as well as to the Fascist commitment to the illuminated line as contrast, shading, and sculptural outline.
Goliardo Padova, The Discus Thrower (1934, private collection)

As we can see by comparing the Mussolini-commissioned mosaic of Rome’s Foro Italico (a.k.a. “Il Foro di Mussolini”, designed and created during the 1930s) and Padova’s “Discus Thrower” (also of his Chiarismo period, though one of my least favorite), for Padova any pretense to flights of fancy give way to a luminescent realism characteristic of the light and landscape of the Po River valley. Indeed, what is dramatic about Padova’s Chiarismo canvases is how fancy seems to have as little of a role to play as possible in the making of his paintings.
   I might, then, wish to call Padova’s Chiarismo a non-representational realism, however oxymoronic or even contradictory that may sound. A visit to the region on a hot summer’s day, however, will testify to the accuracy of my contradiction. The light bouncing off of the Po River’s humid haze make the lines of the landscape luminescent to the point of evanescence; that is, weightless or better yet, groundless. And this is perhaps Goliardo Padova’s short-lived achievement in the face of the contending artistic practices of Fascist Italy. Namely, his portrayal of a robust groundlessness through the realism of an irradiating luminosity that faces up to a looming, dark light.

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