Reviews » Aurora Fonda 2008
On the subject of painting…
At certain moments, contact with external stimulus prompts us to reflect on subjects and their meaning, and so it is, standing before the works of Francesca Calcagno, pondering the meaning of painting, and its development in our time, seems absolutely necessary.
Indeed, amidst the multitude of languages born and evolving thanks to the use of different technologies within the artistic world, focusing and thinking about the role and meaning that painting has within the contemporary artistic panorama comes almost spontaneously. Today, when contemplating a work of painting realised using traditional techniques, it is easy to hear adjectives such as ‘old’ or ‘out-dated’ bandied about, and for it to be interpreted as the expression of a bygone aesthetic. While, on the contrary, the same subjects produced using video, photography, or pictorial images realised via the intervention of sophisticated technology, will be defined as ‘a new language’ , ‘innovative’ ‘completely new inventions’, imposing the development of specific technological means as an idea of ‘new’, and whose transformation or rather, evolution, determines, in turn, a mutation that consequently has a bearing on contemporary forms of expression, giving the impression of being before a brand new work. There are many such examples where the technology itself is seen as a work of art and its development is interpreted as a step forward in artistic research, despite it working, in reality, often on an exclusively scientific level. Indeed, it is easy to find situations in which the artwork ends up being a mere presentation or re-working of a technical invention that, perhaps due to its originality or the use it could be put to in real life, has become such a curious phenomenon that it is considered a work of art. The people interested in the contemporary art scene, collectors and, often, those who consider themselves experts, are often addicted to an aesthetic linked to codes dominated by one type of image, usually present in the world of media and advertising, where a certain graphic sophistication that subjugates and involves the spectator predominates, and one which we can find in many works by today’s artists. Perhaps one can speak of aesthetic codes that proceed according to mechanisms dictated by fashion, indeed, in art too it is easy to spot those rapid changes that make recently-produced works appear obsolete and cry out to be replaced by something seemingly fresher that appears to come from a ‘newer’ form of expression. “Trends are a medicine destined to compensate, on a collective level, the fatal effects of forgetting. The more ephemeral the age, the more it changes according to fashion.” So, we are living in a period in which the succession of ‘new artistic forms’ is becoming ever more rapid and necessary, where goods must follow the laws of the market, which is becoming more and more aggressive and hard to satisfy each day. The acceleration of this constant demand for novelty, be it in variations in the world of fashion or art, is nothing other than a paroxysm of the market that, in its greed, swallows everything, including what would have been better to leave out. However, the tendency to value the commercial aspects, to the disadvantage of the let’s call it artistic content, is not a peculiarity exclusive to our times, indeed, this mode differs in no way from the mechanism that was already predominant in the 19th century, when it was custom to visit the Paris Salons. Then it was the Academy that decided the aesthetic parameters that had to be observed by those who sought admission to the Salons, and that obtained the consensus of an ignorant bourgeoisie yearning for social recognition via culture. In this context, the market played the same role as today, as Zola’s description of an art dealer can testify: “… a speculator, a gambler on the stock exchange who didn’t care a fig for art. He had a nose for success, guessing which artist to launch, not the one who was talked about as a promising great painter, but the one who, inflated by fake audacity and with deceptive talent, would take the bourgeoisie market by storm. And so he managed to throw the market into chaos, dumping the old admirers with taste and dealing solely with rich amateurs who knew nothing, who bought a painting as they would buy stocks or shares, out of vanity or in the hope that the value would increase.” One and a half centuries have passed since the French author wrote these lines, and we can’t help but notice just how little has changed, the modus operandi is the same, only that maybe now we can notice a greater exasperation compared with the original pattern. So, when one speaks of novelty, of originality in the world of art, one is immediately prompted to think of the umpteenth trick to seduce gallery audiences, collectors and everyone else in the art world, the public included. Despite the fact that the cultural sphere continues its suicidal rush towards self-annihilation, there are, however, still individuals who manage to infuse their work with knowledge and awareness and that power before which we feel the sensation of looking into the past and seeing the present and future. Before a work of art in which we don’t need to seek out recondite meanings, since these are clearly manifest to us, in the slow execution of the pictorial work, in the strokes of colour, or in the characteristics of the drawings that invite us to accurately read and translate the signs and symbols that have built the composition and project us into a universal dimension. The human ability to express truths (striving to express things close to the truth) through the genius of an artwork, allows the artist to give life to those creations that possess multitudes of levels of vision and, consequently, offer a vast range of readings and interpretations that the viewer understands immediately. I am not saying that painting alone carries those values that, for centuries, art has been able to transmit to us. On the contrary, in today’s artistic panorama there are artists capable of harnessing technological means (not necessarily a new language), with such skill to create real masterpieces. However, of individuals that are able to touch this sphere there are very few indeed, since technology, unlike painting, offers the conviction that anyone can learn how to use it and so improvisation reigns supreme among the majority of budding and established artists, who believe with great presumption, that they know the means inside out. However, even though our eyes are used to, and spoilt by, a certain kind of image which forces us into a constant search for the same, we can not fail, when given the occasion, to appreciate the magic that emerges from canvases that are the fruit of an expert hand that always recall certain aspects of artistic know-how, manifest in the unique relationship between man and substance, which invites one to handle it and give life to different “words” that open our eyes onto hitherto inaccessible dimensions. Therefore, even if certain paintings can seem distant and unattractive, paradoxically it is exactly this being outside “our time” that causes us to reach deep inside for knowledge and awareness sunk in our memories that immediately bloom again. “What could be further from us than the strange claim of a Leonardo to whom painting was a supreme goal and the ultimate demonstration of knowledge? Leonardo was convinced that painting demanded universal knowledge, and he did not even shrink from a theoretical analysis which to us is stunning because of its very depth and precision....' Works of art connected with the so-called traditional painting techniques also call for a different approach. It is not possible to show them via today’s large distribution channels, as the work does not lend itself to technical reproduction. Therefore it needs to be seen live and it is only with a direct approach that our eyes can experience the work, but it is exactly thanks to this need that it regains that aura, that authenticity that Benjamin speaks of in his essay, indeed he states: “Painting has always claimed the peculiar right to be observed by one person or very few people.” And, in effect, one can not ignore the fact that a canvas, because of its actual physical limits can not be seen by a huge group of people (as happens for cinematographic work) but exactly for this reason it imposes on the viewer a situation of welcoming, of isolation that stimulates concentration and, one would hope, a certain reflection. As Benjamin seems to confirm with these thoughts on painting “although paintings began to be publicly exhibited in galleries and salons, there was no way for the masses to organise and control themselves in their reception.” So, after these considerations it seems evident that art in general, or rather that which survives the process of commercialisation, never finds itself within the grasp of large masses or much less of the so-called cultural elite. On the contrary, all that is generally produced in these settings is destined to contribute to the gradual degradation in the quality of art, due to the necessity of having to adapt to the fast and often superficial approach that the development of means of production has determined in people’s social relationships. However, despite these unstoppable phenomena, it is certain that there will always be the possibility for a work of art to come to light, and however much the industrialised world makes giant advances in technological development, and however much these innovations are applied in creating works of art, some of which of great value, I believe that painting will continue to exist and always stay current, because the creative process that it manages to unleash possesses something that can never run out.