Lo strano caso del Dottor W.
by Emanuele Leone Emblema
Informal art explained on the basis of the difference between a Greek statue and a garden dwarf.
“The expression of such a lofty spirit
goes far beyond the pretty form of nature:
the artist had to feel, in his heart of hearts,
the spiritual power he transmitted in his marble.”
Johan Joachim Winckelmann
Every rereading of a classic
is a new discovery, like the first
If we do not refer to Venus of Milo as the statue of a pallid old invalid, and if we recognize something more in the precariousness of the Parthenon than a building ripe for demolition, it is largely due to the intuitions of Johan Joachim Winckelmann. The undisputed father of modern archaeology, one of the most influential and controversial thinkers of the Eighteenth century and a shining icon of the gay Olympus. And to think that Winckelmann did not get it all right, by far, in his writings. Indeed, if we are to believe him, the teeming Athens of Pericles’ time was as algid and white as Niemeyer’s Brasilia. He was convinced that the bloodthirsty and belligerent Spartans were a people of fitness maniacs not unlike the models preferred by Robert Mapplethorpe. And he exalted, above everything, the white and mysterious material of classical sculptures, unaware that the statues of Phidias and Lysippus were really originally as colourful and gaudy as the plaster dwarfs people put in their gardens.
But it is precisely in this abundance of gross errors and philological mistakes that make Winckelmann a modern, and in many aspects revolutionary, thinker, and perhaps the first, unconscious, theoretician of informal art.
It may be hazardous to draw an continuous line between the thought of the great devotee of classicism and one of the greatest artistic movements of the late Twentieth century. But uniting Mathieu, Vedova, Turcato, Emblema, the Gutai of Sumi and Shimamoto, and finally the moulds of TTozoi, with the sensibility necessary to appreciate the ruins of a Greek temple is not as far-fetched as it may at first seem.
If any artists of the modern age have ardently desired (even too obstinately) to be considered as the new classics, it have been precisely the informal ones. As Harold Rosember wrote, exalting the heroic dimension of this painting: “The canvas has become the arena of an event, of a battle between the artist and his subject, if not even between history and its battles” .
The name “Informal art” was coined by the French critic Michel Tapié in 1952. He used the term to identify certain lines of research which, ever since the Forties, had experimented alternatives to the geometric (and intellectual) rigidity of the avant-gardes. While it is true that these avant-gardes had renounced the figure and the imitation of the real world, they “still composed the painting according to syntactic rules” (G.C.Argan). That is to say, they painted as if lines and colours had to signify a thought, to describe a condition. Informal art, on the contrary, aimed to wholly abolish the geometric and hierarchical structure from the work of art; to free the material, the sign, the gesture from any expressive convention. In other words: what the informal artists wanted to understand what not so much what the painting had to represent as what the painting was in its own right. On what fundamental principles art was based, and what was the most immediate way in which to express it.
Argan also wrote: “Informal art is not a current: and even less so is it a fashion; it is a situation of crisis” A crisis of values, of identity, of forms, which however had not arisen with the informal movement, nor were the informal artists ever truly intent on resolving it. If eighty-year olds as Sumi and Shimamoto today still dance on strange bamboo stilts, and if the moulds of Ttozoi still choose to freely invade the canvas, it means that informal art, understood as poetic of the crisis, is anything but a resolved issue.
However, that of informal art is not a psychoanalytical crisis, which is only caused by an existential trauma. It is a technical crisis which has coagulated around a question that centres on the essence of painting:
How does one put life, existence (beauty?) inside a painting?
Johan Joachim Winckelmann had provided an answer to this question long before anyone posed the question, and before he formulated his own convictions. This librarian from Stendhal is known to most of us as the enthusiastic theoretician of neoclassicism and one of the greatest contributors to the so-called principle of “Ideal Beauty”. While it should come as no surprise that an Eighteenth-century German intellectual may have spoken of “idealism”, it is at the very least anomalous that such a totalizing idea of beauty has come to the mind of precisely Winckelmann, who spent much of his life attending excavations and describing archaeological finds. In fact, Winckelmann was able to appreciate the highest expression of beauty even before objects that almost always appeared broken, consumed, covered by earth or attacked by mould. In short, artefacts that had lost all form (…informal?) that had really lost all beauty and grace. They were architectures reduced to perimeters of decrepit columns and coarse statues, which in the best of cases lacked two limbs out of four. But he, unmindful of this, not only managed to find something beautiful; he even perceived the very idea of beauty. But put in these terms, one naturally gets to wonder: where did he get it from? And what did he see of beauty in what seemed, according to rigorous logic, to be mere stones ruined by the centuries?
Winckelmann was a priest manqué, and he probably applied the principle according to which the voice of God can always be heard in the midst of sinners.
However, he was the first to have the theoretical sensibility (artists had already acquired it on a practical level for some time) to accept that beauty, or rather the emotion of beauty, is not reached by building a perfect object, but if anything by reducing it to the barest essentials. By speaking of the beauty of ancient finds, Winckelmann demonstrated, even if he was far from understanding it, how important it was for art to eliminate the superfluous, abolish the forms, purify the work from everything that was not bound to last. Reduce, not compose. Not unlike what one does with the fuselage of gliders, that refuse all surfaces that make them unable to fly.
Winckelmann never either said so or thought so, but with his sensibility he perceived that the emotion we experience before antique finds has nothing to do with the antiquarian discipline, but belong wholly to modernity: to aeronautic physics, to the phenomenology of the spirit.
This is the true point of connection between the thought of Winckelmann and the poetics of Informal artists, the observation (in the case of the former unconsciously, in that of the latter programmatically) that it is not the coloured surface of the work of art that is beautiful, but the pure material which is agitated behind it. Both felt that space could finally stretch out beyond the perspective. Once the drawing had been exhausted, the gesture emerged. And once the decorative alphabet had been abolished, the echo of the sign – only one, suspended and universal – remained.
Winckelmann’s answer to the crisis faced by the informal movement is therefore: Yes. Truth, Beauty, Existence can enter a painting, but only if room is provided for them. And it is therefore necessary to clear the field of every useless frill, every cumbersome reference, every pre-established form. In short, the work must be opened to existence.
It is Umberto Eco who speaks of the Informal movement as “Poetic of the open work”. And he analyzes the painting as “field of interpretative possibilities, as configuration of stimuli endowed with substantial indefiniteness, so that the onlooker is led to make a series of always variable readings”
The discourse may be simpler, and at the same time more complex. The informal work of art is open, not so much because it lends itself to different interpretations, but because if the painting, on a level of internal composition, leans towards reduction, then it is forced to embrace the exterior, to open itself to the world outside it. As if according to a principle of compensation.
This is why an informal work of art generally features, on the canvas, elements that are neither pictorial in the strict sense, nor determined by the artist. It is a matter of untreated materials, environmental elements, an organic principle or the participation of the self-same spectator in the creation of the painting. Everything the work rejects as compositive rule must perforce be reacquired in the form of external reality, or if we want, of truth.
Archaeology still comes to our aid in clarifying the point. It is sufficient to imagine what the ruins of a Greek temple would be without the light and scenery that may be glimpsed through the colonnade at any moment. The Parthenon would be a different (and probably greatly inferior) work of art without the blue sky invading its structure. The sky is a factor that is external to the art, originating from the field of existence, which however become a constitutive element – perhaps the most constitutive and characterizing – when it becomes a part of the work.
The absence of the arms of Venus of Milo answers to the same criterion. However, in this case it is our own aesthetic conscience, our emotionality, that comes into play. We have to make up for the shortcoming ourselves, on an intuitive and sentimental basis. Put in simpler terms, we put the arms onto Venus ourselves every time we look at her. And because of this “contributory role” we feel that we are fully entitled to be part of the work of art, to participate in its essence. The work is therefore open, not because it is incomplete or indefinite, but because we are made to participate in it. This is why we are moved, simply by looking at the century-old stones wedged between sand and sky, without a valid reason. We experience a feeling of sharing and participation. In fact, being stuck in the world, sometimes without knowing why, is a conditions that we humans are all too familiar with. In an informal work of art, as well as in an archaeological find, this dynamic of “supplementation of external conscience” is only made more evident, it is brought to the light and therefore more easily perceptible by the sensibility of the spectator.
Even if by paths and degrees of comprehension that differ from informal art, Winckelmann has personally verified that self-same very modern truth according to which if art is deprived of the form, it becomes easier to understand that it is – and has always been – human in shape.
if nothing of the foregoing should come to your mind when you stand before the “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur” of a Greek statue, and you are not moved, not even just a little: before giving up, make sure you are not futilely staring at a garden dwarf.