Anatomia di un quadro (from the video)
How did this project come into being? What was your source of inspiration?
Two things: In 2013, I was in contact with La Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo di Milano as it had commissioned me to produce an artwork for the Duomo. At this time, it came to my attention that it was the commemorative year of Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313, some 1700 years ago. I immediately associated this landmark with The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine (Jacopo da Varazze), more specifically, with the Legend of the True Cross that had inspired so many artists during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Since my childhood, legends and myths have continued to enthrall me, and here was Ariadne’s thread unraveling in front of me.
Likewise, the inner space of the Duomo that emanates a true spiritual essence and sense of infinity deeply impressed me.
More than the figure of Constantine, the story of the death of Adam that opens the Legend of the True Cross has continued to resonate in me as a symbol of humanity.
In retrospect, while thinking over my artistic trajectory, I came to understand that this thematic of Adam was not a chance occurrence. In fact, I was reconnecting with my memorable 1965-1966 years when I found myself at a crossroad, searching for new directions to take my pictorial work, exclusively figurative up to this point in time.
In March, 1966, I lived through a singular experience. It was as if I had been struck by lightning, given the continuous onslaught of visions that appeared to my open or closed eyes. I felt compelled to transcribe these perceptions as automatic notes: phrases or poetic fragments singing in my head…I never stopped painting in order to secure them, be they colors in motion, gestating universes, or molten magmatic matter. In the thrall of the moment, I discovered a new quasi-seismographic gestuality, the technique of “dripping” (at the time I had not heard of Pollock). I experimented on materials with powder pigments, sand and oil—odd mixtures. It was in this way that Man in the Universe and the motif of “La Ronde” throughout the universe emerged in my artistic and spiritual research. The writings of Teilhard de Chardin from this period–The Phenomenon of Man and The Appearance of Man—reflected my own questioning. I likewise remember having been quite impressed by new scientific responses in a lecture on Quasars that addressed the interrogations on the universe that had longtime nourished my pictorial creation.
How did you decide on the format and size of the work?
The space of the Duomo itself inspired the dimensions of the work. It was immediately conceived in the shape of a polyptych, continuing the long tradition that includes the marvelous Isenheim Altarpiece of Grünewald in Colmar, a source of enchantment for me since my childhood. I had already experimented with such a promising shape in my Spettacolo/Concerto on Carlo Gesualdo and in the video dedicated to him in 2001 called The Altarpiece of the Prince of Venosa. Here the film was simultaneously shown on three screens set up as a triptych in synchronization with the soundtrack music. It is definitely this experience of unreeling images in time and space that led me to work on this canvas in a “musical” and rhythmic manner.
The ancient shape of the cross, similar to the Greek Tau, straightaway became a necessary choice, arising as it did from the very thematic of the Legend of the True Cross. This shape gave me the impression of the open arms of the universe summoning all its energies. In this manner, the shape is already the work. In addition, the letter Tau corresponds to a mysterious elementary particle that comes into play in the cryptic equation of the black holes of the cosmos.
The presence of Adam represents a real Deposition: it evokes our shared human destiny of death. However, rebirth will blossom from his mouth as the Tree of Knowledge. It is the hope of something else that symbolically rises and is born again, one of the basic aporias referenced by Yvon Birster in his magnificent article.
The idea of completing the upper part of the entire composition with a semi-circle came to me almost right away.
I feel that the circle takes on symbolic importance inherent in its geometric pattern that evokes the planets! At first, I conceived such a circle in a translucid material, but then the idea of a mirror came to me. It would tilt forward slightly, able to pick up the reflections of the entire composition, all the while expressing the concept of infinity.
The choice of side panels, inspired by those of organs (in the Duomo or the splendid panels of Cosmè Tura in Ferrara) and arranged almost perpendicularly to the central body, should scenographically highlight the depth of perspective I had experimented with in the years of my “small Theaters”. Positioned this way, these panels opened up a book, similar to mythical portals unfolding a mystery and guarded by “gate-keepers”, alchemical and symbolic figures of a rite of passage.
How did you work? Can you describe this process?
I transcribed my reflections on paper from numerous sketches and models and mentally projected the work in space. For proportions, I used the golden ratio.
Sometimes, my hand would draw in an intuitive manner; at other moments, it seemingly obeyed a precise mental vision that had to be controlled to make sure it “was actually working”.
From the start, I immediately decided upon the theme of Adam and The Tree of Knowledge, like a Tree of Jesse (similar to the marvelous stained glass one over the central portal of the facade of Chartres).
Strangely enough, in my initial sketches this tree took on the shape of a human brain right away. In speaking to friend and scientist Patrick Curmi of this tree/brain connection, I was astonished to learn of the works of an American research group, the Consortium of the Human Connectome Project, directed by Professor Bruce Rosen of Harvard University. This group had obtained scientific images of neuronal connections in the white matter of the human brain through the imagery of nuclear magnetic Resonance: and these images were in the shape of a tree! So, the field of science had validated my intuition… This is how the scientific image, such as it is in its surprising beauty, has replaced the Tree of Knowledge that comes out of and rises from Adam’s mouth.
Hanging on either side of this tree are two faces: on the left, that of a young man, and on the right, that of an older bearded man—an ancient, divided Janus Bifrons—the human life span confronting the infinity of the universe. These two faces, like planets that are the fruit of the tree, have become the fruit of the extravagant “Wak-Wak” from the bestiaries of the Middle Ages described by the great art historian Jurgis Baltrusaitis.
My Adam is the man on earth lulled by the ballet of the stars and planets of the universe in a dream of disturbing beauty, in the presence of the black matter and dark energy ready to engulf everything, like a mythical Saturn. In the painting we see comets giving birth to beings in that their chemical composition contains certain basic life-producing molecules. So, life and death make up a perpetual cycle on both a human and cosmic scale.
Can you explain the set up of the predella and the traces of writing in your painting?
The inclusion of the Qumran manuscripts—the Dead Sea Scrolls—seemed essential to me. I retrieved a book by Dupont Sommer my mother had given me in 1960 that focused on this discovery, one that has undergone so many other developments in subsequent studies. In my project these writings present History in a scientific manner, endowing the prophecies and mysteries of a Revelation with their historical basis. On the predella, these manuscripts are set against a landscape that is brightly illuminated by the sun, amidst a fiery twilight, and vertically scanned by three fragments of the surface of Mars. All the while, the starry silhouette of a new cosmic Adam is reflected in the sky.
The written words convey thought just as the imagery does; their graphic power is as striking as their content. It must be said that these manuscripts are as fascinating in their graphic beauty as they are moving in their antiquity and fragility as a medium: they are like a seismographic recording that has come from a spatial elsewhere and indefinite temporality. Indeed, they call to mind the Babel of tongues, similar to the Litterae Ignotae invented by the brilliant Rhenish monastic Hildegard of Bingen who formed a secret language only she was capable of understanding. These manuscripts appear in my Unfinished Tale as musical notes sprinkled throughout the painting like stars while the Hebraic writing on the right panel, taken from a prophecy of Zacharias engraved on the facade of the Synagogue of Strasbourg (my childhood city), teaches us that “Mightier than the sword is my spirit”. Here is an important profession of faith and message for our times, in a world such as ours.
Speaking of the panels, could you explain to us what their iconography refers to and how they came into existence?
I began the pictorial work with these side panels, a little like a pianist who needs to practice on the scales. From the start, I decided that on one of their sides there would be references to Hildegard of Bingen whose written pieces I had discovered through an American woman friend in 1991 who had given me a book with copies of her manuscripts. Accordingly, I was incited to carry out different artworks inspired by its mysticism and vision of the universe.
Likewise impressed by its topicality in regard to recent discoveries on the cosmos, I began to work on the first panel with its golden stars and black stars that had anticipated the black stars and black matter revealed by astrophysicists. While I worked on a gigantic scale from this miniature, through an identification process that often occurs in my painting, I felt as if I had donned the smock of the Middle Ages artist who had transcribed these visions of the Fall of Lucifer with the patience of a Carthusian monk.
These black stars, both poetic and impressive, reminded me of this verse from Gérard de Nerval’s “El Desdichado”: “the black suns of melancholy”…
The second panel drew its inspiration from a miniature whose content was apparently of a more dogmatic, highly symbolic, and astonishingly pictorial modernism.
The surface is literally pierced in its center by the three silver blades of a symbolic sword spilling the blood of Christ and thus marking off three areas that correspond to the three monotheistic religions shown in a particular light. Indeed, if they are not revitalized by the “viriditas” of which Hildegard speaks, they are destined to die, dried up or burned, like weightless feathers, straw, or wood chips. The entire scene is framed by the physical and symbolic evocation of life that flows out in the shape of waves, be they water, air, or the blood of Christ, wherein one can distinguish small bubbles that bring to mind molecules!
The slowness, contrary to my nature, and the utmost patience required to paint these two panels allowed me to immerse myself in an “other” time.
The inner part of these panels came last, during the assemblage of the other mirrors of the composition, a particularly difficult moment from a technical point of view. The figure fitted onto the left panel was cut out of the mirror fitted onto the right one. From the beginning, their iconography was inspired by Fra Angelico’s Noli me tangere. These two tutelary figures seem to float out of an indefinite space/time rendered infinite by the game of mirrors. Laid out facing each other and perpendicular to the central canvas, they introduce the mystery of their presence/absence and of ours by likewise picking up our reflection and blending it with those of the whole picture–as if between two poles–in wave beams destined to summon us, similar to the mirages in the allegory of Plato’s Cave.
How should we interpret the central part of the picture? On your model, there already was this ascensional direction, but not with the same colors; what is this kind of flame that rises with the apparition of a figure: is it Christ?
It is true that this part of the picture almost produced itself all alone; I could no longer say how because the colors came out without any hesitation whatsoever—perhaps facilitated by the numerous studies on this theme already carried out in 1968? It is like the lava of a volcano, a gigantic flame/source/cosmic storm that arose, and in its bosom life regenerated with the small fetus in the process of dreaming. It was the glorious body of painting itself that released a heaviness like an immense song in the universe at whose summit suddenly appeared a memory of the Resurrection of Grünewald.
Can you provide a few details about the beautiful white figure on the left?
This motif of the angel painted on a picture in 2012 immediately became a natural element in the composition of this work: it was already there, all ready. It is a fairy-like entity that is part of the theme of the Angels of the Annunciations that I have been developing in my work for a long time, as well as the figure in the act of flying. It is a heraldic figure that tells the Unfinished Tale: the narration that is “not finished” and infinite.
Who was behind you guiding your hand while you were working?
It is difficult to say… It is a mystery… Who guides one’s hand or one’s thoughts; who gives birth to images, shapes, and colors?
I believe that Isaac Stern expressed it very well, saying, “Being a musician is being touched by an unseen hand”.
Art is music…harmony…
I have been immersed in a river that, starting with the Bible and up through the Quasars, has burst onto the white canvas masterfully in formulating the enigma of life and death and capturing the invisible in a fluctuating world of whose infinite beauty I should sing, perhaps l’Amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle, from Dantesque memory.
Translation: Virginia Larner (Paris, France)