As we all know Italy have a long and stunning tradition of great painters and artists. But what is happening with the digital era? Are this artistic manual tradition going to disappear in favour of softwares? Fortunately there are still some amazing painters and one of those is Agostino Arrivabene. Come and take a look with us to his mysterious and weird populated world, rich in symbols, chambers of wonders and secrets… Sometimes a paintbrush can make you dream.
Looking at your paintings we feel like we are floating in a dream, in a subtle atmosphere among mysterious creatures. How important is the oneiric element in your art?
I enhance what is urgent inside me. Sometimes I translate what my essence demands into dim atmospheres. I raise universal human values to images, or symbols, or, even better, archetypes that transfigure reality through a language bound to ancient mysteries, such as the Eleusinian Mysteries (the ancient rites for Demeter). Signs and images lead to an event that upsets the observer, but if they are investigated one discovers that their meaning is never fortuitous, although they often awake in myself through a technical procedure, as it used to happen among Surrealists in the first half of the XX Century. Maybe this is not so suitable to this expressive attitude, it is far more obscure and even unconscious, which is typical of the oneiric language. Actually some of my dreams gave rise to authentic pictorial cycles, such as the one dedicated to the most mysterious of Angels, Lucifer, or the Eden cycle, which was generated by the dream of the holy lake that obsessed me since 1990.
You look like a visionary person to me, how do you live this condition? I mean, what is in your opinion the line between dream and reality in our lives? Maybe they are not separated entities and it is all about man’s perception…
I would like to stress the fact that my visionary vein stems from a mystical research: in my experience visions have always a mystical background, they are a strong communication line with the eternal, the mysterious and the infinity above us. As a man, I prefer to think of myself as a shaman, who throws prophecies to the world, who discloses messages and images concealing higher and wider meanings. At first these can be quite obscure even to myself, but as time goes by or through the sequence of works to come, they show their meaning. Reality is certainly an important source of inspiration, because I think it remits to a ultra-reality hidden underneath appearances. This is a heritage of my studies of Plato and Marsilio Ficino’s Platonism.
Your paintings fallow the ancient tradition of animalia, mirabilia naturae, vanitates, landscapes, still life. What is your relationship with this current of ancient painting?
The cycle of my paintings you mention began after I had the chance to see a book on Wunderkammern by Adalgisa Lugli, a late important Italian scholar of this particular art form. The works preserved in museums all over the world, both in present and ancient collections, influenced my art considerably, because in them I see a sort of virtual museum of reality, seen through the deforming glass of a collector in the domain of the absurd.
And I have also to mention the Wunderkammern: you yourself define your works as “modern virtual Wnderkammern”. Can you please explain us this definition and the relation with this art form?
Wunderkammern are “rooms of wonders” showing how man sought in Nature the most varied oddities, embracing the supernatural and the dreadful. A sort of museum of paradises and hells on Earth, created by Nature and recreated by man in mirabilia and artificialia. The works of Animaliers have always struck my imagination because in these figures the artists convey the melting of human and animal nature.
Are there any symbologies in your paintings, which are downright rooms of curiosities and jewels?
I think that the surreal element in art comes from unconscious automatisms. The simple sign of a paintbrush or a pencil produces a mysterious image that can seem fortuitous, but rather expresses, as in dreams, the most alchemic and the most hermetic ties of our unconscious, authentic rebuses that bring the observer to look at himself, or better at the many questions urging from his own unconscious. The basic elements of my work certainly have their roots in two historic and artistic currents: since the early years at the Academy of Arts in Milan the works of the American period of Max Ernst and Massons had a strong effect on me, and I can say the same for the final years of Gustave Moreau, which is ahead in the most contemporary abstractionism. Moreau reaches such an acute and refined formal synthesis that the image becomes an emotional essence, produced with colour or with the gesture of pigment matter only.
Dreams and nightmares, light and darkness: is your idea of life more oriented toward the light or toward the dark?
I see myself on a ridge observing two opposite realities: good, evil, light, darkness. I am seized by both, I analyse both, both help me in knowing myself better and in focusing more clearly my many-sided essence. I love waving between two opposite reigns.
Which artists and personalities do you admire the most?
They might be a great number. In the first years of my education I deeply studied ancient art, especially Egyptian art, ancient and archaic Greek art, and most of all the Sumerian art. Later, primeval Flemish art and Italian art of the XVI and XVII centuries nourished my hot and pressing creative work. At present time my path and my look concentrate on the language of contemporary art. I can mention several international contemporary artists: Antonio Lopez Garcia, Lucien Freud, Odd Nerdrum, Gerhard Richter, Ernst Fuchs, Werner Tübke, to the most trendy Neo Rauch, Peter Doig, Paula Rego, Cecily Brown, and the psychedelic art of Henning Kles, to Justin Mortimer and Adrian Ghenie.
If your works were a piece of music, a movie or a book, what would they be?
I would certainly compare some paintings to Gustav Mahler’s symphonies, especially the unfinished 10th symphony. And my brother has initiated me into the music of Lisa Gerrard and Diamanda Galas and Jan Garbareck. As for motion pictures I would mention all movies by Luchino Visconti, Lars von Trier, Woody Allen, Tim Burton (one of my idols) and the last cult film of Darren Aronofsky “The Fountain”. The books that I think represent my pictorial world at best are the “Theogony” by Hesiod, “Death in Venice” by Thomas Mann, “The Doors of Perception” by Aldous Huxley, Proust’s “Rechèrche”, and the extraordinary essays by Karoly Kerenyi, especially the one on “Dionysos”.
What is the relationship between an ancient-tasting aesthetic like yours and the today’s art society?
I see myself as a potential very eclectic astronaut: I love waving in the worlds by Greenaway, in the subtle veins of Leonardo da Vinci, but also in pop and dark atmospheres. Sometimes I consider cinema as the communicating valve to my reality, both real and fancied. I think that contemporary art is fruitless if it does not create or preserve its natural bonds with the past. Dandyism is among my aspirations, but it translates into a sort of debauched monasticism, where the bohème is the rule.
You also worked at the scenes for “Hans Heiling” by Heinrich Marschner. How important is theatre for you?
I love theatre, especially for its scenes, choreographies and costumes. I collaborated with Pierluigi Pizzi at the opera “Hans Heiling” by Heinrich Marschner. We put my painting world in the spotlight, reproducing my paintings in 3D and at huge dimensions. Hans’ room was a sort ofWunderkammer containing my “mirabilia”, which were reproduced in enormous sculptures. My relation with Pierluigi Pizzi has grown steady through the years, because it is based on mutual esteem. This year Pierluigi Pizzi invited me, together with the curator Vittorio Sgarbi, to represent the Italian pavilion at the 54th Biennale di Venezia. For this occasion I created a diptych where St. Sebastian was represented. I decided to dismiss the traditional image of the Saint standing upright while he’s being pierced by arrows focusing on the look of two women who have different visions: the first sees St. Sebastian fluctuating above his bed in a dark bedroom after she healed his wounds; she sees flowers blooming from the wounds, and flowers are pouring thru veins and capillaries. The second canvas represents Lucinia’s dream, who saw St. Sebastian stranded in the bights of the Tiber river, with his corpse retrieved for people’s worship.
If aliens came on Earth, what place would you show them to make them understand our culture?
I do not exclude that aliens might come to Earth and I think that the endless space and the possibilities of universe can host other forms of life and civilization, that might be even more mighty and advanced than ours. If I met an alien I would take him to an Italian museum of ancient art and I would try to teach him to paint.
A good artist is always a dreamer, what are your visions?
The strongest is man, receiving grace and revelation from Gods, the awareness of being a creator, a demiurge between human and divine. That is why I believe that my paintings have a strong mystical inspiration.
Interview by Chiara Sestini
Images © Agostino Arrivabene