Transavanguardia: an Italian Renaissance, Beyond Neo Expressionism
By Andrew Bay, UK
"Transavanguardia" is an Italian term that may be loosely translated as "Trans-avant-garde." The expression is generally attributed to Italian art critic Achille Bonito Oliva (b.1939). With this definition, he intended to capture the spirit of a vibrant artistic renaissance, which took the Italian art world by storm, from the late 1970s through the 1980s. Oliva eagerly wanted to describe this new movement, which he felt was now distinctly beginning to emerge from the outburst of avant-garde art, which had been produced in Europe and America, during the 1960s and 1970s. Thus the use of "trans," meaning "after" or "beyond," as a prefix to "avant-garde."
Oliva felt that the Transavanguardia movement had a duty to emancipate itself from the rigid demands for conceptual abstractions, which had been imposed on artistic methods by Conceptual Art, up to that point. With Transvanguardia, new opportunities for non-linear discourse and radical variance from previously established creative procedures could be successfully initiated. By the turn of the 1970s, Oliva singled out a handful of painters, whom he felt, had successfully managed to bypass the artistic and stylistic orthodoxies of the preceding decades. He thought that these artists were approaching the thematic possibilities offered by modern painting, in an unconventional but original manner, by simply concentrating on primitive and ubiquitous topics, such as human emotion, Nature, play and exuberance. This approach reflected analogous trends in non-literal painting expression, that could also be found across continental Europe and the US. These theoretical and conceptual similarities were the stepping stone that led to the founding of the Neo-Expressionist movement in the early 1980s. The obsession for "all things new" which had characterised the previous generation, was no longer an article of faith: the "Past" was fashionable again. Classical art, folklore, historical legends and contemporary popular culture, had been granted full artistic credibility once more, soon to be revived and intrepidly explored by these artists' collective imaginations. These are a handful of the great artists who defined and embodied the spirit of the Transavanguardia movement.
Francesco Clemente's work is often labeled as Expressionist and for good reasons. His works heavily rely on cloudy watercolours and oil paints, to produce misshapen character studies, of sexual misconduct and transgression. Born in Southern Italy in 1952, Clemente was formally trained at the University of Rome. His portrayals are very ornate, improbable productions of contours, often revealing dislocated body parts: elbows, eyes and limbs thrown together, in no particular order. These textures are blended and combined confidently, with a touch of incongruous remoteness and exalted symbolism. Clemente has lived a nomadic life since 1974, although he's been officially residing in New York since 1982. An avid collector of Indian artefacts over the years, he has travelled extensively across India, where he setup an artistic retreat in Madras as far back as the mid 1970s. Clemente has had multiple one man shows across Europe and America, in Kassel, Germany (1992), at the Whitney Biennal in New York (1997), the Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo (1994), and the Whitechapel Gallery in London (1983).
By putting the emphasis on shape and evocative colour tones, Sandro Chia's canvases strongly convey a free-floating, non-figurative, elegant gracefulness. Chia is a key contributor to the Transvanguardia movement, along with Francesco Clemente and Enzo Cucchi. As the precursors of this Neo-Expressionist scene, they intended to bounce back from the 1980s hyperbolic excesses of Conceptual Art, by celebrating the importance of characterization and colour in their paintings again. Chia tends to his large artworks, with visible delight and delicacy, as if they were vital organs, that needed to be handled with remedial care. With steady brushwork, he draughts brisk lines, going back and forth between slick oils and crude splatters. Chia wants to revive the entire framework embodied before him, like a still life exercise, in an art student classroom. This is the most significant aspect of his work, to which he dedicates himself tirelessly, to this day, as if it were a mission, a calling. The oral history of Italian art and the ritualistic simplicity of everyday life, are the main topics which he most often revisits, with his infectious vitality.
Enzo Cucchi was the 3rd key founder of the Transavanguardia movement, and was born in 1949, in a small village in Southern Italy. Cucci, unlike his contemporaries, is entirely self-taught. His work was noticed for the first time by Achille Oliva Bonita, around 1976. Upon his recommendation, Cucci summoned up the courage to move to Rome, where he rapidly met his future associates, Clemente and Chia, as well as most of the young, talented bright minds, who were gravitating around this newly established, collective Neo-Expressionist movement. Cucci rapidly found his own voice, with a predilection for symbolic illustrations and figurative sketches. He favours sizeable surfaces for his work, confidently subjecting them to multiple waves of charcoal-fuelled reinventions. He draws inspiration from a wide variety of topics and sources: cave art, indigenous cultures rituals and folklore, even agricultural farming. Cucci grew up in rural Italy, and never felt awkward about his eclectic interests and tastes. He shares a fascination for disorder and cinematic confusion in common with Clemente and Chia, which he conjures in his colour-saturated layouts. With just a few eloquent visual arrangements, Chia always carries his pictorial dramas to their evocative and conspicuous conclusions.
Mimmo Paladino was born in 1948, and grew up in the northeast of Naples. As was the case with Enzo Cucci, Paladino was "discovered" through his affiliation with Achille Bonito Oliva, who curated his first exhibition as an art student in 1968. By then, Paladino was already bold enough to start freely appropriating thematic ideas and iconic pictures from a myriad of sources, to build a window into his own creative mechanisms. It will come as no surprise that Paladino shares several stylistic affinities with his Transavanguardia affiliates: the use of multidimensional media, the juxtaposition of modern technology with anachronistic, primitive tools, the positioning of the profane against the secular. His graphic designer's background is an invaluable creative asset, which enables him to collage his productions, into printmaking series, such as his sets for the "Oedipus Rex" (2000) and "Iliad and Odyssey" (2001) plays, staged in Florence, in 2001. Paladino is also an accomplished sculptor, who specialises in copper and marble effigies, easily memorable for their exquisite protractions.