Part One

Introduction

Memory of my roots, in all you are about to read on my work as an artist, goes back to my adolescent years, when I spent much of my free time drawing, mostly the faces of women I imagined, and which I later recognised as the ‘ideals’ of how I would actually have liked to be.

Consciousness grew fairly early in time (not so much about my 'ideal' being as a woman, but more as a pleasure I get from drawing), thanks to the lessons of Maria Dal Conte at high school, then with the teaching of Liliana Barbieri, an artist who graduated at Brera Art Academy; and the meeting and acquaintance of Rossana Bossaglia, a Professor of History of Art.

When I said ‘then’ I was referring to a ‘full immersion’ in the depths of an involving time while at Bocconi University, in Milan, where I read foreign languages, specialising in English: a mind opening experience which introduced me to new cultures and new worlds.

Soon after my degree, the clash between the two activities – painting on one side, English studies, applied linguistics and the educational sciences (meanwhile I had become a teacher) on the other - grew inextricable.

One of the basic, peculiar issues that came out of such impact was a deep interest in the workings of the mind and their consequent modes of expression - whether in words or other signs - while in search, as a teacher, for methods and means to make those links explicit.

In “Thought and Word” (1934), Russian Psychologist L.S. Vygotskij wrote:

“Our daily speech continually fluctuates between an ideal of mathematical and of imaginative harmony”.

This remark became a first milestone in my research. Hence came the idea that the complexities of our beings, our relationship to world and life highly depend – alongside with further inner and outer causes – on our own inclination toward one of the two poles, and the urge we may feel at various length, for a synthesis, an ultimate form of ‘harmony of harmonies’.

The idea of a dualism in the mind became, to me, the explanation of the two trends that were instinctively developing in my painting, calling for two techniques that I have actually never perceived in contrast with each other, but rather as two expressions - as I wrote somewhere else - of the multiform nature present in each of us. [Metaphysical Rose, 1996 -Remembering the Lotus Flower, 1997]

To my mind one of the two techniques seems to have more ‘philosophical’ origins, based on a distinct perception ‘a priori’ of intuition of thought and emotion, whose performance is to be found in a ‘mediated’ expression of both.

The other technique is more ‘imaginative’, trying to hold the intuition of thought and emotion in its ‘immediate’ unfolding, through the blending of fluid colours, calling for an ‘instant’ involvement, in relation with Chance, and the dramatic impact with Chaos.

Then, one day, there comes a painting that - in a water-lily blooming on waves of violet, green, and gold, or in a sacred lotus, or in the spell of a geometric form such as a sphere or a triangle shining with pure gold leaf - seems to reach the synthesis. [Pre – Raphaelite Nymphaea, 1990 - The Tree of Knowledge and Life, 1978]

There seems to be, in any case, a further unifying link between the two trends. They both aim, in their search, to unveil the core of the hidden sense of existence, of the world within us and around us, between the coordinates of space and time – whether real or imagined – deep into the essence of splendid nature.

This leads me to define my painting within the spheres of metaphysics, on the wake of great Giorgio De Chiricothe one who has consigned the glorious tradition to the future. [Magic Pavia, 1990 - Longobardic Pavia, 1991 - Sounds from Dante’s Forest, 1976 - The Stage, 1980 (In this last painting, the blue shapes in the background may be seen as characters: the King, the Queen…)].

 

The Themes

The titles of my first paintings (from the early 70's) were:

'La fleur du Mal'
'La Fleur de la Clarté'
Ideas
The Workings of the Mind
The Question
The Cave
'La Fleur de la Beauté'
The Sphere (and the pointed Arch)

 
Flowers were all ‘imagined’ forms, at a time in which I turned to well-known lines as my second milestone:

“. . .
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

. . .”

William Shakespeare
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
(Act 5, sc.1)

 Shakespeare’s lines, after all, may be seen as including the meaning that otherwise might seem to be a peculiar interpretation of mine – concerning my own 'bodying forth' [A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1981 - A Midsummer Night’s Dance, 2004 - And as imagination bodies forth, 2007].
It is just this complexity in meaning, together with beauty, that entrusts Shakespeare’s lines to the present world, even attaining new connotations as the ones that might come from recent studies in the neurosciences.


Then came William Blake.

The ‘next’ appeal came from “The Sick Rose” by William Blake, and from his “Visions”. (Almost all my students were asked to study “The Sick Rose”, and they seemed to like it). [The Sick Rose, 1981 -Blake’s Visions – No. 2, 1985 -Blake’s Visions – No. 5, 1985 -Blake’s Visions – No. 6, 1985].

In a short while, the appeal came to include all the great Romantics, and then the Pre-Raphaelites. Most of the Pre-Raphaelites were, like Blake,  both painters and poets. It was the time of the great themes of Nature, and of Earth’, ‘Air’, ‘Waterand Fire, viewed as the basic elements of Life. It was the time of 'Gothic' atmospheres, of 'Oriental Gardens’, and the charm coming from the Far East. [‘Gothic’ Suggestions No. 71: Don Quixote, 1988 - From Ancient Chinese Paintings: along the Path, 1998 - Small Lotus Flower, 1999].

 

Then came the 20th Century – with its revolutions.

There were two 20th-Century poets to whom I closely linked two of my paintings. They were: William B. Yeats andThomas S. Eliot.
I did not know Yeats’s poetry when I started the drawing, and then the painting which I later associated to his name. (they were works I performed within my bent for the ‘philosophical’ mood). When, later on, I read “The Magi”, “The Mask”, “The Second Coming” and “Sailing to Byzantium”, I discovered a clue to my own meanings: the mind’s eye (of Shakespearean memory) leading, through meandering and bewilderment, to a rebirth in the name of Sacredness, Art, and Love, beyond what I conceived as the yellow, white, dark masks, viewed, in my painting, as a synthesis of human kind. [
'In My Mind's Eye', 1997].

The title 
Rhapsody on a Windy Night (a painting within the sphere of my ‘imaginative’ mood) comes straight from the title of one of T.S. Eliot’s early poems, which takes us back to the theme of the mind, of ‘memory’, as the poet writes, throwing up ‘A crowd of twisted things,’ as fragments of past Romantic certitudes, yet denoting the same uneasiness, even though broken into new forms.
In my painting it was the merging of fluid colours that brought forth images I then recognised (from left to right) as a dramatic Harlequin, a reclined sleeping beauty, a Russian Baba Yaga, Don Quixote on his Rosinante, the face of painter Ligabue…

It has been of great interest to me to have recently read in a newspaper an article on the studies at the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It talks about neurons in a certain part of the brain, which have the property to identify shapes, like faces, through given contrasts of light and shade, even when they are not real faces, in the same way as it sometimes happens to us when looking at clouds.

 

Infinities.

Awareness has been growing over time, in my mind, of developments in the sciences (biology being one, perhaps as first) and technologies, which were able to cause revolutions at the dawn of the new millennium, with no conceivable boundaries to dismay and fascination.

It was in this climax that, one day, I started a painting having flowers in my mind and, in the end, realising that the shapes I was looking at, had turned out to be cells.

It was then, in a similar way that, at other moments, while looking at the light coming from the Sun and the Moon, I found myself instinctively involved in what is, by now, a frequently undertaken shifting from the infinitely small to the infinitely big, feeling the wish to travel further emotionally, urging my imagination to explore the Universe. [Cells, 2004 - The Workings of the Mind (neurons and glia), 2005 -Life of Cells – Idea No. 1, 2006 -Life of Cells - Idea No. 4 (Smile), 2006- Vital Lymph – No. 1, 2007 - (Imagined) Neurons of Passion – No. 3, 2007 - (Imagined) Neuron of Love – No. 1, 2007]

I confess I felt intimate joy at the fact that the painting I later called “Infinities” was started in 2001, the year that coincided with the one included in the title of Stanley Kubrick’s “Space Odyssey”.
Perhaps the roots of this painting go back to the times of my adolescent drawing of idealised faces, and bear reminiscence of Pre-Raphaelite red-haired women, but the eyes in the painting are, to me, open into the future.

The title of this painting was later suggested by what I viewed as the third milestoneLuca Ronconi’s performance ofJohn D. Barrow’s “Infinities”  which took place in Milan in 2003. It was congenial, to me, to be brought to new dimensions of consciousness through a theatrical work, a work of Art, which was even pleasantly wrapped in a refined thread of irony.

I perceive the present mathematical and physical studies as involved in the search for new cognitions of order, bringing the ancient idea of order (based on the foundations of life - the one I understand I shared when painting the above mentioned four elements) to new dimensions, seen as threatened by Chaos, dissolving into fragmentation of particles and atoms. [The Sound of Silence, 2004 - White Moon, 1998 - Dawn, 2005 - And Suddenly it’s Twilight (after Salvatore Quasimodo), 2003 - Infinities, 2001 - Imagined Big Bang, 2007]

While I leave to scientists - to a due extent - the task of finding solutions and demonstrations to problems and theories, I cannot but feel myself a bit lost at the moment, in the wilderness of expanding space and reverting time, perceiving the marvel for the mystery that once came, as the Romantics felt, from the unknown, contending with the marvel of what the sciences are unveiling now.
Meanwhile, however, since I feel the urge to convey the sense of this marvel into my paintings, I seek my way relying, to a great extent, in my performances, on the emotion that comes, as an example, from the glow and the spell of gold in all its possible makings – mostly when liquid and in pure leaf.


Another interesting aspect of the times, perhaps another perspective to the quest for order, for an ultimate synthesis (or ‘harmony of harmonies’, as I said) may be ascribed to the identification, which is nowadays deeply fostered (through the great examples of scientists/artists of the past, through performances with new technological means, such as computers, and, moreover, through the aim to value the ‘beauty’ which is to be found in theories), of the Sciences – Mathematics in particular - with Art.

Intuition is able, once again, to help us perceive the synthesis, and this time, it is to me enlightening to turn to a Romantic poet, to what might be a further, ‘comprehensive’ milestoneI am speaking of the lines which end John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” so often quoted these days, even harshly questioned (by Eliot, as an example), and to me perfectly clear within the logic of poetry:

“. . .
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

 


Marisa Mezzadra

Milan, 10-12-2007

P.S.
My text in English has been improved, in time, by two English friends, who, however, have left much of the original style untouched, not to shade my pleasure in writing it (while trusting it - though - to the benevolence of native readers).

 

 Within the Span of Time

 While writing Part One, mostly when dealing with the theme of the interplay of Art and Science, there were some basic writings in my mind, to which I think I owe a great deal.

 The very beginnings were due to “The Visual Mind II”, a book edited by Michele Emmer for the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Press, in 2005; and to “The interplay of Art and Science”, an article - in Scientific American, May 2007 - written by Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles reviewing two of Martin Kemp’s books: “Leonardo da Vinci: Experience, Experiment and Design”. Princeton University Press, 2006, and “Seen / Unseen” (the book quoted soon below).

 These first readings were followed by two books:

 “Visibili Armonie – Arte Cinema Teatro e Matematica” (“Visual Harmonies – Art, Cinema, Theatre, and Mathematics”), by Michele Emmer. Bollati Boringhieri, 2006 ;

 “Seen / Unseen – Art, Science, and Intuition from Leonardo to the Hubble Telescope”, by Martin Kemp. Oxford University Press, 2006

 * * *

 Then, within the span of time between Part 1 and Part 2 (which is soon to follow), a number of articles and books led me to further meditation (the underlying motif being clear from the very first title):

“Is Beauty Truth and Truth Beauty?” by Martin Gardner (reviewing Jan Stewart’s “Why Beauty is Truth: a History of Symmetry”, Basic Books 2007). In: SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, April 2007;

 “Simmetria – Quando la bellezza del mondo si specchia nelle leggi matematiche” (“Symmetry – When the beauty of the world is mirrored in mathematical laws”) by Piergiorgio Odifreddi (reviewing Jan Stewart) in: IL VENERDI DI REPUBBLICA, 19 September 2008;

 “Unweaving the Heart” by Michael Shermer. In: SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, October 2005;

 “Is Beauty a Sign of Truth in Scientific Theories?” by James W. Mc Allister. In: AMERICAN SCIENTIST, March-April 1998;

 “Heaven in grains of sand” by Martin Kemp. In: NATURE, 13 September 2007;

 “Seeing the smaller picture” by Martin Kemp. In: NATURE, 29 May 2008;

 “Flashes of cosmic brilliance” by Martin Kemp. In: NATURE, 16 April 2009;

 “Là dove rinasce il bello” (“ Where beauty is born once again”) by Remo Bodei. In: IL SOLE 24 ORE, Sunday, 12 July 2009;

 “Art history’s window onto the mind” by Martin Kemp. In: NATURE, 15 October 2009;

 “Bolle di Sapone . Tra arte e matematica” (“Soap Bubbles . Between art and mathematics ”) by Michele Emmer. Bollati Boringhieri, 2009

  Q.&A.: “Brian Green on music and string theory”, by Jascha Hoffman. In: NATURE, 27 May 2010.

 In addition to these articles and books, my recent reading of Remo Bodei’s: “Le forme del bello” (“Shapes of Beauty”), Il Mulino, 1995, has made me feel that, so far – and as far as the length of ‘its radius’ could spread - my experience has come full circle, for me to write a new synthesis under the name of “Part 2”.

  

Part Two

The search for beauty

The search for beauty that started, when young, as an aim mostly drawn within my own mode of being, was then widened to include the whole of life and activity, and, even further, was meant to spread in space and time, to relate to the whole of the humankind - with due concern, of course, in many ways, consciousness growing, in time, about the idea of beauty as residing in our minds as a constant, and yet defying any precise definition, actually implying the entrance into the sphere of complexity.

Perhaps what we perceive as a constant is just the abiding need we feel for a light, for a polar star to guide us through our more or less ‘aëry surge’, recalling the type of certitude we may feel as the one spreading – as an example - from Dostoevskij’s well-known words: “Beauty will save the world”.

 While leaving it to more or less personal belief whether to see it as an ‘absolute’ or a ‘universal’, the idea of beauty certainly seems to me as rooted in both individual and historical features, and in the links these two components share (much through the means of ‘criticism-founded’ educational relations), and as such bound to evolve and change in time, as we, too, and history evolve and change.

Knowledge of ourselves and of the world around us highly depends on the consciousness we get of progress in time, of components and links, genes and contexts included. It is this consciousness that grants – to a notable extent - freedom of the mind, the means to either accept or refuse, evolve or change traditions and established modes.

 On this light I view the great revolutions that took place in the Arts in the past century with – just to name a few among the greatest - Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’ Avignon”. Duchamp’s “Fountain”, Fontana’s “Spatial Concepts”, and then (I should like to add) Louise Burgeoise’s “Maman”. Their works were, first of all, assertions of freedom, and as such they still convey strength and meanings.

 They changed the course of the history of Art, starting complex connections with surroundings that needed time to accept, assimilate, and then, in turn, evolve.

This deep, ceaseless process, however, does not - in its complexity - necessarily imply, to me, forgetting roots, and the appeal that still may come from the old masters. (I would never forget - in some kind of alphabetic order - Botticelli, Giotto, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Piero della Francesca, Simone Martini). One may think – rather - that still today they may act as ‘polar stars’ while we are finding new ways, daring to break through boundaries, and widen into the open.

 Evolution, today, and the sense of the new are, to a great extent, taking place through reciprocal exchanges between painting, sculpture, all the visual arts, and the use of the new technologies and media, calling for new attitudes and settings, and therefore even new sensitiveness, and new meanings.

 In this evolution memory of roots may help to overcome the risk – while in search of new aesthetic issues and themes - of turning to shock for its own sake, or withdrawing to a more and more intimate, ‘private’, even elitist dimension, giving up the idea of sharing the experience with others.

 In this case, in particular, memory of the masters may remind of their appeal which – in a unifying idea of the arts - I would associate to the one that comes when listening to music such as (in strict alphabetic order) the music of Bach, Beethoven, Brahams, Dylan, Lennon, Mahaler, or (my recent ‘discovery’) Puccini’s aria from “Turandot” sung by Neil Sedaka with his own words: “Turning back the hands of Time”.

(Plus: Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony;
Plus: "Casta Diva" from Bellini's Norma sung by Maria Callas;
Plus: . . . . . . . . . . . ).

The final warn may concern the very idea of dismissing with beauty, which – while asserting freedom of the mind – would, however, mean to consciously enter a different field of activity, to annul the aim by which one climbs his or her stairs – so to speak – and shuts himself / herself  in a studio (though bringing in links from the outside).

* * *

 The theme of beauty

 My very first painting, after Liliana Barbieri’s lessons, was - in French - : “La Fleur du Mal” (immediately followed by “La Fleur de la Clarté”). I perceive that painting as fully immersed in the Romantic idea of Evil as ultimately conveying Charm (then perhaps unconsciously ‘amended’ by an idea of purification and of naïveté - while meaning to perform the ‘eternal’ conflict between Good and Evil in human beings).

Outside Romantic spheres, however, we all experience – to various degrees – that there may be ugliness in nature, and ugliness and evil in life. This means, therefore, that the search for beauty, in itself, may not simply be unawareness, or heedlessness about reality. It may be, instead, coming straight out of despair.

 In addition – since beauty, in essence, conveys the sense of the new – its research may be the true antithesis to an idea of beauty meant as complacent conformism and kitsch, as an established, and  - therefore – often idly reassuring set of certitudes, or even mischievous mystification.

 One possible neutralizer against dangers may intuitively be perceived as coming in some peculiar form – in addition to, or together with the new technologies - from links with the sciences, and their seeking for symmetry and harmony, for the beauty of ‘perfect’ forms like the sphere, seen in nature - as an example - in the small dimensions of fragile, yet tense soap bubbles mirroring the colours of the rainbow, and then transposed to metaphysical planes, as in the idea of a globe becoming the symbol of infinity.

 A final help may come from viewing – once again – the visual arts, whether abstract or representational, as associated with the other arts, and as sharing with them, in depth (while keeping the distinctive traits of the visual experience), the connotations of tragedy and comedy we apply to drama and the theatre - the world’s stage - in all possible shades, from utter distress to sublime humour, to serenity, and - through love - to bliss.

 The issue, then, – as it takes place in the theatre - is an experience of final purification and renewal.

 Francis Bacon’s paintings, as an example, convey a sense of utter disquietude and distress, with no chance for relief. But it is the strength of that despair that calls for empathy in the viewer’s mind, and makes him or her share the depth of that experience.

 It is, then, this sharing of human experience, of human sensibilities and meanings that generates a sense of final catharsis, and through it a feeling of rebirth and epiphany which is ultimately what we also experience as beauty – a shape of beauty that, at this stage, may be also perceived as one with truth.

                                                                                                                       Marisa Mezzadra

 Milano, August 30th, 2010

P.S.
The English of "Within the Span of Time" and of "Part Two" is entirely 'mine'.