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Brilliant Ideas Episode #9:
Francesco Clemente

Pioneer of the Italian Transavantgarde
Concocting a Mixture of East and West

Francesco Clemente, Map of What is Effortless, 1978, Courtesy the artist and BlainSouthern
Francesco Clemente, Eye and I Self-Portrait II, 2005, Courtesy the artiost and BlainSouthern

The 1998 film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” was a visual treat, with several scenes reminiscent of fairy tales as the story was presented through the protagonist, a painter. The artist’s unique, elementary drawings of nature depicting fish, cats, seagulls and stars were contrasted with mature dark portraits. Although the dichotomy was quite stark, all the works featured in the film were created by a single artist: Italian painter Francesco Clemente.

A student of the classics, Clemente became interested in Eastern culture through his travels. Enchanted by the aesthetics of India in particular, the artist began to experiment in his work by blending East and West together. His ideas today fuse together Italy’s ancient art, literature, mythology and religion with classical Western elements. In the ninth episode of Brilliant Ideas brought to you by Bloomberg and Hyundai, meet the artist and his eclectic ideas.

A new wave of Italian art

Francesco Clemente, Blake at the Kumbha, 2008, Courtesy the artist and BlainSouthern

Clemente was born in the beautiful port city of Naples, in a family with aristocratic roots. From a young age, he displayed an exceptional talent in painting. Referring to himself as a “painter by default,” it was this disposition that played a decisive factor in his decision to leave his studies in architecture at the University of Rome to pursue art on his own. His early work was contemporary with the Arte Povera movement, which had been dominating the Italian field along with other conceptual art styles featuring everyday objects. However, Clemente and other artists such as Sandro Chia and Enzo Cucchi adhered to classical painting methods and mediums. His persistence eventually placed him at the forefront of the 1970s Transavantguardia movement in Italy. Chia, Clemente, Cucchi were even nicknamed the “Transavantguardia Trio,” recognized for their Neo-expressionist efforts to return to figurative painting, yet they maintained a certain distance from social and political issues of their time. Italian contemporary art critic and curator Achille Bonito Oliva identified the trio as the most unconstrained souls of all history. Clemente’s paintings, rich with unique form and painted on canvases of pure imagination and intuition, testify to that freedom. Timeless themes such the relationship between man and nature, life and death, are also found in the artist’s works, relevant to his interests honed through his experiences abroad.

Francesco Clemente, The dove of war, 2012, Courtesy the artist and BlainSouthern

To understand his art, it helps to first look at Clemente’s life of travel. As he once said: “My works are always associated with travel, and inseparably connected to the indigenous cultures of the places I traveled.” He first went overseas in 1972, exploring Afghanistan, India, Jamaica and Mexico, attracted by the charm of each culture. Clemente paid particular interest to the diverse cultural idiosyncrasies he experienced in each locale, and his paintings reflect those details as cumulative memory.

Portraying the charm of the East

Francesco Clemente, Emblems of Transformation 10, 2014, Courtesy the artist and BlainSouthern

Working across a range of media such as watercolor, pastel, fresco and oil, Clemente creates art that embodies metaphysical imagery and symbols loaned from exotic cultures. The different themes and styles, perspectives and emotions, techniques and materials he found in India allowed him to move beyond the Italian transavantgarde and into a novel realm that he would not have experienced had he stayed in Rome. While living in India, Clemente was most drawn to the country’s cultural and spiritual wholeness. He was inspired to create works that explore Hinduism, mixing in Western classicism through a distinctly Italian set of eyes. This approach often manifested itself in depictions of conflicting elements like life and death, male and female, day and night. He continued to draw on paper and sought new subjects for his work. With the human form, particularly the female figure, the artist created unique interpretations that emphasized sexuality, myth and spirituality. People are often his main subject, displayed in strange poses. Some of his paintings reveal female genitalia, plainly depict sexual activities, human excrement, and overall do not shy away grotesque imagery. All of these elements can be traced to his time in India, in response to the commonly seen sculptures of female deities that symbolize fertility, growth, abundance and prosperity.

Francesco Clemente, Self-Portrait as Judas, 2011, Courtesy the artist and BlainSouthern

From 1978 onwards, Clemente began self-portraiture in earnest, which was his way of giving physical form to the idea of meditation and self-reflection through yoga, a practice native to India. Through this form of art, one can gradually come to know the self, particularly through the act of peering into the inner self, and the act of finding one’s self at one with nature. By drawing his image onto a Hindu deity, the artist sought to express a common understanding amongst Indians that gods and humans share identical form.

Francesco Clemente, Name, 1983, Courtesy the artist and BlainSouthern

“The gods who left us thousands of years ago in Naples are still in India, so it’s like going home for me. In India, I can feel what it was like [in Italy] many years ago.” The artist’s comment is no exaggeration to the affection he holds for India where he has resided and worked frequently over the past several decades. For Clemente, India is where he discovered a desire to reclaim the bygone heritage of Naples, the strong pagan undertones of myriad symbols and myths that once populated the city in the south of Italy. Perhaps it was the nostalgia he experienced within a non-Western setting that kindled his desire to return to traditional painting. He returned to traditional painting materials—canvas, watercolor, pastel and paper—and experimented with ideas gained from philosophy, literature, myth and religion. Leaving behind abstract imagery, Clemente began to paint figurative forms in brilliant colors, and continues to maintain that style today. Clemente is a genuinely, yet unassumingly curious artist who can spend days in the library researching religious and spiritual texts, while also collaborating with Indian sign painters, miniaturists and papermakers. His works embody unique interpretations of the exotic. His paintings, which can range from the simple to the complex, always contain this history of discovery. What brilliant idea will Clemente present next, through his seamless mixing of diverse cultures in a single painting? ■ with ARTINPOST

  • Francesco Clemente <Anna Netrebko> 2008

    Courtesy the artist and BlainSouthern

    Francesco Clemente <Anna Netrebko> 2008, Courtesy the artist and BlainSouthern
  • Francesco Clemente <Blake at the Kumbha> 2008

    Courtesy the artist and BlainSouthern

    Francesco Clemente <Blake at the Kumbha> 2008, Courtesy the artist and BlainSouthern
  • Francesco Clemente <Emblems of Transformation 10> 2014

    Courtesy the artist and BlainSouthern

    Francesco Clemente <Emblems of Transformation 10> 2014, Courtesy the artist and BlainSouthern
  • Francesco Clemente <Emblems of Transformation 27> 2014

    Courtesy the artist and BlainSouthern

    Francesco Clemente <Emblems of Transformation 27> 2014, Courtesy the artist and BlainSouthern
  • Francesco Clemente <Eye and I Self-Portrait II> 2005

    Courtesy the artiost and BlainSouthern

    Francesco Clemente <Eye and I Self-Portrait II> 2005, Courtesy the artiost and BlainSouthern
  • Francesco Clemente <House of Cards> 2001

    Courtesy the artist and BlainSouthern

    Francesco Clemente <House of Cards> 2001, Courtesy the artist and BlainSouthern
  • Francesco Clemente <Jean-Michel Basquiat> 1982-1987

    Courtesy the artist and BlainSouthern

    Francesco Clemente <Jean-Michel Basquiat> 1982-1987, Courtesy the artist and BlainSouthern
  • Francesco Clemente <Map of What is Effortless> 1978

    Courtesy the artist and BlainSouthern

    Francesco Clemente <Map of What is Effortless> 1978, Courtesy the artist and BlainSouthern
  • Francesco Clemente <Name> 1983

    Courtesy the artist and BlainSouthern

    Francesco Clemente <Name> 1983, Courtesy the artist and BlainSouthern
  • Francesco Clemente <Self-Portrait as Judas> 2011

    Courtesy the artist and BlainSouthern

    Francesco Clemente <Self-Portrait as Judas> 2011, Courtesy the artist and BlainSouthern
  • Francesco Clemente <The dove of war> 2012

    Courtesy the artist and BlainSouthern

    Francesco Clemente <The dove of war> 2012, Courtesy the artist and BlainSouthern

Profile

Francesco Clemente

Francesco Clemente was born in Naples, Italy, in 1952. He is one of the most prominent artists of the Italian Neo-Expressionist movement of the 1980s, referred to as the Trans-Avantgarde (Transavantguardia). Though in his youth, Clemente’s interest lay in poetry and painting, he was formally trained in architecture, but painting eventually inspired him to become a formidable self-taught painter. Clemente uses diverse materials such as oil paints, pastels, watercolors, and prints in his works to explore and capture observations of human appearance, sexuality, mythology, spirituality, and non-Western symbolism. The artist has long been an audience favorite for the eccentric and curious figures in his works.
Clemente has been active, presenting in numerous solo and group shows. During the 1990s, major retrospective shows were presented internationally at distinguished venues, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Royal Academy in London, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. His work was also featured in the movie ‘Great Expectations’ which premiered in 1998. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the artist lives and works in New York, Madras, and Rome.

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