‘it’s not reality we need but an escape route.’
Velasco Vitali, 2007
In crossing the threshold of fifty with renewed and contagious vitality, Velasco Vitali has found a new and exciting ‘escape route’ here in Pietrasanta, in an extraordinary urban dimension, amidst the airy sequences of the sloping square and the dark ritual spaces of the church. These spaces have provided him with ideal surroundings in which to continue the comparison, which has grown ever closer in recent years, between sculpture and painting, intersecting routes he has already travelled, such as the theme of dogs and the pack ,with unprecedented inventions of imposing and dramatic visual impact. Such as the mysterious metal hull carried along the edge of the square by two men whose faces cannot be seen and the two monumental canvases that occupy with their intrusive decorative force, dedicated to the motif of the crowd (new but which can in a certain sense be connected to the world he finds so congenial, that of the city), the regular perimeter of the Sala del Capitolo. At the end of the route through the exhibition, in the Sala dei Putti, the moulds of the two bronze telamones, smeared and modelled in tar, are located in a long corridor of sheet metal, along with two pairs of watercolours, each of which depicts a pair of dogs, and take us back, in a moving retracing of steps, to the origin of this singular creative process. At this point it is only natural to reflect on everything that we have already seen andto imagine, in this last space alluding to the workshop, the artist engaged in his continual struggle with materials and techniques. The great metaphysical has turned into a mysterious mechanic who has left his canvases, his beloved palette with its cunningly juxtaposed oil paints, his sheets of paper and his favourite watercolours couched in a surprising range of effects lying in his Milanese studio-garage in order to bend sheets of iron, model bronze and aluminium, knead cement and tar and pour pitch, but also to slowly lay on sheets of gold leaf as if in a ritual. The personal suggestions of technique are translated into the hazards of a bold and concerted technology where Velasco Vitali and his collaborators tenaciously seek a series of effects, experimenting with painful scratches, violent sutures between metals, magic coatings and stunning reflections of surfaces polished to a mirror. In this always surprising capacity to deal with the traces of an experimentation determined by the continual metamorphosis of the material, made different each time by the unrepeatability of the creative process, what re-emerges is the force of a natural versatility that has been apparent ever since his precocious start, when at the age of eight the eager young member of an artistic family defiantly presented his first picture. (‘Even as a little boy,’ here calls, ‘and I mean when I was just five, my answer to the question of what I was going to be when I grew up was always a flat: “painter.” Never, not even by mistake, policeman, fireman or pilot. No: a painter, like my dad!’) But the flair of the born painter would always be backed up by a firm and tough discipline.
Revealing himself to Giovanni Testori, who was the first to recognize his talent, as ‘above all a draughtsman,’ Velasco Vitali had an irresistible natural bent for drawing, a ‘great passion,’ as Alessandro Riva has written, ‘consumed, assailed, taken to its extreme consequences, to the point of destruction and overload, never left to die of boredom and neglect.’ In order to get a better understanding of what drawing has meant and continues to mean for him, it may be helpful to read what Baudelaire had to say of Delacroix in his review of the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1855, trying to correct the absurd and banal criticism made of his drawing. In it he declared that good drawing was ‘not a hard, cruel, despotic and rigidline, imprisoning a form like a strait-jacket,’ but that it ‘should be like nature, alive and in motion,’ because ‘simplification in drawing is a monstrosity, like tragedy in the world of the theatre.’ In fact ‘nature presents us with an infinite series of curved, receding and crooked lines, following an impeccable law of generation, in which parallelism is always vague and sinuous and concavities and convexities correspond with and pursue one another.’ Delacroix‘ admirably satisfies all these conditions’ and ‘even though his drawing may admit of occasional weakness or excesses, it has at least the enormous merit of being a constant and effective protest against the barbarous invasion of the straight line—that tragic, systematic line whose present ravages in painting and in sculpture are already enormous.’I am fairly sure that Velasco Vitali, an avowed fan of Delacroix and his great exegete,has shared this vital poetics of excess ever since the time when, in 1982, he had begun to plunge ‘every day headlong into the wood,’ ‘drawing a hundred times’ he remembers,‘as an exercise that I had imposed on myself, leaves, trunks and trees.’Thus in 1993 he was still able to show at the Compagnia del Disegno in Milan large pieces of cloth on which he had reproduced in monumental solitude a number of elements of plants, such as a root, a leaf, the segment of a trunk. Here he proved to be a passionate botanist, with a line whose dazzling analytical force harked back to the fierce graphic work of Dürer or Holbein, while the immersion in nature retained a restlessness that recalls the Gothic shivers that ran through Manzoni’s Renzo, another child of lake Como, when he got lost, before finding his ‘escape route’ to Bergamo, which represented safety for him, in thedreadful thick scrub along the banks of the river Adda: ‘He passed through a thicket ofplum-trees and oaks, and found himself on the borders of a wood; he conquered his repugnance to enter it, but as he proceeded into its depths, every object excited his apprehensions. Strange forms appeared beneath the bushes; and the shade of the trees, trembling on his moon-litpath, with the crackling of the dead leaves between his footsteps, inspired him with dread.’ But the scenery of Vitali’s graphic adventures could also radically change, when the direct relationship with nature, perhaps mediated by literary influences, gave way to a confrontation with the immanent and hypnotic dimension of the television screen. ‘Several years ago,’ recalled the artist in 2003, ‘I had made a whole series of drawings directly from image son the TV, while I was watching the Giro d’Italia: I drew them like that, straight off, without ever stopping to think or look at what I had already done, as if I were seeing the Giro from life.’ This experience is reminiscent of one of his finest undertakings, when in 1993 he took on Testori’s masterpiece Il Dio di Roserio, a novel published in 1951 about ayoung mechanic from the working-class neighbourhood of Milan who became a legend for his talent as a cyclist. In a work that is something more than and very different from the mere illustration of a literary text, he showed an extraordinary ability to translate visually the expressive and dynamic force of the word, of the heroic and defiant rhythm of that book. He could not have paid a better and more heartfelt tribute to the man who had clearly grasped his ability, right from the beginning. After inviting him to take part in an exhibition on Artists and Writers staged at the Rotonda della Besana in Milan in 1984, Testori wrote: ‘There is nothing of the aesthetic in him, in the choice of used, stained and worn pieces of cardboard and wood and old sheets of paper, often drawn on by who knows what other, ancient hand: even though, with the same clarity, it should be said that there is inhim, in doing this, a great, an extreme tension towards what the French, untranslatably,call morbide; and that perhaps we could describe as a permanent state of psychologicalpathology. In short, in order for relicts to turn into relics, it is necessary for Vitali that noconflict should arise among his pencils, his watercolours, his temperas, his inks, his erasers,his fingertips and his gravers, in a word amongst his whole arsenal of media and supports;indeed he needs an absolute complicity to be established between them.’This apt diagnosis of the resources of a craft ever more confident in the way that it anticipates, as if in a sort of magical trance, all the possible reactions stimulated by the use of different materials and technical procedures, brings us back to that original and exclusiveobsession with drawing and paper. Vitali himself has confessed: ‘I started my workas an artist doing nothing but drawing, with the secret thought that I was never going to paint a canvas. Paper was part of my forming, my being in the world. Paper for me has always been the ideal support: for it has always given me the idea that it is easier to tear up than canvas. It is such a plain support that it poses me no problem of respect, while on canvas I always have the feeling I should do something finished. With paper I have a more nimble, more direct relationship, to the point that I always hope to be able to paint like I draw. And I have to admit that I’ve always drawn like crazy. And again: ‘I’ve done everything with paper, I’ve taken it, I’ve mistreated it, I’ve drawn on it in charcoal, I’ve torn it to pieces, I’ve looked for all kinds of paper, from old sheets tothe backings of frames.’
Velasco Vitali was prompted to make the shift from graphic art to painting, from drawing to colour, by a highly personal experimental procedure in which the fortuitousness of lifeended up playing a substantial role. He recalls, in fact, how his first pictures had been ‘born on paper out of an attempt at destruction of the picture’ itself. ‘I took the drawing,’ he explains‘and started to colour it: the result was always a failure. Faced with this failure I took the sheet of paper and threw it in the bathtub, and when it began to soak I saw that something appeared, an image, a sinopia, an X-ray of what I had done up to then; then I took itall out and recomposed the picture. I kept even the destroyed parts: today I still have,’ headmits, ‘whole drawers full of obliterated, half-destroyed pieces of paper, bits and scraps of drawings, as I always think that some time or other they might be useful; and every sooften I miraculously find a piece that’s just right and stick it onto another drawing. ’For Vitali finding at last the ‘escape route’ of painting has been a sort of romantic revelation, stemming from the conviction that ‘rationally,’ as he has said, ‘the language of painting is indecipherable because it is generated in a dark zone that lies between the idea that precedes the image and the laying on of the paint, between thought, imagination and the mark left on the canvas.’ This admission calls to mind what the much admired Friedrich had argued around 1830, in what was at the time a shocking invitation: ‘Shut your physical eye and look first at your picture with your spiritual eye, then bring to the light of daywhat you have seen in the darkness, so that it may react on others from the outside inwards.[...] The painter should not paint only what he sees in front of him, but what he sees within himself; and if he sees nothing within, he should refrain from painting what he sees without, because then his paintings will be screens, behind which are hidden only illness or death. ’So painting that is first of all a ‘mental attitude,’ treated by Vitali as ‘a fragile medium,’one that in his own words is ‘doomed to vanish in the hands of its creator, even before it takes shape,’ that ‘renounces the idea of mimicry to hear its inner murmur, to identify the soul of the picture.’Extracting the picture from the darkness becomes a struggle, just as it did for all the Romantics, and Pino Corrias, after observing him at work, was able to represent Velasco Vitali’s struggle very well when he inserted this unforgettable passage in his essay for the catalogue of the fundamental Extramoenia exhibition of 2005: ‘When he is in his studio Velasco paints with strained muscles and bulging veins. He paints surrounded by brushes, pieces of wood, paints, jars of turpentine, rags, sheets of paper, charcoal crayons, rolled-up sketches, piles of canvases. The total mess isolates and reassures him. Painting for him is a sort of combat. He approaches and then steps back from the canvas. He hang sit up, turns it upside down, lays it on the floor. He works with extraordinary speed, even if his painting is virtually endless. He says: “I can retouch a picture for days. So much so that what is in front of me is never finished. It’s the picture that asks me to do it... And it is I who one day says enough and lets it dry.”’All this ardour, this rapidity of execution seems to be that of a savage, a wild beast who, like Delacroix or Pollock, attacks the demon of painting and succeeds in taming it, withoutfear of comparison with the great masters of the past, above all Caravaggio, Velázquez and Manet, eventually finding in the ‘rummaged space of memory’ new but never definitive narrative signals. The oneiric, visionary dimension, and his natural propensity for realism, helped him todeal with the terrible natural disaster of the flood in Valtellina that in 1987 devastated and degraded the Lombard landscape. Like his Romantic heroes, Delacroix, Géricault and Friedrich,Vitali too has become a pitiless painter-reporter who has known how to confront the incomprehensible cruelty of events and exalt universal feelings in the midst of so much suffering. This has not stopped him from with drawing into the mountains and devoting himself,for an entire season, to drawing nothing but flowers, just as Courbet, Manet and van Gogh had done. Obsessed with colour and spending a long time over the preparation of his palette,he has always been convinced that ‘the idea has to be born out of the pigment, and it is as if the painting were generated,’ he has declared, ‘from the very substance of which it is made. ’Thinking of the power of paint linked to an intense emotional process, Stanza 4049, shown in 2007 at the exhibition in Sondrio on Images, Forms and Nature of the Alps, represents a true masterpiece where, in a space shared between painting and sculpture, twenty-two blocks of sheet iron polished with emery lay on the ground, engaged in a heroic dialogue with the pictures on the walls dominated by the absolute solitude and ‘natural beauty’ of the eternal glaciers between the Piz Bernina and the Piz Roseg. In it we find the same anxiety over the unknown and the divine that is communicated to us by the magnificent disquiet of Friedrich’s The Sea of Ice, with its frozen slabs blocking the field of view and invading our soul. Velasco Vitali’s imagery, in reality already shaped by his early experiences of the Alp he had wandered through as a child and never forgotten, would be fed over time by his immersion in another landscape no longer represented by dizzy and yet reassuring natural vistas, but by the desolate but exhilarating labyrinths of our degraded cities, from Milanto Ragusa, in that much-loved Sicily he had got to know through both gripping direct experience and the pages of the writer Gesualdo Bufalino, without any concession to the picturesque.His pictures show it to us, by means of incandescent fragments of coloured material and light, in all its cruel, humiliated and despairing grandeur.
In the pages of Giovanni Testori’s Gran teatro montano (one of the memorable Essays on Gaudenzio Ferrari of 1965), where the history of art assumes the fascinating cadence of militant criticism, among the infinite details picked out in the great painted and sculpted scene of the Crucifixion in Chapel XXXVIII of the Sacro Monte of Varallo, we find the ‘amazing apparition of the little dog; Gaudenzio’s own dog, I believe, as it often turns up in his works; the little dog that must have followed him everywhere; and wandered around here, while the Master worked [...]. ’There can be no doubt that Velasco Vitali, guided like all of us by those unforgettable pages and perhaps in his case by his friend Testori in person, was struck by that surprising animal moulded in clay, fired and then painted, which, as one of the few cheerful notes in that savage and harrowing crowd around the Cross, seems to come to meet us. His dogs too are an example of sculpture that is born from painting and there is a temptation, after this first comparison with Gaudenzio, to look for other possible influences, from the aristocratic and extremely elegant greyhounds that are set like mute and impenetrable idolsin the foreground of the fresco of Saint Sigismund and Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta in the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini to the controversial mongrels modelled in terracotta by Cecioni (in particular the one that is defecating, arching its back and with its tail held straight out, in the Gonelli collection in Florence), the example of the rare Cinerco dell’Etna breed that crouches at the feet of the two deities in Canova’s marble group of Venusand Adonis and the strange creature resembling the dog-headed god Anubis at the centre of Carlo Carrà’s painting The Daughters of Lot. We could list many other examples, but it would be a pointless and perhaps specious excursion into iconography. Perhaps what Luca Doninelli has written will help us to understand better the unique character of Vitali’s dogs, directly inspired by the strays that the artist encountered in his cities and especially in those of Sicily. Cities made up of ‘houses built without planning permission,’ as Doninelli commented when they were presented at the Extramoenia exhibition staged at Palazzo Belmonte Riso in Palermo in 2004 and immediately afterward sat the Palazzo della Ragione in Milan. Constructed ‘out of wire mesh, or iron rods, and cements lapped on with a trowel, they do not just embody a typically Italian landscape—the sunny street, the open gate, the dry ditch, and the stray dog crossing the road, and you don’t know if it will be friendly or not. In their precarious and illegal origin, in their homelessness, in their perennial wandering, they are at the same time the true custodians of the land, the offspring both of a unique landscape and some pagan deity, perhaps the heirs of the dogs that, obedient to an order that could not be revoked, tore their still beloved Actaeonto pieces.’Possible self-portraits of Vitali, these animals cannot help but reflect the destiny of human beings. Does not the touching dog perched on a straw-bottomed stool, shown in 2006 at the Tana exhibition held in the understage of the CRT, Teatro dell’Arte, in Milan,belong, in its attitude and its despairing solitude, to the bunch of castaways clinging to Géricault’s Raft of the ‘Medusa’? But it would be better, having reached this point, to conclude on the note of hope that emerges from one of Sandro Penna’s Appunti:
‘Oh in the night the dog
that barks in the distance.
In the day is just the dog
that licks your hand.’
in Sbarco, Skira 2010, Milano, Palazzo Reale e Piazza Duca D'Aosta, catalogue of the exhibition