He is probably best known not as painter, but as the cropped head, with dark-lashed eyes and a three-day growth of designer stubble, staring soulfully from the ad for the designer wear of Comme des Garcons. Such a public and commercial act illustrates something of the ambiguity of the visionary artist Francesco Clemente.
Born in Naples in 1952, he has made his home in New York, with long spells spent in Madras. Clemente likes the buzz, the bustle, and the colour that these cities offer. Coming from a cultured family – his parents published a collection of his juvenile poetry when he was twelve – he trained as an architect, before turning to painting. Clemente has always claimed to be more influenced by poetry than by art. “I am a fan of poets,” he says. “I think of all art forms as voice. For me, man’s greatest moment must have come before painting, writing or music, when there was only the voice”.
For the young Clemente, the poets of the Beat Generation were living symbols of true artists. In the street, credibility and spirituality met. He was drawn to the Beats’ rejection of academic values and social structures in favour of the search for the self. Theirs was a path of exploration, the spiritual made flesh in daily repetitive acts.
Francesco Clemenete Pinxit
Clemente also warmed to Kerouac and Ginsberg’s interest in Eastern philosophy. Ginsberg, with whom Clemente has on several occasions collaborated, once described him as a “Blake-inspired painter”. For to enter into Clemente’s works is to enter into an esoteric cosmology of his own making: a world of symbols that appear to be archetypes, but which are wholly idiosyncratic, and unrelated to any historic imagery.
Clemente’s formative years were influenced by the Italian movement of the late 1960s and 1970s known as Arte Povera, which used unorthodox non-art materials borrowed from the scrap heap in its rejection of ‘high art’ and market demands. As a way out of the intellectual closure of much of the period’s art, he developed an affinity to the alchemical leanings of artists such as Janis Kounellis and the shamanistic possibilities suggested by Joseph Beuys. With his first trip to India in 1973, Clemente was to find not only “gods who left us a thousand years ago in Naples”, but a diversity of spiritual and visual images: temples, beggars, garish film posters and plaster gods – a sensory kaleidoscope that was to revitalise his imagination.
His time in India began a prolific period in which he drew on classical, as well as Indian mythology. He collaborated with local craftsmen, young miniature painters from Jaipur, Tamil board painters and paper makers from Pondicherry. He was drawn back to the ritualistic possibilities of art and also to the body, as if responding with his Italian sensibilities to the eroticism of Hinduism.
Clemenete has never been interested in a minimalist honing-down, but rather, like an exotic Walt Whitman, to opening himself up to whatever influences have fed him. One of the most extraordinary works from this period is the series of twenty-four miniatures Francesco Clemenete Pinxit, painted in gouache on pages from an antique Persian book from which the text has been eradicated. Although executed by Indian assistants, the ideograms are entirely Clemente’s. Esoteric and hard to read, he has produced a unique microcosm. Maimed and able-bodied youths cavort through formal Indian landscapes: a hermaphrodite lays an egg into a spoon, another excretes turds that turn to delicate decorative flowers, and there is the portentous symbol of the hand with the severed finger.
Insofar as Clemente is ever didactic, this severance serves to remind us of the psychic disasters that can ensue if we cut off from our physical nature. Clemente is not un-aware that the eroticism inherent in Tantric yoga is spiritual. The image of the hand is recurrent: elsewhere whole and inclusive, it rises like a great colossus from the oceans to hold a map of the world.
By contrast to the Indian paintings, those executed in New York are vibrant, edgy and colourfully expressionistic. Self-portraits abound, as if to paint, and paint again, one’s own image is to define existence. A body made of eyes sits on a bandaged head, emphasising that ‘seeing’ is not intellectual but visceral. There is a luminosity, a bringing together of fragments, emphasised in the numerous twins and doubles. Despite his geographical schizophrenia, Clemente knows that, as the poet Robert Creeley said, “The local is not a place but a place in a given man – what part of it he has been compelled or else brought by love to give witness to him own mind. And that is the form, that is the whole thing, as whole as it can get”.
Francesco Clemente Three Worlds at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from 21 October 1990 to 23 December 1990 and then the Royal Academy of Arts
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 1990
Images © Francesco Clemente
Published in New Statesman