Critical Texts

Alberto Agazzani


From 18 October to 2 November 2014 at Convento di Santo Spirito, ex Carceri Via Merliano, Nola (NA)
Exhibition promoted by: Department of Cultural Heritage of Nola - On the patronage of Diocese of Nola; Partner: Foundation of the Lilies; In collaboration with: Associazione Culturale Meridies and Pandora Cultural Association
Project Management: Galleria Gagliardi San Gimignano
curated by Alberto Agazzani  with crytical text by Stefano Gagliardi
The island of the living
The essence of Painting, at least as it is conceived in its noblest and most ancient nature, is knowing how to see beyond appearances, to reach the essence of reality itself through a sensually recognisable representation. Portraying the invisible and, why not, the impossible too, is a prerogative of painting alone. No visual language could ever portray that which does not or which no longer physically exists. And it is in this, which is the heart of the expressive research of Ciro Palumbo (and of very few others in a contemporaneity which is otherwise totally distracted by the horrors of reality), that the epic origin of pictorial representations lies; these origins can be inevitably retraced to the aleph of Western culture, between Jerusalem and Athens. In both traditions, which are surprisingly similar, the birth of art took place to fill the gap of an absence, of something which is no longer there, which is no longer visible, which now belongs to the metaphysical. In his Naturalis Historia, Pliny the Elder says how in Greece: “The potter Butades of Sicyon was the first to discover the art of modelling portraits in clay; this took place in Corinth and he owed his invention to his daughter, who was in love with a young man. As the latter had to leave for a foreign land, she traced the shadow of his face projected onto the wall by the light of a lantern, with a line; Butades pressed clay along those lines to reproduce the face; he left it to dry with his other products and put it in the kiln to bake”. In the Jewish-Christian tradition, the first “artistic” image can be traced back to the Holy Veil of Veronica (from “vera-eikon”, the “True Image”), the origin of which is narrated by various apocryphal stories (but not by the synoptic gospels, which speak only of a woman who had been haemorrhaging blood1 who was later identified as Saint Veronica), which became legendary in the Late Middle Ages, becoming part of tradition: the veil used by the saint to wash Christ’s face on the road to Golgotha and on which, miraculously, his face was left imprinted.
In both episodes the invention of art originates from an absence and as a way to soothe the pain caused by it through a new “revelation”. 
Portraying the invisible means revealing reality to unveil its essence. This is why painting is always a betrayal of what is visible, of physical reality, hiding it and reducing it to a mere pretext for reaching somewhere else, completely metaphysical. No pictorial representation, not even those that can be likened to the most extreme forms of realism, can ever coincide with reality itself. And this applies even more so to the visionary, theatrically scenographic and impossible representations triggered by Palumbo’s timeless mind. With strength and determination, Palumbo has always decided to pursue a style of painting which is proudly different from the often empty and ephemeral urgencies of a certain extreme contemporaneity, entering a timeless dimension. Only in this way does Palumbo convey shape to his ideals and form to his dreams: impossible images filled with equally profound mysteries, which can but trigger questions, perplexities and doubts, never answers and least of all certainties.
Palumbo’s paintings, antique in terms of technique but not in soul, escape any classification and any evident classical mythological reference, in the same way that they are not realistic in the strict sense, moving within the fascinating scope of the invention and never of a mimesis referable to what is visible. Despite this elusiveness, Palumbo’s pictures create and transmit serene and joyful emotions, like pictures of “stories without a story”, born in the insatiable imagination of an eternal child.
With regard to Palumbo’s painting, mention has often been made, with evident but superficial reason, of the influence of Arnold Boecklin or of the different metaphysics of the brothers de Chirico and Savinio. Palumbo referred more than once to those illustrious references, perhaps without realising that his expressivity and his painting went much further, “digesting” and assimilating those expressive lessons which would otherwise be anachronistic today, transporting their essence, that is their evident mystery, to another, new metaphysical dimension, stripped of the restlessness and obsessions which, had they degenerated, would have infected the whole “age of angst”.
In his maturity, of which this cycle inspired by Brueghel the Elder definitely represents a decisive part, the metaphysical element evoked by Palumbo was quickly released from the anxious restlessness of the old masters (to which I add Massimo Rao, closer in time and more expressively contemporary), reaching a dimension filled differently with playful mystery. It is true that, for Palumbo, everything is an island, but it is still a desirable and desired place, to be reached to escape consciously from an otherwise hostile reality. Palumbo’s islands, always floating in oceanic skies or overhead seas, where “God’s mill” spins, are more similar to the enchanted island of Armida than to Boecklin’s Isle of the Dead. A place of the imagination, of desire and of theatre. And of life.
Theatre. How important is the meaning of theatrical staging in Ciro Palumbo’s painting? And in trying to offer an answer, we are reminded of Massimo Rao, another (much missed) creator of paintings much more similar to theatrical images, and consequently impossible, than to more or less real visions. Everything in Palumbo’s pictures refers to the theatre: sets, wings, lighting effects, theatrical machinery of improbable baroque origin. The very inspiration triggered by Brueghel the Elder is more the product of mysterious, silent, extremely theatrical (and extraordinary) film by Polish director Lech Majewski (The Mill and the Cross, 2011) than of the great and famous painting kept in Vienna, in which every metaphysical element passes inevitably through man’s miserable condition.
The big mill in the centre of the Flemish painting, which symbolises a dominant God but also, on the contrary, the fatigue of living, is transformed by Palumbo into an “island of the living”, a new and unexpected place of the spirit and of painting, a new destination which imposes a new journey into the invisible.
Far away are the problems and afflictions of reformed tormented Flanders, in the same way that the afflictions of our time are far away: this is not a central sphere of investigation for Palumbo. What interests the contemporary painter is, once again, the investigation of a mystery, not of a reality, and not the production of works with a declared religious intent (in actual fact the religious aspect of this spirit was somewhat eliminated by Brueghel, who was more interested in earthly “things” than in theological investigations). Palumbo’s interest in the Panic mystery of the landscape, made emblematic specifically by the large, lone mill, is the unquenchable desire to probe the infinite mystery of painting. Once again, Palumbo immerses himself in his visions, in that metaphysical obsession which takes him on a journey to other shores and other islands, challenging time and space, physics and every possible reality. Here, painting reacquires and confirms its extraordinary record for the portrayal of the invisible, of the transcendental, of a “something” which, for some people, coincides with God and, for others, with a metaphysical element which has still to be proven. And it is in this that the strength and, in many ways, the uniqueness of this style of painting and of Palumbo’s paintings lie. 
Here, like all the painting that can authentically claim to be such, we see one of the most incontrovertible elements of proof of the existence of an “elsewhere”, of the existence of God. It is not possible to make a pictorial representation where there is no acceptance of the existence of an “other” dimension. Painting is always an act of faith, regardless of the desire or otherwise of its actual creator.
Observing Palumbo’s paintings means allowing yourself to be seduced by his pure expressivity, free from complex conceptualisms. Palumbo’s painting, and this is where its uniqueness and value lie, does not hide, does not subtract itself from the viewer’s gaze but, on the contrary, aims to seduce and communicate, capturing the observer and carrying him away to another, magical, suspended, real, albeit impossible, dimension. The metaphysical mystery of God, like that of Painting, cannot be explained in human tongues or by any form of logic. Both require an unconditional act of Faith because only by believing is reality possible. The whole story of art is a story of ideas and subjects that pass, change and are renewed. The mystery that pulls the strings remains constant, along with the thousand questions to which the artist adds his own: “You don’t paint ideas, you don’t paint a “subject”. There are only mysteries. There are only questions”.
Galleria Gagliardi - 2014: personal exhibition  "i Mulini di Dio" by Ciro Palumbo -curated by Alberto Agazzani
1. Mark 5, 25-34; Mathew 9, 20-22; Luke 8, 43-48