The Numinous Of The Every Day Sight
– Published on the occasion of the collaboration exhibition at Castel Dell'Ovo, Napoli, Italy
(7 – 28 June 2012)
– Text by Tony Godfrey
Like most people today I have only a vague understanding of Latin so I instantly and lazily read lux lumina as meaning “luminous light”. However words and what they have come to mean over the years are complex: recourse to a proper dictionary gives a bigger range of meanings: “the light of lights”, “the light of eyes”, “eye’s eyesight”, “the glory of light”, “clarity of light”, “light of understanding”. Furthermore, we may ask, does not lumen sounds close to numen - spirit? So, we see that this title chosen by Filippo Sciascia for recent work is no banal tautology, but rather a complex web of possible meanings. What then we may ponder is light (lux) in these recent paintings? What does it do?
If we look at the painting JD we see an image he has painted several times, that of Renée Jeanne Falconetti playing the title role in the film La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc by Carl Dreyer. Where do we see the light here? What is it? As mimetic representation it is the light of the sun revealing a face, but then we recall this is a painting of a film - one of the last silent movies ever made and we ask, “is the light being represented that of a celluloid movie projected?” But of course we are unlikely to be thinking of the sun or the technology of film projection when we look at this painting: our first response is that we are looking at the face of a young woman with cropped hair. Yet any amorous response is probably replaced by sympathy if we recognise the film and know that this moment in the film is when she has had her hair cropped as a humiliating punishment and preparation for being burnt alive as a witch (or for defying English control of France). If one thing above all catches our eyes it is her eyes. What is she looking at we may ask? At the priests who question her? Or at something else that is not actually visible to the naked eye? In the film’s concluding scenes when she is actually being burnt she stares longingly at either a flock of birds wheeling in the air or else the crucifix held towards her by the young priest Jean Massieu (played by Antonin Artaud). But these things are clearly symbolic. Embedded in our experience of the film is the belief that, despite her fear, pain and uncertainty, she can see God or salvation and that we too can see in her eyes - or in the many tears that course her cheeks and reflecting the lights too - some reflection of that same vision.
If it is not an erotic film it is very much about a man with a camera looking at a young woman . The other films Sciascia has used as a source for images (Greenaway’s Pillow Book Story, Pasolini’s Salo and Kubrick’s Eyes wide shut) all have a high erotic content; all are very visual films where one is aware of the camera as an active participant both in viewing and recording. In Sciascia’s paintings there is often a spectator, like Falconetti, within, their eyes fixed on us or else, beyond at some other thing. We will return to their eyes later.
He insists that he responds not just to a single purloined image but the entire film. Indeed it is not just that the images of his paintings are derived from films, rather that there is something profoundly cinematic about how his eye works, or how he makes our eyes work. For instance, we should note the way in a painting such as Crowd Expat 03 how, one by one, the faces of a crowd are revealed. This is very close to the way Dreyer’s camera slowly pans across the
faces of the judges and priests - who at his insistence wore no make-up so every bump and wrinkle was exposed. One could also recall the way Pasolini’s camera lingered on the faces in his films.
By now (2012) he has painted this image of Falconetti perhaps twenty times, the first time as far back as when he was in high school. Why this recurrent return? (Firstly, it should be noted he always uses a different still from the movie.) Indeed we see him returning to the same images again and again. Normally, I would suggest, because, even when they are of an everyday nature, they combine a possibility for an inner luminosity with a sense of the immanent or numinous - as is clearly the case with Lumen Figure 2 where a naked figure seems transfixed in prayer, but also in an image such as Last Shelter which seems to represent some key moment of a dance or drama.
But there is a tension here and of course in JD also between acting and reality (Falconetti is not in fact Joan of Arc); also between an form that moves in time (dance or film) and one that is paused permanently in time (painting) for, lest we forget, we are actually looking at a painting, albeit one made with gesso, not paint per se. Here he uses matter much as, for example Manet, used stratagems of paint: to lure you in with apparent human contact and then push you back. Often, as has been remarked on, Manet will have a figure in his painting who looks back at you or beyond, Olympia and the barmaid of the Folies-Bergère all call us in with their eyes, attract us by their self-absorption, but the surface, especially the apparent incompletion of the face holds us back from immersion, reminds us this is nought but a painted surface. As Richard Wollhem has written “paintings that contain a spectator in the picture are potentially in deep trouble,” because we get absorbed in this human empathy, this illusory eye-to-eye contact, see it as story or empathetic experience and forget it is a painting. Like Manet Sciascia pulls you in and pushes you out again. But we should point out here that whereas Manet responded to the camera, Sciascia responds to the movie camera. This is a crucial distinction - if Sciascia’s work is a meditation on light, time and looking in Western Painting it is a twenty-first century mediation, one perceived not just through painting but through video, installation and such computer devices as Morfo.
The light seems to literally be in Falconetti’s eyes (and eyes often seem accentuated in his work - though on occasion teeth). This is what we expect: language is full of connections between eyes, light and life. We talk of eyes growing dim or bright with life. Indeed the light seems inside Falconetti, as though she was illumined from within. We talk of an “inner light” and the paintings seems to have this light within themselves, to be disclosing this light or letting this light seep out into the room or space we are in. This is of course one of the underpinning metaphors of painting, that it can contain light - we talk of “the light in Rembrandt or Caravaggio”. (Sciascia’s most explicit meditation on light in the Western painting tradition has been a set of thirteen paintings based on compositions by Caravaggio.) It is also a constant metaphor in poetry, that the eyes, especially those of a beautiful woman, or her lips are illuminated by an inner light, as for example when Dante asks “What is a smile if not a flashing out (corruscazione) of the soul’s delight, that is a light (lume) manifesting what is within).” The Feast II, viii, II1
This light, or illusion of light, has much, of course, to do with how the paintings are made - with gesso - a material which keeps a cleaner more permanent white than paint. The inherent conceit in his paintings is that the light is behind or within this gesso. In his use of gesso he is close to the Belgian sculptor Lili Dujourie who has frequently used gesso likewise as a prima materia to suggest an uncanny stillness, as if folded garments have become ossified, frozen in time. It has a bone dryness when set that seems colder, harder and more permanent than paint. By mixing black into it is as though he is chasing shadows into this inert material. This emphasis on whiteness may recall the white monochromes of Piero Manzoni or Robert Ryman - or the “symphonies in white” of Whistler - though Sciascia’s intentions are very different. Perhaps more importantly they recall the folded white garments or drapery that is so lovingly painted in painters such as Caravaggio, Philip de Champaigne or Zurbaran. A whiteness that is often associated with meditation or spiritual exercise, often specifically of a mink or nun’s robe.
It is difficult not to see this experience of light, and of white, as religious, something Sciascia acknowledges in conversation though he adds that, “the most basic thing is dawn.” In English this sensation of there being a connection between the luminous and the numinous is perhaps most famously described by the poet Wordsworth who, writing fourteen years after the event tells of climbing a mountain in Wales before daybreak,
When at my feet the ground appear’d to brighten,
And with a step or two seem’d bright still;
Nor had I time to ask the cause of this.
For instantly a Light upon the turf
Fell like a flash: I look’d about, and lo!
The Moon stood naked in the Heavens, at height
Immense above my head.....’
Light precedes revelation in nature just as much in early Renaissance paintings a line of light shoots from God to Mary as Gabriel enters her room. It is important here to note that Wordsworth uses everyday words, not the artificial poetic language of the Eighteenth century. (Similarly Sciascia often uses very everyday images.) We can find many references by Romantic painters contemporary to Wordsworth to this interconnectedness of light and the spiritual, the German Philipp Otto Runge going so far as to say in a letter of 1803 that in the three basic colours of blue, red and yellow he saw the “simple symbol of the Holy Trinity”. To him, black and white were not mere colours since “light is goodness, and darkness is evil”. J M W Turner’s supposed last words were more blunt: “The sun is God.” Like Turner, Caspar David Friedrich (a man who advised other painters to ‘see a picture first with their “inner eye” before bringing it to the light of day’) often had the setting or rising sun not just as background but as the implicit centre of a painting.
How does Sciascia respond to this romantic legacy of light-orientated pantheism?
In Lux Lumen of 2011 a figure stands with his hands raised high: his head is bleached away by the sun behind - or rather the camera - for, as always, Sciascia is working with a photograph - could not register the head against so strong a light. It was in Grunewald’s painting of the Resurrection that for the first time light and the person became synonymous: the head of the risen Christ melting into or emerging out of the sun. Such a conceit was extended by Casper David Friedrich who, as we have already noted, frequently placed a figure against a sun so that they seemed backlit, irradiating the figure and by inference the painting’s viewer too.
In Sciascia’s video lux lumina we see a man walking towards a small greenhouse that is so strongly illuminated from within as to seem a veritable chamber of light. A cave of light: what a paradox! Black tents were shown adjacent to this work, one erect, one collapsed. Black as inert material contrasted with light so strong as to bleach everything to white.
The chamber is akin to the pool of light we see a figure crouched within in Last Shelter: an enclosure of light, where we merge with light.
The body and light are becoming synonymous; the body and its dwelling place are becoming synonymous. Light in Offering 2 becomes something that can be contained in one’s hands and given like a gift.
A parallel strain to this desire to be swamped by light is desire itself. An Untitled painting of 2000 made when he had recently arrived in Bali is suggestive: an attractive woman, his then girlfriend, crouches near naked on the bed with a “come-hither” expression on her face. But any lubricious imaginings are interrupted by the many flows of brown that have clearly been dripped across the canvas when the painting had been inverted. Our erotic fantasies are barred: we are looking at a painting - and nothing else. The theme of desire is played with again in a 2004 series of paintings and videos of a later Balinese girlfriend called Kadek.
Since then sexual desire has not been explicit in his work: we cannot even tell if the naked figures in Lumen Figure 2 or Last Shelter are male or female: they are just the human in expectation, naked or nude not in sexual desire but in being reduced or stripped to the essentials.
Moreover, if we compare them with a highly sexualised paintings such as Edward Munch’s Summer’s Night Dream (1893) where the girl waits for the man in a forest beside a lake and on the water the reflection of the moon is like a long vertical yellow bar Sciascia’s paintings are non-confrontational. The figures are contained within the light. Even in such a painting as Lumen Figure 1 where the two girls are looking back as us, they are not beckoning to us: they stare through us apparently it seems at something else.
His is a very European understanding of light: as in Caravaggio’s paintings light is directional. It is as dramatic as a spotlight on an actor on stage (it is worth mentioning that he did ballet till the age of 14 and got to grade 9, stopping only when he went to USA, a fact that gives a painting such as Last Shelter an added resonance). What then do we make of his being, in some respects, an Indonesian artist? He lives in Bali, he works with galleries in Indonesia and Singapore, he has made collaborative exhibitions with Indonesian artists such as Agus Suwage and Ugo Untoro.
A great shock to me when I first came to Asia was to stand in the midday sun and have no shadow, In Bali and tropics light up the landscape evenly - it is less directional. The sun sets and rises quickly, in a business like way without the extended poetry of sunsets in Europe. Sciascia paints light like the European he is.
What does his work tell us of Indonesia or specifically of Bali where he has lived for many years? Do I connect to it as a person who similarly left England to live in a nearby part of Tropics (Singapore) some years ago? There is no reference in his work to the indigenous Hindu art of the island with its many rituals and abundant folk art such as the lakam (palm leaf weaving). There is no reference to the painting tradition that developed in Bali in the Twentieth century - but that is to be expected as it is a specifically Balinese response to western art - it would be wholly inauthentic for Westerner to work in this mode (and one now almost exclusively and explicitly made for the tourist trade). Nor does he show any of the enthusiasm of his famous western predecessors Le Mayeur, Werner Spies or Rudolph Bonnet to paint Balinese women, landscape or peasants. (Though one could argue that the paintings of Kadek refers to a grace in Balinese women that is coupled with a directness - but one would not want to make too much of it.)
Effectively he is in self-chosen exile, though an exile increasingly relieved by returning trips to Italy. In a way, just as James Joyce went to Italy (Trieste) to think more clearly about Ireland and writing in English Sciascia has gone ten thousand kilometres to Bali to look back more clearly at European painting. Paradoxically, or not, he is both very European and Asian. Bali and Indonesia and more generally South East Asia are not just other places: they are other cultures, ones seeking to establish themselves in relation both to the dominance of western or global culture and to their own multivarious artistic pasts. Filippo Sciascia belongs in this complex, unfolding discourse too.
It is an apparent paradox: by becoming part of Asia he has become more European - or more self aware of being European - or an intrinsic part of European culture. It is a unique quality of his work that his understanding of these traditions is in no way historicist or archaic, but rather rooted in contemporary technologies and a very contemporary consciousness.
Tony Godfrey 2012
ii Dreyer notoriously bullied and maltreated Falconetti to get her to respond as he wanted.
iii Richard Wollheim, Painting as an Art, London, 1987, p. 166.
iv The most brutal statement of the equivalence of light and life is, of course , in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.”
v conversation with author 2011.
vi William Wordsworth. The Prelude. Book XIII l. 36-42. 1805 version.
vii Death is pitch-dark, but colours are light. To be a painter, one must work with rays of light. Edward Munch.