ENIGMATIC FRAGMENTS IN THE PRESENT

INTERVIEW

by Carla Piro

ENIGMATIC FRAGMENTS IN THE PRESENT

Enigmatic configurations and signs, art that interweaves the weft of ancient painting and the warp of contemporary creation. Fragments of the past wedded to the present. Bodies, wings and obelisks (potent, iconic symbols for museums and the history of art itself) illuminated by that Caravaggesque lighting, but abstracted in a metaphysical atmosphere. Sculpture unified with the canvas in an incomparable “unicum” . These are some of the elements which mark out the work of Moreno Bondi, a body of work where the link of mutual belonging between man and his history is manifest.

The meeting takes place at the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome, during a lecture on Painting Techniques, as “Professor” Moreno Bondi, shows his students preparations and primers while ranging from 17th century painting to abstract art and the contemporary scene.

It is easy to be astonished by the length of his academic career. Born in Carrara in 1959, Bondi gained his first full professorship in 1987. One may be surprised by the solid professional experience he has acquired: the majesty and stature of his body of work, the complex intellectuality of his themes, his proven professional ability for planning and execution of projects; all making him a “great old man of painting.”

One will surely be enchanted by his work: complex, rigorous and powerful – like a modern-day Caravaggio, his creative imagination is at once profoundly stirred by a restless present and at the same time intimately linked to the great heritage of the past. The painting of Moreno Bondi gathers together the skill of Caravaggio -master painter from the 17th century of whose painting techniques he is an acknowledged expert- nourished by the creative intelligence of one who is well aware of the experiences of contemporary art and the problems facing the modern world.

THE PROFESSOR AND THE ARTIST

Professor or Master Painter, teacher or artist?

Both. Each role is useful to the other, since my artistic research is based on knowledge of painting techniques. The aspect of practical virtuosity (largely rejected by exponents of Conceptualism in the 20th century, who sought to intensify the intellectual dimension of art) is a fundamental support to creative activity, as you must first master all the means of expression before you can choose the most appropriate. Furthermore, every language – including artistic language – needs rules if it is to be produced, understood and shared. Art without canons and without rigour would be uncontrollable and incomprehensible, random and self-referential. There must be balance and interpenetration between method, creativity and thought.

The dual role of teacher and artist brings you into contact with two different audiences: your students and the public. Are there differences between the ways these two groups understand art?

Generally I would say that I receive the same signals:

the need to unify intellectual, aesthetic and practical aspects; the need for a correspondence – as in ancient times – between a strong idea which is manifested by means of a powerful act of creation, not least from a technical point of view

Art must not be reduced to pure concept (that would become philosophy) nor to technical skill (that would be handicraft): it is not the thought of making but the making of thought, as an adequate expression of this.

As a professor I have noted that the students are determined to reclaim knowledge of traditional skills (oil painting, frescoes, sculpture). This highlights young people’s genuine practical need to acquire knowledge of fundamental notions and techniques, which then allows them to sustain and strengthen their capacity for individual expression.

As an artist I have noted that the spectators’ hope is to be astonished by works of art. By art that responds with beauty, virtuosity and pondered consideration, rather than with provocation – to which creative language is all too often reduced.

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN PAST AND PRESENT

Our conversation continues as we walk from the Academy to Bondi’s studio in nearby Via Giulia, in the heart of Rome’s historic centre. We pass Hadrian’s Tomb, the Pantheon, the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi – the French national church in Rome- with its precious canvases by Caravaggio, Bernini’s fountain in Piazza Navona, Palazzo Farnese (with its facade designed by Michelangelo). Every day Moreno Bondi has before his eyes – almost as an admonition – the fruit of centuries of man’s great intellectual and practical genius.

Our itinerary is by no means accidental (nor is anything in Bondi’s work, his artistic activity or his choices). With each of these monumenta the artist seems to establish a silent dialogue.

What story do they recount?

Our story, our history: that to which we belong and which belongs to us; up to which we have to measure ourselves – as modern men and as the children of an important and memorable heritage, from which it is impossible to withdraw. You cannot be a conscious individual if you lose the certainty of your own personal history. Without memory there can be no identity. The absence of a relationship with the individual and cultural past gives birth to aberration.

These works of art concern our time, because Art is eternal, it is beyond time and fashion. Art can inflame the mind by its beauty and excite the intellect by a power which equals the Absolute.

That is why I prefer subjects which belong to the history of art and which evoke museums, unifying memory and beauty: the body, wings, obelisks. These iconic subjects, represented realistically but out of their habitual context and without spatial or temporal points of reference, allow access to a dimension at once abstract and metaphysical.

Past and present: continuity or confrontation?

It’s a dialectical relationship: the present inherits a tradition to which it opposes itself, but from which it derives its own identity. Unqualified autonomy would render both barren and diminished. The correct balance lies in awareness of the mutual bond between them. The present is founded on the past and in turn breathes life into history and makes it relevant to the present.

My stance is not one of anachronistic emulation nor of paralysing regret, but rather of admiration and confidence. I believe that contemporary culture must overcome the sense of unease and rootlessness caused by the rejection of the past and reunify itself with the great tradition of art.

So your artistic and intellectual research begins with the history of art and is stimulated by ideas from contemporary thought. What impulse led you to take this direction?

My experience, as an artist and a scholar, started with the study of painting by the great masters whose work (the powerful emotional impact, the rigorous formal and compositional balance) still today stimulates the mind and the senses of spectators thanks to its aesthetic, symbolic and intellectual qualities. The relationship with this artistic legacy – intimately perceived as a common heritage of mankind – laid down the formal foundations for my commitment to works that can cast a bridge between two different cultural moments which, however, lie along the same temporal line.

Part of fascination and evocative power of my work is also due to the use of colours which I make myself with precious pigments and natural binders.

Industrial products are synthetic; they stabilize and plasticize, altering the visual yield, the resistance and the consistency of the painting.

My colours on the other hand are bright, long-lasting and dry relatively quickly (despite the fact that oil generally slows the drying process). This is possible thanks to the use of only natural ingredients. It’s a secret formula which was reconstructed following thirty years of experiments based on painstaking research and study of manuals from the 16th and 17th century.

PAINTING AND SCULPTURE

The latest frontier in your artistic quest is represented by the oil paintings on canvas using techniques from Caravaggio, in which you insert precious sculptures of Carrara Statuary marble: no one else on the international artistic scene is producing such work.

The marble is at once exalted by the canvas and is integrated with it. It serves to interrupt the classicism of the painting and the forms; furthermore it resolves the static nature of the space.

This union of the two art forms is something new and original, but from a conceptual point of view it belongs to the great heritage of the Baroque. Altar pieces framed by angels in marble, they look like nothing other than installations – in which painting and sculpture are equal protagonists. I wanted to reclaim this pairing because I felt the need to break the two-dimensional nature of the picture, adding to the illusion of depth by perspective by means of a truly three dimensional level.

So, for me the concept of spatial expansion beyond the conventional boundaries of the canvas is an explicit reference to 17th century altar pieces. Nevertheless the Baroque is decontextualized, mediated by the consciousness of innovative cognition and enhanced by the metaphysical and metatemporal atmosphere.

In your painting the focal elements are the body, wings, obelisks: timeless symbolic icons of the museum. What forms do you choose for sculpture?

I prefer geometrical forms, curves and stylization, the organic structures and the anatomies which evoke classicism. Just as the Baroque (in architecture and the plastic arts) had moulded the straight, rigid and upright forms from preceding epochs (softening profiles and volumes) so I use forms which are curvilinear, soft and sinuous to counterbalance the hard, static nature of the planes with which they intersect.

I’m interested in giving a sense of uplift to the stone, in contrast with its specific weight; and this is not only for aesthetical reasons but also because of structural concerns: lightness is essential if the sculpture is to be inserted into the painting.

I am fascinated by the beauty of marble, not by naturalistic representation. Therefore my sculpture does not copy a real model, but rather it elaborates a mental synthesis (which is deduced from experience without being its particular reproduction).

THE RULE FOR MARBLE

Nothing is accidental in your work. What rules do you follow to match marble and canvas?

Sculpture and painting are equal protagonists. One cannot overpower the other, rather they must establish a reciprocal dialogue.

Conceptually, the marble represents the matrix of the idea developed in the picture. It is a visual reference mark and an ideal relation: on the canvas concepts and forms embedded in the stone are expanded. The matrix is the origin of the idea and the form: it contains potentially what then is put into action on the canvas. The arrangement is by no means random: it is decided by rules which have their meaning in the relationship between the sculpture and the structure of the painting.

Following a “baroque model”, the marble embraces the picture from the exterior part of the frame and continues inside, unifying the two-dimensional with the three-dimensional as in a 17th century altar piece

(cf. “”Agreements of light with sculpture””).

By being placed centrally, the sculpture is at the focal point of the picture, where it can play to the fullest its role of matrix – from which forms and concepts are generated (cf. “ Words of Stone”).

The “chest of drawers structure” encloses the marble in a setting which breaks through the picture and integrates the sense of depth.

With the “graphic solution” the stone element accompanies the rhythm of the pictorial composition and emphasises it like a graphic sign (cf. “Pegasus 2011”, “Orpheus”).

With the “linear conformation” the group of sculptures is placed according to a sequence of points, thus creating an imaginary line within a spatial system (cf. “The essential is invisible to the eye”.

Finally, when the sculpture is placed in front of the picture the effect produced is that of an “installation”, which involves the spectator in the specific context and surroundings (cf. “Icarus”).

The marble and the canvas are organically unified, despite their differences. What problems are posed by working with such different materials.

Sculpture presents huge technical and practical difficulties. It calls for completely different training and skills than those required for painting; but both require method, dedication, constancy, the ability to plan, concentration and a great deal of mental and physical effort. For both, an analytic-synthetic approach is important during every phase of the creative process.

Rigour at every phase of the project allows you to have complete control of the work as it develops and changes within the context of the established plan.

For painting, the choice of materials to be used is fundamental, as is the long and painstaking sequence of procedures (stratification and drafting: preparation, sketching, first coat, second coat, glazing, finishing)

which have come down to us from the history of art and which allow us to evoke the museum. For sculpture, the selection of materials and the sequence of technical procedures also follow rules and concepts which have been formulated over centuries of working with marble.

What specific problems does sculpture entail?

It’s arduous when your starting point is a block of stone (unlike with clay, progress is made by subtraction and not by aggregation). Marble poses resistance: you have to be very careful to use precisely the right amount of force when pitching the stone to avoid it shattering. No mistakes are possible – an error is irreversible: that’s the difference between sculpture and the other plastic arts.

I don’t start with a model: I follow a drawing of the sculpture to be made and I have in my head its three dimensional image. This is what must be translated into reality, proceeding step by step without ever forgetting the overall vision and without “eating the marble” (as dictated by tradition). The final form can only be reached after long and numerous phases of work. There are no short cuts to good sculpture.

The multiple levels of the figure must be refined at the same time. The difficulty lies in maintaining the various planes and levels of a complex structure, preserving the curve above and maintaining the line below. If it were all on one plane then it would be simple, but I don’t want a bas-relief or a haut-relief; what I’m seeking is a sculpture “in the round”, one that allows complete three-dimensional development of the material.

It all begins with the selection of the marble. By tapping the stone you can hear if it is sound. There must be no external blemishes or internal cracks that would suggest a deeper fragility. That would mean a serious risk that at an advanced stage of work the stone could shatter, ruining irrevocably the statue.

The first phase begins with knocking off or “pitching” large portions of unwanted stone to, as was said in ancient times, “free the form from excess”. The work is now to seek the refined form via a series of phases; as definition progresses, each successive phase becomes more delicate and the tools used more refined and precise.

It is a ritual process. Certain things are done as they have always been done: not out of blind respect for tradition, but because it is not possible to proceed in any other manner.

TECHNOLOGY AND TRADITION

Has technological progress changed the relationship between sculptor and marble?

The relationship with the material is still direct and intimate. Feel the form, listen to the stone, seek the right direction, recognize the answers to the strokes of the chisel: these things never change. The use of technology neither takes away nor adds to the efforts and precision required of the sculptor. New technology has only made the use and maintenance of the traditional tools more practical. But your hands and the strength of your arms are still essential. The physical and mental effort, the attention, the precision – all remain unchanged. Nothing changes: what counts is not the tool but the knowledge of the marble, the mind-set of the work, the ability to plan. It’s all experience, tradition, knowledge dictated by doing: all the rest is just knowing how to use the tools.

Why do you choose marble and not a different, simpler material like resin?

Marble is difficult and physically very tiring to work: the stone poses resistance. There are practical difficulties, it is also a very expensive material. But marble is a noble and evocative stone. Marble has meant sculpture since the time of the Ancient Greeks.

I was born and grew up in Carrara: the Romans came here for their marble, then Michelangelo, then Canova, Thorwaldsen. This culture is part of my DNA. The white Carrara Statuary marble from the Apuan Alps, from Michelangelo’s quarry, is blessed with extremely fine grain and is very compact. It is its composition (pure limestone) which makes it so precious and so suitable for fine detailed working. Carrara Statuary marble is unlike any other in the world. It is excellence in stone. It is “the” marble par excellence.

This long interview comes to a close in the small studio which looks out onto the rooftops of Via Giulia. Below, there is a tiny 16th century courtyard with an ancient stone basin and some Roman columns unearthed centuries ago during archeological excavations: living testimony to the Renaissance’s admiration of the classical world.

On the desk a handsome volume dedicated to the Tuscan artist lies open. I take a glance at a few lines written by the art historian (and currently director of the Vatican Museums) Antonio Paolucci: “ Moreno Bondi’s painting makes one think of a mirror in which are reflected the icons of ancient art; only the mirror is broken. It reflects Michelangelo and Caravaggio in disjointed fragments, fragments that are then recomposed according to an order which follows a mind and a symbolic system of its own time.”

In this extraordinary mirror, memory and reality are unified with seductive alchemy. There emerge ornamented obelisks, powerful human forms turned in on themselves, the signs of the past and unknown ideograms traced from memory. They are all part of an enigma to be solved: they are forms which allude – without recounting directly – to a vanished past that nevertheless on man has left indelible traces.

 Carla Piro