By Ruggero Savinio
Montecastello di Vibio, International School of Art
August 16, 1999
Today I would like to speak about some things concerning my own experience, or some thoughts I have had during my life as a painter. To begin I want to say that the most important thing in painting, as in art generally, is the material. Even in the most spiritual art like music, for instance, which is made of the material of sounds, or like poetry, which employs verbal material. This seems quite obvious. Yet the problem is more complex.
Painting is involved with matter and so are painters. I'm speaking about the physical aspect of painting, belonging to a world of concrete things, which could be called "the body of the world". This body concerns ourselves and our own body because we are made of the same matter, and we are fragile and mortal like everything that is living. In fact painting is a living thing, and its life depends precisely on its material condition.
Painters have a double feeling about matter. They are both attracted and repelled by it. Sometimes painters are attracted to matter as children are attracted to the matter of the world: the dirt, the water, the sand, and also matter which is, in Plato's opinion, the most disgusting, and which can't belong to the Kingdom of Beauty: the hair and the mud.
Sometimes painters lose their childlike simplicity and are disgusted by matter. For example when I look at my fingers, at my hands, and also at my clothes and everything around me marked by colours I have a moment of disgust, and I repeat to myself this sentence of Van Gogh: "We, painters, are doing a dirty job."
So, it was with this double feeling that I was always attracted to matter. At the beginning of my education I was studying Latin literature at the University of Rome, and, at the same time, I was visiting frequently the places where relics of Roman art are preserved. I remember very well the impression I got from those ruined walls, on which one can see some fragments of painting, figures of Gods or mysterious and imaginary landscapes. In this way I was reliving the same experience that Flemish and Italian painters of Raphael's milieu had. They had come though some holes in the ground into the ruins of the Domus Aurea, the famous and splendid palace of the emperor Nero. In these halls they had found paintings still preserved but now completely erased, which inspired decorators called grottesche, from the word grotta, which means cave, as people used to call this place.
My experience of ancient things can best be described as an experience of matter. I didn't find a splendid world to imitate and to offer up to our own world, but I had of this disappeared world a ruined and fragmented image, a sense of the wall, of the spots, of the humidity, and of time's work. So the matter became for me a thing containing the past, our past not only geological or biological, but also historical and artistic, a defaced past, but supporting us. In fact in the word matter, materia, there is the word mater, which means mother, and we can remember a painting by the Italian painter Boccioni representing his mother, entitled Materia.
At the same time I discovered ancient literature and art I was surrounded by the works of an artistic movement, mainly French, called Informel, or informal, a kind of European version of American action painting. Painters like Fautrier or Dubuffet employed matter as the protagonist of their works.
In my case I tried to join this sense of matter with the sense of ancient classic culture. I was also interested in the poetry of the famous Italian poet Guiseppe Ungaretti, who was at that time my professor at University, who put in his poems something ancient, like an echo of Virgil or other classical poets. The story of my life as a painter is the story of my relationship with matter. Matter is for a painter the ground, which contains all the opportunities of shape, and also every weight, obscurity and confusion.
Painting is a way from going from obscurity, confusion and heaviness towards clarity and lightness. Nevertheless we must remember that something obscure will always be kept, because our human condition is dramatically divided between darkness and light, heaviness and grace, and all the big contrasts. That's why we have to struggle with this material of ground, against the inertia of support, and, as an alchemist, we have to go from the obscurity and the stillness of the matter--which the alchemists called nigredo--to the clear life of the forms.