Interview with Max Pellegrini
I first met Max Pellegrini only a year ago, and the first time I went to see him in Turin I was much struck by his painting.
He immediately seemed to have a dimension of sincerity that is rare in the world of modern art. And an admirable courage to follow his own search for truth and not the fashions and trends of the market. This interview began after several visits mainly in New York, where his son Enrico lives, and is based on the respect I have for those who think art is above all a necessity.
Despite the presence of symbols, allusions and suggestions, your painting is figurative, in a world of art that seems to go in an entirely different direction. Can you tell me about this choice?
It is due to the desire for a “Meeting with God” more than with the world. “Pop” and “conceptual-psychedelic” painting and then copying the grand masters, did not fully satisfy me and gave me a wish to go beyond, to do something transcendental: a kind of “wrestle with the angel”. But regarding this I remember a story, I think by Camus: a rich and famous painter, with family, admirers and friends, decides to do the work of his life and retires to live like a hermit in the loft of his studio. After years of solitude he is found dead in front of a white canvas. This is transcendence, the impossible work. This, the meeting with God in front of the white canvas, inspired me to make this choice, even though the “wrestle with the angel” is always unequal and already lost from the outset. The work is earthly. God unreachable.
Which of the past masters have most influenced your work?
Many, but especially Giorgione and one of his works in particular, “The Tempest”. In one of the interpretations of this painting the lightning that appears in the distance is God and the city the lost Earthly Paradise. The woman is Eve and is feeding a single boy (Cain?), while the man off-stage looking at the truncated columns in the centre of the picture (symbol of life cut off) comments with a smile that it has always been thus: death pursues us and Paradise is lost. This painting, which seems so simple and natural, implies an entire, very complex, literary and poetic story. And this is what I try to do, succeeding to a greater or lesser extent, in each of my works.
Looking at your paintings, among the artists closest to our time I thought of De Chirico, Chagall and Picasso. I’m thinking of your “La famiglia del clown” (The Family of Clown) of 1990. What role have they had in your painting?
All three. I am essentially a man shaped by the culture of the twentieth century, or rather the early twentieth century. I have most of all been influenced by Picasso in his blue and pink period; but also the portrait of Olga, the theme of the Minotaur and many others. Then De Chirico with his metaphysical visions and finally Chagall because of his ability to recount fanciful stories
Can you tell me about your relationship with the art of Felice Casorati, to whom you are also linked by being Piemontese?
It is a relationship of great admiration, and I don’t say that just as a Piedmontese. I have always been fascinated by his ability to evoke, through scenes of everyday life, worlds that escape it. I am thinking for example of a picture with some eggs set on a tablecloth, in which the contrast between the clear outline of the eggs and the perspective pattern of the tablecloth creates an illusion of infinity.
Are there artists who express themselves in other languages that have influenced you? A writer, a musician, a film director?
This is a complicated question because there are so many cultural aspects that influence an artist. Among writers I have been influenced mainly by Kafka, by the sense of mystery and alienation that enfolds his works, but also Joyce and Proust, because of their desire to enclose the world in a book. When painting I listen to music ranging from the Beatles to Debussy and Coltrane. Among film directors Fellini has influenced me, with his images between the grotesque and the angelic (both the Saraghina and the girl on the beach). But also Bergman: the Madonna in one of my works is taken from one of his films; while the images of “San Francesco che trasforma i mostri in uccelli” (St. Francis Turning Monsters into Birds) came from the cinema.
When did you decide to be an artist?
Always. But in fits and starts, with lots of crises, when my “wrestle with the angel” seemed to be lost. It was not for nothing that I taught at university for 35 years: so as to be free not to make a passion into a job, even if this caused me no few problems.
Do you agree with those who consider art the intuition of the universal in the particular?
Absolutely. Art is able to say many things about life, the world and the beyond, even in the simplest pictures.
Can you tell me about your apprenticeship?
At the Albertina academy in Turin, combining the questioning and experimentation of those years with instruction from excellent teachers. And then as an autodidact, reading manuals on oil painting technique and discussing this with enthusiastic friends and painters.
One of your paintings I like is “Inverno al Sud” (Winter in the South) of 1980-1981. What inspired you to paint the South? I was thinking of the look south made by another of your countrymen, Carlo Levi.
I have never lived in the South like Carlo Levi. The idea, possibly in a slightly Casorato vein, came to me in a small town near Messina, where I was enchanted by the immensity of the night.
Can you tell me about the decision to leave the figures at the rear of the painting almost in the dark, in silhouette?
In that magic night there was a mass of people in movement: shadows, precisely, wrapped in mystery. Like the houses with their lights off about whose life I knew nothing.
Religious elements appear in “Orgoglio e umiltà” (Pride and Humility, 1982), but also in other paintings like “Sacra rappresentazione all’aperto” (Holy Representation Outside, 1981) “Sogno della Vergine” (The Virgin’s Dream, 1992), “Cristo sulle acque” (Christ on the Water, 1993) and even in the “Autoritratto” (Self-portrait, 1993): are you a believer? What is your position regarding the sacred and the transcendent?
I do not have the gift of faith, I do not believe in a life beyond earth; but I am in constant search of God. Of something that I am unable to grasp and that gives me a great fear of death. My way of painting springs from this: an earthly attempt to attain something transcendental. Does the painting, the work, leave a sign or disappear with the galaxies? The line of a great Turkish poet always comes to mind, which says: “Nightingale do not descend silent to this tomb from the wings of the eagle”.
In your painting “Presepio” (Nativity), the abjection of the cave is not shown, but rather the glory of St Peter. Personally I find the anti-ideological and anti-pauperist approach very intriguing, as if to emphasise that the church is one thing and the other.
Yes, the church is one thing and the other; but not having the gift of faith, and being in constant search of God, I find him, I feel him closer to me in the almost empty evening masses, or in the completely empty churches with their candles lit. I feel him more distant in the temporal power of the popes, and in the gigantic ceremonies that this at times involves. This is why I controversially highlighted the glory of Peter and not the abjection of the cave.
The subject of the series “Fuga in Egitto” (Flight into Egypt) is openly religious. Why did you choose that biblical story?
My choice was due to an “infatuation” I had at the time with Caravaggio’s Flight into Egypt. I then read the symbology of a picture on the same subject by Titian and realised that its intuitive attraction was not entirely by chance. Egypt, then as now, is mainly desert; the flight into it, represented by Titian and Caravaggio, is actually a flight into an Earthly Paradise: a place where the lamb and the wolf, the lion and the gazelle are in communion with one another; where an angel plays music and leads the people in flight. It is a flight from the horrors of the world, from the massacres of Herod, from the worries of the everyday, from death and so on.
One picture in that series shows a group of coloured children. Why?
The children are Africans. Their bowls are empty, but they are happy to have eaten and to have a mother and father to protect them, which often is not the case in many countries, not only on that continent. This is their Paradise, their “Fuga in Egitto”. In every painting of the “Fuga in Egitto” the theme of travel to somewhere else is interwoven with that of the utopian dream, of a place where the horrors of the everyday are removed.
Another openly religious painting is Saint Francis. The composition is full of colour, as if to emphasise the joy of existence rather than austerity and renunciation. A Medusa also appears. Can you tell me about it?
The painting is joyful in that the monsters, like the head of the Medusa on the sand, are slowly, one by one, thanks to the miracle, beginning a new existence. The painting makes reference to a very famous film: “Freaks” by Tod Browning of 1932.
Thanks to the miracle the good monstrous figures are already among the flowers while the bad ones, like the woman who pursues them in the film or the Medusa (the head of the Medusa is taken rather from a painting by Rubens) are still being transformed.
The most controversial painting from a religious point of view is “La religione è l’oppio dei popoli? Eresia oppiacea (o: il Sogno della Vergine)” (Is Religion the Opium of the People? Opiate Heresy [or the Dream of the Virgin]). It seems to me that your position of doubt is in the question mark. But perhaps also in the tone of the painting.
The position of doubt is certainly in the question mark. Does God exist or is religion, as Marx wrote, “the opium of the people”? The painting also presents this same question: the Virgin is shown in all her regal simplicity, but immersed in a field of poppies in which disturbing little animals move; symbols of doubt and heresy.
One theme that fascinates you is anarchy. Do you think that freedom is an indispensable condition for an artist, or a limit?
Freedom to me is fundamental. Every time I have tried to follow directions given me by a client I have produced bad paintings, because I lack the poetic charge. The same thing happened when I tried to repaint pictures that were much liked on a smaller scale. This is the reason for my “anarchic” choice to not make a passion into a job, as I said before. It is the choice of a spoilt person, which has caused no few problems, mainly of a financial nature.
In “Narciso che guarda Ofelia annegata” (Narcissus Looking at Drowned Ophelia) you contaminate classical mythology with Shakespearean tragedy. Within a mysterious and allusive composition you present a disorienting temporal effect, in which Narcissus finds in the river the corpse of a woman created by Shakespeare many centuries later.
The disorienting temporal effect and the mysterious composition of many of my paintings are due in some way to the influence of Kafka’s stories. Their incongruous logic, which reminds me a lot of that of life, has always fascinated me. Many times in my works heterogeneous elements are mixed to achieve a story that I hope affects the observer. In the painting in question the basic theme is the melancholy of time passing, as the figures in the backgrounds seem to suggest. Such time, flowing like water, unites two dead people with the same fate even if separated by time.
There are paintings with very long titles. Why?
The reason for such super-long titles arises from my own amusement and wish to explain at length the apparent enigmatic aspect of the pictures, which has often aroused curiosity, as in the case of Narcissus and Ophelia.
One theme that recurs is Carnival, which, in my opinion, is portrayed in ambiguous tones, to the point that the allegory of death appears in a painting of 1990.
The ambiguity of happiness and death is a characteristic of Carnival. Look at the Mexican death festivals, but also those of Halloween in Europe or North America. The use of masks during Carnival also gives the chance to be something else, or elsewhere, or even in the beyond. For example in medieval folklore Harlequin’s mask led a procession of spirits into the world from the Underworld.
In one of your paintings of 1982 you portrayed Picasso and De Chirico. The title is “Sogni di gloria” (Dreams of Glory). Is it meant ironically?
Yes, irony is one of the elements of my painting. I make fun of myself and my neurotic fears and phobias and I turn the situation with ironic if not at times hilarious details. I placed a cat, for example, with phosphorescent eyes in a bucolic scene, or in the subject of Carnival I mix death, ridicule and joking.
There is a painting of 1988 entitled “L’idiota” (The Idiot), which reminded me of what Chesterton said: the madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.
It’s true. Madness can have its roots in the lucid activity of the reason that is petrified before the horrors that surround it. Such an awareness can lead to “crazy” hallucinations, as in the appeal to Bosch or the fine landscape of Portofino, in the background, but contaminated by an ugly suburb. Madness, as incongruence and counterposition, is a recurring theme in the construction of my pictures, at times enigmatic, as in Kafka’s stories, at times like a metaphysical, ironic, bucolic flight. It is the flight of reason that is petrified like a Gorgon before the mirror of the world.
In Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris there is a moment when a character contemplates a bas relief and says Ceci tuera cela (This will kill that), intending that that form of art, which had killed the oral
tradition, was about to be killed by books. In other words Hugo theorised that every form of language kills its predecessor. Do you agree? Does this principle apply to painting?
Yes, certainly. One needs only think of Picasso’s invective against Renaissance art, full of “frills’, or the iconoclastic fury of the Dadaists.
How did you come to choose a Saul Bellow character for a work entitled “Dalle miniere di re Salomone” (From King Solomon’s Mines)?
Many years ago I read Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King and was fascinated by the millionaire protagonist who goes (flees?) to Africa where, in a cave, he is made chief of a small tribe with an initiation rite. The title “Dalle miniere di re Salomone”, which is one of my first works in oil and plastic, is a tribute to the millionaire eccentricity of the character who is shown here with Agamemnon’s mask.
Guido Ceronetti has written of you: “Pellegrini’s painting is a mirror. The painting that we see is behind us. That which is before us is a shimmering reflection, according to the time of the day or our thoughts”. What do you think?
Yes, Guido is right, though the sentence is perhaps a bit more poetic than critical. As I never dream, or do not remember my dreams, I take possession of others’ dreams and this allows the person observing to interpret in his turn that which he sees according to his mood or the spirit of the moment. So my paintings are Bucolic daydreams or wide awake hallucinations. Something that, commenting on their incongruence and density, Ceronetti has highlighted very well.
One of the critics who has most praised your work is Jean Clair. He talks about a “quality of childhood”, and “virtue of innocence”, a “sense of threat, imminence of danger, urgency of flight”. Do you
recognise yourself in these definitions?
Certainly. Jean Clair, like Carluccio, who has followed me for many years, has caught the central theme of flight that is present in many of my paintings extremely well, instinctively; a theme provoked by the sense of danger and threat that is derived from the loss of infancy and innocence.
Jean Clair, once again, says that “there is nothing of the dramatic in this painting, already so distanced, one may say, and as if in shelter. It seems to be without anxiety or alarm, at least obvious, like the subject it deals with. It assumes rather the appearance of an idyll, of a long bucolic narrative...” Are you one of those who deny that art needs conflict and drama?
No; drama is present in many paintings, such as Picasso’s “Guernica” or in Bacon. It is there or may be there even in some of my paintings such as “L’idiota” or “San Francesco che trasforma i mostri in uccelli”. But by temperament I am led to treat it as “lucid madness” and so in a more static and less involving way.
Jean Clair’s position on most of contemporary art is extremely and controversially severe. What is your position on this?
I appreciate Jean Clair’s severity, which is that of a great counter- current critic, respected for this even by those who do not think as he does. Because of my early artistic background I am more pluralist. I love all that which moves me. I have seen wonderful extremely avant-garde works and mediocre if not ugly painted works. I would like to be defined as “A conceptual who paints”, even though, according to Ceronetti, “those who want to define you don’t like you”.
In recent years there has been a growing impression that the art world is conditioned by the power of very powerful gallery owners who, often in agreement with critics, have every interest in maintaining an esoteric halo around the work of art. The less the substance is understood, the greater their power to say what is valid and what is not.
Certainly, I think this is the case, but I don’t have the elements to judge correctly. Van Gogh on the other hand had the same problem as every artist who is isolated and out of touch like me today. But I also think that a good critic and a good gallery owner can open the eyes onto new horizons.
The search for the new often degenerates into effect at any cost, and more and more frequently novelty is given precedence over beauty, as if this were to represent a negative value.
You are certainly right. On the other hand, in a world bombarded by continuous media messages and so basically distracted, monumentalism, the event at any cost, often linked to scandal, are perhaps the only way to attract public attention. Even the museums have noticed this. They continue to organise exhibitions and events that are always crowded while the permanent collections, although at times containing works of a sublime beauty, are often less visited.