Luciano Ventrone and the Eternal Present
It was the great Italian connoisseur and art historian Frederico Zeri (1921-1998) who first compared Luciano Ventrone’s work to that of Caravaggio – a comparison, among other things, inspired by the artist himself in paraphrases of Caravaggio’s work. Two of these show Caravaggio’s Entombment and Conversion of St Paul, each apparently enclosed in an electric light bulb. There is also a paraphrase of the celebrated still life Basket of Fruit, now in the Ambrosiana in Milan, where the apples and other European fruit shown by Caravaggio are for the most part replaced by tropical exotica, not generally available in Europe before the time of air transport and electric refrigeration. Further variations on Caravaggio’s Basket can be found in the current exhibition. These “homages” with their slightly sardonic edge, offer more than a clue as to what Ventrone is about, as a virtuoso artist working in a climate that is now in general hostile to the idea of artistic virtuosity.
Ventrone is often categorized as a “hyperrealist.” This implies that his work is somehow related to photography. As anyone who has looked at his paintings carefully will know, this is not the case. Far from offering us the somewhat flattened version of physical forms typical of the monocular vision of the camera, his paintings have an almost overwhelming solidity and physical presence, to the point where the nearest shapes seem ready to break through the plane of the canvas.
Caravaggio’s Basket was unusual for its epoch in the centrality and simplicity of its compositional design. This pared down simplicity is not, however, completely unknown in slightly later Italian, French, and Spanish still life paintings. We find it, for instance, in certain works by Zurbaran, and in those of the French painter Louise Moillon (1610-1696), whose compositions are in many respects the closest Old Master equivalents to some of Ventrone’s work, though never quite so radically pared down to essentials.
In these 17th – century still lifes, observers have often detected a sacramental quality. They have been linked to the quietist religious thinking of that time, for example, to the Jansenism, which had its headquarters at the convent of Port-Royal in Paris.
While Ventrone’s still life work does not have any specific religious overtone, it does have a strongly contemplative feeling. The Catholic Encyclopedia, now available online, remarks of the teachers trained at Port-Royal: “Their educational principle was: that human knowledge, science itself, is not an end, but a means; it should serve only to open and develop the mind, and raise it above the matter of teaching.” In that statement, one recognizes a concept that can immediately be applied to many of Ventrone’s paintings.
However, what one also recognizes is that, despite any comparisons that can be made to the art of the past, whether to Caravaggio or to any other artist, this kind of painting is intransigently modern, completely contemporary, perhaps, much more than the kind of activities that are labelled “avant-garde” – a category from which realist figurative painting is now routinely excluded.
From a purely stylistic point of view, Ventrone’s compositions are modern in a very particular sense, since it was the 20th – century Modern Movement, in architecture and design as well as in the fine arts, which taught the creators of new forms to strip things down as much as possible. A small Chinese blue-and-white bowl filled to capacity with walnuts, almonds, and hazelnuts, with one walnut split open to show the nut-meat, is both simple and intricate. That is, it has something surprisingly in common with celebrated examples of Modernist Minimalism such as Malevich’s Black Square, first exhibited in Moscow in 1915. At the same time, however, it offers the opportunity for a much more complex exploration of the power of sight. One of the questions it asks is “How is it possible to see this much, in a visual incident that amounts in fact to so little?” Ventrone is genuinely hyper-realist in the sense that he enables us to see more than we would unaided, if the real thing happened to be put in front of us.
One characteristic of Ventrone’s work is its typical illumination. The still lifes included in the current show are placed against a white or very light grey ground, and the objects shown rest on a white surface. The shadows they cast in this surface indicate that they are lit from directly above, and, since the shadows overlap, that there are multiple sources of illumination. In other words the objects portrayed are seen with the aid of the kind of powerful, unwavering artificial illumination that 20th – century technology made available, and which was completely unknown in previous centuries. We are now so much accustomed to the availability of light of this kind that we are usually unconscious of the difference it has made, both to the way we live now, and the way in which we see what it is around us. Yet know instinctively, because of its system of lighting, that Ventrone’s work belongs to our own time and no other.
One striking feature of this show is that it offers a series of beautiful female nudes, which are a less familiar aspect of Ventrone’s work. It is notorious that representations of the human figure are much more responsive to social and historical change than representations of inanimate objects. Where the female nude is concerned, art historians note that the naked body follows the canon established by bodies that are clothed. That is, Cranach’s nudes with their small bosoms, high waists, gently swelling stomachs and long legs, are templates for the female fashion of the early 16th century. Goya’s The Nude Maja is quite different physically. She has shorter legs, larger hips, a more pronounced waist and a larger bosom – which in fact behaves in a rather unrealistic way, as if pushed up by a strap, or bra that is not represented. When we see this painting in Museo del Prado, side by side with the clothed version, we understand how she too conforms physically to the clothes that were fashionable in her time. We also see how these clothes push up her breast to the very position shown in The Nude Maja.
Ventrone’s models are essentially unthinkable in any time other than our own. The artist celebrates an ideal of beauty, but it is a 21st – century ideal, that of the modern, athletic young woman who belongs to a society where women, on many occasions, are less encumbered with clothing than at any time since Greek and Roman antiquity. If we feel that they are more natural, closer to genuine physical truth, than what was depicted by Cranach and Goya, we are almost certainly right.
The miracle is that they, like the fruit and other objects in the still life paintings, are nevertheless held motionless in a zone where time is somehow suspended. The fascination of these paintings is that, while they are not, as I have said, religious, they preserve the image of an eternal, paradisiacal present. Happiness is contemplation, and contemplation is also happiness.
First published by SKIRA Editore, Milan, Italy, 2008