A hellenistic presence in contemporary sculpture
A few years ago, in his analysis of last century’s Italian sculpture, Antonio Paolucci identified the existence of an “Italian line”, “whose standard-bearers were Adolfo Wildt and Arturo Martini, and which developed with Marino Marini, Manzù, Messina, Minguzzi, and Greco, and entered the new millennium in a triumphal way with Giuliano Vangi”.
At least two Mediterranean souls can be distinguished within this “line”. The former includes Martini, Marini, Greco and Vangi, who were close to the Etruscan world and the Tuscan primitives; the latter includes Giacomo Manzù and, above all, Francesco Messina, who at the beginning of the 1920s, still tended to change styles , swaying between the latest influence of an archaism enlightened by tradition and the discovery of Classicism with the museum as a source of inspiration, on the one hand, and that typified by Vincenzo Gemito’s Verism of Hellenistic inspiration, on the other.
Messina never hid his elective affinity with Gemito; from the pages of moved admiration which he dedicated to the Neapolitan sculptor, to the presence of Gemito’s works in Messina’s home in Milan, where one was welcomed by marvellous drawings and by the small statue L’Acquaiolo (The Water Boy) sculpted in 1880, and described as the “most perfect that comes to mind after the Greek ones, those by Donatello and some by Cellini”.
This Mediterranean soul of Hellenistic inspiration can also be detected in Leonardo Lustig’s sculptural work, a young artist who was born in Santa Margherita Ligure, Liguria, of German parents in love with the sea of the Riviera and with the natural landscape of the Mount of Portofino.
Lustig is one of the few artists who believes in art as a mental and material process, showing an extraordinary technical ability. For him, sculpture is study, reflection, meditation, but also work, rigour in the relationship with materials, an in-depth knowledge of the artistic techniques, which he puts at the service of his creative thought, starting from the first ideas jotted down with persuasive mastery, to the sketch obtained through a painstaking development process, and from this to the final sculpture in the intended size.
Lustig intentionally ignores the aesthetic revolutions of the twentieth century, as well as Martini’s archaism that led to abstract results from which most of the Italian sculpture of the second half of last century stems. His reference models are Gemito and Messina, but also Aristide Maillol and Charles Despiau (in particular with reference to their way of portraying the female figure) and Ernesto De Fiori, a prominent artist whose merit was that of being the first one to offer a revised interpretation of the classical human form from a modern point of view. It is no coincidence that these are also the three great sculptors to whom Giacomo Manzù dedicated his 1947’s exhibition, with the clear purpose of drawing a common line between the plastic culture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
If, on the one hand, it is relatively easy to pinpoint the path and identify some names of the “Mediterranean” soul of that “Italian line” in which Lustig’s work finds its place, on the other hand, it is harder to define its style.
In the century of avant-garde, of the breaking up of visible forms, of the idolatry of aniconic representations, of the myth of testing new techniques and new materials, of the crisis, of the end or “death of art” (G.C. Argan), what Lustig has in common with the other artists mentioned above is the defence of a concept of art. This is intended as an expression of the need to portray figures which, despite the difference in terms of time, culture and generation, marks the persistence of forms, continuity of iconographic models and evocative power.
Rather than as a tradition and as a sterile fading of a category of human representation, the above mentioned masters have meant figure sculpture as something profoundly vital and modern, constantly up-to-date with the evolution of time through an incessant freshness and creative originality.
This “line” evolved and established itself also at international level thanks to artists who were able to look at the history of art, or let’s be honest, at the past, “not as a user’s manual and a reference code but, rather, as a language” (quoting again from Paolucci). So, like his ideal masters, Leonardo Lustig has assimilated the “style” of the “Italian line” in the same way as language is assimilated during the learning stage, in order to be used according to one’s own dispositions, moods, personal aptitudes, depending on one’s expressive talent, with very different purposes, too with the utmost naturalness, though just as one uses the language heard and learnt since the earliest age.
He is part of this “Italian line” and is one of the most representative artists of the last generations. Evidence of this are the works completed between 1992 and 2005, following a short and mostly coherent path. There is no seasonal sequence; there are no moments of withdrawal or break. When the young artist conquers a fully structured expressive code of his own, a well-definable and recognisable stylistic key-feature, he remains faithful to it, he no longer looks back nor does he look for something outside his artistic thought. He proceeds relentlessly along his path in plastic art, experimenting with new techniques, such as patinated cement, looking back at classicist models with the cultural attitude of someone who fully and consciously belongs to our time.
Take L’Innocente (The Innocent) and Fanciulla in riposo (Resting Girl), two sculptures dating from 1992 and 1993 and exhibited in 1995. It would be wrong to interpret these works, as well as the others made in the following years, as a simple “return” to the Classical style. Indeed, if, on the one hand, Lustig’s fascination for the great sculpture of the past and the already mentioned “modern” masters is indisputable, on the other hand, there is an entirely contemporary interest towards the emotional conditions and the depiction of the feelings of the man of our time. The artist carves and shapes perfect nudes to such an extent that amazing Classical depth and Renaissance refinement are evoked; however he combines the heroic and Olympian conception of the bodies with the exploration of existential conditions, the study of emotions, and the attention to psychological inner feelings.
This results into nudes of superb technical mastery reflecting a human condition precariously balanced between action and stasis, thought and detachment, caught while “concentrating”, “listening”, and “despairing”. These are figures which are captured in the matter at the moment of their solitude, intent on “realising”, “reading”, “playing”, “thinking”, or simply “walking”, such as in Sulla via (On the Way) completed in 1997, tackling both the uncertain fate of existence, and the evocation of the history of art, such as, in this case, L’Homme qui marche reminiscent of Rodin. Forte pensiero (Strong Thought) is a bronze bas-relief dated 1996; the virile sculpturally-perfect figure, modelled like a neo-Renaissance relief worthy of Pollaiolo, recalls within one’s own thought the generous forms of a woman. The man holding his head while prostrating to the ground, hides in his despair a Problema reale (Real Problem), made in terracotta and dated 2000. The figure intent on kneading the matter with her hands repeating the ancient gestures of a baker or a master potter becomes the metaphor of Realizzazione (Accomplishment) made in 2000. The free-standing nude, which the artist, in an intentionally evasive manner, entitles Figura (Figure) (1999), advances holding a mysterious object in his hands, an entangled wreath of flowers, a vine-shoot or a concretion of shellfish which can already be seen in L’Innocente (The Innocent) dated 1992. Such ambiguity is in contrast with the bodies’ anatomical perfection to such an extent as to think of an elaborate iconographic solution intentionally sought by the artist who, in these pantheistic “chaplets”, finds again the Dionysian spirit of characters caught in the intimate act of talking and praying, turned to an extraterrestrial dimension of existence.
Pescatorello (Young Fisherman) 1999 is one of those sculptures which reveals, even in its title, the tribute paid by Lustig to his masters. Like the scugnizzi or street urchins of Naples gathered by Gemito in the small harbour of Santa Lucia, and the children met by Francesco Messina on the beach of Sestri Levante, who he convinced to pose with the help of poet Giovanni Descalzo, he models his marine boy with a stern vitality, a radiant and Mediterranean solidity typical of sea deities.
Although Leonardo Lustig is a solidly figurative artist, he has the ability to reach absolute and extraordinary visionary results when he is asked to measure himself against themes that force him to go beyond the threshold of naturalism and objectivity. In the great sculpture Il roveto ardente (The Burning Bush), carved in 2000 for the high altar of the parish church of Sant’Antonio in Sestri Levante, the artist achieves an extraordinary strength of imagination. A figurative artist would have described the Holy Scriptures, depicting, without hesitation, along with the flames that do not burn the bush, also the Angel of the Lord, Moses and the flock of Jethro. Instead, for the presbytery of the Sestri church, Lustig – who has always been interested in the search for the expressive elements of spirituality and the sacred theme – has carried out a sculptural work which has reproduced the grace of a visionary art whose creativity is able to transfigure the contingency of the artist’s time, thus confirming his total belonging to the contemporary period.
The sudden gap between the abstract nature of Il roveto ardente and the figurative representation favoured by the artist, is particularly noticeable in respect of a piece of work completed some years before, Il lavoro degli antichi (The Work of the Ancients), a monumental composition made in 1998. Here the artist’s love for Liguria translates into a lyrical representation of the farmers’ hard work while growing olive trees – whose rough and twisted bark is carved with amazing realism – and in the construction of the terraces, the so-called “fasce”, which have changed the profile of the mountains into archaic pyramids erected by ancient peoples.
The artist’s “Mediterranean classicism” features interlacing components of a pagan hedonism that oozes from the characters revealing the austerity of the classical thought, the lightness of dreams, the nostalgia for myth. It even reaches a totally Baroque excess and exuberance, such as in the artist’s latest figures, wrapped in wind-swelled veils carved in the stone known as Pietra di Lecce. Indeed, when one thinks of this stone there is an immediate link with the Baroque art which, through this material, was able to express a marvellous interplay of forms, architectural designs, façade proportions, altars, churches, convents and palaces. The tuff from Lecce is the colour of honey, soft, malleable and compact. Like the ancient masters from the Salento region, Lustig is capable of moulding it into stirring forms, whipped by quirky winds. The sculptures become as hard and robust as marble as soon as they are exposed to the air, taking on the – golden hue of the warm sunshine. This Baroque feast, redundant and full of life, animates the sculptures with the same abstract forms that Loie Fuller was able to create with her dance – causing the Modern artists of the beginning of the twentieth century and the Futurists to become mad about her –: statues dancing in the air, among the olive trees, the plants and flowers of that extraordinary place which Lustig has chosen as his studio.
If it is true that there is a topography of art, and that places – in the same way as masters and social conditions – can affect the creativity of artists, the studio where Leonardo Lustig has been working for a few years, is one of those very rare “artist’s places of work” which are capable of fascinating, in a very special way, with a charm that is linked to the memory of those who lived and worked there. Lustig has chosen to work in Villa Bozano Gandolfi of San Lorenzo della Costa, above Santa Margherita Ligure, where, as a plaque on the façade reminds, the painter Francesco Gandolfi – a leading representative of the Scuola Grigia – lived and painted.
The fascinating presence of this artist can still be perceived throughout this place. It is present in his paintings, in the portals’ decorations, in the fine marble tabernacle, in the Romantic architecture of the villa and in the extremely romantic garden looking over the Gulf of Tigullio where Lustig set up a permanent exhibit of his sculptures.
Indeed, it might have been Gandolfi’s free and bizarre nature to inspire Lustig to deceive the visitors of the beautiful garden, who mistake some of his sculptures placed among the plants and shrubs (a head, a torso, a statue with no head, some fragments of figures carved in marble) for ancient relics of cultures from the past.
One could argue whether Lustig’s ability to move with extreme ease across time with sculptures such as these, might be paired up with a subtle “quotation” from previous artists, or the pretence of an archaeological find. In any case, the relationship with the art of the past remains undeniable, intended, as the memory of humankind, as a thought, a sign of nostalgia or of a personal view of life and art.
In the same way as the life-size nude figures, the fake finds, peering from among the flowers, represent a fragment of history and an astonishing simulation.
Lustig’s sculptures are suspended in an apparently unfathomable atmosphere. They touch even more for the pretence that is created by the artist through the wise and conscious sliding through time and space of the work of art. He transfers, in an amazing way, the marks and forms of the sculpture of the past into our contemporary time, warning us that this is only a starting and transition point which does not rule out new results in terms of artistic language, in the future.
Genoa, January 2006.