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IN MEMORY OF BOLOGNESE ARTIST WOLFANGO (1926 - 2017)
Quietly, and unnoticed by the outside world, the artist Wolfango has spent a lifetime producing a remarkable body of work in his Bologna studio.
His paintings are vast, sombre still lifes, of a magnified and exquisitely detailed realism, always depicted from above as though wrought by a god of infinite patience and curiosity. Only three, from a long life of creativity, are currently on public display: in a lofty, dim church vestibule there is a vast painting of human bones arranged in a zinc container for burial, the skull resting in the pelvic cradle. Another, depicting a wooden box of decaying fruit, hangs in a converted apse of magnificent scale. And on one wall of a quiet conference room in a civic museum is a work showing a drawer in which life’s flotsam is heaped together: a rubber ball, old postcards, half-empty pill packets, keys and string. These are masterpieces, extraordinary for the power of their evocation of mortality, for their ambition, their beauty and their technical skill, and yet they hang, unadvertised, within a square kilometre of each other in central Bologna.
Their maker is, according to one critic, "the greatest unknown painter alive in Italy today". Wolfango Peretti Poggi, known as Wolfango, was born in 1926 to an eminently respectable Bolognese family. He has spent a lifetime painting – and resolutely turning his back on the self-promotion the world has grown to consider indispensable to any kind of artistic endeavour. It is a career that speaks of extraordinary patience and Like many a fine painter, Wolfango is also a superlative draughtsman.
The carnation was drawn in charcoal in 1987. Meanwhile Oranges, painted in 1969, demonstrates that he has always been a master of colour commitment from the start: enrolled in the study of medicine, Wolfango spent four years using his anatomy classes to expand his artistic understanding precisely as Leonardo would have done; taught to draw and paint by an uncle, he had no formal training at all, but instead spent 30 years experimenting. He copied the old masters and studied Piero della Francesca, became absorbed by Jean Fautrier and by Giorgio Morandi, the great Bolognese painter of still lifes who died in 1964 (see Bologna for Connoisseurs, Issue 2).
It was not until 1968 that Wolfango produced what he considers to be his first ‘real’ painting – La Cassetta dei Rifiuti (now hanging in the Aula Absidale of the newly converted deconsecrated Church of Santa Lucia, part of Bologna’s university) – employing his three first principles: to be absolutely faithful to the reality of the objects, to enlarge them, and to paint from above. Only in 1986 did he reluctantly agree to his first exhibition, held in the ex-Church of Santa Lucia at the urging of his friend, the art critic Eugenio Riccòmini. Having always supported himself – as he continues to do – as an illustrator, this was the same year Wolfango sold his first painting: he was sixty years old. It is no surprise, therefore, to hear him describe himself as "notoriously absenteeist", and moreover not as an artist but as a painter – or, more modestly, as one who knows how to paint – because, as he says, "everyone is an artist, but the painters have all disappeared". And yet in the flesh (and the flesh is one of his most beloved subjects, whether it be a squeezed blood orange or the seamed hand of a peasant holding out shelled nuts), Wolfango is as far from difficult or reclusive as it is possible to imagine.
When we meet at the marvellous, darkly labyrinthine 18th-century apartment where he has worked and lived with his wife Chiara for seven years (after more than thirty years in a huge crumbling villa in the hills just outside the city’s Porta Castiglione), the painter is effortlessly affable, hospitable and forthcoming. He is dressed for the suffocating July heat, nattily bohemian in stripes, with an impeccably trimmed white beard, and is completely at ease in his skin, his home, his city.
He explains his apparent reclusiveness. "There are colleagues who, while I am absenteeist, are everywhere, in every corner of every gallery; they cease to exhibit only when they are refused space." He shakes his head, not contemptuous but sorrowful, outraged on the part of the art that no longer comes into being because its author is too busy looking for publicity. And on conceptual art: "There are artists who want to fly off into the stratosphere," he maintains – while he is absolutely rooted in the everyday reality of matter. "I believe that we must carry the weight of our own physicality through the world." And finally, "Virtus premium ipse" he says, speaking with no trace of resentment, only passionate belief. The meaning: that virtue is its own reward.
The work itself, it becomes clear, is all Wolfango requires. Indeed, the work is everywhere in this extraordinary living space, crowded in on every wall among objects rare and odd, everyday and fabulous, all of it evidence of a life well and creatively lived: a lute, an 18th-century piano, a velvet-covered chaise, a model of a siege engine made by his younger brother, columns and sculptures and a glimpse of Art Deco gilt and pink sofa-ed splendour. There is a room full of his presepi – Nativity figurines that he first began to make to amuse his two small children, in the Neapolitan tradition, only in this case with a difference. One of his sets consists of a wall-hung Holy Trinity: a little black devil with wings and the porn actress Moana Pozzi, bare-breasted like a ship’s figurehead, being pursued by Death on a skeletal horse (Pozzi died at 33, of liver cancer). "God, the Devil and the Flesh," explains Wolfango, adding with characteristic mischievousness, "Oh, it caused a great scandal; the comune was shocked when it went on display."
It feels like an extraordinary privilege to be led by the painter through the marvels contained within this apartment: while just three paintings are on public display in the outside world, here are ten, twenty times that number. His extraordinary tondo of black Calabrian grapes, 6 1/2 ft (2m) across, as exquisite as a Caravaggio, took much longer than usual, he explains, more than a year. Why? Because as he painted, the grapes progressively decayed, then attracted tiny fruit flies, and the stalk he wanted to paint as though just picked dried up. That particular variety of grape would not be in season for another year, so Wolfango waited. (By contrast, the human bones painted in the glorious, dark Resurgo were lent to him by the comune for a strict three months, and he worked accordingly).
On every wall is a fresh revelation, sometimes three or four: over the long oak dining table is Le Patate con i Germogli, a 6 1/2 ft (2m)-long study of sprouting potatoes so beloved of the poet Giorgio Soavi that he wrote a book about it and begged to be allowed to haul it along the via Emilia from Bologna to Milan to bring it to the public it deserved.
Lastly, and most wonderful of all, is the studio itself, a huge north-lit room, with every inch of floor and wall space covered – one wall with work from Wolfango’s early, experimental phases, every surface heaped with acrylics and brushes. A folio of the illustrations he is working on for Alice in Wonderland leans against books stacked on the floor; in the middle is an easel with his current painting-in-progress: shelled chestnuts in a twist of pink sports newspaper. (It remains for him to fill in the newsprint, which will almost certainly contain a message: he despairs that Italy has become culturally illiterate and yet there are four sports newspapers. "If you ask them who Piero is, they will think you mean del Piero, the footballer").
And yet, despite these distractions, one finished painting, which entirely covers the opposite wall, manages to be absolutely commanding: Il Tagliere, 16ft by 8ft (5 x 2.5m), shows eggs broken into a well of flour on a board, ready to be made into pasta. It is dedicated, Wolfango says, clearly enjoying himself, "To my grandmother, my aunt, my wife – and to Tarkovsky" because the flour resembles the thinking ocean in Tarkovsky’s film Solaris, bubbling with potential and meaning. Indeed, from a distance the image is sharp and vivid and unmistakably domestic; close up it is oceanic and primordially mysterious.
And it is perhaps here, in this confluence between disciplined hard work, intellectual vigour and a love of the physical – of above all; he has painted artichokes, a lemon with the receipt still stuck to it, and strawberries in their blue plastic punnet – that Wolfango seems most magnificently Bolognese. He has travelled (he describes a trip undertaken in 1954 on his scooter, around Franco’s Spain: "There were no cars," he says, "there were no petrol stations"), but it is over a lifetime in this quietly remarkable city that his art has been allowed its slow, strong growth and its triumphant flowering. "If fame came," I ask him, "would you turn your back on it?" And Wolfango tilts his head to one side, irrepressible as a teenager, serious and playful at once. "Oh, no," he said, "I’d welcome it, why not?" He smiles. "Let’s invite fame to dinner".
Article by Christobel Kent
Bologna for Connoisseurs - Issue 3, 2012
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