Heaven and Earth. Imagination and Spirituality. Ancient Art and Modern Art. The work of Giulia Calvanese, a young but talented artist from Milan, is marked by coupled concepts which are in constant dialogue with each other, not simply in the narrow sense of duality, but in terms of integration and reciprocity.
What we encounter in her works is not the often overused and conventional dilemma between recording and representation, or the so-called “death of art”, understood as a temporary ending of traditional methods and techniques, but an informed revision of our own tradition, in terms of style, symbolic values and cultural models.
In relation to many other instances of contemporary art which focus more exclusively on stylistic research, Giulia’s work is not limited to form for form’s sake.
On the contrary, her style, far from sterile formalism, is perfectly integrated with its content. The form has meaning, and represents recognisable models and ancient values that are deeply rooted in our collective spirit.
Her time spent at Brera Academy has sharpened her already gifted artistry, broadening her skills which range everywhere from cartoons to religious themes, and from the figurative to the abstract.
On this occasion, Giulia addresses one of the greatest typological models in art history, or to be more precise, one of the archetypes of human history: the face of Christ. From early figurative drawings, reminiscent of the great modern tradition (Antonello da Messina), to more hieratic and spiritual research, she has explored this theme for over ten years.
Her journey highlights two essential principles which govern the creation of a work of art: spirituality and imagination. The first dimension is constantly present throughout her work. It emerges through the choice of colours, symbolic shapes, and sacred geometry. For example, the repeated use of the colour blue is not unintentional: it is a centuries-old tradition which goes back to Giotto.
For many artists of the Renaissance, the use of ultramarine blue, made from the costly powder of lapis lazuli, was essential for representing the most valuable parts of a picture; the parts with the most symbolic and spiritual power, such as the robes of the Virgin Mary.
Drawing on ancient traditions (the audience of the Middle Ages would have been able to distinguish colours based on symbolic value), Giulia uses colour in a way which relies on a contemporary audience’s sensitivity and understanding of its symbolic value.
Among the numerous symbolic elements are patterns taken from paleochristian art, evoking stars, sudden bursts of light, rapid flashes which erupt from the darkness: an explicit allusion to Hope.
And, of course, the geometric pattern of the circle, one of the most evocative and recurrent shapes in our cultural tradition and collective memory as an absolute symbol of perfection and unity, but also a specific reference to a religious and spiritual dimension.
Indeed, the great thinkers of the fifteenth century (Leona Battista Alberti, Luca Pacioli) would indicate precisely in the central plan of a church (built on the geometric and regular shape of the circle), a shape that “helps” the public and encourages the faithful to pray.
The circle also evokes the infinite cycle of alchemy, a complex process which should not be reduced to the banal and often misconstrued practice of magic and the occult, but instead refers to a profound ability to study and research matter, and metaphorically represents an introspective and spiritual process towards enlightenment, purification and Redemption.
According to Giulia, spirituality is deeply intertwined with imagination, a quality which cannot be described in absolute or objective terms, but is the driver of human intellect, its work companion, the main instrument of representation which aims to go beyond imitation. It is thanks to this quality that the work of art becomes a bridge between Earth and the Heavens, between raw material and something which can never be attained but can be glimpsed in intuitive terms.
It is the artistic activity which connects God and humankind: God is the creator of the raw material, and the artist in turn shapes that material in line with an Aristotelian immersion or a Neoplatonic (and christian) “idea” of spiritual Beauty which is higher than tangible reality. God is the first creator, and the artist (referred to as the “divine artist” in past centuries) shapes the world in the image of God the Creator.
In line with a perspective derived from the Middle Ages, Giulia does not want to take on the cumbersome role of an alter deus as others have done before her: for example Albrecht Dürer’s famous self-portrait of 1500, which shows the iconic profile and features of an alter Christus, a divine painter worthy of such a bold and challenging comparison.
On the contrary, she is aware of the distance between the prototype and its representation, which can never go beyond the stage of eidolon (a pure simulacrum, in Plato’s words), not exact models, but more blurred images, deliberately vague and indefinite translations. The True Face is in fact unattainable, it can only be an ideal destination, an appearance that can never be concretely realised. However the work of art, and the work of devotion, can and should retain a trace or a reflection of that True Face.
In the words of the artist herself, this complex process is conducted through the imagination, the human intellect, in an effort to “translate the shimmer of the mystery of existence.” In what ways are Giulia’s poetics conveyed to the curious eye of the viewer? First of all, it begins with a sound and dutiful principle of intelligibility.
Drawing on an old definition by Gregorio Magno, the painting must function as a Biblia pauperum (bible for the illiterate): the images must be understood by everyone, decipherable by even the poorest and uneducated, in accordance with a principle rooted in the traditions of the Middle Ages.
This does not exclude a more aware and knowledgeable audience, that can grasp and appreciate the less obvious and more subtle references (stylistic, symbolic and cultural).
In this respect, Giulia’s production of an ecumenical image is far-reaching, insofar as it talks to all those who would like to get a closer understanding to her voice.
As a result, concrete images alternate with more iconic and stylized ones, a figurative repertoire gives way to models of abstraction which are not purely exercises of style (in terms of linearity, color or geometrical patterning) but lyrical instruments which convey emotions, feelings and thoughts.
This duality, which persists from multiple points of view is consubstantial to the inherent nature of Christ, and can also be seen in the use of blues and browns (in alternation in different works) to depict the eyes of the son of God, ideally located between Earth and the Heavens.
And at the end of this profound and coherent journey, we are presented with torn works, which should be read as actual metaphors: shreds of a greater mystery, one which we can only humbly imagine and never hope to grasp in its entirety.
As Dante said, “Be satisfied, O human race, with quia unexplained!”
(translation by Katie Marlow, U.K.)
Simone Ferrari (Milan, 1969)
Associated Professor in Modern Art History, University of Parma.