Italian Painter and Mixed-Media Artist
Summary of Francesco Clemente
Acting as a dark shaman of the post-modern era while reacting against the dominance of increasing abstraction in preceding generations, Clemente helped reinvigorate painting by using recognizable human figures as his primary subject. In idiosyncratic and arresting images, he uses Neo-Expressionist techniques to represent late-20th-century people and their psychological conditions - fundamentally questioning what is real and what is of value to the human spirit. He has channeled his interests in literature, music, and film and blended them with philosophical ideas, signs and symbols drawn from other cultures (Hindu spiritualism in India, Tarot, and the Candomble religion of Brazil). His diverse approaches to making art have resulted in works that have decorated nightclubs and hotels, as well as gallery and museum walls.
- Clemente depicts many of the darker, unspoken or conflicting psychological aspects of being human, significantly updating earlier art movements of the late modern era, drawing on Surrealism's dream-like extensions and transgressions of ordinary daily life, and building on Expressionism's revelations of interior emotional states. In contrast to other prominent Neo-Expressionist painters such as Georg Baselitz and Julian Schnabel, Clemente embraces a wide range of cross-cultural ideas and symbols to address existential human issues.
- He combines classical modes of composition - with timeless settings and hints of ancient mythologies - into striking and highly accessible images that express very contemporary ambivalences about the body, sexuality, and human relationships with nature and one another.
- Clemente explores individual identity, and the various means for its construction by constantly questioning the idea of a singular self. Clemente's post-modern approach undermines earlier notions of a "unified ego" for individual human beings through artistic techniques such as distorting the faces and figures of individuals, as well as employing the literary techniques of allusion and allegory."
Progression of Art
Map of What is Effortless
In watercolor, surrounded by a thick blue border, against a blue-gray backdrop, stands a ruddy human right hand, palm facing us. There is no suggestion of dismemberment - the wrist is merely out of the frame - but no other body parts are visible. Standing on each finger, scaled to the finger's width, is a different wild animal indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa: a rearing zebra on the pinkie, a tiger on the ring finger, an elephant on the middle finger, a lion on the index finger, and a giraffe on the thumb. Like most of Clemente's work, it invites a multitude of interpretations; the menagerie could represent our evolutionary ancestry, from which we draw our most natural, effortless tendencies; the diminutive scale of the creatures in relation to the human hand could suggest the human ambition to rise above the status of animals; or each of the creatures' contribution to informing the human spirit. In Hinduism, the five fingers of the hand are understood to represent the five continually flowing energies of the human body - known as Mudras, in an image borrowed from Middle Eastern culture of the Hamsa. This piece is representative of Clemente's early work, which reflects the influence of conceptual art, such as that of his mentor Boetti, on his work.
Gouache on paper - Private Collection, Milan
Water and Wine
Against a backdrop of blue bricks, two nude figures interact with the standing corpse of a horned she-beast: a distressed man stands holding its severed head, while a more comfortable looking woman reclines underneath while suckling the beast's teat. A rope, tied as a harness around the beast's torso, dangles from the top of the frame. In the early 1980s, Clemente had incorporated Indian influences into his work and begun to become a fixture on the New York City art scene and his work began to more clearly incorporate themes of violence, sexuality, and other distortions. The unsettling juxtaposition of violence and relaxation, beauty and the grotesque in this work is not unusual among artists influenced by the Surrealist movement; what is perhaps more distinctive is the way it suggests that we are nourished by the bodies we kill, and even perhaps that there is no other way for survival among living creatures.
Gouache on paper - Art Gallery of New South Wales
The image is painted in oil with bold, violent, colorful strokes. A man who resembles Clemente seems to stare, mouth agape, at the viewer. There is something unsettling about the figure: his face is a hollow mask. Small, pale versions of himself sit inside his ear listening, inside his eye sockets watching, inside his nostrils sniffing, inside his mouth moaning a word. They are confined within him, but they define him; his real face, his real identity, is a facade. This is a visual representation of the second major existential crisis Clemente reported having in 1971, when he became aware that he has no self - that what he thinks of as his personal identity is a hollow mask, and that he does not know what fills it.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
Self-Portrait with Black Gloves
A nude man, again with Clemente's features, and the distorted proportions of a homunculus, holds his head between the fingers of his two gloved hands. Eyebrows arched, he stares at the viewer. Behind him is the blank canvas itself, and nothing else. The painting is entirely in black and white. Clemente's gloves and genitals are the only detailed elements, the rest is set out in bold dark strokes. The painting doesn't necessarily convey anger, but there is an unmistakable note of aggression; his expression seems mocking or confused, and his nudity appears to be more exhibitionistic than vulnerable or sensual. His posture is indicative of a vague, self-directed threat, or of a necessary support to a vulnerable self - as if his hands were gun-like weapons. His use of the gloves suggests that some unknown means is preventing him from directly connecting to his own identity.
Colored chalks on paper - Private Collection
The canvas compresses the body of Clemente's wife, Alba, into an improbable reclining pose. Wearing an off-the-shoulder red dress, red flats, red lipstick, and a bulbous golf cuff bracelet, she gazes at the viewer with penetrating, somewhat dolorous brown eyes. Behind her is a backdrop of amorphous blue, giving the overall effect that she is floating in something like a petri dish. The connection between glamour and the unnatural social construction of beauty hints at the way in which our perception of such beauty is unavoidably warped, an illusion grounded in fantasy, and something that contorts and disfigures the earthly human form. Clemente would go on to paint many portraits in this somewhat claustrophobic, distorted style. The details of each portrait vary - some are standing, some seated, while he emphasizes different features and highlights the different clothing and accessories of his individual subjects.
Oil on canvas - Guggenheim, Bilbao
In hues of red, blue, and gray, the figures of eighteen identical men in business suits (or as the title suggests eighteen frames of the same man in a business suit and backpack) walk along a beige platform, then down the side of it. Behind them, a rusty brown wall drips with grime. Whether we are looking at a crowd or a montage, it is the forward motion that allows the figures to demonstrate purpose within these bleak surroundings - just as our goals and aspirations, our own forward motion, allow us to transcend our own surroundings. There is a vitality and strength here in their relentless momentum. But it may be significant also that these figures, despite the purpose that forward motion can provide, must all march inevitably off the platform to the ground below and beyond the frame. While Clemente's recent work has not depended as much on a conceptual basis as his 1970s work, he has never entirely abandoned it; rather, he has incorporated it into a diverse and ever-growing aesthetic repertoire.
Pigment on Linen
Biography of Francesco Clemente
Childhood and Education
Francesco Clemente was born in 1952 to an aristocratic but not especially wealthy family in what he would come to refer to as the "old Greek city" of Naples, Italy. At the time, World War II was still a very recent memory, and the fascist regime of Mussolini had carved deep and jagged rifts within the nation's artistic community, its aesthetic values, and its relationship with the traditions of other countries.
In interviews, Clemente often speaks of the profound existential crisis he experienced at the age of 19 while studying architecture at the University of Rome. This was at a point in the history of mind-body philosophy when the idea of an immortal soul lost currency among secular thinkers, as neuroscience and behaviorism challenged fundamental ideas of selfhood and conscious identity. There were two elements to Clemente's crisis: the certainty that he and all other people would inevitably die, and the certainty that even as a living person, he had no personal identity, no individual consciousness.
Working mostly on paper in his early years, his first exhibition at Rome's Galleria Giulia (1971) evidenced his central concern with exploring the fundamental questions of identity, which has remained with him throughout his career. Young Clemente studied under the innovative conceptual artist and sculptor Alighiero e Boetti, and in 1973 he and Boetti traveled to India. Clemente discovered the Indian philosophical concept of anatman (no-self), and with it, the idea that what we think of as our human identity is in fact a hollow mask. Much of Clemente's work, and most specifically his self-portraits, can be read as an ongoing attempt to wrestle with the implications of this idea.
In 1981-82, Clemente created his first large oils, a series of twelve paintings titled The Fourteen Stations, which were shown at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London in 1983. In 1984, he worked with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol on a series of intriguing collaborations at Warhol's studio, the Factory. As Franziska Knupper wrote for Aesthetica: "Clemente uses various materials ranging from oil or acrylic to watercolor; he employs bright colors as well as sinister tones ... Not surprisingly, a collaboration with the other artists only felt like a natural 'extension to himself' ... For him, the contradiction and differences between their styles only contributes to the strength of the paintings." Clemente also later collaborated with the poet Allen Ginsberg on a series of bookworks (1983) and with the poet Robert Creeley on some larger paintings (1997).
Since 1981, Clemente has functionally lived in three different cities: Naples, Varanasi (in India), and New York City. In New York he established himself as an irreplaceable fixture of the art scene and achieved many critical successes including a Guggenheim retrospective in 1999-2000. He continued to travel and work in other locales, from Afghanistan to Jamaica and the American Southwest. In 1995, Clemente spent 51 days trekking and meditating in the Himalayas, painting a new watercolor each day.
The classically handsome Clemente has also had an unlikely side career as an actor, most notably appearing opposite Matt Damon as an ill-fated hypnotherapist in Good Will Hunting (1997). His paintings were also used as the work of Finnegan Bell (Ethan Hawke) in Alfonso Cuaron's 1998 reimagining of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. Clemente is fluent in English as well as Italian, and makes frequent appearances in the US media; his lengthy 2008 interview on PBS' Charlie Rose was one of the series' highlights.
In 2008, Clemente collaborated on a performing arts project with New York's Metropolitan Opera, where he exhibited his portraits of eight star singers. His work has been written about by professional art critics and significant literary figures such as Salman Rushdie (2006), Derek Walcott (2009), and Kirin Desai (2014), and has been featured in major exhibitions on nearly every continent of the world, including works using traditional Chinese papers in Shanghai (2014).
Clemente's recent work has involved mixed media, including photographs of sculptures, and 'Encampments' made in collaboration with a community of artists in Rajasthan. This work is a series of tents made of sumptuous illustrated fabric into which visitors were invited to enter and was exhibited at MASS MoCa (2015) and Carriageworks in Sydney, Australia (2016).
The Legacy of Francesco Clemente
Clemente's work bridges movements and brings together media and aesthetic sensibilities that are seldom found in the work of the same artist. He has taught a generation of young people to be unafraid of drawing their inspiration from the artistic traditions of other cultures, in exploring the basic questions of identity, sexuality, and transcendence - topics with which he wrestled himself. Furthermore, he has taught artists to be amateurs - to be unafraid to experiment with media and techniques with which they are unfamiliar. Perhaps beyond any of those lessons, he illustrates that it is possible to find credibility and prestige as an artist by firmly refusing to seek glory.