Agostino Arrivabene lives and works in a seventeenth century iron-gated house outside Milan. His home provides the secluded, protected environment in which he finds the solitude and space necessary to create his stunning paintings. Arrivabene says, “My house is like a nautilus shell wherein time has stopped. Inside you will encounter a rarefied atmosphere where … scarlet velvet mingles with coral-colored walls, and ancient, deformed animals watch over my slow, artist’s movements, and where the window seeps in northern light which floods the floors a blue pearl color, much like that of the exhumed dead. I live just as certainly as a hermit or an old ghost, a sweet dog by my side and a Ukranian maid who looks after me from time to time.”
And from this “nautilus shell” of his seventeenth century house “wherein time has stopped,” Arrivabene’s masterful paintings in turn have the ability to stop time and create suspended intense moments outside quotidian time. Arrivabene has written of his work as forming a “wunderkammern” or “a room of curiosities,” such as those created to display the trophies brought back by adventurers returning from foreign expeditions. This points to the painter, Arrivabene, as an explorer returning with bizarre and extraordinary fragments or treasures from strange, new visionary worlds.
After his initial training at art school, in which, Arrivabene says, he learnt next to nothing, he toured around Europe and studied the paintings of old masters. He researched how to grind his own pigments, lapis lazuli, indigo, cinnabar and madder, dragon’s blood, orpiment and bistre, and almost forgotten techniques of painting like mischtechnik, a painting technique used by artists such as Albrech Dürer and Grünewald. In mischtechnik, egg tempera is used in combination with oil-based paints to create translucent layers which, when laid over each other, refract light through the painting creating a sense of light and luminosity. This attention to the minutiae of his craft has resulted in Arrivabene’s paintings actually embodying a process of alchemical transformation, in which the physical matter of painting itself, the lead, the ground pigment, the egg, the oil, is transmuted through the agency of his craft into extraordinary light-filled visions. The other notable thing about Arrivabene’s work is how densely saturated it is with the history of painting, as his works resonate with a lineage of visionary artists from the past – we can see glimpses of Francisco Goya, Leonardo da Vinci, Gustave Moreau, William Blake, Odd Nerdrum, and even in some of his pencil drawings, Mervyn Peake. And yet, despite this sense of continuity and connection with past masters, Arrivabene’s work feels fresh, contemporary, and distinctly his own.
Light with, in Arrivabene’s words, a “blue pearl color much like that of the exhumed dead” is visible in his 2011 painting Martyrium S. Dorotea, of the martyrdom of Saint Dorothy. The disturbing blue of the flesh is visible in the back of the naked woman who is turned away from us. Her body is painted in a level of detail reminiscent of the realism of Lucien Freud, who has been widely characterized as depicting his models with a forensic focus, creating a dispassionate, unsparing vision of the body. Yet from this forensic portrayal of the blue-tinged flesh of the body in this painting, Arrivabene has used the same pearl blue color to create extraordinary plants and flowers growing directly out of the flesh of the woman’s upper back and shoulders. The materiality of the paint itself underscores the inter-relationship of the matter of the woman’s flesh and these plants. In a sideways glance to the symbolic landscape backgrounds of renaissance portraits, flames are painted in the background behind the woman, representing the heat and pain of the dying flesh.
Ultimately, the physical pain of the body is represented, and yet we see in this painting the transmutation of pain and suffering, and its metamorphosis into the fantastic. Arrivabene says that one result of his mother dying when he was very young is that it let him move beyond the taboos associated with death, and showed him new ways of considering life, and “so death became for [him] the way to amazement and wonder.” This painting on one level references the story of the martyrdom of St Dorothy, in which at her death an angel appeared bearing flowers and fruit for her persecutors, but it can also be read as an embodied metaphor about the relationship of death to life, and how life itself re-emerges in different forms through the process of the disintegration and absorption of the physical matter of the dead and dying body.
In the 2010 painting Ea Exit, the firmaments of da Vinci and H.R. Giger collide with a lateral reference to the Hans Holbein painting The Ambassadors. Ea Exit references the top third, the head and upper torso, of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa,or La Gioconda. The two paintings share a backdrop of what Arrivabene calls “a wild uninhabited space of rocks and water stretching to the horizon” placed at the height of the eyes of the central figure, suggesting an unknowable, untamable element to the subject herself. The two paintings also both show women with strange, mesmerizing smiles. The famous, unfathomable smile of the Mona Lisa has inspired much speculation as to its origin, including one suggestion that the smile is in fact a visual representation of the Italian word ”Gioconda”, which translates as the word “happiness”, but also refers to the married name of the subject of the painting, who is believed by many to have been Lisa Gheradini, the wife of Francesco Giocondo.
The girl in the Arrivabene painting is smiling too, and her smile is equally enigmatic, looking as though it is turned inwards and is part of her internal state of being. She seems almost ecstatic. The hair of the girl portrayed in the Arrivabene painting is curly and unruly, escaping its restraints, and the small tight curls on the top of her head take on the form of little skulls. The skulls gradually increase in size, and are seen floating away from her head tethered to her only by trails of light. They form a headdress of skulls of all different shapes and sizes: children’s skulls, bird’s skulls, aliens’ skulls (which reference Giger’s drawings), and coroneted skulls. At the front of the painting we see a skull that has grown so large it has become untethered from her headdress and is moving around her, leaving a trace of itself behind it as it moves. The shape of it references the anamorphic skull seen in the Hans Holbein painting The Ambassadors. Arrivabene brings all these diverse influences together to create a stunning image, an ecstatic meditation on death, and on the unknowable mystery and strangeness of being itself.
The 2013 painting The Dream of Sappho, as a depiction of a state of creative being, is extraordinary. We see the poetess, her head turned away from the viewer, her eyes closed, and from the crown of her head a headdress of corals and pearls springs. Veiled, unreachable, the poetess dreams, her creative energy pushing its way through the bone limits of her skull, bringing new thoughts, new poetry into being, and transmuting her life force into the blood-formed corals and pearls of her poetry.
Arrivabene is becoming increasingly prolific and there are many new and wonderful works to be seen on his website. A small sample of his artistic portfolio is featured here as part of this article. The first major retrospective of Arrivabene’s work is being shown in the Panorama Museum in Bad Frankenhausen, Germany from 29 June to 30 October2013. The exhibition presents 20 years of the artist’s work. One hundred and thirty works will be on display including paintings, drawings and etchings as well as many of his moleskin sketchbooks. You can visit this link to find out more about the exhibition.
I interviewed Agostino Arrivabene in the process of writing this article, back in June of this year.
Lavers: I have read that you live in an old manor house near Milan, and that you have a housekeeper who looks after you – is this right?
Arrivabene: Yes, this is partly true. The ‘manor’ is in fact not a manor but rather an old rural farmhouse in the middle of fields, surrounded by nature. My housekeeper is certainly an important woman who keeps me company
Life in the city does not suit my psychological disposition. I have always loved contact with nature, contact with water which should always be near human dwellings; the flow of the aqueous element is fundamental. It is liberating and purifying for both body and spirit. Water is the elixir that nourishes my thoughts, the panacea to my anxieties.
Lavers: I would like to ask you about your rhythm of working – What time of the day do you prefer to paint?
Arrivabene: There really are no rules in my life; I have never liked them. My spirit is free, I don’t like external conditions, and so when they present themselves, I disdain or shun them categorically. I don’t like impositions from collectors, from purchasers, and especially not from curators or art critics, who for me are a kind of satellite human category or species … revolving around my flow or my vision, which must not have any distractions.
Usually, however, morning is the time when I don’t paint. Waking is slow, very slow, in fact. The hours that I prefer to work are those evenings up very late at night or those long dark hours of winter afternoons.
Lavers: Do you ever use images from your dreams in your work? Is dreaming or lucid dreaming a part of your creative source material?
Arrivabene: Yes, often the dream-world during sleep is a source of inspiration and also of speculation … As a young man at the end of the 80s, I had a dream of an astral flight, a detachment from my body in order to experience the imaginative dimension, an instant flash which imprinted itself into my memory as soon as I woke up, becoming the most persistent obsession I have ever had. A bird’s eye view of a verdant Greek valley, of eternal and impenetrable forests, an intense green never seen in nature, a valley without end where the horizon could not be distinguished from a sky without earthly dimension, but more golden. This landscape guarded a small perfectly circular lake of an intense blue, comparable to the deepest blue of the rarest lapis lazuli, a lake that survived on the edge of an abyss, a nightmarish, bottomless, icy, black darkness, into which flowed a rivulet of water, a small waterfall that overflowed from the lake and fell in the darkness. It was an immediate image, persisting over the years and still now strong and clear. Many times it has been depicted in my paintings over the years, becoming almost a canon, a leitmotif that characterized every image.
Lavers: How do you respond to the description of your works as ‘visionary’ – are you happy with this term? I am referring to the tradition of visionary art that is represented by artists such as Goya, Fuseli, Blake, Gustave Moreau and more recently Odd Nerdrum.
Arrivabene: The “visionary” works you mention in association with eminent examples of great artistic expression are, for me, reference points along my artistic development, and among those artists you listed, there are two in particular, though far removed from each other temporally, Gustave Moreau and Odd Nerdrum, two important poles that I have… studied in order to then distil them within my idiom, a personal style which constitutes my own poetic vision.[These]… are examples of lives which have been able to observe reality with a sideways glance, a parallel language made of inscrutable representations and messages coded within literature, which lead to a hierarchy of deeper interpretative values … I am the son, or rather, the seed born of the furrow left by these more authoritative holy fathers.
Lavers: I have seen you describe your work as ‘wunderkammern’ or ‘rooms of curiosities.’ This metaphor implies that you are, in some ways, an explorer venturing into unknown lands and returning with trophies or images from uncharted territories, in this case, of the mind. If this is so, what is your thinking about these fragments, these images, that you return with?
Arrivabene: The excavation work of my mind into my dark inner world is comparable to the journey of Persephone in Hades, or equally Orpheus’ journey into the underworld. They are travel rituals, Orphic or Eleusinian in their urgent desire to steal from the dark world flashes of truth, the glimpses of which are the keys to a parallel realm that must reveal the interior world through an accumulation of images or a babel of languages, the very mystery, just as eagerly sought by ancient civilisations…. My dream is to steal the royal crowns of Persephone and Hades, to bring them to men back on earth to help them understand the centrifugal mystery of life in regards to death, and death that gives rise to life. It is one of my greatest desires to give to the world such royal emblems; to deprive the ancient gods of their symbolic power.
Lavers: Your images would seem to evolve out of a heightened non-quotidian state of awareness. How do you sidestep the rational part of your brain? Do you have any techniques for achieving this?
Arrivabene: I have never tried to give weight to the origin of an image. It emerges slowly, like botanical gemmation, or instantaneously, like an archetypal image. Sometimes only by overturning the orientation of the painting do I find the solution, and what was once a clear image. By turning the painting itself upside down, either vertically or horizontally, I find the solution that brings me towards a new painting, which layers onto the previous work a new vision, thus changing the meaning of the image.
It’s not surprising then that under the skin of many of my paintings are hiding actual burials of old images, whole paintings, hidden regrets that sometimes serve as a regenerating humus for the new image, which a new observation manages to perceive, transforming it into a new vision.
The means of altered consciousness have certainly always intrigued me, having been an assiduous reader of the works of Aldous Huxley, but drugs like tetrahydrocannabinols, or opium or hallucinogens, have never been close friends to me. Occasionally some soft drugs have sporadically helped overcome gestural blocks, but not very often. I don’t need them. The real source of connection with a stage of excitement is definitely music.
Music pervades my sessions of realising a work, completely, absolutely. And it is always powerful and symphonic music like that of Brahms, Beethoven and his symphonies, Bach and his Brandenburg concerts, or my favorite artists Mahler and Wagner, or Ciurlionis, who besides being an artist was also a composer of sublime musical pieces. Nor do I exclude new contemporary composers like Arvo Part, Sbignev Preisner, Vassilis Tsabropoulos, the band Sigur Ros, or Lisa Gerrard and Michael Nyman.
Lavers: Your work is informed by the work of so many artists – how do you see your relationship with these painters who have gone before you?
Arrivabene: I believe that history is a babel of knowing that is enclosed by human memory like a Borges-esque library. Everything that precedes us is like a cache of layered wisdom which nourishes new, still unexplored veins.
The history of art has been able to sharpen the gaze and the search for the ideals of beauty, of harmony, and of the mystery linked to these values. Art has become like a religion, and in these most recent years, artists have come to understand that we are like shamans, the perfect link between man and the imperishable, since before this period, art depicted religion, but now art is itself a religion.
This awareness has …[enabled me] to draw on this layered knowledge, ..[laid down by]and confirmed by illustrious minds of geniuses who have given much to the world, and in an age so full of confusion, chaos and languages which hybridize with one another or annihilate each other unproductively, there still exists an underground river that even if hidden vibrates powerfully to enhance the enigma of beauty.
Gustave Moreau was our closest answer to Leonardo, a confirmation closer to my time, who was able to take from the Renaissance master a sense of harmony of forms. Gustave Moreau was, in my early formative years, the founder of a movement that I still felt vividly in the years from 1990 to 2000, and not overtaken by the avant-garde.
Moreau is one of those artists who represents in a single life the entire journey of the history of art. He is an encyclopedic dictionary of more extreme styles and languages; he shows us levels of maturation that anticipate the abstract painting that appeared following his artistic experience …. His capacity for synthesis of form and color are true experiences of the avant-garde for an artist of that era.
Odd Nerdrum on the other hand is clearly an inscrutable and fascinating artist, with an unbridled talent for the construction and texturing of a painting. He knows how to empathise with the pictorial ductus of Rembrandt and Titian or Eugène Carrière, with a capacity and self-assurance which is unique.
Lavers: You have said that ‘The hardest part of being an artist is that period of gestation, when the images prepare to emerge and forms sublimate, then…everything flows…” Where do you find the initial stirrings or the seeds of an image generally come from?”
Arrivabene: This question could have a single and simple answer. Obviously I could tell you that it is life itself that gives every opportunity to be translated into art, and certainly not the bucolic accumulation that current-day artists produce in relation to images, detaching them from the pathos of living.
But … every image that I construct … is the product of a definitively diversified method. For every painting there exists no single procedure, at times it can be a strong suggestion originating from an urgent desire to better focus on an idea captured by a philosopher, or from a story or a mythological reference, or sometimes it can be a specific fact that happens in my life, for better or for worse.
Painting is frequently the urgent medium for sublimating life. It is the medium that translates every dormant impulse, which risks festering in unresolved internal compartments. On the other hand it is at times the magnitude of the mystical quest which is decisive, and which in me becomes the fulcrum to lever archetypal images which are born either by chance or by unconscious surfacing, but which then over time express a meaning and show clearly that through this gesture or that painting, or that particular symbolic element, I wanted to highlight a mystery, still hidden within me, still unsolved and cryptic.
Journeys are often the necessary pathways to be able to verify my thirst for knowledge and curiosity, like those multiple occasions on Greek soil where I confirmed my theories, and taste, or performative gesture, in order to then translate it into painting.
And in exactly the same way in large cities where museums and their collections become springboards to launch into daring experimental techniques. But then almost always the trip has also been in order to realize small sketchbooks of notes of germinal ideas, … which then mature and sometimes transform themselves into works, growing into more complex images. I have a collection of moleskins, hand-bound incunabula or leather notebooks, very simple, where life translates itself in a diary through images or written words, ideas as notes. I am very possessive of these fragments of writings and drawings, they are the furrows left by my life on this earth, enclosed in paper and pages.
Lavers: To see such a mastery of the techniques of draftsmanship and painting is extraordinary in these days when the system of apprenticeship and learning from masters has broken down almost entirely. How did you go about learning about the material processes of your art?
Arrivabene: In fact, I am at the end of a journey without haven or protective shelters. In my early formative years I definitely followed paths, at times purely academic and necessary, and subsequently followed paths which have also been daring or brave in the construction and drafting of an image.
Clearly I have not had master-teachers. My formation has been solitary, everything has come from myself alone, and also through dialogue with the great masters of the past, observing at great length their painting, daring too, at first, a rhetorical process and genuine attempts at reconstruction appropriate for the outset, studying these implementations in long sessions that filled my day. I preferred from the outset to do away with instinctive and random learning processes, rather pursuing the reconstruction of a bridge that could reconnect a blocked road, namely, that from the traditional craftsmanship of the handling of raw materials used in the masters workshops, bridging the enormous gaps in the processes of contemporary drawing and painting.
Apart from this aspect, from childhood, drawing has been for me the language through which I relate to others. I have never been a talkative person; in my younger years, my conversations were private and hidden in my mind between me and Leonardo [da Vinci], in whom I placed my faith from the outset.
Leonardo is the supreme master whom I have been able to observe from my early years. He is like a father who has guided my sign, my hand, my taste and a way to intuit the harmony of forms both drawn and in nature. He has educated my gaze right from the beginning, proof of which are my first preparatory studies of some paintings such as Nix, a small drawing on wood created with pencil and silver tip, which has strong echoes of the preparatory study of the Virgin Annunciate now in the Uffizi Gabinetto in Florence.
Lavers: “Debauched monasticism” is a phrase you have used to describe your life – it is a very intriguing description, I was wondering if you could elaborate?
Arrivabene: Certainly loneliness has always marked the progress of my days. I’ve always loved to surround myself with books which plumb those mysteries, inherent in humans, linked to the spirit, to mysticism; books of poetry or anthropology, myths, alchemy, esotericism and philosophy, precisely because they are texts that investigate the hidden wisdom inside us as well as that which is external to us, that is, of the universe that surrounds us and that pierces us.
My sense of religion is absolutely crucial for my pictorial gesture, for the inspiration of the ideas which subsequently emerge. I have always aspired to discover what lies beyond death, the mystery of that threshold that obligatorily completes man. I have never been satisfied with a superficial atheism, never satisfied with a relativism that now permeates the minds and hearts of most human beings.
Man is a lump of flesh and blood and bones that surrounds an eternal core, a memory that permeates the centuries and time and that is never interrupted, which flows continuously in a continuous surge, a rising towards a sharpening, such as a mathematical and numerical increase of the Golden Ratio. … It is no accident that I’ve always loved the Golden Form, that Golden Ratio implanted like a genetic code of the entire universe. Fibonacci is my guardian angel.
Lavers: I would like to ask you about the importance of the face in your work. It interests me how in some of your most evocative works the faces are completely or partially hidden – I am thinking of the paintings of Lucifer and the paintings of cherubim. Sometimes the faces are hidden in clouds of what look like bacteria as seen under a microscope. Does the face have a particular significance to you?
Arrivabene: The denial of the face is simply my introspection into myself, but at the same time also my outward reflection on the more mysterious dimension of existence.
The denial of a face obviously often corresponds with iconographic codes relating to deities, or demons/‘daemons’, or creatures superior to humans. The denied face is the kingship of God manifested in his denial to men, and his beauty is impossible to behold by the human eye; the denial of his face is the evocative act of a reality so ideal for human cognition. Clear examples are the painting of “Endymion” of 2007 and the painting of “Lucifer” in 1997, two visions which are mirror opposites: Endymion expresses its beauty through its very elimination by the bright light that assails his face at the moment of the erotic union with either the god or goddess, depending on the version of the myth, …. In one version of the story he is visited by Diana, in another by Zeus.
On the other hand, Lucifer, the biblical angel, is the most beautiful but also the darkest, and is therefore denied his attribute of beauty – his face – which thus reveals a gaping void, total blackness, a dark hole that engulfs, [capped by] his crown of floating flowers.
Bacteria are an atavistic obsession, an obsession born of my hypochondria, my absolute terror of disease.
Lavers: What are you working on at the moment? Do you have any new work in mind?
Arrivabene: At the moment, after a long process of collection and planning, I am about to inaugurate my own retrospective exhibition at the Panorama Kunst Museum in Bad-Frankenhausen, Germany.
From 29 June to 20 October, more than 120 works will be exhibited to the public, works never seen before because they have been hidden in private collections, works which bring together over twenty years of my work and which the curators Gerd Lindnr and Rosaria Fabrizio have been able to collect, [curating them around]…the concept of Pathei Mathos, that is, an ancient Greek term which represents the search for truth or understanding through pathos, or rather, through pain and suffering; essentially the disquiet of life expressed by Aeschylus in the tragic opera Agamemnon.
I’m… starting to delve into Giordano Bruno and his ‘wheels of memory’. …I’ve also been working for some time on illustrations from Dante’s Divine Comedy, illustrating the entire work, all three canticles, hell, purgatory and paradise, which up till now I have kept hidden from the public as they are still works in progress.
Lavers: Are there any living visual artists, film-makers or musicians who particularly inspire you?
Arrivabene: The musicians I have already been mentioned. Artists are for the most part sources of inspiration and mainly stem from ancient art, without any creditable contemporary reference, apart from the very few and rare, such as Francis Bacon, Balthus, Lopez Garcia and Odd Nerdrum.
Lavers: What books have influenced you – are there any writers that you love and you see as having had an impact on your thinking and your work?
Arrivabene: The first were definitely the …poets, Rimbaud and Baudelaire above all, followed by Thomas Mann, Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, Joris Karl Huysmans, and definitely the philosophical works of Plato, of Marsilio Ficino, or the wonderful letters of Michelangelo Buonarroti, the archaeological works of Robert Bauval and the philosophical works of Giordano Bruno, and, more recently, the diaries of Simone Weil and the contemporary philosophy of Franco Rella.
Lavers: What are you reading now?
Agostino Arrivabene: At present I’m reading the De Umbris of Giordano Bruno and the Castello Interiore of St. Teresa of Avila.
Katie Lavers’ questions were translated from English to Italian by Paola Vertechi, from the Italian Institute of Culture in Sydney.
Agostino Arrivabene’s answers were translated from Italian into English by Neville Chiavaroli. An Italian and Latin translator, Neville Chiavaroli’s translation (with C. Mews) of a medieval Latin manuscript was published in The Lost Love Letters of Heloise and Abelard (St. Martin’s Press: New York, 2009).
1. Arrivabene Agostino, Tekne International 2006
2. Artists and Writers Who Ignited Us in 2012, Combustus, December 22, 2012
3. Agostino Arrivabene, Oil Painter, Milan, Italy, Combustus, May 11, 2013
4. Interview: Agostino Arrivabene, welcome to the Wunderkammer! Chiara Sestini, C-Heads, February 29 2012
5. Mona Lisa – Portrait of Lisa Gheradini,, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, Louvre Museum Paris