Is this idea of balance connected to your interest in alchemy? I recall your early work The Seven Days of Orpheus holds symbolism that explores these themes.
Indeed. Although we may think of the world as moved by harmonious laws, it is clear that we constantly live an internal war, a continuous succession of waves fracturing our reality into polarities. We are faced with a crisis that compels man to seek a steady point between fractures. It is a question without an answer, and it only ends where human comprehension achieves its utmost stage of knowledge. The golden Sophia of the Pythagoreans and the alchemists was nothing but the internal search for perfection, intuition and the divinity embedded in matter. Oppositions are the pillars of the universe in its continuous becoming. There is no equilibrium between light and shadow, life and death, good and evil. There is only a connection point, a blind spot, an enlightened state where man senses a space where everything becomes nothingness. Everything is taken apart and then distilled in a primogenital unity, uninterrupted.
For me, the androgyne is the emblem of this fusion and transformation. I encountered it over and over again in the plates of alchemical manuscripts, in Greek sculptures and in medieval and Renaissance angels; disguised, it appeared to me in Pre-Raphaelite heroes and heroines and again during the decadence of Oscar Wilde, Sâr Péladan, Joris-Karl Huysmans, or artists like Gustave Moreau. The androgyne is not simply a perturbing and distorted sexuality between two opposites, but an identity in itself that dissolves duality. One of my inspirations in this matter was Thomas Mann’s Tadzio in Death in Venice. This was a pivotal book for my adolescent years to the point where I identified with both the main character (Gustav von Aschenbach) and Tadzio himself. Together, these two characters represent the opposites: youth and old age, the beautiful and the grotesque. I was fascinated by the later film version that replicated the book so exceptionally.
So these are the influences that led me to make Orpheus the most important iconographic code for the first years of my painting. Orpheus perfectly represented the artist, the genius who through his music could transform nature and humanity. And that’s how I conceived and represented him: in his circularity. It was in the first half of the nineties, when visiting the Uffizi in Florence, that Botticelli’s circles began to fascinate me. This became the perfect image for containing the fluidity and centripetal force of movement. With Orpheus, I built an image connected to a passage in Ovid’s Metamorphoses where the singer, on failing to bring Eurydice back from the underworld after his perilous journey, pauses on the threshold to sing for seven days and seven nights as a last attempt to convince the infernal couple to give his loved one back to him. I conceived the image of Orpheus as closely tied to that of the lyre, here bearing biblical, Greek and alchemical codes, reimagined as the work of a goldsmith using the alchemical processes of rubedo, albedo and nigredo.
The androgyne of the Platonic myth is placed at the lyre’s centre, holding the seven golden strings, fastened at the top to a rainbow-painted support. And of course in alchemy Iris was represented by the peacock’s tail and heralded the final creation of gold. This androgyne was made of two bodies with their backs joined, the golden figure symbolising the masculine aspect and the silver one the feminine. Each holds half the strings: on the feminine, nocturnal side we see gestation, silver and light blues, water, hallucinatory poppies; on the other side, lush gold and painted colour and the swan dear to Apollo (who gave the swans to Orpheus as a gift). The androgyne stands on a bronze mountain, symbol of the effort needed to achieve the final stage, the peak where the last transformation takes place, where man becomes god.
Orpheus instead is portrayed in melancholic abandon while Nature enwraps and comforts him: lilies, asphodels and roses kiss and martyr him, a Christ with a nest of flowers and brambles for a crown, where small birds cry out in hunger. But the real focus of the painting is the scarlet rose that Orpheus holds. The poet’s convulsive whirl quietens suddenly before that deepest red, symbol of his bleeding heart and his tragic love for Eurydice. The lover is put in the condition of knowing truth, but a tearing, a breathtaking break, is necessary first. Only through this will he be finally transformed into a floral, bleeding creature made of music and art – yet disarmed in front of the laws of death.