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That Sense of Becoming

Agostino Arrivabene discusses the inspirations, symbolism and ideas that create the artistic world his paintings inhabit. 

Interview by Robert Shehu-Ansell, first published in Abraxas #4

When did you realise you wanted to be an artist?

I think an artist becomes aware of what he is rather than decide art is what he’d like to do. At one point or another, artists feel the urge to interpret reality through mystery. For me this happened in my teens, in Florence, after seeing Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi. While staring, amazed, I felt a sense of belonging to the reality and the time that had allowed something so beautiful to be born. In a way, that was my first mystical vision. My father, who was with me at the time, was so tired of waiting for me to be done staring at the image that he decided to leave me there, in Leonardo’s good hands. When I finally caught up with him, the entire afternoon had gone by and he was already having dinner with my brother at our local restaurant. That canvas wove its web so hypnotically in my consciousness that as soon as I came home I took up studying Renaissance art in all its technicalities. What sparked my imagination the most was the use of bistre, the pigment extracted from soot that Leonardo used to darken its monochrome.


When was the first time you experienced a sense of the sacred?

I was four and it all happened just after my mother’s death. With my father we often used to go to the cemetery, and there, in between the austere arcades was an old, grey and black wall. It looked like someone had deliberately set fire to it. The ways mould had created patterns and weather had eaten at it conveyed an image of the cosmos, a small yet immense globe upon which the entire universe, its galaxies and its many worlds rested. I was reverentially scared of those gloomy, black and grey suns. I saw God’s epiphany and sublimation in them. Horror and veneration mixed and every time I went to the cemetery I stopped by, in horrified mystification. It was then that I understood I was alone inside.

Would you say that painting offers you the opportunity to experience and explore the sublime? How does that affect you?

Sometimes even understanding what it is that I am painting or how I am doing it is very hard. Everything surges up as a feeling, a sensation, an emotional state that at times is so strong it forces me to leave the work I am doing. As the work grows, my heartbeat increases, some sort of anxiety takes me and my chest begins to hurt. It’s a weird mixture of joy, manic excitement and exuberance and I then have to get up and leave it all for a while. That’s also why I always work at multiple paintings simultaneously. If I concentrated on one alone it would swallow me up. I call this process ‘keratokton’: retina drop. I take a vision and turn it upside down. I look at it from a scalene perspective, because it just makes more sense that way. That way I can feel and live the present and the past in a different manner. That’s when art and nature become chemistry. They act on the body as a reactive agent that purifies you. All those ideas lump inside you and somehow you need to get rid of them. By looking at my work and at the world with that same scalene perspective I can do that, I can get rid of it. That’s what art does for me: it allows me to externalise the darkest sides of myself. If you have a look at Lucifero and L’Apparizione you can get a sense of what I mean. Those works allowed me to understand the state of turmoil I was in. Artistic inspiration warned me about my precarious physical and mental state.

Lucifero  (Pesante Ho L’Anima di una Tenebra Perenne), 1997 – 2007, oil on canvas, 60 x 50cm.

And what about the way you employ colours, which I understand is very unusual: how does this fit into your artistic view?

Let’s say that colours stand to paintings as flesh, bones, blood and skin stand to a living body. The supporting structure of a painting is a constructive anatomical process. Art should live on and survive our fleeting human life; this is only possible if the structure is reliable. The canvas has to be of the best linen or hemp, the primer coat of animal glue and Bologna chalk, the loom tense as a tendon, Saturn red and lead white elastic as a muscle. On this solid bed I lay the painting that already lives in my mind. Paintings have as many layers of skin as the human body does. The sketch is inevitably different from what my inner eye has seen. The processes of the flesh are like the processes of the painting. A cut, a blow, a reverential attack will make us bleed. A slash will make the painting emerge further. Colours spread via an infinity of media as infinite as the attacks a body can receive: hands, brushes, cloths, the effects of the elements, a spatula – they make it stronger, they make it deeper, they add history. And then of course there is the final work, the entrancing stage of dressing the initiate for the most important ritual: entering the world as a new human being. The brush here is soft and constant, a soothing lullaby that heals the previous violent blows, the days of deprivations. The best linen is used for initiation and in the same way I employ the most sought-after paints: layers of amber, olio d’abezzo, Chios mastic. I make my own colours at times, applying streaks directly to the canvas. The weight of the varnish beautifies the work like jewellery.

Your double-A monogram would seem to reference Albrecht Dürer – I know you have a very high regard for his work – but I am intrigued by the pendulum. What might this signify?

Since I was very young I have been obsessed by the recurring A in my family’s names: my mother Antonia, my father Angelo, my brother Andrea and myself, Agostino. And of course in my surname, Arrivabene. The A became a pyramid, an architecture I could build on in various forms: a mark needed to feed my egocentrism. The first paintings in honour of my narcissism were named after Narcissus himself, but a trip to Nuremberg in the early nineties changed that. There I came in contact with Dürer’s work. His influence was indeed of crucial importance. Wonderful calligrapher, painter, draughtsman of exceptional skill, his monogram set an example for many later masters, of course.

At first, I simply took the two letters and wove them together, making a magical glyph. The pendulum came later as a symbolic act, an ambition to reach a centre, an equilibrium. A point where the entire universe spins around the artist, who becomes the focal point, the contemplator of the mystery, thought, awareness of being, magical locus where everything can be observed without any opposing forces from outside: no dark or light, good or evil, life or death. This state is the point where the pendulum’s tip becomes inert, where opposites are reconciled peacefully, where everything is possible, where the rainbow falls and the Philosophers’ Stone is generated.

Proserpina Ornitophoba, 2011, oil on canvas, 45.5 x 55cm.

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.

The myth of Orpheus seems a powerful image for you.

There is no icon as clear as his. With his drama made of poetry and cries, music and tears, love and death, Orpheus synthesises perfectly the creative and cathartic, the thaumaturgic, artistic process. Orpheus is the mediating spirit between art and man, divinity and humanity, the wild and shapeless world and the composed and ordered universe. Music becomes a mysterious art, a ritual to seduce and bewitch even the imperishable: death and life, Hades and Persephone. According to the myth, Persephone will pass on to Orpheus the sacred mysteries of the infernal kingdom and he, in turn, will initiate a circle of adepts into those mysteries. Through Orpheus we can understand art as a shamanic act, as a tool to understand, dissect, dominate, identify and unveil nature as a supernatural reality. Orpheus was born of Calliope, muse of poetry, and Apollo, supreme god of art. Hermes, the soul-conductor, shapes his character by gifting him that lyre he bartered over with Apollo, and thus we see Orpheus as a guide for humanity, turning them towards knowledge of their own souls and from wild beasts to poets, making them perfect beings. Later Plato will lay down his world of immutable and perfect Ideas, but without Orpheus and his occult rituals Plato couldn’t have conceived such thoughts. Art can translate the mystery so that we are raised to the threshold of infinity. Art gives back the necessary light to the fleshly molecules so we may understand our divine nature, bypassing material corruptibility, stepping beyond time and space and projecting thought to lives beyond our present one.

In our times the magical dimension of art has been cast aside in favour of new forms that oscillate between the grotesque and the kitsch. What contemporary art needs above all else is to reconnect the act of creating with the urgency to translate nature in all its forms, while infinity unravels itself by the ritual process of seeking beauty through art. The artist becomes a priest of transmutation, whose task is to regrasp the ancient alchemists’ reins, their symbols and myths capable of shaking the natural world, and to reorder it to their ideal shape. Only the Romantics, after centuries of emptiness, achieved this dimension. A renewed Romanticism can now be witnessed once again amongst the restless stream of flowing Web images. People are born whose eyes are turned towards infinity – philosophers, freethinkers, artists and poets coming back to a contact with nature and with the earth through which to understand the mystery of the universe. Our eyes look beyond the dark sky, towards the abyss, in search for answers. A new dark, romantic age is rising from the rubble of war. If the man of the stars, that small Cycladic sculpture we see exhibited in Athens, still surprises us with a delicate yet dazzling head movement, then that limestone abstraction endowed with refined existentiality makes us understand where our eternal values lie and where the ‘heroic furor’ of the artist stands.

Autoritratto Pantocrator, 2011, oil on wood, 33cm x 29cm. 

You’ve spoken elsewhere about the importance of dreaming as a source for your work. Could you elaborate further?

Since childhood my dreams have mostly been nightmares, forms of indefinite chaos that produced anxieties. It was like glimpsing through the door of the infinite universe with its immense mysteries and being refused entrance by the key-holder. I think dreams revealed my shamanic nature. Sometimes they come when I am fully awake, eyes wide open, sometimes they come with the help of psychotropic substances and sometimes they are sudden and unexpected and don’t need the aid of anything. The three most important dreams of my life were of the last kind and I know for a fact they came from something that was other than me.

When dreams become important I know it because they start drumming into my head and the only way to bring that sound outside of myself is by painting them. The sacred, lapis-blue circular lake was one of those and it became what you may call an obsession. I was torn from my body by an enveloping energy and I travelled within endless oceans of dense, relaxing, hypnotising clouds. Then the clouds opened and I was shown a corner of uncorrupted Eden. It was only an instant, a flash, but even now thinking about that image gives me a headache as if trying to focus a broken lens. The only elements I have left are mineral colours and greens, a landscape where nature dominates, uncontaminated. And I remember the lake: in the middle of this paradise was a tiny, intense blue spot of a lake. But the lake was on a threshold and beyond it a dark gloomy abyss, so profoundly black that thinking about it fills me with anxiety. From the lake a pure feeble stream of water gushed towards the abyss. I remember perceiving it as blessed, holy, saving. Since then, the lake has appeared multiple times in my work. I had the compulsion to paint it. I inserted it as a landscape element in constant dialogue with many different divine entities. I put it where it is hidden, where symbols – a cup of water, a drop of rain – obscure its presence. It was only later that I understood the message that had been conveyed to me through this dream. There is help coming from above and a single gush of that pure water can guarantee nourishment to the darkest of creatures, to the darkest side of my personality. Heaven met Hell and the permeability between reigns is a small waterfall of purifying water.

Another very important dream happened around 2004 during a trip to Iceland. I was alone, walking at the base of Hekla, one of the most destructive volcanoes in human history. While wandering on a path of black lapilli, I saw a lonely and mysterious black figure advance towards me. It was bony, emaciated, slow and solemn, completely naked. He advanced enveloped in a grey mist, feet just off the ground, his legs lit by a cutting golden light. The visual shock was powerful. It was only at a second glance that I noticed his head was covered by a madly swirling mass of black insects. Then the figure grasped a bunch of insects and started creating two small vortexes. At the same time, behind him, the earth disappeared, swallowed by immense hurricanes. From cities to valleys and mountains, everything was erased. The peculiarity of this dream was that it stayed inside me for an entire year before it condensed into something. It then became a full cyclical work composed of small sketches. It is curious to think that this image has always been realised in black and white, never finding any colours . . .

Nozze Infernali I, 2013, oil on wood, 40 x 30 cm.

Nozze Infernali II, 2013, Oil and gold leaf on wood, 40 x 30cm.

And this figure you have since identified as Lucifer?

If we think of Lucifer as the highest representation and cause of evil, my work can be seen as an attempt to limit his influence within an icon. On some particularly bad days, evil has altogether prevented me from looking at life. In dreams I have seen flesh being torn to a degree I couldn’t have imagined possible. This tearing was inflicted upon my body by an obscure refusal to look at life and its many perspectives. For many years I identified death with evil, disease with pain, and fear with the annihilation of the self. That ‘evil of living’ that Montale describes so evocatively (a strangled brook, a fallen horse, the shrivelled leaf) is not only moving poetic imagery but also a tool by which we can understand how the horror of evil can be eradicated through the beauty of art. But we are never safe from the fear of interior aridity, the sneaking obsession of a compulsory stop.

The clouds become dense and dark. They cover the eyes, obscuring what is beyond. And that urgency to discover new horizons and new worlds where thoughts can once again become light slowly dies out. If these clouds are made of obscene matter such as black stinging flies, the ‘evil of living’ is expressing a complete halt to living. Lucifer was the fetish and totem that I built and nurtured for myself with great pain and effort in order to better observe the darkness that was growing within me. He appeared to me only in solemn and shocking theophanies. In dream images I saw the evil nesting inside me. I saw the knowledge of an angel that was the first to be created, the first to be loved but also the first to be repudiated. I saw how marvellous and majestic he was, omnipotent, master of life and death, of earth and its mutations. I have loved him as a tender lover, I have known him intimately and I have also felt compassion towards him; because in the end, he is I.

I glanced at him to see darkness reflected, I kissed that black void and that body kissed by flowers time and time again so that I could try and comprehend my own evil, and attempt to overcome it.


Spesso il male di vivere ho incontrato:
era il rivo strozzato che gorgoglia,
era l’incartocciarsi della foglia
riarsa, era il cavallo stramazzato.

Bene non seppi, fuori del prodigio
che schiude la divina Indifferenza:
era la statua nella sonnolenza
del meriggio, e la nuvola, e il falco alto levato.

– Eugenio Montale, from Ossi di seppia (1925)

I am also intrigued by the relationship you have with Hades and Persephone. Could you explain how it developed, what it means to you, and whether it changed the way you approach your work?

My encounter with Persephone was very sudden. I have been snatched by Hades just as she had been. I met Death in the winter of 2008. I talked to her over several months and she cast over my eyes an opaque veil of fear, a fear of ending it all. Every agonising breath I took, Persephone penetrated my soul deeper and deeper, until I knew her better than I had known anyone else. She became my heroine, the one who represented me in my initiatory journey, first through deterioration and transience, then through the appreciation of Nature’s duality, the final epopteia. At first she was almost shy and so was I. We wandered through the land of death together, scared by the dead coming back to the surface, by the freaks that populated the otherworld, by the macabre putrefaction we weren’t used to. And the strange thing is that they changed: surely death is meant to fix you in a certain state but instead they grew bigger and more intimidating. And that was when Persephone slowly became stronger, her double nature emerged and she appeared to me as a warrior, the epitome of transmutation. That active response became a victory, that cyclic power the symbol of my own initiation: my soul opposed dark and deadly winters with the rebirth of spring. I became one with the natural cycles and the cosmic phases of mutation, with the Sun’s eternal dance that forces us to watch and change with it, eternally. A new way of looking at the world emerged: fear became strength.

And that changed the way I did art; I received visions. I could now turn my vision upside down and sublimate even the most mundane object through a hundred lenses. The world began a dialogue with my most lysergic self, became a stage where surreal frames enacted parallel realities. That realism that before 2008 had become almost a trademark, a simple mirror for an interior mimesis, emerged as a mere exercise in mannerism, a stifling restriction. And in its stead metamorphosis appeared. Heaven and Hell, this world and the other, weren’t opposites any more. They became two stages of the same process of flux, where I could finally look beyond the appearances of a reality that is clearly dictated by falsity. Through Persephone I understood something of pivotal importance: I spoke to a previous era and so have my paintings. But my true desire, what I aspire to most, is to go beyond my time, elongate my life, enrich art as I could never do in a short human life. Banality, corruption, forced success, vanity are at the core of human existence; they interrupt the sacred dialogue with real art, poetry’s true message, reality’s translation into a mystery that if sought hard enough reveals the sacred.

La Nebbia, 2013, oil on ancient wood, 40 x 30cm. Courtesy of Bonelli Arte.

Would you say that your personal crisis in 2008 prompted an initiatory experience? I am speaking of your meeting with Persephone and the subsequent profound changes to your style of painting. And if so, how do you commune with her now?

I experienced a shift to a new life. To achieve change I needed a powerful traumatic shock. That event ended my existence on earth. Death is an extreme ending, unacceptable to us all, it marks the end of all occasions, the end of everything, but really, does it? When you find yourself face to face with the moment when everything ends, fear definitely comes up first. It is fear, more than the thing itself, that puts an end to the continuum of life. Phobos spawns obsessions: it gives birth to trauma and trauma generates nightmares and anxieties. They can take over at night or during the day; they can be ephemeral or real. So I employed Hades and Persephone to work through this time of my life. Since she mirrored my experience, Persephone became my heroine. We know the story: Persephone is abducted by Hades but because of Demeter she is allowed to travel between worlds, six months among the living and six months among the dead. The infernal couple represent an obsession as much as a thaumaturgic experience for both my body and soul: each of her descents to the underworld corresponds to a personal experience on this earth where tears and repressed fears mix.

But these events, made of life and death, were also the occasion to recreate new expressive codes for my art, making it more kaleidoscopic and mutable in process, use of materials and method. My tradition is still based in the golden baroque, with its condensed oils used as the vehicle for pigments, but I am now approaching it in a less structured way. The desire to paint and the gestures used became more violent and yet also more immediate and free. Without reserve, for instance, I built an image and then buried it, drowning it in a completely different colour. Then I resurrected it again, dug it out with violent gestures, with cutting tools, abrasive substances, corrosive acids and with fire. And so this image comes back but it is transformed, into something quite different while retaining elements of the old. Death of the self, both mine and my work’s. I gave some of my works real funerals, painting them in the summer and burying them under layers of paint and soil in the woods near where I live. I then cautiously waited, hopeful through the whole harsh winter before I could dig them out and heal the ground’s corrosion. This is how many of my Persephones died and came back to life.

Today, I look at Persephone as a twin sister, strolling through my days and seasons, her moods matching mine, her melancholic glances that arise together with the first orange leaves mixing with mine, slowly closing, ready to enter the cold winter once more. And when she arises, she smiles and my days become brighter. And this is how I bow to Persephone while she steps over the tender asphodel buds marking her passage.

You’ve said that the sacred is not a theme to be followed, but a way in which the artist can feel a part of the unfolding universe. What do you mean?

By ‘universe’ I mean a vast and compressed space both external and internal to the artist, in which he projects questions about the unknown and the mysterious – questions that demand the presence of a creative (or destructive) principle, which moves and amalgamates things while transforming them. Dante Alighieri called this ‘the love that moves the sun and the other stars’. For him this transmuting principle is an abstract being that moves what is good, what is beautiful, all our feelings, our love. It is a sacred fire that bonds with what was conceived as the Judeo-Christian God. The same God, the same principle, exists in all my works. In them you can see a fire towards which every question converges, but no answer emerges. This is what brings human beings towards their atrocious endless dynamism. It is in our nature to look for meaning, and it is in the nature of things to be searched for and never found.

That sense of becoming is in my opinion the active projection towards mystery, towards those endless questions that have moved men and women since they started walking this earth. The river flows continuously in time, bringing us towards a point that we will never reach. The condition of being is to be always in a liminal stage, a contemplative creature between the material and the immaterial, which we reach by intuition but never through reason. It is finally Plato’s shadowy cave, or perhaps the crepuscular reality spoken of by decadents, Romantics and Symbolists. To act on an image is for me the same game that directors of theatres and shadows play.

Rapture (Ganimede), 2012, oil on canvas, 180 x 230cm.

What are your plans for the future?

After the efforts that started in 2008 and changed my pictorial codes and their expression, as can be seen in exhibitions such as Plutonic Hysterias, Theion and Pathei Mathos (still on show at the Panorama Museum in Bad Frankenhausen), I feel it is time to settle down and dedicate myself to an opportunity that was recently presented to me: illustrating Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a text I have loved for a long time, since I was in my teens probably. And this is thanks to you, Robert, who will be the art director for this project. Once completed, it will coalesce beautifully into a whole made up of both a precious volume and an exhibition in a prestigious site.