Born into a cultured and art-loving family, Francesco Clemente received a humanist education and, from an early age, traveled with his parents throughout Europe, getting to know many cities and their museums. Before devoting himself fully to a career as an artist, he spent several semesters studying architecture in Rome. It was during this time that he made his first visits to Asia. Since 1977 he has lived and worked in Madras (India). Then, in 1981, he took a studio in New York, and has divided his time ever since between Italy, America, and India.
These broad horizons have shaped Clemente’s fundamentally multicultural view of life. He took an early interest in Europe’s past and present-day roots in antiquity, as well as in the local traditions of southern Italy. In India he engaged intensively with Asian mythology and imagery. America then opened up a rewarding exploration of the New World and its changing focal points, as well as an insight into the Native American cultures that influenced avant-garde artists such as Jackson Pollock.
Through these many and varied influences, the artist gradually developed his own distinctive approach of combining diverse motifs, styles, and techniques, figural and figurative fragments, painterly gestures, and conceptual thinking. His visual syntax, clearly shaped by a free and graphic style, remains fluid and open to change, without ever calling into question the notion of the image itself. As Clemente puts it: “I have never thought in terms of abstraction or figuration. I have always thought in terms of fluidity and fracture. My work is born out of a proliferation of drawings. They were amulets, made to remember images that had for me a healing power. The continuity of the proliferation, on the one hand, and the fracture, the recognition of the fracture of identity, on the other. I was attempting to reflect this polarity of fluidity and fragmentation, and give witness to these two elements of experience. The continuity of the image and the interruptions of the self.” (1)
Typical characteristics of his work include a playful fluidity and layering of different and often fragmentary motifs without reference to place. Elements from comic strips combine with mythological signs, and the surreal with the clearly defined, often within one and the same image. This ambiguity is evident in the works shown here, which do not attribute any unequivocal role to that which they portray, but which instead are infused with a playful underlying tone. In this context, Clemente has stressed the influence of his hometown of Naples and its self-identity: “There is a great amount of play.” There is a “greater imagination in how many roles and how many parts are allowed to be interpreted in real life.”(2)
In this, he names a factor that sets him apart from the Italian Transavanguardia, which, at the same time, he so distinctively represented.3 His work is clearly oriented toward “disegno.” Here it is not the expressive and vibrantly colorful style prevalent in northern Europe at the time that comes to the fore, but a more muted palette of painting and drawing. Nor is his focus on the immediate past, but on a retrospective contemplation of the mythical sources, and on the concern for beauty and balance that prevailed in classical art.
(1) Francesco Clemente in conversation with Danilo Eccher and Francesco Pellizi (New York, March 1999), in Danilo Eccher, Francesco Clemente. Arbeiten auf Papier, exh. cat. Galleria d’Arte Moderna – Bologna, Villa delle Rose; Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, Turin, and London 1999, pp. 91–166, here pp. 127–128.
(2) Ibid., p. 96.
(3) The term “Transavanguardia,” coined by Achille Bonito Oliva, primarily describes the Italian variant of neo-expressionism in the late 1970s and 1980s. Achille Bonito Oliva, La Transavanguardia Italiana, Milan 1980
Further works by Francesco Clemente in the Baloise art collection:
Inv. no. 0516, Untitled, 1971, Ink on paper, 22 x 29.6 cm
Inv. no. 0517, Untitled, 1976, Felt-tip pen on paper, 22.9 x 17.5 cm
Inv. no. 0518, Untitled, 1976, Felt-tip pen on paper, 23 x 17.4 cm