Ernesto Tatafiore

Galerie Harald Behm

Ernesto Tatafiore’s figures greet us elegantly with head, not hat, in hand. For instance, there’s Louis XVI: he inclines charmingly toward an audience outside the drawing, which is sarcastically entitled Luigi I’ultimo (Louis the last, 1981). This title reminds us of the drama of the French Revolution, with its protagonists Danton and Robespierre and its victim Louis XVI, the latter a key theme in his work. The headless Louis XVI is an emblem for death, which, as a border crossing, signifies for Tatafiore first and foremost a threshold to the new, specifically the departure from absolute monarchy to the birth of a democracy shouldered by the bourgeoisie. On a more metaphoric level, the figure of Louis XVI stands for the effort, following intellectual work, to free oneself from the control of thehead—i.e., the superego—and penetrate the unconscious in painting.

Autoritratto eroico (Heroic self-portrait, ca. 1982) is the title Tatafiore gives to his double portrait of Danton and Robespierre. The artist depicts himself in this work as only a hand with a paintbrush, but his name stands on an equal footing beside those of the two other “heroes” through his signature. Robespierre and Danton are figures who, as Tatafiore says, embody the dialectical emotionality of the human animal: our actions combine violence and cruelty with the will to do good, and with faith in the utopia of a just and harmonious state. At the same time, Danton and Robespierre also stand for the failure of this utopia. Danton is the blinded one, which is why Tatafiore puts pieces of scorched wood in his eyes.

La vertu est á l’ordre dela Terreur (Virtue is the law of theTerror, ca. 1986) is the title Tatafiore gives to one of his guillotine drawings; and he calls a work that depicts someone in the act of murder Nature morte (Still life, ca.1986). He uses watchwords as part of his game of surprise. Text and image are like two opposing worlds that collide and, in the process, explode all the conventional associations and create a chaos of new ones. Traditional allegorical categories burst like soap bubbles when he pairs Verite (Truth) and Raison (Reason), both ca. 1986, with two frivolous women who would ordinarily be taken as allegories of sloth and lasciviousness.

This 43-year-old Neapolitan artist consciously alludes to Paul Klee’s idiosyncratic use of words and images. But there is never just a single explanation for Tatafiore’s works; the confluence of words and images and the remarkable phenomenon that the spoken word often conceals its opposite are things that Tatafiore encounters daily in his other professional role as a psychoanalyst. Many of his visual fantasies have their source in his sessions with patients, as does the desire to grasp existential situations in the form of images, or rather merely to suggest them, for Tatafiore leaves much to the viewer. For instance, a few works depict the sinking of the Titanic, symbolically implying the drowning of illusions and secretly celebrating nature’s revenge as it crushes human arrogance. A ship also appears in the painting Vendicante, ca. 1986, as nature’s avenger: the word vendicante is an invention of his son, combining the words mendicante (beggar) and vendetta.

Tatafiore does not conform to any contemporary category. His clearly outlined, carefully constructed, transparent figures and simplified, pattern like objects recall Henri Matisse or Francis Picabia. His faces have deliberately “classicized” contours. He is antiformalist, flexible in his choice of media, and lyrical to the point of being downright pleasing. He counterbalances the intellectual disjunctions with a soft esthetic.

He belongs neither to the generation of young Italians who are part of the Trans-avantgarde nor to the arte povera generation (into which he falls chronologically). His early conceptual installations throw light on his later drawings and paintings, for Tatafiore fits his feelings into conceptual modes of expression, assembling visual and verbal elements into picture-bombs that are deceptive in their seductive gloss. The smooth neoclassical and mannerist echoes may make us wary at first: has the artist suffered enough, has he struggled enough for the sake of his art? But such questions are ultimately irrelevant. In the elegant manner of his figures, who cross the boundary of the conventional with head in hand, Tatafiore challenges the viewer to make psychological sense of his pictures.
Doris von Drateln

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.