Sandra Chia

Ex Chiesa di San Nicolo

This ten-year retrospective of paintings by Sandro Chia—curated by Bruno Mantura as part of Spoleto’s annual “Festival of Two Worlds”—suggested an autobiographical, pastoral cycle concerning the coming of age of the artist. In this light, A to perfido carro (To you, treacherous cart, 1980)—a picture of a mule bucking a small carriage in a picaresque landscape—can be considered an allegory of advent. The shimmering white cross and flamboyant orange glow around the carriage hood denote the presence of a very special passenger in what we may assume to be a Holy Perambulator.

This beleaguered traveler is elsewhere the subject of bucolic idylls and village persecutions, onanistic discoveries and provincial triumphs, and will eventually, perhaps immaculately, transcend to fatherhood. Adult eroticism leaves no discernible trace in Chia’s work. Homoerotic themes—the martyr-figures of Lo schiavo (The slave, 1980) and Fire Game, ca. 1985, for example—are inchoate or else the pictorial equivalents of juvenile fiction, and women are rarely seen at all in these voyages. One awkward, botched, and scored odalisque from 1981, Wet Painting Don’t Touch, seems to exist solely to illustrate the double entendre of its title. Another painting, coyly dubbed Qualcosa di interessante (Something interesting, ca. 1981), offers an abstraction and reduction of a woman’s face roughly in the manner of Jules Pascin, and a third, The Woman of the Lake, ca. 1983, is a rhetorical and academic exercise. The world evoked in Chia’s earlier paintings—a world where paranormal phenomena are revealed to untamed boys, and where the savageries of rustic nature seem swayed by the sound of some unseen lyre—is a sketchier version of the world described in movies by the Taviani brothers. It is recognizably Tuscany, wrought poetically out of a nostalgie de la boue.

Chia’s work from the ’70s and early ’80s, however, has a direct storytelling appeal and a likeable recklessness. In Emozione perpetua (Perpetual emotion, ca. 1978), for instance, with its traditional image of a farmer in a field pissing as he drinks, the artist’s efforts at a Cézanne-like contouring of the violet trees on the upper half of the canvas degenerate into exasperated scribbling below. During this period Chia drew from several genres with relative abandon. Futurist rhythms and the perspectival conventions of the scuola metafisica are especially prominent in Sul tetto sulla strada (On the roof on the street, 1979), a stiff work in which a lone male figure is chased down the street by a mob in a typical Italian hill town.

Pastorello eccitato (Excited young shepherd, ca. 1980), an idyllic scene with Palladian elements under an expressionist sky, is a ripe example of Chia’s brand of eclectic revivalism, but the widely-exhibited Genova (Genoa, ca. 1980) is perhaps his outstanding monument to the international provincialism of the day. While Chia’s visions of the countryside tend to blur with sentiment, Genova has a noonday sharpness pulled into focus by the architectural urbanity of the setting. In this memorable, epic-sized vignette, two dark-suited young men float over a sere piazza, looking backward, like lovers who have strayed out of Chagall. In fact, the implied presence of Chagall gave Genova its risky flair, and in retrospect cast Chia in the plum role of foraging pioneer.

In La bugia (The candle, also The lie, 1983), the trademark childhood longings are at last united with a poetic sophistication. This intimate portrait of a little boy seated on a wicker loveseat by a candle is a nocturnal painting swamped by verdant hues. The swirling orange flame at right is both the Aladdin’s lamp of storytelling—there is even a “magic” carpet beneath—and the yin-yang emblem of creation. The child’s face is in a limbo of rapture, half-obscured by the light and half-illuminated in the surrounding darkness. This “double” image echoes the double entendre of the title, which alludes to the sentimental side of childhood as well as to its trickery. The wicker chair, however, is the county seat of this painting, and the metaphoric key to the artist’s literary ending. The ephemeral pleasures of a late summer’s night are here offset by the chair’s woven, linear pattern of dark green and white—like the architectural facades of Pistoia.

The paintings from 1984 onward are compositionally more complex, and the old rustic ardor has largely been supplanted by a more knowing design. Chia’s forays into undervalued styles have pretty much given way to energetic bulk shopping. The sturdy worker models and direct colors of Fernand Léger, for example, have been drafted into service in a painting such as Figures at Nightfall, 1986, and elsewhere other body types—Cocteau’s indolent ectomorphs, Picasso’s neoclassical statuesques—crop up as if simply tried on for size, or to demonstrate the artist’s evolving discernment. The recent Chia is in a connoisseur’s corner. Even the charming, fauvist Padre figlio e Babar (Father, son, and Babar, ca. 1985) in its exclusive trinitarianism seems somehow a declaration of status, with the elephant Babar as presiding symbol of a childhood provided for in traditional and expensive good taste.

Lisa Liebmann