Nicola De Maria, Regno dei fiori (Kingdom of flowers), 1984–85, oil on canvas, 7' 2 1/2“ x 10' x 2 5/16”.

Nicola De Maria, Regno dei fiori (Kingdom of flowers), 1984–85, oil on canvas, 7' 2 1/2“ x 10' x 2 5/16”.


As it was with arte povera, so it goes with the Transavanguardia. Some two decades after Achille Bonito Oliva coined the term (in a 1979 article in Flash Art), it now resurfaces on the occasion of an exhibition reuniting the five artists who were its most emblematic vectors. Having handily won out over the rival label arte cifra (proposed by critic Wolfgang Max Faust, for the group’s first exhibition, held in June 1979 at Galerie Paul Maenz in Cologne), Transavanguardia was indeed rather rapidly effaced in favor of the proper names Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, Nicola De Maria, and Mimmo Paladino. Similarly, in the early ’70s, the label arte povera disappeared in order that its twelve purported adherents might assert themselves individually. Thus, these artists did not find themselves gathered again under the banner unfurled in 1967 by Germano Celant until the mid-’80s (after the appearance of the Transavanguardia), when the critic and curator revived the term for a large exhibition that traveled from Turin to New York by way of Madrid.

In both cases, the reinstatement of the terms was accompanied by the definitive establishment of the roster of artists indexed under the respective labels. Some who were initially integrated within arte povera did not make a return appearance when the moniker was revived in the ’80s. Similarly, the Bagnolis, Salvadoris, Longobardis, Germanas, Fortunas, and so on that Bonito Oliva added from time to time to his group of five were gradually cast aside, with the effect that the Transavanguardia coincided exactly with the artists in the photograph (taken in 1980 in Basel) adorning the cover of the Castello catalogue. One may also observe that this return of the Transavanguardia confirms, as did that of arte povera, the disappearance of all traces of the attempts to branch out to include artists of other countries, which the promoters of both movements essayed early on. In short, historicization and the passage of time have confirmed the essentially Italian nature of each of these movements, which occupied in their own way a spectacular place on the international scene.

There the similarities end, as even a rapid comparison of the current exhibition with either arte povera retrospective easily demonstrates. For all the founding prophecies of the Transavanguardia’s promoter, who, in his writings of the period, greeted the emergence of a nomadic art freed from “linguistic Darwinism” and the moralism of the avant-gardes, today one cannot but be struck by the relative uniformity of content, method, and climate in this gathering of close to seventy paintings (plus two rather unattractive sculptures by Chia and Paladino), organized for the Castello by director Ida Gianelli. While the arte povera retrospectives (even the contentious and controversial one recently mounted at Tate Modern in London) roused the memory of an art in a state of general expansion, as fresh and alive as it was uncategorizable, the Transavanguardist works allow themselves to be soberly aligned on the two walls of an immense, hallwaylike room in the Castello, where, with the exception of De Maria, the five artists are reunited. Certainly, it is not difficult to distinguish the colorful and vaguely mythologizing mannerism of Chia from the almost transparent, narcissistic watercolors of Clemente. Nor would one confuse the heavy, expressionistic impastoes of Cucchi with the great vibratory, almost monochromatic surfaces on which Paladino deposited a few sculptural fragments. Greatly favored by being hung not in this long gallery-corridor but in three much more comfortable rooms in the Castello itself, De Maria’s great paintings stand out that much more—they are fresher, more modest, lighter (even with their sometimes very large format), in a word, truer—but it’s at exactly this point that one wonders what justified their creator’s inclusion in the group.

Nevertheless, with the exception of this hiatus—one that is quite palpable in the large room of the Castello where the sole true confrontation is presented in five large works, one by each artist—the common thread of an ostensibly divided position can be seen to run from one end of the main section of the exhibition to the other: the wall, the image, and the painting understood once again as a sort of combat zone where a certain subjectivity, despotically focused on itself, can ultimately be expressed. (In this sense, Castello chief curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev is not incorrect in her catalogue essay in pointing to the Dostoyevskian figure of the idiot and the Foucauldian one of the madman, two faces, according to her, of “that aspect of Modernism that resists intellectual analysis, that explores skepticism and locates itself in the realm of the fool, the idiot, the brute, the radical other.”) Thus, by way of a generalized nomadism, one gets the feeling of being invited under cover of Nietzschean nihilism not to the eternal return but to the third return—the first took place around 1915–20 under historical circumstances of which we are well aware—of an art folded in on itself that wants to be ageless and free of social and historical inscription, and datable only by the generally large formats, post-American rather than postmodern, and, here or there, by a few inoffensive provocations: Chia’s farting figures, Clemente’s erect penises.

In fact, history does not have much to do with the linearity of any sort of “linguistic” Darwinism (which, moreover, is neither historical nor linear). Indeed, history only deserves its name if, from time to time, something new emerges and ends up revealing—that is its revenge—the vacuity of what is only repetition.

Daniel Soutif is director of the Centro per l’Arte Contemporanea Luigi Pecci, in Prato, Italy.

Translated from French by Jeanine Herman.