The spiritual and political world views of Italian contemporary artist Francesco Clemente. By Miriam Cosic.

Francesco Clemente’s Encampment at Carriageworks

Francesco Clemente in Jodhpur, India.
Francesco Clemente in Jodhpur, India.

Francesco Clemente was 19 when he had what he calls two “transformative moments”. The first was a piercing realisation that mortality was personal. “I noticed that we’re all going to die, and I noticed that no one seems to notice,” he says. “It was an extremely vivid experience.” The other came when he took LSD, which he did several times. He recommends it. “It wasn’t physical death, but the death of the ego, the death of everything I thought I was, which, in a psychedelic experience, gets completely unravelled.” 

Today, dressed like a country gentleman in olive-toned tweed, the Italian artist is as courtly and charming as a character crafted by Giacomo Leopardi or Giorgio Bassani. Indeed, he says of his father that he was the product of “generation upon generation of loss”. Irony apparently runs in the family. “It is the capital of the Camorra today, the poorest town in Italy,” Clemente says almost gleefully of his home town, Naples. “And I always remember my father saying, ‘Your ancestors must have been great administrators to have left behind this mess.’ ”

Clemente has a high-pitched yet decorous laugh. It erupts most often, laced with irony, when he discusses political power. He is self-deprecating, a listener as well as a talker. In fact, only the gold earrings, two of them and unusually large for masculine adornment, hint at the wild side. The psychedelic drugs. The flight to India after those epiphanies at 19. Running with the Warhol crowd in New York in the 1980s. The endless, and endlessly documented, romance of his marriage to the beautiful Alba. 

He has had the powerful self-belief to continue pursuing ideas, techniques, whole philosophies even, that he has been working through since his 20s, all the while maintaining his relevance as an artist in communication with the world. “A lot of artists cower in the face of a new aesthetic,” says his New York dealer, Mary Boone. “They try to conform with what they think is popular now. And the thing I love about Francesco is that he continues to make his own work. He’s not interested in trends.” It is, she suggests, the result of a particularly fine-grained combination of integrity and intelligence. He doesn’t fear being left out of the conversation, she says: he starts his own conversations. 

Clemente’s work is recognisable from 50 paces. Most famous are the portraits of celebrities, often outsized, filmy, bulbous, floating, abstractly located even while they are recognisably figurative. They are key to his place in the revival of Expressionism in the 1980s, after the dominance of abstraction and performance art in the 1960s and 1970s. The oil on canvas of Alba, lying horizontal in a bright red dress and red shoes, with a gold Indian armlet on, is emblematic of this side of his work: it was all over New York to publicise his 1999-2000 retrospective at the Guggenheim. But his work is infinitely more varied than this, in motif and medium, and includes drawings, frescoes, sculpture and book illustration, and curious installations of all manner of materials, deeply influenced by his tripartite life across Italy, America and India. It has simplicity and complexity. Its references run deep. It is ineffably his. 

One of his best-known paintings, Water and Wine, resides at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. It draws on both Christianity and Indian mythology to depict a beast that is both bull and cow, its decapitated head held by a naked man as a naked woman suckles at its udder. And yet this is Clemente’s first time in Australia. He is in Sydney for the launch of his exhibition Francesco Clemente: Encampment at Carriageworks on Saturday. It was first put together for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, and showed there in the second half of last year. The exhibition is 30,000 square feet of painted tents and sculpture that work on the idea of nomadic existences. The six tents are painted inside with a profusion of people and objects in Clemente’s trademark style. The outsides are densely printed by hand with woodblocks of his drawings. Each tent has a theme, and the interiors are moodily shadowed in the half-light penetrating the openings. “You can see them as prehistoric caves, or mediaeval chapels,” Clemente says. “To paint on cotton is very similar to painting frescoes, but even more extreme because everything that goes on stays there. You can’t go back and clean it up.” He hopes, he says, that viewers will see “the freshness of the medium and the freshness of the language”.

Alexandra Foradas, a curator who worked on Encampment in Massachusetts, says Clemente’s constant travelling has given him a “long view” of contemporary art. “One of the things that is touched on in the exhibition, that is very much part of his work more broadly, is the idea of everything being contemporary,” she says. “So he’s as much interacting with pop art as with Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. The fact that he uses tempera is very resonant; the chapel paintings that Michelangelo did were in tempera as well. He uses everything from Catholic imagery, including side wounds and angels and devils, to Buddhist and Hindu imagery that he has absorbed over the course of his time in India. He is from everywhere and nowhere.”

The themes have been constants, even as Clemente has developed as an artist. There are threads that run through our lives, which we are sometimes unconscious of until a bright light illuminates one. “I like that,” he says. “One of the main contemporary traditions in Hindu thought is Tantra, and Tantra means ‘weave’. There are threads in all our lives.” He refers to the Buddhist master, Chögyam Trungpa: “He used this beautiful expression: ‘continuity of discontinuity’.”

That seems an elegant summary of Clemente’s life. He was born in Naples in 1952. His father, a judge, was a “lighthearted person, without a bit of pettiness about him”. The admiration from his son is evident. “He had great character. I never heard him say once, ‘I’m tired’, ‘I’m bored’, or ‘I’m sick’. Never. It did exist, all of that, you know?” Clemente’s mother, by contrast, was hungry for beauty. In the privation of Italy’s postwar years, her son says, she once swapped a set of tyres for an 18th-century cabinet. She didn’t work, but was ravenous for life. “She studied Russian, she sailed,” her son remembers. “She did many things.” 

An only child, Clemente travelled constantly with his parents across Europe and had “visited every museum” by the time he was 11. He liked to write poetry and his mother collected his words: there was a fad for child poets at the time. He started to paint out of sheer embarrassment, needing an artistic outlet that didn’t excite his mother. After school he went to Rome to study architecture and to escape Naples which, he says, he found small and stifling. “But of course,” he adds, “Rome is as stifling and small as Naples, if not more so...” 

It didn’t last long. At 19, he had his two epiphanies. It was this “double death” that led him to India. He knew very little about it, but knew he wanted to get as far away as possible from the disconnect between knowledge and power he saw all around him, from Europe’s “historical bankruptcy” and the political upheaval and violence of the Anni di Piombo, the Years of Lead, the period that was ravaging Italy’s confidence. India would be something new. It would be different. It wasn’t Europe. And in those pre-digital days, he points out, you could really get away. A theosophist acquaintance asked Clemente to take an Italian translation of a conversation to a Hindu holy man in India. He read it on the way and the rest, as they say, is history. 

Clemente met his wife, Alba Primiceri, in Rome in 1974. She was very beautiful, only 23, but already a well-known actor in radical theatre circles in Italy. He admits he had to drag her to India, away from career and friends. But, he adds, “she switched lifestyles very quickly”. They had four children. The two eldest, Chiara and Nina, had
a peripatetic childhood, something Chiara, now an award-winning filmmaker, has described as formative. “Identity and family dynamics are two very strong things that I grew up with,” she told Interview magazine in 2010. “My parents were very young when they had me, and they’re both artists, and it wasn’t a traditional household, but the Italian side of things kept things very family-based ... We grew up until I was 10 in my father’s studio, around him painting all the time – it was not this strange thing. My mother was this amazing cook, so people were always coming over for dinner.” 

The girls went to school in Madras. The arrival of twin boys, Pietro and Andrea, made travelling harder and the family settled in New York. Clemente had come to international notice at the Venice Biennale in 1980, where he showed alongside other members of the largely Italian Transavantgarde movement. Soon after, three different New York dealers invited him to show in the city. “I think there was a need to go past all the dogmatic Modernist attitudes,” he tells me, “and the ambiguity and mystery of my work was attractive at that moment.”

Clemente grabbed the chance. He had long been smitten with American writers and artists. “I grew up worshipping the Beat poets,” he says, “and American painters like Twombly and Johns and Rauschenberg.” In no time he was part of a dynamic creative environment. He collaborated with Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. He illustrated a book of poetry by Allen Ginsberg, whom he had admired from afar. “It was a complete change of pace, after being completely isolated in India for five or six years. The city had been bankrupt and so it was very inexpensive to live in New York. It was a time when all these different scenes were connecting to each other, and I was open to everything because I was not from New York.”

In Italy, Clemente’s mentor had been Alighiero Boetti. Boetti is associated with the Arte Povera movement, though Clemente demurs and says he was “a kind of an outsider to it”. Their work was poles apart, so it’s not so strange perhaps that Clemente sees no dissonance between those crazy club-hopping years in New York and his contemplative theosophical side. “If you think of America the way I think of America – as Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau, the Transcendentalists – there is such a thing as a mystical America,” he says. “There would not be Emerson without the Bhagavad Gita; there would not be Gandhi without Thoreau. Nonviolence was invented in America. These things go back and forth.”

He scoffs when I ask if his parents were religious. “You know, Italians are not religious. They’re all anti-religious, though no one would say it. In fact, if you go to southern Italy, the heritage of pagan culture is so strong.” His spiritual side was awakened and nurtured in India. But despite its Hindu and Buddhist aspects, his work isn’t detached. It is deeply political. 

“It’s political because it offers an alternative narrative,” he says, “and, if we go back to the beginning of our conversation, the preoccupation with power and the nature of power is there. Today, power is not exercised by the military, it is exercised by narrative. There are gigantic fake narratives everywhere. So any person who engages simply, humbly, in a small-scale way, to give an alternative narrative, it doesn’t matter whether as an artist or anything else...” He pauses, grasping for words, and finally says, simply: “I want to be one of those people.” 

An artist does, however, need to have something to say, he emphasises. “Your ambition is not subject matter enough.” 

With that, he laughs again, his high-pitched, decorous laugh.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 30, 2016 as "Balance of power".

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Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist, critic and author.

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