For hundreds of years sunlight, and its infinite range of shades and colours, has been a source of inspiration and sublime fascination for mankind and its artists. Painters have long ventured towards the south of Europe in search of magnificent light, from sunsets to sunrises. Whether it’s the Grand Tour visitors sketching long shadows from Roman ruins in the 18th century, or the painters of the School of Barbizon near Paris who gave up studio painting for the inspiration of working en plein air, or the Impressionists who meticulously explored light in all its shapes and forms and which culminated in an explosion of colour and texture where before there was only flatness, - all came in search of the southern light.
The sun has long given joie de vivre to the worn out all along the French Riviera. Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) chose to spend his remaining years in Cagnes sur Mer, in a most picturesque villa just a few miles away from St Tropez; Henri Matisse (1869-1954) went for the legendary Regina Palace in Nice as his enchanted place in the sun; Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) outdid them all and went from Antibes to Cannes to Vauvernagues and Mougins, where he spent most of his final years surrounded by the vibrant sunsets of the coast.
Italy too has played its part in a never-ending love story between artists and light. The Macchiaioli, an artistic movement born in Florence around 1850 (a decade before the Impressionists), purported that shape was purely made up of light and shade. The rebellious group, whose name derives from the Italian word macchia, (stain), insisted on this contrast as a sign of the new type of painting they wanted to represent. With painters from Tuscany and most parts of what would soon become Italy, the Macchiaioli brought innovation and even if not accepted by their contemporaries, this group of artists who held lively discussions in the Florentine Caffè Michelangelo, gave birth to modern Italian painting.
But have you ever heard of them? I doubt it. Despite their visual engagement being very similar to that of the famous Impressionists, it could be argued that the Macchiaioli did not reach the same levels of vibrancy that the Impressionists did later on, thus causing the movement to be less acclaimed than its French counterpart.
Unlike the Impressionists steadfast apolitical attitude, the Macchiaioli had a strong social and political component, very visible in their poetic paintings. They worked side by side with the Italian Risorgimento, the movement that would lead to Italy’s unification in 1861.
All across Italy, the sun descends at times heavenly, at times merciless, bringing out the colour and character of the country. In Venice, to take just one example, the sunlight highlights the colour of the water and the buildings in incredibly complex harmonies. How could you not be inspired by that light?
British artist, Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) was completely absorbed by the mesmerizing game of lights and shadows in the floating city, resulting in some of his most radiant works. It is true that an endless list of painters have immortalized Venice, yet, for Turner, mere depiction was not the aim; for him, the city works as a tool, a prism through which colour, from light, can truly be seen. The watercolours that derived from Turner’s Italian sojourn are a profound meditation on light and chromatic changes, on reflections on the waters and on miraculous structures and complex shadows.
Since the idyllic escapades of the Impressionists, the Macchiaioli painting in Tuscany, and their successors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, much has changed in the world, but the sun has kept on shining through the decades, preserving its place of importance as part of portraits and landscapes. And Turner of course, was not the last foreigner that fell in love with the glowing Italian light. It is difficult to not mention an artist that probably understood Italian light better than anyone else: Cy Twombly.
The American painter Cy Twombly (1928-2011) had a deep connection to Italy, where he spent most of his life. He viewed the sun, as most Italians do, as a way of life. Having spent a great portion of his life in the American South, in Virginia, he moved to Rome in 1957 and subsequently to the nearby Gaeta, where he lived until his death in 2011.
In an interview with the eminent art critic David Sylvester, Twombly stated ‘I’m southern and Italy is southern. Actually, my reason for going to Rome wasn’t all that scholarly. First and foremost I liked the life.
He described the south of Italy as ‘volcanic’, and chose Italy as an extension of his southern past back in America. Such was his devotion to the south and to the Italian lifestyle, that the artist, whose body of work takes a great deal of inspiration from epic poetry, lyrical citations and allegorical and mythological subjects, created a famous series called the ‘Ferragosto paintings’, completed in Rome in 1963, and considered among some of his most intense works.
Twombly confessed creating the paintings in a burst of energy, while staying in a small room in Rome during the torrid heat of August. With this little snippet of context, all this can be felt when looking at the Ferragosto series: the light background of the canvas with splashes of reds, oranges and yellows reminding the viewer of the colour, heat, passion, happiness, and frustration of summer. For every Italian, Ferragosto, the national holiday on 15th of August, encompasses all these traits of summer. Most Italians endure long hours in traffic, with screaming children, and beaches with people packed like sardines in a tin, just to be part of that mass feeling that embodies happiness at the warmth of the summer holiday and sadness that it’s all about to end.
You really get the sense that Twombly was almost Italian, and like any authentic Italian he admitted many a time that he lived according to the seasons. Later on in his life, he would create a monumental work, ‘Le Quattro Stagioni’, (The Four Seasons), where seasons and changes become the subject of an allegorical representation of landscape and its contrasts, but also of life and its cycles. Two versions of the series were made, one of which can be seen in the Tate collection in London.
What makes Twombly different from many other artists? To begin with, he accepts light rather than indulging in it. If the Barbizonniers, the Impressionists, Turner and even the Macchiaioli showed an idealised resplendent sunlight, coming through trees and buildings, a lucent, yet comforting glare, Twombly does not succumb to the spell but rather shows a more human side of the sun, the joy but also the desperation, the heat, the personal quest.
We have all been in a room, too hot, too sweaty, too sticky, and feeling fed up. It is far from idyllic; it does not look like Seurat’s bathers, but quite the opposite. Through powerful daubs and paint drips, this is what Twombly achieves.
Whether we love the radiant landscape of the 19th century or the abstract scribbles of the 1990’s we must admit that Mr Sun is truly a magnificent influencer. In the end, artistic expression is not too far from everyday life: while the lack of sun and the never-ending yearning for a summer that rarely appears, makes most Londoners feel more able to identify with Turner’s gloomy watercolours.
But most Italians would certainly feel more sympathetic towards Twombly’s work, especially after having spent eight hours in the traffic trying to get to the beach, the Ferragosto paintings almost seem to approach the viewer and say: ‘I know what you mean’.