Lucilla Catania - Between space and time

CHRISTOPH BERTSCH

Indeed, all sciences and arts that interest man
are closely linked and united by a sort of affinity.
Cicero, Pro A. Licinio Archia poeta oratio 1,2

Lucilla Catania, born in Rome, has worked since the early ‘80s in her art studio in the Monti area of Rome, with its mazes and unmistakable glimpses of ancient Subura backing onto the Imperial Forum. Here, where once prostitutes and executioners lived side by side with artisans and the proletariat, hemmed in by misery, and where the dismembered bodies and cadavers from the Colosseum were disposed of, paraded through the classic structures of rows of columns, over-ornate architraves, stone taking shape and becoming art and the beauty of fragments of ruins rich in the history of art. Blocks of different shapes and sizes lie scattered in the Augustine and Trajan Forums, massive and heavy stones resting on the ground – they speak to us of ancient sculptures and compositions, that over the centuries, from time to time, have been reassembled. The passing of time has become tangible here, as in no other place – the eye turns to the past, but it is the eye of an artist with an acute and aware contemporary way of seeing. This metamorphosis of history accompanied by a diversely changing present was admirably expressed by Giorgio Agamben who wrote, “Only that which was, has been irremediably lost, the past as such. However, that which never was, is saved, that is, what is new.” (Giorgio Agamben, Walter Benjamin e il Demoniaco, from the German version in: Uwe Steiner (ed.), Walter Benjamin 1882-1940, Berne 1992, pg. 212).
In Rome, for more than 2,000 years, beauty and cruelty have merged into a strange union with an intensity found in no other place. The Urbe and its history have given rise to many of the foundations in the story of art. Consider the beheading of Beatrice Cenci in front of Castel Sant’Angelo on 11 September 1599. Caravaggio and Orazio Gentileschi, accompanied by his daughter, Artemisia, witnessed the spectacle, inspiring very detailed paintings, such as Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi’s Giuditta e Oloferne. Beatrice Cenci, herself, lived a life marked by both beauty and cruelty – described and portrayed as a woman of fascinating beauty (according to Guido Reni), at the age of 22 years, she was condemned to death for the murder of her violent and incestuous father. Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschia, in their biography and in their artistic intent, are also atypical for 17th century art and the realism of their paintings spans time itself.
Artemisia Gentileschi has held a unique and undeniable role, not the least for these paintings (and her personal contacts and relationships), but also in the annals of feminist art history. At the centre of her two paintings, we see the perfect beauty of Beatrice, with the sword and its fatal blow ready to strike. It should also be noted that in the Caravaggio work certain lines of Judith’s face are reminiscent of Beatrice Cenci’s features (it seems that the model was a young woman by the name of Lena). (Anna Banti, Artemisia, München 2001; catalogue. Caravaggio, Rome 2010).
The sword also appears in Lucilla Catania’s work. In a photographic sequence of a performance in 1995, the sentiments of the observer fluctuate, swinging from elegance to beauty to threatening cruelty. Catania, sword in hand, recalls the katà of the martial arts of the Far East – the fatal blow is not inflicted, yet the effect is not dissimilar to that evoked by Judith in the Bible or by the paintings of Caravaggio and Gentileschi.
Feminist ideology, the leanings toward a deep respect for all living beings (a little like Saint Francis), her political ethics, consistently left-wing, have been constant features of Lucilla Catania’s life. Instead, her art has been characterized by a deep-rooted rapport with classical materials, such as stone and terracotta clay and by their potential and form. I saw the artist’s work for the first time at the 1990 Venice Biennial. After wandering through a series of rooms at the Arsenal, at a certain point, I found myself face to face with a piece of work which, at first sight, seemed to be very (or too) classical. Yet, or maybe because of this, this spatial exhibit enticed me and, at the same time, irritated me. It revealed an artistic concept different to the many other works exhibited there. The single pieces rested on the floor, spreading out horizontally without any vertical elevation. Uprooted from Pathos, the sculptures lay about on the ground, with their peculiar beauty, and surprisingly, appeared to be light, as if their matter had shaken off gravity. Catania had used a very subtle spatial arrangement in positioning the pieces – released energy, guided movement, involving the observer’s eye in an ad hoc display. The title suggested viewpoints and perspectives triggering possible connections and relations – Desertica, Altopiano, Mar nero, Maremoto, each block had evidently been defined and individually catalogued by the artist. Then, looking more closely at the piece, Desertica , in “red laguna marble”, one can see the transformation into a sand dune shifting, from time to time, depending on the winds, and the observer has the sensation of perceiving and understanding. Contrasting to this, are the waves of the sea that spread our thoughts in an infinite series of equal movements. The shapes follow the marble veins that, in themselves, remind us of the waves and seem to vibrate; the ground, neutral, seems to mushroom out of a resonance box. Catania is very attentive and subtle – her relationship with the land and the earth’s forces is evident. Some years ago, in a sculpture created for an exhibition in Gavorrano/Maremma, the artist had a hole in the shape of a funnel dug into the ground, some meters deep, and then had a diagonal buttress wall constructed that pierced through the hole, reminding us of the fact that stone walls are born, they originate from the mountain, from the rock. (Christoph Bertsch, Leonardo Cambri (editor), Falda per falda, Florence 2005)
Even the subjects that show a marked growth in their usual height, resting on the ground, take on a horizontal expansion. The artist begins with the classical form, enhancing the materials’ traits and their formal enlivening. Many works are composites with contrasting parts that relate one to each other and to the surrounding space. Next to perfectly smooth marble, we see broken and rough stone, coarse in its anti-thesis to classical beauty. These are key moments in Lucilla Catania’s artistic journey and they provide an intensity to the complex system of the links between art and nature.
Her shapes allude only to what is real, but remain non-objective, desiring new, single forms for themselves, giving life to a new reality and broadening the range of the associations of her work. Thus, an intense relationship with “artful nature” emerges, the intrinsically artistic nature of the material ( as, for example, in the pattern of the marble veins), which in the writings of the ancient philosophers, especially the Stoics, recurs again and again. (Cicero, De natura deorum, approx. 45 BC, München, Zürich 1990).
In her artistic creation, Lucilla Catania draws on classical forms, on human norms, on the idea of the absolute form. Not actually diverging from the masters of traditional modernity, she has worked for decades on the form itself, on the tactile and visual, as postulated by Alois Riegl at the beginning of the 20th century. (Alois Riegl, Bari 2008; idem Spätrömische Kunstindustrie, 1901 segg.). Formal reduction for her is a mission. By pushing the sculpture to the conceptual she manages to find the critical distance. In this, her artistic works are singular, a search for the roots, the origins, in their unique form, as the artist herself states in an interview with Anna Imponente (Giuseppe Appella, Anna Imponente (editor), Lucilla Catania/Cloti Ricciardi, Romae2009, s. pg.). Lea Vergine identifies the artistic aims of the artist in one of her first works published about the sculptor: “Catania….insists on a unique and typical form, capable, in her own absoluteness, of resolving all eventual reactions and spatial situations…And as the variable element of space is light, Catania poses the question in terms of the form-light relationship. The light diminishes on the curved surfaces..”
(Lea Vergine, Per Lucilla Catania, catalogue of Galleria Oddi Baglioni, Rome 1989, pg. 2). It is very demanding – an artistic idea not fitting with the times, in a post-modern society, of uncertainty, with the indifference and mistrust, and relativism of human and social values. And so, for this, Catania’s artistic role is even more important and fascinating, and for many of her sculptures, it’s like a thorn in your side, a knife thrust into the business of contemporary art.
In Lucilla Catania’s sculptures there is actually an imperceptible distance from the observer. It is a marginality or laterality induced by sensory-aesthetic experiences and symbolic of the historical-artistic analysis of all her work. And not least, it is based on artistic and philosophical issues of historical modernity, an important starting point of inspiration for the artist and therefore, for creation. In 1863, Charles Baudelaire in his work, Le peintre de la vie modern, dealt with this, warning of the tense relationship between the past and the present: “The past is interesting not only for the beauty which the artists for whom it was the present were able to extract from it, but also as past, for its historical value. The same goes for the present. The pleasure which we derive from the representation of the present is due not only to the beauty in which it may be clothed, but also from its essential quality of being present“.

Christoph Bertsch