Sunday, 20 September 2009




Antonio Ligabue’s work stands on the fault-line between two different kinds of art, both of which have played a major part in the story of Modernism, followed by Post-Modernism. His paintings have affinities with Art Brut [not least because he suffered from episodes of mental illness], and also with the slightly different world of the naïve or untrained artist. Anyone who looks at Liagabue’s jungle paintings will be struck by their resemblance to those with similar subject-matter by Henri Rousseau, called Le Douanier.


This resemblance seems to be entirely fortuitous, since there seems to be no evidence that Ligabue had encountered Rousseau’s work.


There are also links to other French artists. ‘Tacchini’ has a relationship to Monet’s ‘Turkeys at Montgeron’, dated 1877. ‘Volpe’ in Fuga’ has a resemblance to Courbet’s ‘Fox in the Snow’ of 1860. Once again, it is not clear if Ligabue knew these works, since in his day reproductions of paintings, and especially colour reproductions, were much less common than they are now, and it seems that he would have had little or no opportunity to see the originals.


What these links bring home to us, however, is the ambiguous nature of contemporary artistic judgement. Do we, for example, admire Rousseau’s work because of rather than in spite of its naiveté? And, when confronted with Ligabue’s work using more or less identical themes, do we have the same reaction?


When considering Ligabue’s ventures into territory occupied previously by Monet or Courbet, do we see these as failed attempts at sophistication?


It is not that Ligabue was unaware of the mechanisms of artistic and personal self-consciousness – as, for instance, Rousseau seems to be? It was this lack of self-awareness that delighted the young Picasso and his peers, and caused them to organize a farcical banquet in Rousseau’s honour. Another important strand in Ligabue’s production is self-portraiture. Self-portraits make up quite a large proportion of his total oeuvre.


The story of the self portrait in western art begins with the period of the late gothic and early renaissance, though there are scattered instances before that. The first really introspective maker of self portraits seems to have been Dürer – that is, he was the first artist to be interested in representing his inner spiritual and psychological condition, not just a version of his outward appearance. His successor in the 17th century was of course Rembrandt, but after this there is a long gap.


From the French Revolution onwards there was an increasing feeling that art could be used as a tool to penetrate the mysteries of individual personality. One of the first manifestations of this is the remarkable self portrait painted by Jacques-Louis David in 1794, when he was briefly imprisoned after the fall of his political ally Robespierre.


This is followed by the series of self-portraits by Courbet, in which the artist enacts various roles, ranging from the ‘Man in Despair’ of 1841, to the ‘Guitarist in Renaissance Costume’ of 1844 and the peasant ‘Hunter’, now in the Bührle Collection in Zurich of c. 1849.


Courbet’s flamboyant narcissism becomes something much more profound in the work first, of Vincent Van Gogh, and then in that of Edvard Munch and Paul Cézanne, and also in the self portraits, produced late in his career, of Pierre Bonnard. Ligabue’s images of himself have affinities with all of these, but perhaps most obviously with familiar self portraits by Van Gogh – the ‘Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear’, for instance. It is not merely the rough handling of the paint that prompts the comparison, but the feeling of intense anxiety that pervades these acts of self-scrutiny. Van Gogh’s self-portraits often seem to be a desperate attempt to hang on to a personal identity that was somehow in danger of exploding or dissolving, and Ligabue’s give one exactly the same feeling.


Liagbue’s position in the great succession of late 19th and early 20th century self portraitists is particularly interesting as the tradition of the ‘psychological’ self portrait belongs more to the art of France, the Low Countries and Northern Europe than it does to that of Italy. If we compare Ligabue’s self-portraits to the numerous self-images made by his contemporary Giorgio de Chirico, one notes that de Chirico is chiefly concerned with his relationship to the external world, and specifically, with the history of art, than he is with his own emotional life. Ligabue is not interested in what other people think of him, or of how they might wish to see him in relation to some surrounding world of art. He focuses with almost brutal intensity on his own doubts and fears, which fill the whole emotional space of the picture. In other words, he is not at all interested in defining himself through stylistic tricks, but only through the sheer intensity of his self-scrutiny.


However, no painter can completely escape from the historical context in which he finds himself. When we look at the Douanier Rousseau’s jungle fantasies now, we are aware of the fact that they belong to a time of vigorous colonial expansion. Rousseau claimed to have fought for the unfortunate Emperor Maximilian in Mexico – something that his biographers conclude cannot possibly have happened. Yet he was undoubtedly with the colonizers in spirit. The same essentially colonialist impulse manifests itself in ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ – a seminal early Cubist work by Rousseau’s admirer Picasso. As we know from recent research, one of the primary sources for the ‘Demoiselles’, in addition to African tribal sculpture, were the picture postcards of bare breasted African women that were a typical product of the colonizers’ erotic curiosity about the universe of the colonized.


Popular images celebrating the exoticism of new colonial worlds may have been an important source for Ligabue, just as they clearly were for Rousseau. Even more obviously, Ligabue depended on popular prints with more familiar subjects to supply him with much of his source material. English sporting prints of dogs appear to have been favourites.

On the whole,  Liagbue’s sources are not so exalted – it was popular art that attracted him, prints on the level of the French mass-produced images d’Épinal.


Nevertheless discussion is complicated by the fact that celebrated 19th century artists used source-material of this sort more often than art-historians are now prepared to admit. Some of Géricault’s paintings and lithographs of racehorses refer quite obviously to sporting prints of the type Ligabue used. Courbet’s ‘Fox in the Snow’, already referred to, is equally obviously rooted in a source-image of this type. The temptation to see Ligabue as a kind of proto-Pop painter because of this employment of demotic ‘low art’ templates is something that needs to be resisted.


Something that opens an unbridgeable canyon between him and the idea of late 20th century Pop Art is absence of irony.  In no sense is Ligabue an ironist. His paintings often represent things he cannot have seen for himself, but they are nevertheless vehicles for deep feeling. Here once again a comparison with Van Gogh is relevant. The latter, we must remember, did the same thing, using compositions by Jean-François Millet as ready-made vessels for deeply personal emotion.. In late 1889 to early 1890, for example, when in the asylum at Saint-Rémy, Van Gogh produced no fewer than 21 copies of works by Millet. Yet he did not see these copies as simple reproductions.


“If someone plays Beethoven,” Van Gogh said in a letter written at this time to his brother Théo. “he adds his own personal interpretation; in the music, especially in the singing, the interpretation also counts and the composer doesn’t have to be the only one to perform his compositions. Anyway, especially now I am ill, I am trying to create something to comfort me, for my own pleasure.”


It seems to me certain that Ligabue would have recognized important elements of his own approach to art in this text.


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