«Beyond what I see and think» Profile for a biography
Pier Guido Raggini
Clear and cool, the afternoon sun illuminates the countryside, this Byzantine plain which spreads out towards the horizon, towards the pinewood in Classe and the plain of Ravenna. The winding road strokes the bright green fields, along slightly gurgling ditches and already sown lands. A tractor rumbles, slow and curious, squeaking away, towing its rusty trailer full of wood. In front of the house, near the border wall, a young cherry tree is an explosion of white and velvety flowers, frail under the breeze which already tastes of sea and steamy fog which just evaporated in the pearl sky. The newly blossomed spring marks the intense days of the Holy Week.
It is Good Friday today, as it was in the distant memory of the same and distant 6th of April in 1327, when the poet Francesco Petrarca met Laura’s eyes in the church of Santa Chiara during the Liturgy of the Cross... and it was love forever: sweet, querulous and excruciating. And again on the 6th of April, one century ago, on Easter Saturday in Bologna, Giovanni Pascoli closed his eyes forever on the verge of universal vertigo. And the Mystery was finally unveiled. On the sixth of April, Good Friday this year, our eyes see Onorio’s studio. The neat, tidy rooms taste of ink and colours, of oil, wood and canvas; this is the artist’s factory, the art workshop. And it is here, in this place suspended between reality and fantasy, that we listen to the artist’s voice and reminiscing between dreams and unconsciousness.
Onorio, what is left, in your memory, of your childhood in Portico and San Benedetto?
Beautiful memories: in Portico and San Benedetto I spent the first eight years of my life. That is where my artistic path probably began. My father Francesco was from Santa Sofia and my mother Maria from Bertinoro. We lived near the village. I had two sisters at the time: Gabriella and Antonella; Anna, the third, had already died. I can still see the tiny and plain houses scattered across the mountains and the narrow path leading to our house. On the sides and in the fields all around, the beautiful cherry trees. During the summer I used to watch, in wonder, a painter with his easel and box of paints. With my sister Gabriella, we used to spend entire afternoons admiring him in awe. We would watch how his eyes contemplated the nature and got lost in it. I can no longer remember the name of that painter; I have removed his name. In the eyes of us children he looked fairly advanced in age, old. He might have been no more than forty. That painter carefully watched the landscape and pointed out in wonder, to me and my sister, what he was looking at. I can still remember his box of paints, brushes, the cloths he used for his artworks. This is a detail, a story, which I never talked about. Now I can say that that faraway in time meeting was truly significant for me.
When did you move to the Ravenna plain?
When I was eight years old, my parents decided to leave the Apennine and to move down to the valley. The place they chose was here, in San Zaccaria, where we moved to and where I still live today. There is no doubt that the profile and colours of the mountains are engraved in my eyes, as is the sinuous flow of the river, the sense of desolation, of solitude... the density of silence. This is where I started to become familiar with a different landscape, which is flat and spread out. On the Apennines the colours of the seasons were probably more intriguing. The few cornfields enlightened and characterised the summer. The yellows and the ochres stood out from a distance, then their hues changed over the months. These extended spaces on the plain, on the contrary, are the echo of dreams and visions that only change colour by spreading out endlessly and faraway.
When did you decide to train and start a career as an artist?
As far as schooling is concerned, I was steered towards and completed technical studies, but I had a passion for colour and painting that I cultivated on my own. Then, in the middle of the Seventies, I met Giovanni Strada, an artist from Ravenna, protagonist of the Mail Art movement, who is now engaged in experiences and performances all over the world. This meeting involved me, attracted me, so I turned to art. I made a latent eclectic interest concrete. Giovanni Strada’s creative work included sculpture, mosaic and painting, so I started to cooperate with him. In this way I saw the memories I still carried inside me, the ancient interests, come true. As a teenager, it is true, I had always drawn and painted, but in a reserved, different way. In the middle of the Eighties another lucky encounter made it possible for me to get to know in depth other aspects of the arts world: Guerriero Cortini, an engraver from Forlì, who unfortunately passed away when he was still young. He was the one who allowed me access to the secrets of his art, to learn the basics of engraving on which I then concentrated on at the Academy of Fine Arts in Ravenna with my teacher there, Matteo Accarino. Now engraving is one of the artistic expression forms which most attracts me and which I still practice with interest, assiduously and - I would also add - with satisfaction.
Undoubtedly, an important moment in your cultural and artistic training was your professional and creative stay in Algeria. How would you describe and summarise it?
In the middle of the Eighties, more precisely in 1984, I spent a few months in that country. I had moved there for professional reasons. I had this opportunity, as a technician in charge of steel processing for the company I worked for at the time. So I went to Algeria, and the structures were the first thing that struck me there. Everything was amazing: the meagre villages, the structures,the colours... That is where I painted some pictures I still have, and I had the opportunity to display in public at a post office in Algiers. It was an unforgettable experience: I was impressed by the structures, by the fascinating and magical buildings whose profile you could see under the special lights at all hours of the day. The memorable sunsets. To my eyes, the most impressive and suggestive were the breaks and the lines which defined and remodelled the buildings... and then those sounds, noises, the colours of the towns and villages. I remember as unmistakeable and unique the geometries in Algiers, in Oran, the lines of the mountains and the places I travelled through. I was fascinated by that universe which I met by chance during my lifetime, by that world which I still carry inside me and, after so long, reappears in my artworks, through graphics and painting. The remote visions of an Africa which relives in remembrance, in memory, are emotions springing up almost like water.
When did you start attending the Academy of Fine Arts?
I was thirty years old when I started there. At the Academy I established lasting friendship relations, cultural exchanges with masters which I still keep up through an ongoing exchange of opinions and ideas. Apart from figures such as Matteo Accarino and Koki Fregni - who taught scene technique and modelling - I remember Vittorio D’Augusta, who lectured me in painting techniques, giving a great contribution to my cultural and artistic development. Another teacher I cannot forget is Radu Dragomirescu, an artist from Romania, who taught painting while I was studying at the Academy in Ravenna. His training as a teacher and as an artist was typical of Eastern European culture: extremely analytical and in-depth, covering an extensive range of areas. I can still remember his slightly rough, but extremely formative, personality. I had chosen to attend courses at the Academy with a view to reorganising, systematising and increasing my cultural and artistic knowledge in order to complete the research and activity which I had started in this sector.
What are the roots of your preferences in terms of a specific language and technique?
Already at the time I worked with Giovanni Strada, I had a number of interests, ranging in various directions. Sculpture was a kind of language which attracted me because of its hands-on approach.
I was particularly keen on iron and steel, which I used for some works I still have. However, I did not yet have a clear, unified and homogenous direction in mind. Other encounters also helped me make my artistic choice. In Forlì I worked with local artists: Guerriero Cortini, Claudio Pantieri, Vito Montanari and many others. In the early 1990s I met some artists from the Ravenna area: Giuliano Giuliani, Giovanni Fabbri and Vittorio Lelli; with them we created the “Gruppo degli Artisti dell’Erbosa”. It was a lovely experience, an opportunity to exchange views with artists and art enthusiasts from Romagna - Cesena, Forlì and Ravenna. Together we developed and studied the language of painting more and more. I remember the training contribution at the time from Giulio Ruffini, a painter from Ravenna who recently died, and from Chico Verlicchi. Together we worked in particular on live painting and we practiced drawing and painting nudes.
Based on those foundations, what would you sayour peculiarity, your style code, is?
I do not see myself as having one single training. I have drawn from many suggestions, from many things. I am certainly not part of a “single thread”. I am not the student of only one teacher... even though each of them has taught me something. I think I could call myself a “visionary naturalist”... a “romantic expressionist”. My expressiveness, I think, appears clearly in the use of colours in my paintings, in the etching on the engraving, in the strength of xylography made of full contrasts, without intermediate nuances...
What are you referring to?
To the transversal experience in set design. Around the middle of the Nineties, for about ten years, I worked with a group of people in Massa Forese near Ravenna, setting up carnival floats. I was in charge of the scenery. That was excellent training, a stimulating adventure both in terms of human relations and imaginative suggestions. An experience which undoubtedly helped me also in my artistic development. I learnt never to improvise, to have discipline in designing. My work is always the result of a clearly defined project, of an idea which I like to turn into a drawing, even if afterwards - when I paint - I follow my inspiration.It is painting calling... I love working by “cycles”. I develop my reflections, the visionary narration through well structured thematic cores, using a wide range of techniques: painting, engraving, sculpture, mosaic.
Your living environment, the landscape of the plain where you live and work: what do these things bring to you, how do they stimulate, affect the way you see and interpret daily reality?
This place I have been living in for years now has helped me find a more complete dimension. It is the ideal place to experience the “mixing” of things, the atmosphere of painting which characterised me in the early Nineties, living in that dimension full of exasperated, earthy, foggy hues, a bit nocturnal. At the time, I remember, I had been captured by that landscape climate which became an inner and pictorial feeling. Later on, I got rid of those atmospheres, also helped by the short but intense experience in Algeria and by the lively and strong memories of my childhood places.
A constant topic in your artistic research is the landscape as a representation of the environment, representation of the soul and the inconscious.
Over the past few decades my work has been depicting more of a fantastic place, the venues of the Soul. They are the landscapes of my imagination, of my daydreaming, of that constantly looking inside of myself. They are spaces inhabited by geometries, by imaginary architectures,
by houses by towers by buildings which seem to exclude humans from what is happening inside. However, even though they are not depicted, humans are always present. My condition, expressed in those volumes which become colour, also aims at being that of the observer, of the one who wishes to scrutinise, investigate, spy to find out what is happening “beyond”.
Is the human figure, depicted in those landscapes or captured in the portraits, possibly a presence beyond time?
My human profiles express a hope, or a request, something that wishes to go beyond the present contingent time. I realise, however, that especially the portraits may appear a bit disquieting at times. Certainly they are an excavation, a search, an almost obsessive inner need on my part. In the landscapes everything is a little dampened,
colour mitigates everything. At the end of the day, it is the search for a different world, the symbolic transposition of humanity, sometimes setting off towards an uncertain destination, but dreamt and re-experienced in my imaginary world.
Your figures never appear as clearly defined, but rather as a mass of volumes and colour breathing; is this an allusion to the human condition?
The human condition I refer to is free of constraints, not limited by small boundaries, but open to a better - almost primeval - existence.
The research you conduct around the face and portrait, gives the observer the impression of seeing all facial traits disappear, to the advantage of a dreamlike portrait. Do you agree with this impression?
The faces I paint are intentionally non-descriptive: they are a sort of dream profile. In their frontal view, they are waiting for something to happen. They are faces, slightly evanescent soul landscapes. Fragments, finally, of a single great portrait.
A self-portrait, possibly, a repeated landscape of my soul...
In your artistic production, may the observer catch a glimpse of a connection, an interest, a being in tune with an ancestral, archaic and primitive creativity as far as the element components and the amazement of colour hues?
The archaic and primitive world has always fascinated me. I think that everything that came before us is impressed in our subconscious memory and then resurfaces in art. The visionary element in some of my work, in certain landscapes, could indeed suggest what you say. This is helped by the earthy colours which also reflect my intimate world. Emotion and wonder for a sky, an architecture, an encounter, a connection, a landscape...
Two features emerge from the score of your compositions: the use of specific strong and marked colours - purples, blues, reds, up to the flashy and explosive yellow - and the sign, the etching which engraves the coloured matter, like a voiceless cry.
“Etching” belongs to me: in it I find an answer to the need to penetrate the forms I depict, whereas in painting I can also “stroke” them with strong colours. The sign, the etching which engraves the plate is like the line in the graffito. It refers back to an ancient print; it is a clear trace in the story told by the image, an element which goes down into the depths and re-emerges from unknown spaces. The other score belongs to the strong accent, to the transposition of memories into African flavoured colours, into those warm hues of a strong and passionate feeling.
Since your art expresses a need to see, to discover,what is your relationship with metaphysical reality, with Mystery, with the Hereafter, with God? Are your characters waiting before the sense of Mystery and vertigo which one feels when standing before the universe?
I am religious, I am a Catholic. I believe in a higher entity. The mystery of life has always led us to thinking about these issues. We cannot know what is in store for us... I carry this tension with me, I also transfer it to my work: the “human shapes” appear to be waiting for something that will never come, probably. My whole inner research is in here. I feel this tension when I am designing my painting cycles, by engraving or painting. I work on a number of pieces at the same time - sometimes ten at a time - as in a whole, an ideal orchestration. I move from engraving to painting, from xylography to drawing, in the same breath. In this way everything is affected and grows. You meet the “elsewhere” when you least expect it. In art I recreate my world and I fully find myself in it. It is a sort of trance. Artists really are privileged, they are mediums travelling other paths...
In your experience and in conducting your research work, in trying to unveil your enigmas, in the daily deciphering of your “Idola”, what is art for Onorio Bravi?
To me, art is beauty in the true sense. It is absolute beauty. It is the possibility to live other worlds. It helps us feel better inside, live better. It is a mirror and a mystery.
I think there are no predefined canons for beauty and art. Otherwise the mystery would be unveiled. Beauty is a speck of light waiting to be understood and unveiled, without the obsessive tension of following time and fashion. Art is beauty beyond time, beyond the border and limit of our existence.
In your opinion, what are artists in charge and witnesses of today?
I believe that the artist should always be unconditionally true and authentic. Artists should not follow seasons and ephemeral trends: they should have an ethical approach, look at themselves in depth, search for their identity, mirroring themselves in the diversity of others. The journey leading to what lies beyond always starts within ourselves.
According to Onorio Bravi, what is the message which an artist, a painter, could offer to such a disorientated, fragmented, uncertain time as the present?
I think that, in spite of everything, we are on a path for hopefully “positive” progress. I think that artists, poets, musicians, painters - like all other human beings - can contribute with their work and their research to make sure that society improves. In my opinion, artists are the salt of the earth, the salt of our society. Archibishop Pietro Sambi told us that art is the eighth sacrament. And Kandinskij said that art is a spiritual reward for humanity. I think that all that is true. It is impossible to live without art, just like it is impossible not to enjoy the natural privilege of giving and using human ingeniousness and creativity forms.
Only through this experience it is possible to achieve freedom and happiness.
San Zaccaria (Ravenna), 6th April 2012
translated by Cetra Congressi S.r.l. Flavia Corina Di Saverio