Through history. The artistic world of Flavio Costantini by Matteo Fochessati

(courtesy of the Museo Luzzati)

The Titanic 2 - Navigazione 1989 by Flavio Costantini

During his long artistic career, Costantini has often dealt with the contradictions, the ambiguities and the tricks of history, especially the dramatic events of the so-called “short twentieth century”. He has evoked some of those significant episodes in his pictorial cycles, such as the sinking of the Titanic, which symbolically defined the end of an age and opened the period of the First World War, the massacre of the Tsar’s family and the revolution that was to change the world political balance.

This personal historical analysis began in 1963, the year he began evoking, in one of his most important cycles, the revolutionary dynamics of the anarchist movement between the 19th and the 20th centuries.

Titanic 1 (1984) by Flavio Costantini
Titanic 1 (1984) by Flavio Costantini

Through a meticulous and detailed reconstruction of anarchist attacks, Costantini intended to underline how their extraordinary and bloody political actions represented an example for all the different movements of that tumultuous time. The general revolutionary impulse against repressive systems, although in the name of justice and freedom, flow into the rising tide of violence whose consequences have affected history to this day.

It is hardly surprising that— fifty years after the beginning of that cycle — Costantini has returned in his recent works to the historical moments that gave violent birth to our destiny, detaching them from the cultural and political illusions that characterised the 20th century, and the loss of idealism that launched the period.

The French Revolution is one such fundamental moment, and the artist — underlining its brutal and violent aspects and leaving its egalitarian values of freedom and brotherhood in the background — considers it the precursor, the anticipation of contemporary tragedies.

This personal and often contradictory vision of history that has grown darker and darker is unable to diminish the power of the artist’s emotional representation of events.

Illustration for 'Notes from the Underground' by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Costantini clearly focuses on their most significant aspects, as demonstrated by his collection of portraits of famous 20th century intellectuals. These representations of writers and intellectuals suggest, with their symbolic expressive synthesis, new ideas for the elaboration of history aimed at offering new answers in our attempt to understand the past. Uneasiness is the feeling that permeates this collection of portraits that, with the sharpness of scientific classifications, reminds us of the dramatic events of history.

Although it is the subject of his work, Costantini cannot be defined as a painter of “history”. The artist, who comes from Rome but who lives in Liguria, has himself gone through history, interpreting the doubts and uncertainties of the age and expressing his own reactions to the difficulties and complexity of the topic.

In a general climate of dismay due to the absurdity of human actions, he is not afraid to contradict what he has affirmed in the past. In representing history he presents his own story and, as underlined by Arturo Schwarz, “ it is no surprise that his portraits end up as self-portraits”

Illustration for 'Notes from the Underground' by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Illustration for 'Notes from the Underground' by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The steady and unique element of his research is the peculiar cultural approach to the subjects and his personal and original organization of the pictorial space. From this point of view he can be compared with his friend Lele Luzzati, even if their poetical worlds are very different.

Costantini’s work is not characterised by a constant unambiguous speech since his many stylistic sources have represented an adventure through the most important aspects of the 20th century.

Lara Vinca Masini in one of his most lucid critical interventions says: “there is much history of art in Costantini’s work, from cubism to Mexican murals, from Art Nouveau to pop”.

It is impossible not to agree with Lele Luzzati who, supporting the originality of Costantini’s artistic experience said: “What you can say about Flavio is that he is unique; he is unaffected by any trend of our age, neither realism nor surrealism not even abstract art, he has invented his own world”.

I have never been a good visitor of museums” Costantini has confessed using an ironic understatement in his 1980 autobiography, in which he underlined the artistic influence of the illustrations of books he cut out as a child imagining them taking life.

Interior of the Ipatiev House (Russian: Дом Ипатьева), a merchant's house in Yekaterinburg where the former Emperor Nicholas II of Russia, his family and members of his household were executed following the Bolshevik Revolution.

If sometimes it is possible to find cultural and stylistic influences in his work, they do not always play an important role in his research. Vinca Masini noted his attraction to pop art: “Costantini had just one option, looking for the roots of pop art in the tradition. It does not mean that Costantini moved in the direction of pop art, even if it was in his field of interest.

Actually the reference to pop art itself — although Costantini was not involved in this area of research, officially— is to me to a certain extent pertinent. First in the aspect of mass-esthetics that occurs in his work, through the reproduction of advertisements, billboards or printed material, and also through attention to the myths and icons of our age. It emerges from the portrait series, but also from his analysis of those historical events that, like in the case of the Titanic, have become the symbol of the age.

His cultural closeness to pop art shows itself in this ability to evoke taste, trends and spirit of the age and, through the obsessive historical research, in his extraordinary ability to evoke the atmosphere of the locations. Nevertheless, this closeness appears to be limited inside an attitude of “citation” common among the most important representative of Italian pop art, such as Franco Angeli, Mario Schifano and Tano Festa.  Referring to his peculiar influences of art nouveau, particularly evident in the cycle of the Titanic images, Rossana Bossaglia wrote: “(…) from the beginning his art appeared very original because he did not imitate liberty but revisited it. Here you can recognize a ductus very close to neo-figurative Italian art, and you can find influences of pop art”.

The best way to interpret his complex pictorial experience and his artistic and cultural references consists, therefore, in going through the different steps of his research which began with a significant début in graphics and applied arts.  This specific education explains his friendship with Luzzati with whom he worked at Firma, something that had profound and long-term consequences on his subsequent work.

As we said, since 1955, Costantini has worked with fabric graphics and with illustration. In the same period, between 1955 and 1956, he produced a series of drawings inspired by Franz Kafka’s novels “(…) restless, thin traced stringy characters, already obsessed by details and loads of descriptive notes”.  These works are characterised by his attraction to the gloominess of German expressionism and, as noted by Mario Piazza, indicate the overcoming of the graphic initial experience.

In spite of this unconventional approach, Costantini has produced many illustrations for Shell, Esso and Italsider company magazines. Peculiarly, this phase of his artistic research reflects Flavio’s interest in machines and unusual perspectives, as in the illustrations of Le città del ferro, published by Italsider in 1966 – a series of new metropolitan visions in which Masini finds references to American cartoons. These urban landscapes – beginning with representations of New York, inspired inside the Kafkian cycle by the novel America – reveal also the influence of ’30s and ’40s American painting. Costantini seems to be influenced in particular by Ben Shan, whom incisive graphic sign appears in Costantini’s illustrations of the end of the ’50s and the beginning of the ’60s, and also in his representations of the Corrida.

Tauromachia 1 (2004 - Flavio Costantini)
Tauromachia 1 (2004 - Flavio Costantini)

The American style of the first half of the 20th century emerges also in his attraction to technology typical of the Machine Age, represented in the work of Charles Sheeler and Stuart Davis: just think of the painting Terni, presented at the Finsider pavilion during the 1962 Italian Trade Exhibition in Moscow’s Sokolniki Park, or Galleria del petrolio in the magazine “Rivista Shell Italiana” of 1959.

In these visionary industrial scenes Costantini underlines the danger of machines; we find the reference to Futuristic painting from an opposing cultural and ideological position. The image of a cyclist seen from behind, produced by Costantini in 1958 for the cover of the magazine “Rivista Shell Italiana”, evokes the synthesis of one of the most important futuristic paintings by Mario Sironi, Il ciclista of 1916.

Deeply independent and functional to his subsequent paintings, the experience in the field of fabric graphics, begun in Rapallo, was carried on with the collaboration with “Firma Boutique”, fabrics and clothes of Studio Firma, and with MITA, a factory founded in 1926 by Mario Alberto Ponis in Genova Nervi.

In the flowery and abstract patterns of his fabrics Costantini started a dialogue with his pictorial experience, trying in both cases a strong and symmetric trace with special attention to volumes, harmony, chromatic contrasts and obsessive attention to details. The most significant aspects of this artistic approach – characterised by strict organisation, coherent in the case of fabrics with the need of industrial production and in case of illustrations with the needs of printing — emerges in the recklessness of perspective solutions through which he adapted to the structural limits.

This expressive peculiarity is the characteristic of his pictorial research to which were added influences of ancient painting, Flemish painting, Mantegna and modernism.

The analogy with the cubism and futurism for the surfaces superimposition developed in this context as a consequence of the influence of Van Gogh. Just think about the analogy between the famous bedroom and the room represented in the painting Saint Etienne 1890 of 1970.

In the same time his peculiar taste for flat colors surrounded by heavy outlines following the technique of cloisonnisme, translated the abstract experience of Mondrian into figurative arts.

In 1959, after a short trip to Spain, Costantini dedicated himself to painting. His first paintings were included in the cycle of Tauromachias: a series in which the violence of a deadly act dominated through the crystallization of movement.

This process was completed in the series of the anarchists. In this cycle, the action was represented through the dissemination of different perspective points inside the scene, as in the ancient mural paintings recovered by 20th century Italian artists and Mexican muralists.

Costantini agrees with the quoted contemporary models, also for the desire to describe a popular epic that in his case meant the representation of industrial and metropolitan subjects.

The topics of violent reaction to authoritarianism and the alienation of mass society begin the anarchist cycle of paintings produced between 1963 and 1979.

Also in these paintings the characters appeared frozen, as though immortalised by a good photographer, catching all the elements of tragedy.

The agitation of the scene, seen through a freeze frame, was enriched by new suggestions inspired by the subversion of traditional perspective rules in favor of a multiplication of the vanishing points.

Besides the analogy between Costantini style and photographic techniques, we can also note his attraction to scenography operational instruments.

The artist set his work, repeating on the canvas the complexity of a theatre set design. It isn’t surprising that Luzzati has stated that he often adopts Costantini iconographic models for his scenography.

“(…) Hardly ever for dramas but often for bourgeois settings, where everything looks calm but the audience understands that something wrong is going on.”

At the same time, inside this phase of his research, the artist adopted a method that includes a detailed collection of historical data and a meticulous research on the represented locations, before producing the work.

In this context the reference to pop art seems to be pertinent; the artist, in fact, collected icons and stiles of the artistic tradition from different popular sources in his paintings, from illustration to photography, from songs to newspapers.

In the subsequent cycle, dedicated, since 1982, to the sinking of the Titanic, Costantini faced a fundamental episode of 20th century, whose deep symbolic meaning appears to prefigure the tragedy of the First World War.

If the outbreak of the 1914 war represented, for his planetary dimension as well as for the employment of technology, an important landmark that launched the tragic events of the 20th century, the sinking of the biggest and most luxurious ship in the North Atlantic on the night of 14 December 1912, represented the end of the dreams of progress of an age. This sinking was the first live- broadcasted event in history making humanity conscious of its tragic collective fate.

In this series Costantini took the process of perspective subversion to the limit focusing on the presence of different points of view and subverting the rules of perception. In this context, the use of to the belle époque decoration underlined the expressive tension being experienced in graphics and applied arts. Compared with his former paintings, characterized by a crowd of characters, the interior of the Titanic looks uninhabited, reminding us of the desolation of the tragedy.

We find the same atmosphere in the paintings, begun in 1979, dedicated to the end of the Romanovs; the image of the gunshot riddled wall of the interior of the Casa Ipatiev. Since the early’90s Flavio has studied in detail the rooms where Nicolas II was killed with his family. The characters in the background — the four Romanov duchesses in the painting Tobolsk I of 1992 — look like ghosts. The site becomes the main subject. Silent witnesses of the drama, which has just taken place. The rooms of the Ipatiev House are charged with evocative energy that perpetuates the tension of the events.

In a progressive process of reduction of decorative elements that does not diminish the expressive strength of his realism, the representation of the Tsar’s tragic end, develops through the minimal representation of the suspended atmosphere of the site of murder. The silence and solitude of these rooms demonstrates the end of any positive consideration of history. People in these dumb sites seem to sink like the passengers of Titanic, in a tragedy that prefigures the new world where the strong and violent feelings at the roots of the action of the anarchists have been banned and where you only find hopeless sorrow.

The esoteric pictures of the cycles of work that Costantini exposed in 1986 in occasion of the Biennale di Venezia at the exposition Arte e Alchimia, by Arturo Schwarz, represented the direct consequence of this bitter truth: the ability to drive history has been replaced by alchemic symbols and metaphysics because humanity has been overwhelmed by lack of meaning.

The dreadful visions of the Titanic flowed into the agonizing symmetry of these rooms open to total desperation. The only individuals represented by Costantini were writers and intellectuals whom the artist began portraying in 1980 through collaborations with magazines and newspapers.

Leonardo Sciascia, wrote: “His identity requires very few things, sometimes only one”. These physiognomic/symbolic interpretations, according to Rossana Bossaglia, are measured by symbols that qualify origins and destiny. Also in these works there is a tension between the stillness of the characters and the movement of the scene, as in the stiff posture of the anarchists, in this case supported by collage technique.

At the same time Costantini, in this last desperate attempt to represent humanity from which he feels detached, proposes a game like a rebus, as noted by Sciascia, and asks a little effort to reveal the correct solution, obtainable through the combination of all elements.

Nothing is taken for granted in his artistic world and the severe or restless expressions of these characters from the past remind us the complexity of a history difficult to go through, impossible to forget.