Exhibition curated by Davide Dall’Ombra
Palazzo Bisaccioni, Jesi
12 December 2021 – 27 March 2022
The Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Jesi presents an important anthological exhibition of the work of the American painter William Congdon (1912-1998), an exceptional interpreter of the twentieth century whose painting gave a face to the human quest of the short century, thanks to an anthropological investigation that resulted in paintings of great lyrical power, between the city and man-made nature.
The exhibition is a project of the cultural association Casa Testori and presents a collection of works generously made available by the William G. Congdon Foundation – which safeguards the painter’s work – and specially selected by Davide Dall’Ombra, director of Casa Testori.
An exhaustive and unexpected journey of more than 30 paintings, often of large dimensions, conceived for the spaces of Palazzo Bisaccioni: from the New Yorks of the 1940s and the Venices loved and collected by Peggy Guggenheim, to the metaphysical landing place of the Campi arati of the 1980s and 1990s. The visitor will be able to move his gaze from the disruptive energy of the American language of Action Painting, of which Congdon was an interpreter, through his early experiences of travelling to his chosen cities. Thus the imposing Rome of the Pantheon‘s vestiges comes to terms with an existential representation of architecture, represented by the chasm of the Colosseo or the precariousness of the city of Assisi, crumbling on the hillside.
In the exhibition, Congdon’s “portraiture” of cities is illustrated one after the other by imposing paintings of Istanbul, the Taj Mahal, the human-marked desert of the Sahara and the Santorini chasm.
As a counterpoint to the torments and splendours of civilisations, Congdon descends into the minutiae of existence, crossing the metaphor of the animal which, like nature, must come to terms with the violence of man. It is thus that the cycle of the Tori (bulls) becomes a metaphor for the cruel pursuit, expressed in our traditions, as in the pursuit of our own desires. But even a humiliated, wounded and doomed bull can be – writes Congdon – redeemed by the artist, who eternalizes its greatness and power through painting. From painting as redemption to the human symbol of suffering and resurrection par excellence, the Crocifisso (Crucifix), the step is short. However, the American artist’s approach is never aesthetic or theoretical and his approach to the sacred subject only comes after his tormented conversion to Catholicism.
The move to the south of Milan focuses his point of view on an almost unique subject: cultivated fields. It is in the last twenty years of his life that the research, from spatial, becomes temporal and the power of the earth and its transformations become the protagonists. These are not idyllic visions: the horizon unfolds over the fields and the human process operated on the surface is followed. It is a torment, also of a material nature, that seems to find peace in the Nebbie (Mists) and the monochromes, culminating in the musical lyricism of the vegetation that concludes the exhibition. Thus, the meditations on George Braque and Nicolas De Staël re-emerge, but above all, the pictorial dialogues with the New York School linked to Betty Parsons’ gallery, which led to the presence of Congdon’s works in the most important American museums and in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice.
William Congdon is one of the most profound painters of the 20th century, a naturalised Italian but always American in his artistic attitude. Some of the most important international critics have written about him, including: Clement Greenberg, Jacques Maritain, Giulio Carlo Argan, Giovanni Testori, Peter Selz, Fred Licht, and Massimo Cacciari.
WILLIAM CONGDON: THE BULL REDEEMED
When we had before us those big storybooks our mothers held on their knees to send us to sleep, our eyes were taken up by the large, full-page illustrations that stood outeverywhere. Thus, the morning after the shipwreck, between the battered ship sinking below the horizon and the young heroes, exhausted but alive in the foreground, on the beach, the sea was strewn with the remnants of life on board. These vestiges, more or less precious, were able to relate to us the human stories of the passengers, from the hold to the party deck. These relics, from the quivering but recognizable piano to the inevitable half-floating barrels, would be reaching the shore one by one, not just as witnesses to the past, but as new instruments, to be understood and adapted for survival in the present, on the desert island. Then as now, the end of one story was the beginning of another, our own, called upon as we are to look at these thirty or so masterpieces of 20th-century painting, bearers of a story and tools for an understanding of the “short century”. They are figurative plunges that can help us live our present because they derive from a sincere anthropological inquiry, expressed in paintings of great lyrical power, created from visions of cities or anthropized nature.
The shipwreck, moreover, is a trademark of the American painter William Grosvenor Congdon, born in Providence, Rhode Island, to a rich family of New England industrialists on 15th April 1912 – the same day as the sinking of the Titanic. Congdon’s life embraced the entire world and the cathartic function of remains a powerful key to an understanding of a path marked by misfortune and suffering but, above all, by fresh starts and an extraordinary capacity to interpret and render the world around him. His troubled relations with his father required, therefore, an existential ransom in a search for his own path, passing from wealth to a degree in English and Spanish literature, his beginnings as a sculptor, and, in 1942, his voluntary enrolment during the Second World War as an ambulance driver in the American Field Service. The scion strode the world, fleeing from the somewhat suffocating puritanism of his home, taking in the countryside of North Africa and Italy to end up, on the day of its liberation, in the Bergen Belsen concentration camp. Congdon was one of the first witnesses of this latter – it induced him to fill his notebooks and diaries with the horrors he saw.
Italy was destined to remain at the center of the American painter’s wanderings, linking key moments of his life to specific Italian cities. After taking part as a volunteer in the reconstruction of the villages of Molise, Congdon moved south in 1946. His real beginnings as a painter can be traced to Capri and Naples, illustrated here by Naples of 1947. It is an effervescent work using mixed techniques on paper, in which the ruins of the buildings are literally transfigured by the strokes of white tempera marking out every surface. It unleashes all the force of the Mediterranean light, delivered with an urgent vitality that the 35-year-old artist cannot and will not restrain as he embarks upon the extraordinary career yet to be written.
Discovery of the light and energy of painting, and of its potentialities, that he now felt ready to launch on the home front, not in the American province from which he had fled, naturally, but in New York, which was becoming the world capital of contemporary art, far distant from Europe, still awaiting reconstruction. Congdon decided to live in a zone well away from the middle-class existence he was able to afford, in search of an acceptable solution to the pain of war, which he had experienced firsthand. New York from the spring of 1948 saw him in the right place at the right time, displaying his works in solo and group exhibitions at the gallery of Betty Parson (1900-1982), the representative of such artists as Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), Barnett Newman (1905-1970) and Mark Rothko (1903-1970). These were years of vitality and ferment that were to change the history of painting. The city was the world barycentre of art, crisscrossed with movements that would be hard to encapsulate within hermetic, more or less exclusive, labels. Congdon was in the eye of the cyclone as one of the protagonists of Abstract Expressionism, with an interpretation all his own of Action painting, as can be seen in Black City on Gold River, of 1949. His New York extends beneath an existential hood, it lies below a thick curtain of black “pitch”, pierced by the signs carved upon it, by its porousness, and by the tarry drip that splashes the sky and soaks, mortifying it, the golden river is just visible at the very bottom of the painting.
Intent as he was on forming his own expressive manner, nothing was enough for Congdon, neither the success he was gradually achieving nor the great ferment the American city could offer him. Research became flight, and it was by no coincidence that the painter missed a few appointments with history, as we would say today. He was not among the signatories of the letter published on the front page of the “New York Times” (22nd May 1950), protesting against the hostility of the Metropolitan Museum towards “Advanced Art”. Nor did he appear among the “Irascibles” in the celebrated photo in “Life” magazine in January 1951.
Congdon was an “Irascible” to all effects, but from as early as 1950, Venice had become his principal residence and the sense of claustrophobia and chromatic closure he breathed in New York was giving way to the slants of light crossing Piazza San Marco, set between the moon and the sea.
Venice was the litmus test for his experiments with materials, particularly intense in those years. He was seeking a complex paste that would break up and show complications when subjected to a tormented engraving of signs. It was his personal rendering of the vapors that had marked the history of Venetian painting since the 16th century, obtained by grouping the subject in geometrical color fields separating the different planes – the piazza, the courthouses, the bell tower, the façade of San Marco… A work such as Venice 22 of 1952 testifies to the unease of a never tamed relationship with darkness and those moonbeams which are able to filter their light in a solid but almost imperceptible diffusion. The visual and symbolic dominance of his Venetian paintings led to close ties with Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979), who became a collector of his works, as well as his ideal promoter on the American market. She was instrumental in the acceptance of his figurative painting in a country where abstract development was all the rage. His residence in Venice did not, in fact, remove him from the world of American art collectors, and within a short time, the major museums of the United States were acquiring his work for display.
Congdon did not reside in Venice permanently during the 1950s. It remained, nevertheless, a sort of epicenter from which he set out on his numerous travels, pictorial and expressive explorations, for almost a decade. In the eyes of the painter, cities were defined by their monuments and their history, in a search for the essence of their identifying features.
This is what happens with the vestige of Rome – Pantheon 1, from the end of 1950, and Rome – Colosseum 2, from the beginning of the following year. In that winter, Congdon stayed for some time in the Albergo Abruzzi, opposite the Pantheon, which he depicts here in Herculean majesty, laying bare its structure and blow up the façade in relation to the tiny funeral cortège passing before it. This painting was immediately successful and, as the artist recalled to his friend Thomas Blagden, it was acquired by Marguerite Chapin (1880-1963), wife of Prince Roffredo Caetani and the life and soul of the international literary magazine “Botteghe Oscure”, who hung it “in the dark brown dining room of a building together with only two other paintings – a Modigliani and a Braque”. As Congdon’s fortunes rose, we can see a sudden change of perspective in only a few months.
It is evident in the highly personal vision of the Colosseum, where a dizzying viewpoint transforms it into an abyss, clearly existential and obsessive. The painting assumes unprecedented power in its depiction of the architecture via its break lines and the dimensions of its voids, through which the artist draws attention to the majesty and the precariousness of history. This Colosseum-crater seems to have a centripetal force ready to devour us and everything around it. At the same time, our sense of unease is countered by the realization that there is a contrasting centrifugal force. The crown of houses surrounding it on the horizon seem not to be resisting the abyss, but instead to have flowered from the devastation all around them. A similar existential representation of architecture is to be found in Assisi 2, painted at the end of that same year in Rome. It has a similar format and structure, with the Basilica di San Francesco on the point of sliding down the hill, while at the same time raised by a golden supernatural force. Elevated as a symbol, it seems to draw from the precipice the necessary energy to raise itself to heaven.
Examining the “portrait gallery” of cities drawn by Congdon from 1953 to 1955, five large works, all of the same format, seem particularly representative. They seek to synthesize their subjects by taking a single building as a symbol of the city or the landscape, responding to the need to discover within them a narrative key and at the same time an iconic image.
Thus the city of Istanbul 1 (1953) is dominated by Santa Sofia, but the cathedral stands out on an almost indistinct heap of black, from which it seems unable to reach entirely the hot, unwieldy sky. Istanbul is a city of water, like Venice, but the murky mirror on which it depends is crossed by an unappealing boat, suggesting merely theoretical navigability. The following year, in Taj Mahal 3 (1954), the city of Agra is pushed into the background, on the horizon, pallid and hidden by a “confused, romantic and blood red river”, as Congdon wrote to his friend Jim Ede, since the painting is dominated by the imposing monument. A building that embarrasses the artist by its perfection and impenetrability, by the way its architecture will not let itself be corroded by the painting of solids and voids, as happened with the Roman vestiges or with the Venetian beauties drowned by material dust. In order to feel the subject a little more his own, Congdon chosen eventide, but the strength of the extraneous building stands out unstoppably, out of axis, in a direction where it may not be pursued.
It was 23rd April 1955 when the painter described the complexity of Sahara 12, a piece that was to prove iconic to his development. Writing to his cousin Isabella Gardner he felt able to express himself sincerely about his work, the fruit of a troubled quest between physicality and spirituality: “I was painting the desert: its infinitude: and perhaps I was thinking again of my long walks there – I wanted to put my foot in the painting – so I climbed up onto it, I scattered some earth around my foot, and then in that earth I put a white Arab village, all around my foot. And from the top of the village there arose a minaret. (Certainly, this is the dream of every psychiatrist – as well as my own). It’s a religious phenomenon, like a sacrifice, but it came of its own accord. The foot – village – penis symbol, in a primitive world. But then one day I remember that I put my shoe in the footsteps of an Arab, comparing my city foot with the nomad foot of God – Identity and sexual desire”. The existential torment of the city became explicitly personal. Congdon had an anthropocentric vision of nature and the artist was seeking his rightful place. The existential worm of faith was pushing its way through the Puritan upbringing he had received, on the one hand, and awareness of his homosexuality on the other. His meeting in the early 1950s with Don Giovanni Rossi (1887-1975), the founder of Pro Civitate Cristiana of Assisi, was working its way in the tumult of his soul, but the results were still far off. Thus it was that a place such as Santorini (Thira), extraordinary in itself for its island landscape, became for Congdon the object of a tormented artistic self-examination that lasted months, from June to October 1955. It is amply documented in his diaries and letters. At the centre is the volcanic eruption that obliterated the greater part of the island around 1600 B.C. The most devastating explosion in recorded history, at the generative base of a sort of terrestrial paradise. In Santorini 9, Congdon sought to reveal the painful origin of that paradise, that “crater of bottomless sea with an island of iron and death at its centre where there was once a beautiful island, fine and healthy as the unexploded part still is today.
“And, since the sea in the crater is false, I have removed it and I let the black centre drop down to the bottom, leaving at the top the normal sea that is outside – When I am in the water, it is a subterranean water and I feel all the former land and its life arching above me, recovering what are now nothing but pieces broken off from the rim. “The volcano that emerges from the sea and makes the island explode – I know, it is such a sexual description”, he wrote to his friend Jim Ede, at the end of his stay. The artist, in his work, felt the need to descend into the abyss of the uncontrollable generative force, between love and death, of which nature is the incontrovertible and deified image. Thus he pursued the physical metaphor of the relationship between solids and voids, in a key that the artist himself admitted was Freudian.
Even when he created, a few months later, one of the most powerful depictions ever painted of the symbol of Paris, in Eiffel Tower 3 he portrayed the gigantic metal structure of the tower from a viewpoint at the bottom, “from inside the phallus that became both male and female – Reduced to the skeletal mist of failure – But there’s a black eye (of a terrace) up at the top and there’s the revolving lighthouse of salvation”, he noted in his diary.
In February 1957, Congdon was travelling in Central America and he was moving from Mexico to Antigua, in the heart of Guatemala, in search of uncontaminated nature and humanity. The artist’s attention followed his trajectory and shifted from the landscape to architecture, and to the animal world. As was to happen in other crucial moments in the evolution of the painter’s artistic and human thought, animal are victims and slaughterers: a symbol and supreme metaphor of human ferocity. When scores of large and disquieting vultures dominated the artist’s days, he became an eyewitness to their feral essence. He depicted them as they dismembered a still-living dove in Guatemala 5 (Vulture and Dove), or intent on tearing to pieces three hens accidentally left to their mercy by man. He surprised them as they gave the coup de grâce to one of their own kind who was crouching down to rest. Beauty and death still pursued the artist, who immortalized the majesty of the birds of prey in flight in paintings that mark the height of his achievement, such as Guatemala 6 (Flying Vulture), in which he laid bare the unstoppable force of nature, free to be violent without remorse, beautiful and majestic in its cruelty. Congdon was transfixed by their ferocity and could not share this longed-for sense of freedom, which was only apparent in any case.
The last part of the 1950s saw Congdon once again at the height of his powers, returning yet again to Venice and its subjects. The experience he had gained during his worldly travels bore fruit in the great paintings of San Marco at the end of that same year, 1957, loved by Peggy Guggenheim and acquired for her collection. His writings, though, reveal something more than his habitual unease. Rather, he seems to have been on the verge of an existential crisis. Something had to happen and “He found refuge in the [Roman Catholic] Church. I am not in favour of the Church, but in Congdon’s case I am, because I think he would have died, literally, if he had not entered the Church and settled in Italy”. These are the frank words of a person who knew him well, Betty Parson, who had, moreover, seen Pollock die at the age of 44 in 1956, the victim of a street accident caused by his now habitual state of drunkenness. A few years later, moreover, she had to come to terms with the suicide of Rothko.
Congdon was baptized in the Cathedral of St. Francis of Assisi in 1959. He took up residence in that city, remaining there for some twenty years. It was the beginning of a period of rediscovered peace. For the next decade or so, sacred subjects dominated his thought. This created a rift with the American artistic milieu in which he had been a player, a rift that his former companions, apart from Betty Parson, were unwilling to understand. The artist based his paintings on a number of stories from the Gospels, coming to terms with the art of the past as well as with the texts. His work at this stage became more strictly illustrative and rarely reached the innovative heights and the
clarity of expression of his cities from the 1950s. Congdon had never been an abstract painter. Firmly linked to the depiction of what he could see, he had some difficulty in portraying episodes he had not witnessed directly. This process of fideistic appropriation occupied him throughout the 1960s. It was a necessary stage, preparatory to a return to pictorial truth in the 1970s and his remarkable renaissance in the 1980s.
The turning point in his relationship with painting was his second dialogue with animal nature, accepted in its metaphorical function. A small series of paintings dedicated to bulls and bullfighting, resulting from a trip to Seville in 1970, offers a curious symmetry with the vulture series. It is the metaphor of a cruel quest, intrinsic to our traditions, for the fulfillment of our desires. Yet even a humiliating bull, wounded and destined to die, may – wrote Congdon – be redeemed by the artist, whose painting renders it eternal. In works such as Toro 5 (corrida) and Toro morente 9, painted on the 4th and 8th of May, Congdon identifies himself with the scene, feeling himself both bull and bullfighter, victim and slaughterer, part of two beings linked by the same destiny. Mysteriously, as with Christ, it was the sacrifice that perfected the nature of the bull and the artist. On the one hand, he gave it eternity with his painting, on the other hand, he became the priest officiating its killing. It is a potent image, one that the artist realized could not pass as justification for gratuitous violence. Indeed, he filled his notebook with meditations. “As with the Crucifixion, death is only half the equation. In the same way, everything doesn’t just finish with the death of the bull. The death of the bull is secondary, it is the merely material aspect […] Maybe we find a clue in the fact that the toreador elevates the bull to such a state of nobility as to transcend the sense of mere killing, achieving ‘immolation’ so that, having reached this dimension, the man too is elevated to the nobility of his own. Both are purified by the sacrifice of the bull and the risk of the man = redeemed […]. Pure nature (the bull) redeemed by man’s art (courage) – This pure nature is tamed, elevated beyond the state of pure nature, so the bull, by becoming an image, cannot return to its mere natural state – it is destined to die – but death now comes as immolation. The toreador is a priest in the sense that he has rendered nature noble and therefore become noble himself, by the risk he runs and by his offering himself to this mission.
Dying or not dying, bull or man, both have become images of redemption”. This is a key passage for an understanding of the painter on a new course of action, grappling with the questions posed by reality and with the need to express his new faith within the living flesh of human experience. There was no longer room for the second-hand Christian anecdotes he had narrated, somewhat academically, in the first years of this new life. Congdon concentrated now on the human figure of faith par excellence, the heart, and destiny of incarnation: the Crucifix. If his painting combined violence and redemption, the meeting point was the image of the Cross, which he portrayed in almost two hundred variants, from 1960 onwards. A subject that was to mark out his subsequent creative pathway, which now resumed in the fullness of its figurative power. Traveling, too, returned as a prime mover of his inspiration. The repetition of the subject served as a test of the degree of awareness he had achieved. The principal symbol of Christianity was assumed as the sole direct thermometer possible. It is for this reason that Crocifisso 64, painted on 17th March 1973, acquires a meaning that transcends its intrinsic iconic beauty when seen in relation to Bombay 20, completed only four days later. A formal link confirmed by the artist that registers in the second painting the image of the homeless heaped together in the streets of the Indian city, in an emotive short circuit that likens them to the body of Christ, which he had portrayed in the other picture by mixing ashes with the paint. The Crucifix, which has acquired a trans-confessional symbolic power in western society, is the ultimate image of suffering. Congdon’s work underwent a continual process of simplification, chromatic and formal synthesis. Minimalism of sign language that touched, in three works such as Crocifisso 111, Crocifisso 118, of August 1974, and Crocifisso 165, of March 1977, the crest of the imperceptible ton sur ton. Christ’s body emerges from the black background with the power of discretion, creating the oxymoron of its own divine humanity, which the light shines on his head, forming a sacred halo, pierced by metallic, reflecting colors that preannounce the resurrection. “Black is for me the origin of light / it is the death of Christ / it is not surface / it is not just background / I live black – so it is always charged with light”, noted the artist on 1st April 1974. The Crucifix, moreover, is “the subject that, for me, encapsulates all others. A subject that is always, at every moment, available to me. There are no particular problems of moments for the Crucifixion. I do not need to worry about anything else”, he added the following day.
The last period of Congdon’s production was brought about by a definitive change of epicentre. He moved house from Assisi to Gudo Gambaredo, a hamlet consisting of a few houses and a handful of farmsteads in the heart of the Bassa Milanese, the plain area to the south of Milan. Here, the cultivated fields stretched as far as the eye could see, even though the city and its suburban hinterland were not far away. From 1979, Congdon set up here a small apartment/studio very different from those he had organized in Venice and Rome. It was located on the edge of the farmyard in front of a recently founded (1971) Benedictine cloistered monastery. The painter did not adopt the life of a hermit, but he was certainly able to draw upon the spiritual peace of the location, which was destined to change the direction of his artistic outlook. World travel as an inspirational need became substantially replaced by a close-up, detailed vision, dedicated to observing the change wrought by weather and the seasons on the nature of the surrounding fields. The view from his large window and his walks among the fields – plowed, snow-covered, hidden by mist, glistening with new shoots, patterned by cobwebs, thick with vegetation or arid in the summer – took the place of the alternating urban and natural scenes he had sought previously. In the last twenty years of his life, his research changed from spatial to temporal. The protagonists became the power of the earth and its transformations. These were not idyllic visions. The fields were stopped by the horizon and he followed the human processes taking place on them to discover, once again, something of himself.
In just a few days, in the fourth week of January 1980, Congdon painted three analogous and complementary works. He gave them the initials of the place to which they belonged, the Bassa Milanese, adding increasingly explicit titles. This new beginning by the artist seems to hark back to his New York visions of thirty years previously. The line of the horizon is high once more because the protagonist is the field and the pulsing of the earth almost shuts out the eye. The sky is a thin blade. We cannot say whether that pallid sun, scarcely formed by the paint, is tinged by sunset or a part of the terrestrial mass that seems to dominate it, held back with difficulty by a thin blueish line. In this series of paintings, all identical in format, the artist registers his fresh impressions of the mutating
winter scene. In B. M. Inverno 3 (Sant’Agnese), named after the saint on whose day it was painted (21st January), the presence of man is evoked by the rural constructions patterning the surface of the fields. In B. M. Nero verde Cristo, the centrality of a channel reminds the painter of his stylized Crucifixes of the previous decade. In B. M. Terra grassa grano nascente, the fields are realized by scraping the fresh paint with the back of the brush and with the blade of the spatula. Congdon dwells on the power of nature, which distorts the perspective lines into arches. But this is only the beginning of the story.
In a process of immersion and simplification, over the next few years, the representation of the fields became less schematic and his observation seemed purified, cleansed with the purity of a gaze that only apparently found sublimity in the abstract. Congdon always remained a realist painter, but the essence of his vision lay in the profundity he was able to extract from a reality that was only in appearance very similar to itself, season after season. This new direction had in it a touch of mortification, in the spiritual and contemplative sense of the term. Congdon understood that investigating things to their roots mean simplifying, immersing himself in the essence, above all geometrical, of the reality he was observing. Thus was born a capital work such as Campo nero, painted on 4th January 1986 and punctually recorded in his diary: “I don’t love what I paint – because I don’t paint anything; I just love painting itself which is my dying […] I went into my studio in fear and trembling after my confession, lest I should have to repaint all the great black mass of yesterday’s field; […] But when I saw the painting this morning in all its unity, I could only clap my hands in applause and joy! […] Deo Gratias!” In the following days, Congdon grasped the full importance of the step he had made: “The detachment of the monks is the distance between me-me and me-God in me. This sky that I love and I aim to reach beyond the sky, more sky than the sky itself – and yet I can’t reach it yet – and so I follow after the love that makes me always walk towards it”. In this ascetic path, the artist refuses to go towards the disappearance of the subject. The field is rendered with a “black” born from the sum of multiple color layers and marked by a spiral created with a comb. Alongside it, a vertical horizon divides the field from a portion of clear sky, placed above a grassy area. This process of synthesis was to accompany Congdon throughout the second half of the 1980s, with an “apparent nothing” inhabited, in reality, by “all the beasts of the earth and the sea”. Indeed, as he concludes in his notes of 29th January 1986, “And if I had introduced an object? A tree? Would it have been less of a nothing? – No! It might have been more nothing than ever. The insistence on an object to give life to the whole is like those who think that the presence, or the portrayal, of a sacred person, makes art sacred”.
Year by year, Congdon produced a series of supreme works, emblematic and all-embracing in the capacity for systemic, formal and existential concentration. Typical was La ferita of 21 March 1986. It was the response to an accident that occurred to one of his friends and his subsequent suffering, in which the artist seems to wish to participate, with a “black horizontal that becomes ever more like blood until the addition of engravings, broad and circular with gold above them”, marking the passing from a situation still intact, circular, to one of breakage. “The horizontal is warm with blood, the little square in the bottom right corner is all black/violet with suffering!” A similar geometricalsymbolical synthesis is found in Le tre ali della nebbia, dated 3rd February 1988, where the three surfaces of the sky, the wood and the field can be distinguished, filtered by the atmosphere. They are outstretched wings, opening to the sky. “3 masses that resist definition – they want to “y”.
The path was set and we see a gradual “smoothing of the masses, or even reduction to a single mass”, as in Giallo con sole, of October 1989. The result was works where form gives way, not to void, but to the monochromatic essence of a power on the verge of breaking point. This was the case of Orzo 4, of June 1991, where the “waves” of the field become dazzling flames that transform the “dark mass (impurity)” of the background, transfiguring it into purity. Similarly, in Settembre, from later in the same year, the vaporous evanescence of the material dissolves into a single light.
Congdon’s progress in these years was by no means unidirectional or monochord. Subjects very far from the surrounding fields were not lacking. Likewise, his depictions of nature sometimes took off in different directions, giving voice to the sufferings of his materials with poignant accents, perhaps more explicitly re”ecting the tumultuous, untamed nature of the artist, who maintained a healthy unease till the end of his days. This is, if we think carefully, that same freedom of old age, knowingly playful or not, that we find, mutatis mutandis, in the late Picasso or perhaps even more precisely in the brilliant colours of Burri’s last period. This freedom is the common denominator between a pulsating work such as Albero, a “human head with its infinite faces”, of 30th September 1988, paintings that draw explicitly on musical parallels, such as Musica della terra, of 4th October 1991, or the emblematic Estate San Martino, painted on 4th November of the following year. This latter is remarkable for the perfect unity between the polyphony of the floral pattern and the pregnant silence of a clear sky positioned vertically.
William Congdon died on his 86th birthday, on 15 April 1998. His last work, completed five days earlier, was still on the easel. It was a final salute, maybe a little naïve but undoubtedly sincere, using the format that his illness allowed him to handle in those last months. The subject was sacred in the sense that it was real. He was not in time to give it a title or to date it. This socalled Tre alberi (Venerdì Santo) – it had been completed on Good Friday – depicts the three trees that dominated a specific part of the land around the Monastery, visible from his window. He left no notes referring to this painting, but a few hints may help to elucidate its meaning. There is a relationship with a similar subject painted a month earlier which, in its turn, makes explicit reference to the Trinity by Andrej Rublëv. A copy of Marcel Proust’s Recherche was still lying open after his death at a passage dedicated to trees, which hid within themselves “a sense that is as obscure and difficult to grasp as a long-distant past, so that, urged by them to explain a thought, I believed I had to recognize a memory.” Thus an extraordinary life dedicated to painting had nothing but painting with which to respond to the regret of Proust’s following words: “In their naïve and passionate gesticulation, I recognized the impotent regret of a loved one who has lost the use of the word, who feels unable to tell us what he wants and which we know we cannot guess […]. I saw the trees retreat, desperately waving their arms […] And, when the carriage turned […] and I ceased to see them […] I was as sad as if I had lost a friend, as if I had died myself, as if I had broken faith with a dead man or denied a god”.