Yesterday Tadei Tomorrow

For nearly half of the last century in the evolution of modernist – and today we are compelled to say, post-modernist – discourse, sculpture as it has been known since the dawn of mankind has been steadily undergoing a process of disembodiment, the ethereal replacing the concrete as cerebral concept takes the place of that traditionally been held by stone. Sculpture in our time has gone from land based to airborne forms. The first fixture to be jetisoned was the pedestal, separating the work from the ground; after that, everything else was up for grabs.

This aesthetic upheaval is something comparable to the erosion of coastal coral reefs which many would wish to attribute to worldwide climate change: the fault of which is, experts tell us, all to be laid at the doorstep of the patriarchal colonial capitalist Occident – but that is a different story from the one we are addressing here. We are talking instead about the demise, and the fortuitously inevitable rebirth, of mankind’s oldest art form, which is sculpture. Marialuisa Tadei over a span of more than two decades has been progressively emerging as one of the steadiest sculptural hands at work in Italy today.

She has achieved making visually manifest in palpable material form, in weightless insubstantiality, in elaboration of body and soul, her spiritual beliefs. Mastery of the sculptor’s craft is here, but also an intuitive grasp of the most recent vocabulary of contemporary art praxis, but it is her central theme that is not altogether in conformity with the dogma that “politically correct” conformity has imposed on all aspects of human comportment, and particularly on the world of art.

The artist has based her entire sculptural enterprise, it might just as well be said from the outset, upon a strong personal Christian faith rarely encountered in the worldwide ideological arena referred to as “contemporary art”.

The term, “contemporary art” itself is a deceptive label dating perhaps from as early as the late Fifties when new artists began appearing into the already overcrowded world of the Modern; therefore a new category, and along with it new institutions, were brought into life to accommodate this hopeful brighteyed new post-war generation of creative spirits. Inadvertently the conclusion of modernism as an historical epoch was declared, without considering the consequences of establishing a dynasty of the historically instantaneous, l’éternel contemporain: an eternal dynastical plateau of the contemporary.

With modernism, we had lived under the illusion that the creativity of highly personal talents would be year after year surprising us with unexpected marvels; under the diktat of the Contemporary an endless plateau stretched out before our eyes with all the immobility of the dynasties of ancient Egypt. Although both are dead, Marcel Duchamp remains forever contemporary; Georges Braque regrettably is not. Marialuisa Tadei has, by the sheer captivation of the beauty and the aptness of her work, adroitly sidestepped what could have been serious hazards of censorious exclusion if the central motivations driving her endeavour had been fully understood by the radically secular constituents of the politically correct regime of conformative Contemporarism. Her masterful command of the postmodern idiom alone and her profound religious faith shielded her from suffering such a mishap, and the impact of her accomplishment itself perhaps distracted those empirical materialists whose dogma is essentially anti-religious.

The work of Marialuisa Tadei simply sweeps away all other reactions than those pertaining to the encounter itself. There has always existed this aspect of legerdemain, magic, that accompanies the sculptor‘s craft, as the pioneer artist and writer Gianfranco Baruchello magisterially laid out in his essay Cosa guardano le statue – What do statues look at?.

We can encounter this tantalizing metaphysical enigma at Tivoli, or when we come into the Boboli Gardens, in Florence; or walking into the cool precincts of National Museum of Archaeology at Naples; and we rejoice in it out of the gleeful surprise of suddenly entering into the sunlight out of dark streets into the Piazza Navona and circling in our steps the great joyful dance of water and marble crafted by the hand of Bernini, that Shakespeare of all sculptors.

It may well be that Marialuisa Tadei herself was aware of what she was doing. But then again perhaps not. It could well be that the confidence in her faith itself was enough to propel her sculptural program forward without secondary doubts. Hers is an ever-renewing, ever-expanding beatitude. Before continuing, however, let us go back four decades to the source of the dematerialization of modernist sculpture and attempt to disentangle the social and philosophical influences that led to the dominance of disembodied image over concrete sculptural form. In the late Sixties, artists, along with a large part of all young people, went on a sort of all-inclusive general strike against conventional bourgeois society as it had long been known. This generation, sons and daughters of those who had suffered through economic depression and World War II, now were being compelled to attend another little picnic planned all for them, the war in Vietnam: just when the music was starting to get really good.

The youth revolt of 1968 was in a sense a cyclical reoccurrence of the libertinism of the Illuminists which galvanized the tragedy of the French Revolution, and it demonstrates once again that revolutions fail or succeed based on the sexual frustrations of an inordinantly large demographic mass of young people.

Sculptors got it into their head that making art that could fit into millionaires’ living-rooms was something they were not going to do anymore. They moved out into the desert, as the Biblical prophets before them, and likewise they took dominion over the Word, expanding their domain into language itself and sculpturalizing linguistics in a process, whereby a statement became a form. Words could represent concrete shape. The lexicon replaced the chisel and hammer.

It was essentially a Marxist revolution to sabotage the whole commodity market of art galleries who “exploited” a proletariat of “art workers” and to free themselves from the chains of capitalism and finally make valid art that defied any attempt to consider the labour of artists as a product that could be sold. John Gibson, a young art dealer in New York who had a great passion for photography, along with few others scattered around the world including Marian Goodman, René Block, Nicholas Logsdail, all those who zealously followed Marcel Duchamp and John Cage.

There are those who believe that it was Gibson who opened the Pandora’s box that converted sculpture into photographic form. He was totally behind the project of the radical conceptualist artists in Europe and America but he nevertheless needed something to sell in his gallery back home in New York. So he encouraged them to provide large photographs documenting art works which may have, in their real size, encompassed two square kilometers.

Thus bronze, marble, wood, were relegated to history and conceptual photo documentation ruled the day, simultaneously relegating “conventional” modern photography to the dustbin. Developments which seeped from the nouvelle cuisine of French philosophy into the nouveau roman of French literature, together with the nouvelle vague of French cinema, took care of the rest.

The booster rocket of this space ship came from advances in communications technology. In the Seventies, video cameras were huge machines the size of the head of a baby hippopotamus; people sent letters with postage stamps. No cellphones, no fax, no email. A Polaroid camera or a Selectric IBM typewriter were the hi-tech status symbols of the era; the idea of a home computer was only a dream of the future.

It’s also important to recall that the Soviet Union was very much still up and running and by all appearances in excellent health. It was only in the year 1989 with the fall of the Soviet Union that the entire dome of reference that had encapsulated the cultural context of any work of art suddenly fell to pieces under its own weight. Without any other rope to hang onto, the rising cybernetic tide grabbed the lifeline of computer technology, as artists had embraced the realm of conceptual photonarrative art one generation before. Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett would never be seen in the same light ever again.

Marialuisa Tadei, after a long apprenticeship, entered into the world of art at a particularly ambiguous moment in the late Nineties, when ideological forces were regrouping behind new lines, and socio-aesthetic guidelines were still wobbling under the geo-political shock of the loss of the Communist flagship, the USSR.

It can be said that the guiding principle of her Catholic faith has been from the outset the primary factor that has somehow taken her blindly by the hand in order to navigate through these troubled waters with confident serenity, at a moment when the carpet of anti-Occident Marxism had been pulled out from under the feet of so many suddenly disoriented artistic practitioners who scrambled to seek professional refuge in makeshift ideologies of ecology, feminism, no-globalism, genderism, and others unworthy of mention.

There is, indeed, it can be detected, even a sort of ingenuous innocence, a fundamental simplicity bordering on the childlike which offers her a rarely encountered serenity and strength. There is even, one may venture to say, a Biblical self-replenishing fortitude effortlessly sustaining and renewing her endeavour as an artist, in its state of divine weightlessness.

It can be said that it is this effortless ability of continual renewal which drives her creativity, deriving its fuel from the renewable energy source of her faith. But if one may wish to employ a word often used by artists who would consider themselves first and foremost postmodern, her “strategy” has been that of consistently appropriating the tactics of reification and disembodiment devised by the revolutionary artists of the late Sixties. In a sense, she is fighting fire with fire and beating them at their own game by applying their own methods toward different goals: taking the title of Harald Szeemann’s trailblazing exhibition of 1969 When Attitudes become Form and turning it into When Faith becomes Form.

Since Pope Paul VI saw fit to take the boldly visionary step of inaugurating a museum of modern art to complement the venerable collections of the Vatican, other pontiffs have seen fit to renew this effort, most significantly in Benedict XVI’s formal reception of artists active today beneath the frescoes of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel during which he exhorted this creative crowd, a tribe that is not the first community to spring to mind when the question of avid church attendance arises, to return to the Church and reconsider it once again as a welcoming arena for their creative quest. This commitment has been more recently underscored by the breathtakingly bold step of implementing an official Vatican pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

Marialuisa Tadei reveals herself as being one of the most successful artists at work today to have come closest to resolving the dilemma of manifesting a profound Christian belief using art’s contemporary vocabularies.

The challenge of religions across the world has always been, after all, offering hope, consolation, and definitive responses to the most solemn questions which mortal men and women face in life: all forms of artistic expression have always, however obliquely, been in active and direct participation in this dialogue with the divine.

Yet modernism at its very source sought to express its disenchantment with all forms of traditional belief, with the exception perhaps of the materialism of Epicurus and his follower Lucretius. Thus the inherent weaknesses in all modernist attempts to formulate faith and express devotion through the vocabulary of the Modern. Few have been successful in either devotional or artistic terms. Perhaps it can be said that all artists, whether they know it or not, are unconsciously striving to achieve this goal.

Marialuisa Tadei has succeeded in recontextualizing one hundred years of modern and postmodern vocabularies in order to place them at the service of 2000 years of Christian faith.

As she has said: I seek to conjugate the forms of nature, and the anatomy of the human being in order that they become mystical. To create a mystical anatomy, with reference to both to human nature and to nature itself. By nature I refer to flowers, stars, galaxies, rocks. Because, in the end, the limitation between the figurative and the abstract is not a clear demarcation. If you look at the palm of the hand or at the veins in a leaf they resemble an abstract composition, our interpretation depends on the point of view we wish to assume. I wish to bring contemporary art and its public the awareness of another dimension beyond the material worldly one. Simone Weill said ‘beauty has the task to take us beyond ourselves’. Therefore I seek to take the spectator beyond himself so that he enters another dimension. And entering another dimension becomes aware of spirituality, sacrality, that is connected with himself. It is not an abstract thing far from mankind. There is a correspondence between God and Man, a dialogue that can be expressed through works of art. I want to make human beings achieve a leap so that they can see the connection between the absolute and the infinite.

The balancing of the weights and measures of the material world in metaphysical terms is central to the sculptural practice of Marialuisa Tadei, and this is one of the central lessons which she brought back with her from Düsseldorf, where she had the great good fortune to be invited by Jannis Kounellis for a period of eight or nine months, an experience from which she gained lessons which remain with her to this day. One theme which she recalls Kounellis emphasizing was poetry, and its juxtapositions of lightness and heaviness: something light and something heavy when placed together creative a poem, the buoyancy of composition.

As a very small child her ambition was to one day be able to construct a machine that could visualize during the daylight the dreams she had had during her hours of sleep, thus being able to capture her visions at will. Marialuisa Tadei’s childhood desire to capture dreams in concrete form has today been fulfilled.

When I first saw the work of Marialuisa Tadei my appreciation of her multifaceted work began immediately in a transformational sensation of visceral recognition. The variations in scale, material and technique, were augmented by the bravura in her use of color, magnetically chromatizing forms, as color has been used by sculptors such as Alexander Calder and Jeff Koons.

The artist employs vertical axes and horizontal spans which create extensions from the earth to which they are magnetically held yet away from which they struggle to free themselves.

There is something Gothic is this polarity of tensions, and of weights and lightness. Many of her works seem to transform the frequent use of tension between openness and enclosure, creating a “beyond” in intimations of the infinite; they define the cosmological space around them not as void, but as an expansive field, much as Calder did both in his “Mobiles” and “Stables”.

Marialuisa Tadei, between 2006 and 2009, executed a sculpture in stainless steel and polychrome acrylic paint which demonstrates the unity yet wide range of her work. In its naturally spiraling and undulating form it brings to mind the Laocoon of Greek mythology as well as the Tree of Knowledge in the Book of Genesis, both allegories that picture serpents in the motivating role. This work is entitled Creative Wisdom and, although ground-based, evokes flotation.

Ten years earlier, in 1996, the artist, having absorbed the lesson of her teacher Jannis Kounellis regarding lightness and heaviness as sculptural states, executed a group of untitled freestanding works in which tent-like cones supported each in its interior a large nest-like vessel of white feathers in evocation of body and soul.

Charged by some magnetic gravitational energy, in its relationship with the floor, there is an unmistakeably sacral character in this phenomenon, that speaks the language of cathedrals and chapels, a monumental spatial force regardless of scale, a force activating the aspiration toward flight, toward levitation.

Like polished surfaces of certain freestanding sculptures of Lucio Fontana, likewise spherical in form, these works exude a magnetic field, autonomously or in collusion. Here both artists are addressing the periphery of surfaces and detail with equal interest.

There exists a geological, one could even go so far as to say pharmaceutical Geology, nature to sculpture. Since ancient times we see evidence of stone being transported over great distances, and we encounter specific medicinal properties, or virtù, attributed to certain stones, endowing them with protective or curative powers, with baseness or nobility in a heraldic hierarchy: porphyry, for example. Albertus Magnus was not only a theologian and great father of the Church, but a “diagnostical geologist” at the same time, who could give a prescription of emeralds as a cure for insomnia. One feels that Marialuisa Tadei is aware of the properties which radiate from the materials she handles.

It is time that works of art, as Joseph Beuys believed, should be thought of as a necessity, essential to the well-being of mankind, and no longer be regarded as luxuries, status symbols, commodities. She had the good fortune to take her degree, one of many, at the Academia di Belle Arti under the tutelage of Giorgio Cortenova who later dedicated a beautiful essay to her work, in which he wrote:
Beauty or elegance? Both together, both capable of representing and transmitting virtue, wisdom, humanitas and richness of sentiment; in other words, of giving a positive and social sense to the luxury, to the gold, silver and cobalt blue, to the graces that were such because of their ability to communicate the virtue, rhythm and vitality interwoven in lines that were curved and embroidered or angular and darting, like flight that impudently defies the wall of wind.

When encountering the work of any artist for the first time we must take the utmost care as we proceed step by step to establish a platform from which to begin our explorations of unknown creative terrains, a starting point from which to initiate a new and unfamiliar chronology for future guidelines, all in order to ensure that we do not set out wide of the mark from the outset, as Christopher Columbus did when he mistook America for India. This is particularly true when it comes to the myriad of expressive functions which Marialuisa Tadei employs in the wide spectrum of her vocabulary devices.

Since the large-scale cybachrome photographic prints, issued in editions of 15 mounted behind plexiglass, derive from watercolors, let us begin with these: in a recent exhibition at the Palazzo Franchetti in Venice, Marialuisa Tadei along with nine other contemporary Italian artists, paid homage in a show entitled “Our place in space” to the visual revelations of the Hubble Space Telescope, which was launched into outer space in 1990.

The artist’s watercolors and subsequent cybachrome prints bear a striking resemblance to those which the photographic instruments on board the Hubble spacecraft beam back to scientists on the ground.

A cybachrome dating from 2011 entitled Abissi Rosso (diasec 180x134 centimeters) is exemplary of these works. Astrological extravagances which on first encounter resemble the semi-abstract floral pastel drawings of Odilon Redon and on second examination would seem to be a symetrical Rorschach test. Abissi Rosso, like other works in this series bearing titles such as Farfalla, Lampo, Viola possess an ethereal otherworldly charm. “All of my forms are inspired from the forms of nature, and in fact I use the circular line, symbol of the infinite, when creating my works”. It is reasonable therefore to conclude that watercolor in its seemingly ephemeral range of tonalities provides an inevitable medium for Marialuisa Tadei’s graphic investigations. Furthermore the wedding of sculpture and photography is a perfect match and has in the past been used as a working tool by sculptors a century ago such as Auguste Rodin, Edgar Degas and Constantin Brancusi, and furthermore with regard to watercolor Marialuisa Tadei finds herself in the company of Rodin, a consummate watercolorist as seen in his nude portraits of Isadora Duncan. In these ethereal watercolors Rodin demonstrates the weightlessness of watercolor and, as again with Marialuisa Tadei, draws into relation the theme of lightness and heaviness which Janis Kounellis underlined. We must also mention here the concrete clairvoyance of Joseph Beuys in his approach to both watercolor and photography, using both interchangeably as one single medium. Like Joseph Beuys, Marialuisa Tadei seems to use watercolor as a medium of intuitive free association, although with a brighter spectrum of color, however, no spectator is likely to mistake her for a German expressionist.

If we arrive at the sculptural work of Marialuisa Tadei from the watercolors and cybachrome photographs we immediately react to her propensity for apt equilibrium, and her exemplary knack for the disposition of masses to make up a whole, something which is an aspect in the present day that students rarely look for, artists neglect, and the public seems to ignore altogether. This propensity is a direct outgrowth of the study of nature which the artist herself has pointed to as her primary manual or guidebook. In these sculptural works, form would seem to follow shadow and emulate content as the glove embodies the hand and become one single thing.

In her exuberant work entitled Meeting, 2015, a freestanding sculpture in hot glass blown and shaped in the furnace, she, as in the work Creative Wisdom, brings us again into contact with the serpentine in the realm of the Laocoon, and calls to mind to those who have ever witnessed it the end of hybernation in springtime of a nest of snakes, or the esoteric Easter Sunday snake-handling ceremonies enacted in remote Catholic Churches in Calabria. All of her recent sculptural works are exuberantly polychromatic, such as Together, Sospiro, Life, Meteroite, Fluid, all from 2017, and unlike the “found” colors in the metal sculpture of John Chamberlain, instead make use of the polished pop spectrum of purples, iridescent blue, green, orange and yellow which one expects to see in the work of the American maestro Jeff Koons or in the lesser known sculptural works of the painter Roy Lichtenstein.

Sculptress and stubborn prophetess, Marialuisa Tadei creates works that radiate energy from no apparent source, a quality she shares with a contemporary painter in Rome, Alberto Di Fabio, whose paintings require no batteries.

Pablo Picasso once said that Art washes the dust of everyday life from the soul. This is the dictum that Marialuisa Tadei has put into practice. Fashioned in an equilibrium of alabaster, steel, aluminium, onyx, bronze, mosaic matrixes and feathers, the “visionary machine” of which Marialuisa Tadei had yearned to invent as a child, one that would record real dreams, is in full working order.

Venice 2017
Text by Alan Jones