Antonio Carlo Ponti
Art is an overall system of signs through which Spirit comes to light.
There are many ways to approach the Creation in order to fathom the power of the Spirit. The artists of the early Middle Ages found it advisable to forgo “worldliness” and seek refuge in contemplation, so as to better adhere to the illuminating power of the Spirit. During the Renaissance man felt he had godly creative aptitudes and therefore trusted his own capability to transform both outer and inner reality. Modern times saw the power of the Everlasting being fulfilled in nature; many artists therefore identified with nature in order to merge with the feeling of universal affliction caused by Adam’s fall. Van Gogh, for instance, welcomed the passing of time, the withering of flowers and the death of trees as parts of a process heading towards a new dimension, a new life. As he wrote to his brother Theo, “the life of love unto Christ, who spurs us on, is sorrow, a sorrow nobody repents for, a godly sorrow” (Letter 82, 1876), or “I can see that nature has told me something, has spoken to me, and that I have taken it down in shorthand. My shorthand may contain words that cannot be deciphered, and yet there is something left of what the wood or the beach or the figure has told me” (Letter 228). Then, there is the contemporary vision, which closely follows the idea of the symbolists: it stems from the deep level of decadence that was reached by religion, morality and justice, in the pursuit of the niceties of desire, feeling, taste, luxury and leisure, a perfect foil for neurosis, hysteria, hypnotism, morphinomania, scientific and parascientific humbug. All this explains the need for new words, new languages and new relationships in marked contrast with all sense of decency.
If in Van Gogh the way to penetrate the Spirit is suggested “in shorthand”, so that none of the impressions offered by nature may be lost and nothing of short-lived beauty may escape our notice, in the works of Anna Maria Artegiani time seems to stand still. Indeed, penetrating the Absolute and grasping the dynamic sensations of the Spirit and its transmutations call for a long time spent in listening, detecting and adjusting, in order to tune man’s capacity for introjection to the Spirit. Contemplation actually requires from us to have time in hand, so that our mind and heart’s eye may penetrate and welcome everything offered by the divine object of our meditation. Therefore, contemplating the works of Anna Maria Artegiani entails commanding ample resources of spirit, time, concern and knowledge; it requires us to take our clothes off and wear new ones, to give up our learning and to go, “naked”, through the narrow corridor offered by the artist. It also implies stepping out of the “world”, its physicality and its way of measuring time, in order to get into another dimension; this does not mean betraying one’s self, on the contrary, it means regenerating, upgrading the “me” and fully understanding its functions and the reasons of its presence. In other words, it implies waking up to one’s SELF, i.e. to that spiritual element that does not live by itself, but according to the Other, that is, the power that put it in the world. This is a way to be reunited with universal Good, a way to go back to harmony and live it in one’s heart, as an individual.
Mostly fascinating, in Anna Maria’s poetics, is the awareness of the presence, in every single human being, of a distinctive reality, which goes far beyond the earthliness of existence and rises to a blissful state of mystical ascesis. The artist never forsakes her true colours: she continues to be a “thinking” woman, despite the ups and downs of the present social structure, which seemingly compels everyone to betray one’s own nature. Anna Maria Artegiani never cuts the linking “thread”, but she still does not allow it to obscure the vision of a higher reality that can fill the gaps and meet the needs of the soul. Her knowledge of the religious traditions, her full adherence to the unifying Spirit – through which only can the perfect union and pacification of human beings be attained, regardless of their origins – is fully accomplished in the identification that takes place through contemplation, throughout the “elevation” of spirit. It is in the final union that complete harmony is achieved, i.e. the elimination of discrepancies and the blending of the soul with the Supreme Being. It must be highlighted that Anna Maria does not take part in any creed in particular, but she welcomes the linking particle, that tiny little fragment with which the “enlightened” beings identify. Therefore, her artistic repertoire is a gallery of ecstatic moments. Like in a film’s sequence of stills, we can grasp the different moments that characterize the life of the people who are enveloped in the shroud of contemplation, like in Staretz reading in front of the iconostasis (1994), Hesychasm (1996) – Orthodox monk in prayer –, Sufis in front of the Mihrab (1998), Rabbi (2001), Zen monks in meditation (2000), Yoga (1997, etc. This gallery is not only characterized by the existential “uniformity” of prayer (using the same configuration, the same pattern of meditation), but also of setting. Except for some paintings, like Zen monks in meditation, Yoga, etc., that are set in a very simple environment, or on the pavement of the temple, we are standing in front of portraits that share similar elements, such as the typical iconography of every single creed, like the inside of an orthodox or catholic church, or the unadorned setting of a Jewish small study. Anna Maria Artegiani prevents us from coming into collision with the elements that characterize the environment, so as to let us identify with the spirit that moves us to contemplation and a common longing for elevation. This is the aspect that the artist describes most vividly, so that it becomes a universal truth, the meeting point of diversities: a steady attention, a state of interior recollection that allows for the dissolution of all separation. Her priority is not to analyse the major religions or spiritual traditions, both from the East and the West, from a theological point of view, but to find the junction, that is, the common feeling that hides in the core of prayer and the longing for the Absolute. This feeling is the mainstay of her whole visual process: the artist outlines its many facets, guiding us through different places, with distinguishing tones, and yet in unison, as they share a same invisible might, which wafts in the ambience of the paintings.
A further highlight of these works is the series of portraits. All these faces are extraordinary, not only technically speaking, but mainly for the deep psychological insight into the characters; it is as if their eyes could penetrate the viewer and delve into his or her soul. This is not only true in female portraits (Desert’s Sand II, 2004; The gaze, 2004), but also in male ones (The monk, 2000; Sufi, 2006): they all share the same cathartic power, which catches the viewer’s eye and pins it down to the “contemplation” of the work, “crystallizing it as if it were enraptured by the Spirit”. When we compare the woman’s figure with the artist’s portrait, from an esthetical point of view, we see the same eyes, the artist’s eyes. Therefore, looking at the paintings is like being penetrated by the artist, by her spirit, or being scrutinized by someone who tries to unveil our secrets and prompt us to get free from every worry and earthly burden. It is as if the artist impersonated many characters for the sake of a common language that many can understand, amidst a rich variety of cultures (Desert’s Sand, 1995; Eastern Atmospheres, 1998; The wisdom of the heart, 1997). Her most recent works, especially the series of portraits, go beyond the earlier paintings, as far as the formal aspect is concerned. In Sand Arabesque (2007), for instance, the main subject occupies only a portion of the spatial plane, allowing the remaining space to become a field-of-view that we can mentally invade and on which we can project our own inner vision. The highlight of several works, like Looks and colours from India (2002), Small Butterfly (2007) is the capacity of marrying time and space together without predisposing the onlooker to think of any particular category that would allow the constant flow of phenomena to be interpreted. The artist’s emphasis on the “vitality of silence” struggles with the boundaries imposed by the canvas. She elegantly overcomes this conflict with a twirl of intersecting lines that anchor the foreground to the horizon, thus creating an indissoluble bond between them (Dancing Dervish, 2008). As a consequence, two interwoven spatial principles bring into being an area where the gravitating forces interfere with each other. The first spatial pattern, i.e. the central perspective of the Renaissance, consists of lines that converge on one point on the horizon; the second is represented by a riveting spatial conduit that draws the observer’s eye towards the background (Woman painting icons, 2005). On the one hand, perspective fastens the foreground elements all together as one whole; on the other hand it projects them to the depth. The protective grace of the field-of-view thus broadens to welcome colour, used as expressive strength to convey the spatial connections, either with complementary colours (Northern Light, 2003), or with harmonic associations (Spiritual Intuition, 2002; Untitled (Young fair-haired woman), 2006). This subtle interdependence endows the subject with a high expressive strength, as well as a deep symbolic quality.
Anna Maria Artegiani helps us to better grasp the hidden religious and philosophical gist of her work by sharing with us her conception of art. According to her, art is not only the “temple of silence”, i.e. the place where we can abandon the ME to be flooded by the Spirit, or the place of contemplation, that is, the ecstatic union with God, the Supreme Being; art is also the abode of the “sacred”. In her own words, art is a “sacral” fact, i.e. an act tending to infinity and therefore able to unite two distinct activities of man: the “technical” deed – operating upon reality to transform and mould it according to the artist’s thought – on the one hand, and the “playful”, the pleasant aspect on the other. In other words, art is an action that involves both the use of the mind/heart and the hands, the physicality. The meeting point of these two functions is wonderment, “fun” and creativity, i.e. a love encounter that we owe to a wisdom coming from Above. Art thus includes creativity and delight, even if the latter does not prevent the artist from delving into the depths and crossing the threshold of the Absolute. Knowing art is being able to make a way into perfection and work out its secrets. This is what artists do when they use their work as a haven for contemplation and meditation. Moreover, keeping away from the world’s turmoils, artists seem to assume a double viewpoint: the observer’s vision and their own. The result is a shelter in love, in the heart. This is why, eventually, Art is the “core” and intimate manifestation of Good. From this “meeting place” stems the need for one’s fellow men, which is the height of spiritual research. This is the real meaning of freedom. What is offered here is the return to the origin, a way to get out from the narrow crevice of one’s existence and be flooded by dazzling sunlight. This is an all-encompassing and awesome light, but also fascinating and able to mould our soul, because it allows us to behold all the “atoms” that are spread in space in one single contemplative glance.