When being interviewed by Toni Maraini in 1994, Federico Fellini defined his understanding of art as the "experience of pleasure when I find myself in front of something that is the absolute truth, not because it resembles life, but because it’s true as an image for itself, as a gesture." Looking at the incredibly innovative works by former Fellini actor, writer and artist Ele D’Artagnan (1911–1987), the essence of this statement seems to materialize, revealing a kindred spirit. Marking D’Artagnan’s international gallery debut 16 years after his death, a thoughtfully assembled collection of drawings is currently on display at Tribeca’s K.S. Art. Featuring works from the 1970s and early ’80s that involve found paper, board, pencil, crayon, markers, watercolor, gouache, oil, enamel or whatever other materials happened to be on hand, this exhibition will unquestionably guarantee this unknown talent herds of new fans.
Like an individualized cosmography dominated by psychedelic vigor, D’Artagnan’s work radiates with a ceaselessly transparent lust for life. Presented in a group, the drawings read as a Hieronymus Bosch-worthy visual tour de force through one man’s surreal imagination. Here, the viewer encounters bizarre landscapes filled with eccentric figures, mystic houses, luscious gardens and colorful phallic symbols. Charged with a unique psychological expressiveness, D’Artagnan’s dreamlike imagery involves us by appealing to both our secret longings and our need for fantasy.
In "Coppia in Amore" (Couple in Love, 1975), a mystified depiction of the sexual interaction between man and woman is given center stage. Placed upon a vibrant background, which is divided into smaller color sections, the strongly outlined figures dominate the picture plane. Symbolic rather than pornographic, and reminiscent of ancient fertility gods and goddesses, the figures have an aura of timeless innocence. This quality is supported by the severe cropping of the woman’s face and the man’s body, as well as by the genitalia’s playful abstraction. Remaining almost anonymous and lacking any form of aggression, the figures become symbolic representatives of their genders, embracing the sexual act as metaphor for life. The navigation between an almost child-like liberty of hand and an adult’s sexual motivation, typical for D’Artagnan’s work, causes an interesting opposition between explicit content and its almost naïve rendering. Woven into one intricately textured tapestry, the complex imagery becomes poeticized and hence, decorative.
By incorporating theatrical props and dramatized gestures, D’Artagnan engages the otherworldly appearance of his large-eyed characters. Styled with extravagant masks, pearls, feathers, flowers, and colorful costumes, they glow with pride and the consciousness of being undefeatable. "Waiting for the Cocotte" (1974) features a nude female figure floating Chagall-esque above a miniature landscape. The obscurity of the scene is enhanced by the woman’s seated position, which lacks any sitting accommodation. While her lower body is depicted from the side, her upper torso is turned frontally, accentuated by a vibrant orange. Clearly seductive and with the uttermost self-confidence that brings Manet’s Olympia to mind, she looks straight at the viewer. Holding a parasol and wearing nothing but heavy make-up, nail polish, and an incredibly ornate, Rococo hairdo, she makes the hardly recognizable man wait, placed in a tiny house by her feet.
Though one could argue that D’Artagnan’s excessive, often all-inclusive color palette and his struggle with perspective clearly reveal the fact that he was self-taught, he made it work. Due partly to his obvious talent and his unique access to the intellectual circles of his time, D’Artagnan’s work proves an impressive degree of artistic maturity. When becoming part of the Italian Surrealist scene during the 1950s, D’Artagnan soon befriended a number of celebrated artists, including Fellini, Dalì and De Chirico. This unusual fusion of the outsider’s fresh perspective and the insider’s theoretical profundity prepared D’Artagnan for creating a unique liaison between original imagination and enthusiastic immediacy. Here, the technical nonchalance seems rather charming and the passion behind each work truthful.
At last, another Fellini quote comes to mind: "I think the expression of an artist’s work finds consensus when, whoever enjoys it feels as if they’re receiving a charge of energy, like a growing plant does, of something pulsing, mysterious, vibrant with life." In this case the charge of energy is free. Considering the fact that this cult status-deserving artist is dead, the estate limited and its public visibility rare, this exhibition is not to be missed.