After cheerfully strolling along a silent Venetian fondamenta in the still warm autumnal twilight, we meet artist Barbara De Vivi who leads us into her tiny studio. It makes such a contrast to leave the comfort of the warm sun to explore the grotto-like space where De Vivi, a Venetian artist, colorfully layers mythology, ancient iconography, and contemporary imagery within her paintings. The home studio is stuffed with drawings, large-scale paintings, sketchbooks, evidence of the restless energy with which she paints. Infused with the view of the artist's paintings drying on the floor, and of her atelier illuminated by a glimpse of dim light coming from an enclosed garden, we headed back to the Rail office in the Chiesa delle Penitenti where pastries and cakes welcomingly awaited our conversation.
Rail: Welcome Barbara.
Barbara De Vivi: Thank you!
Rail: We would like to start by asking you a question about your work. As we can see in your pieces, the connection between past and present is crucial. In which way is your personal, cultural, and even genealogical perspective present in this dialogue between the ancient and the contemporary?
De Vivi: Well, I think that much is derived from the fact that I was born and raised in Venice. Therefore I believe to have taken a lot of inspiration from everything that was around me, and growing up in Venice meant having a strong connection with the history of art. Moreover, my family had a fundamental role for me–my mother is a graduate in medieval history and we have plenty of books on these topics at home. Actually, in a way which was more or less natural, I was always interested in these topics from when I was a child. So, I think the environment in which I grew up affected me a lot. I must say that I was lucky to find an academy with a good painting program. From then on it was a pretty natural path.
Rail: And were there in your life—even before you started studying at the Academy of Fine Arts—books, tales, or myths that, let’s say, that inspired you? Is there anything that has been particularly revealing to you?
De Vivi: Well, I must say there are many, because I read a fair amount of books. Reading is a considerable part of my practice. I tend to choose some topics and delve into them one step at a time. For example, in the span of a whole year I can read a series of books that elaborate on the issue I am curious about, but with various perspectives. Lately I have been really into the history of religions, on a broader level. Actually, everything started with an instinctive passion for specific kinds of texts—such as texts on mythology and hagiography—and specific kinds of images—particularly from medieval art, renaissance art, and baroque imagery. Only afterwards did I realise that what brought together these various and diverse sources was the theme of the sacred, and I started to feel the need to find a way to depict it. After having understood this, I started delving more systematically into this topic with the help of texts on anthropology and the history of religions.
Among the essays that struck me most, I would say that Roberto Calasso’s writings had a strong influence on me, together with the ones by Georges Bataille, Elémire Zolla and René Girard. Speaking of Girard, recently I have been reading Violence and the Sacred (1972), which I am really impressed by. These texts are not to be seen as a key for unraveling my work, but rather as tools that helped me a great deal in rationalizing and better understanding what I was already feeling, on which I was already reflecting. Then, with regards to myth, I take a lot of inspiration from Greek mythology, and I am often more attracted to female heroines, especially by Medea, on whom I have been working a lot since I find her really interesting.
Rail: What kinds of female figures inspire you then? Sorceresses, amazons, goddesses?
De Vivi: Yes, generally speaking I am always attracted by the idea of isolated women in tragedy, whom I then portray in a more ironic way, but they still retain a tragic core. For example, Euripides’s The Bacchae is a work that really sparks my interest. I get inspired by various historical periods, for instance by ancient fables, medieval tales, hagiographies, chronicles, bestiaries… I really like text sources, so if for example I am working on the Middle Ages, I start reading texts of this period directly. When I focus on a topic I take into consideration both the direct source and the critical texts which were written on the given topic. I like both methods of research: going straight to the source, and using critical essays as a basis. But then, in order to truly understand and grasp the intricacies of a discourse, I feel the need to go upstream to find the source.
Rail: Do you work with narrative to help connect the elements of your compositions?
De Vivi: In a way I do, because I almost always start from a particular situation, from a story.
Rail: For example you start with a tale about the life of a saint that was particularly interesting to you, or maybe a Greek tragedy as you were saying before.
De Vivi: Yes, in a way I do. Stories give me an initial stimulus, but the work never becomes a direct representation of the given story. I take—or rather I try to take—some elements that I find are connected with that situation, and I let the stream of thoughts and images flow freely. Thus, I let myself get carried away both regarding topics—very often I draw analogies even with my personal life—and also when it comes to iconography. I work a great deal with iconography and with how it has changed throughout history. On many occasions, when I draw, I realize that, for instance, the iconic representation of a woman saint is turning into a mythological creature, into something different from itself. And therefore I literally follow the transformation of iconography: hence, the narrative is my starting point; at the end, my subject becomes something different, something that is more than itself.
Rail: Most of your work has elements derived from Greek myth or medieval history. It seems that you re-elaborate those elements in a contemporary context, is that what you do?
De Vivi: It doesn’t always work so rigidly. I would say it is more about a kind of sensation, I don’t know, it is about indulging the artistic will of the moment.
Rail: We have been talking about the idea of narrative and of narrating. “Unveiling” and “narrating” seem to be two very important alternating moments in your work. One of your paintings is indeed entitled Svelamento [Unveiling]. I mean, your way of thinking seems particularly scattered, but you always succeed in finding a way to join all the elements without creating an explicit narrative. You do narrate, but not in a straightforward manner. How do you maintain this balance?
De Vivi: Well, this is always one of the most difficult things to do when choosing an image. Because, indeed, if I am tied to a certain iconography or narrative too much, then the work risks becoming predictable or explanatory. And so, yes, what is interesting for me is to always maintain an ambiguity in what is being depicted. For example, when seeing the image of a saint or a model—in fact, I often take inspiration from fashion pictures—I try, with the help of irony, to drive these set roles into crisis.
Rail: You often use the words “irony” and “ironic” especially when you refer to topics and your painting process. Could you explain this concept better? Do you interpret irony as a means of communication?
De Vivi: I make use of irony to re-elaborate classical themes in an apparently light way, not with the aim of parodizing them, but in order to question their meaning. Maybe “irony” is not exactly the proper term when considering my work, because I am interested in ambiguity, in the compresence of opposites and in blurring clear-cut boundaries that we are used to , between the sacred and the profane, between the tragic and the merry…
My images are overloaded, redundant. I deliberately exaggerate these baroque aspects by emphasizing their theatrics and mannerisms while bringing them to their extreme consequence. I try to make various aspects of a discourse coexist without any of them prevailing over the others, let’s say. That’s why I also try to create images without a center, but with many points of view and with many possible interpretations.
Rail: Yes indeed, to give the viewer freedom of interpretation.
De Vivi: Yes, and therefore these various scenes can both enrich one another—thus conveying a different interpretation—but they can also astound you because sometimes they may seem very distant.
Rail: The anguish, the tragedy, the violence that emerge from your paintings are also communicated by using a very cold palette, right? Do you use color as your first expressive medium?
De Vivi: Yes, colors play an important role in defining the atmosphere in my paintings. I use unnatural colors, often bright and acidic, to create a contrast with often very classic images I draw on. I create an unreal environment in which situations emerge as memories or dreams.
Rail: At your studio we saw that you have large-scale canvases. Are there specific techniques or formats that you prefer? Do you prefer making large-scale paintings?
De Vivi: Yes, I love large-scale paintings. In this period for various reasons, especially practical, the large dimensions are a bit contained, usually around two meters. The size I like is the slightly square rectangle either 150×200cm or 160×200cm. As a painting technique I prefer oil on canvas, but in this period I’m experimenting with applying a primer coat before painting in order to create effects that I can’t completely control. But they are all small variations of oil painting on canvas.
Rail: And I wanted to ask, considering the idea of large scale oil paintings, the way in which you exposed sheets of carta roccia paper simply hung on the wall at the Progetto Borca exhibition held in the Dolomites—very different from a canvas on a wooden frame—and the fact that you talked about priming: are these all technical elements that somehow serve to find a connection between past and contemporary or is it just your preference, maybe unconscious?
De Vivi: Both of them. But it is definitely a choice also related to poetics. Because I make reference precisely to the history of the images and I like to talk mainly about the image, about its life and its transformation. Therefore, I also like to use the medium that is the medium of figurative representation par excellence, the classic one.
Rail: How does the medium—the technical aspect—have an effect in this dialogue, on the image precisely?
De Vivi: I think that looking at a large-scale oil painting instinctively reminds one of a specific kind of environment, of atmosphere...
Rail: …a kind of immersive space.
De Vivi: Yes, exactly. I am really interested in how large scale paintings interact with the viewer: I want something almost violent that imposes itself.
Rail: These large-scale canvases with these mythological references certainly attract a lot of attention—as they immediately attracted our own. But there are also other works that I find really interesting, for example, those you called Disegni dall’archivio [Drawings from the archive]. I think these drawings have elements in common even with your larger works. Looking at your paintings, I see that there is a kind of dreamlike background that seems a common element in all of your canvases. Do you agree? If it is not the case, is there an element, a red thread, which links all the works you have done so far, which perhaps appears more evidently in some and less in others?
De Vivi: Yes, they are two questions. As for the Disegni dall’archivio [Drawings from the archive], that is part of my methodology which I briefly mentioned in the studio. Mainly, my initial work is to catalogue and archive images through drawings in notebooks. Sometimes the theme comes first and, with a theme in mind, I look for images that can represent it. But sometimes it works just the opposite, I see that I am obsessed with a series of images and I try to go back to the thought. When I have a series of drawings I start thinking about a project. Generally it’s about overlapping and juxtaposing large-scale canvases and my rough sketch drawings. So when I am painting I remove dried paint and then I paint over it: I am interested in this kind of layering, you know what I mean? [The process of layering] reminds me of memory and mythology, so it recalls the way in which some images are still readable in the background but not in a decipherable way. Other images instead disappear, and some of them perhaps stay simply as a visible detail.
Rail: In that sense I was referring to “narrating” and “unveiling”…
De Vivi: Exactly, yes! Right. [Laughter].
Rail: Which is a bit like what painting is, but you do it in your own way.
De Vivi: Yes, it is something typical of painting because painting has so much to do with memory.
De Vivi: So yes, among the drawings I showed you before at my atelier, some are oil on paper drawings, others are pencil sketches of various sizes. All these drawings are strongly related to large-scale works because they are preparatory sketches I do before I start painting.
Rail: And talking about drawings, last year you took part in an exhibition called Disegno Politico Italiano [Italian Political Drawing] at the A Plus A Gallery in Venice. Can you tell us something about the drawings that you showed there?
De Vivi: I showed three oil paintings on paper that were originally drawings from my archive. And they were on a key theme that surfaces in all my works—oh well, let’s say two themes. The first is more about the image, iconography, and memory, and the other is about the sacred, the transcendent, which generally evolves into violence or eroticism, sexuality…
Rail: What do you mean exactly by “sacred” and “transcendent"?
De Vivi: What I mean by “sacred” is that which cannot be reduced to the frames and norms of everyday life, that which questions them every time it occurs. It is an overwhelming force in contradiction with rational thought, with calculation and utilitarianism. Historically speaking, violence and erotism are considered two human passions dominated by the sacred— uncontrollable drives linked to the suspension of prohibitions and to death.
About this, I can share two excerpts that I find particularly thought-provoking:
As we have seen, the sacred embraces all those forces that threaten to harm man or trouble his peace.1
The words “divine” and “sacred” have carried undertones of an inner secret animation, a deep-seated frenzy, a violent laying hold of an object, consuming it like fire, leading it headlong to ruin.2
Rail: That’s what I wanted to say, that your paintings do not express tranquillity and there is always an impression of anguish. Looking at your paintings we noticed that there is no tranquillity, serenity—nothing is static. Your sources can be related to medieval history but when you utilize these sources, they become a completely different thing. So when you start painting, you begin with an idea and you get a very different result. For example, the drawing with which you participated in the Disegno Politico Italiano project, if I’m not wrong, is a female figure that is being pulled by her hair.
De Vivi: Yes, exactly, I would say that violence is in some ways a recurring theme, which is linked to the sacred. What I’m talking about is a vision which is imbued with a material force, so I also play with the contrast between the celestial world and the force that is usually attributed to the material world. And yes, that series of drawings—”Disegni dall’archivio” [Drawings from the archive]—was on the theme of violence indeed.
Rail: Some of them were really violent!
De Vivi: Yes, but actually those were images of, let’s say, not real violence. [Laughs] It was about small everyday coercions, which I represented by drawing on Baroque iconography. For example for the drawing where a woman is pulled by her hair, I was referring to all the images of Saint John the Baptist with the head on a tray. But actually I was also drawing on a photo that I found on the Internet with a woman at the hairdresser's with her head laid down inside one of those sinks for shampooing. In another exposed drawing there is a little boy who seems to be tortured but, in the initial image I was inspired by, someone is just measuring his body temperature.
Rail: It looked like a visit to the dentist!
De Vivi: Yes, exactly! [laughs] And the third one was another woman at the hairdresser’s. Anyway, all the scenes included hands that dominate over a head. The first drawing resembles a sort of Judith holding a cut-off head. And then yes, the theme was also to “unveil” those “acts of violence” that are imposed on us or that we auto-impose on ourselves.
Rail: That surround us, but that we’re not aware of, also.
So, you mention the theme of violence frequently, but in the case of the drawings the act of violence looks particularly directed towards a single body. Instead, in some of your paintings violence assumes almost Biblical dimensions with many human bodies which nature erodes and destroys creating a catastrophic dimension, a calamity. I’m thinking for example of Giudizio [Doom] (2016). Is there a strong parallel between the mass violence in the paintings and the violence in the drawings, where it’s much more local and directed to a single individual?
De Vivi: Yes, absolutely. In my drawings I often study figures one by one, and in fact each figure is very isolated and only afterwards the various shapes combine; but I really don’t see them as a multitude, but almost as a series of individualities that stay separated. Anyway, I’m also interested in this aspect of amplification of the concept through maniacal repetition. For instance, I’ve painted a huge canvas of four meters where battle and fight scenes are represented. And indeed it’s the same scene that repeats itself infinitely, but actually there’s no real choral scene. I don’t know, that’s a concept I’m interested in.
Rail: Back to the idea you were touching upon before, what is the relationship between violence and the sacred based on? When you mention the “small everyday coercions” you mean that the sacred is also somehow present in the everyday life?
De Vivi: I see the sacred as linked to violence in its sudden manifestation through revelations and immersive visions. I find it interesting how this idea is transposed to myths.
The exhibition Disegno Politico Italiano requested a reflection on contemporaneity, and the project I developed is slightly detached from my usual research, since the sacred is not the main topic of this work.
Rail: Also, I saw the painting you made in 2017, Apparizione nella Grotta [Apparition in the Grotto].
De Vivi: Oh yes! The one which was at the Bevilacqua Foundation.
Rail: That was the final work of your residency period at Bevilacqua La Masa Foundation, right? And I wanted to understand if the painting has a connection to the history of Venice, since it was made for an exhibition in the gallery of San Marco Square. What role does the location play in your painting practice?
De Vivi: Apparizione nella Grotta was painted in the Giudecca island studios, but actually it is not particularly tied to Venice. I would say that certainly I feel the influence of the Venetian context on my work, for example in the use of color, as you said before in the studio. I take inspiration from the Venetian tradition a bit in all of my works. Yet, this painting is not explicitly a tale about Venice. Moreover, this work is probably one of my first pieces, one of the most mythological works, one in which contemporary elements are not so present yet. That painting maintains a magical side, it is less disguised than other pieces. It gets back to an episode of The Argonautica where Circe appears to Medea evoking monstrous animals. What interested me was this idea of an apparition of an image that is unbound from reality.
Rail: And speaking of “unbounding from reality” you’ve said that you have a strong life bond with Venice, actually you have Venetian roots. Have you ever tried to detach yourself from the Venetian context in order to then elaborate this experience in painting? Have you ever tried to deviate?
De Vivi: Yes, during my first years at the Academy of Fine Arts I had tried to do something else and it was a disaster.
Rail: Was your estrangement conscious or were you just unsatisfied with your approach to painting?
De Vivi: No, it wasn’t something conscious, it didn’t have to do with Venice. It just seemed to indulge in what came easy to me, it seemed a comfortable solution. I have always had an aptitude for figures, anatomy and the human body but that didn’t convince me. Usually if I don’t do something complicated, I don’t like it. So I started making some horrible works that I wouldn’t show you, which were very minimal, neat, with only a few elements, like plants, in order to make a really rational study on composition, lights—extremely boring. Eventually I accepted that I actually have things that I like and that luckily come natural to me, so I shouldn't be hiding them: they are my strengths. At that time I was also scared of creating works that were so clearly “ancient-looking” in a way. I mean, they were a bit old-fashioned and they looked a bit weird too.
Rail: This awareness is so wonderful!
De Vivi: Yes, with the benefit of hindsight. At that moment I didn’t think so. [Laughs]
Rail: But you’ve gained it during your academic education?
De Vivi: Yes, after my bachelor’s degree. Coincidentally, in that period, our teacher proposed to work on a topic on occasion of an event—the topic was the epic poem Orlando Furioso. This was when I started getting back to literary sources, taking inspiration from existent paintings, studying them and drawing them, and I understood that that was actually the path that really interested me, so I persisted.
Rail: You have an original technique, an authentic style indeed.
De Vivi: Yes, I was less sincere when trying to make “minimal” things...
Rail: Your process has almost been a kind of denial, a sort of self-imposed exercise which then resulted in you becoming more aware of your art.
De Vivi: Yes, I think it was useful.
Rail: In addition to your literary inspiration Orlando Furioso, were there other people or artists who inspired you during your academic experience?
De Vivi: Talking about my artistic influences, the atelier at the Academy of Fine Arts has been fundamental. I wouldn’t say I was influenced by a specific artist, but, in general, I could say that I was inspired by the entire working approach that characterized our academy (Academy of Fine Arts in Venice). Having friends in the same environment, sharing ideas, and giving support to each other was fundamental. Moreover, the professor of anatomy was really essential because with his help I developed my final dissertation on Tintoretto. In that period I wasn’t in a very good place with my painting practice: it was really hard for me. Maybe the support given by my professor convinced me not to give up. Also the support of my friends and my family was really important for me in that period.
Rail: Have they always given you support on what you were doing?
De Vivi: Yes, they have; and they have done so—even when I had no idea of what I was doing. [Laughs]
Rail: Could you identify an artistic period that you prefer? Something that captures your taste, your visual interest? Could you name some artists that you feel are really close to you?
De Vivi: Among the painters that most influenced me from the Renaissance and the Baroque period there are Tintoretto and Rubens. Regarding Romanticism, Delacroix has really inspired me. All these masters inspired me in a formal way.
On the other hand, talking about contemporary artists who catch my attention, they were relevant for my artistic growth more in a conceptual way than a formal one. In my opinion, Henry Darger’s creative process is very close to mine. He used to take pop images and decontextualize them afterwards putting all these different images together, thus creating a new, epic tale. With Nancy Spero and Ulrike Rosenbach, I share the need to try to understand power dynamics and my own role in society, as a woman and as an artist, by being empathetic and by questioning archetypes from art history.
Regarding young Italian artists that explicitly refer back to the history of painting, I could mention Nicola Samorì and Thomas Braida.
Rail: Near the Academy of Fine Arts there is an ancient building where the famous painting-collection of the Academy (Gallerie dell’Accademia) is located. I’m sure that you have been there more than once. Is there a masterpiece there that has caught your attention?
De Vivi: I’m in love with the Gallerie dell’Accademia. I have always felt a unique connection with the cycle “The Legend of Saint Ursula” painted by Carpaccio, especially with the scene of martyrdom. Also, I love the cycle of San Marco by Tintoretto and The Tempest by Giorgione.
Rail: Talking about your ancient and contemporary inspiration, you said that you’ve created drawings by observing old canvases, and you’ve added that you made a study on Tintoretto.
De Vivi: Yes, the topic of my final dissertation for my bachelor’s degree was the anatomy in Tintoretto’s work. The thesis was divided into two parts: a written part and another where I made drawings based on an analysis of Tintoretto’s works—a project that I have been working on for a year and a half. In some of these drawings I’ve taken a more analytic approach and I focused more on anatomy. However, in the majority of the drawings I investigated movements and evolutions that figure in Tintoretto’s paintings.
Rail: In your opinion, how should your work be seen in our times? How do you feel in the contemporary moment?
De Vivi: Today painting is coming back all over the world. Often this new tendency is about a kind of painting that reflects upon itself and on its history, also by re-working classical themes and compositions. This reflection on the history of art is also present in the practice of artists who work with different media. When I started my personal research—the one I am working on now—I ignored this concept. Now I’m conscious that my work fits very well in the contemporary cultural context. I hope that my work can be appreciated at different levels and in a formal way, not only by people working in the field. The only aspect of my work that people always criticize–especially my relatives–is that my canvases are a bit gloomy. [Laughs]
Rail: Are you thinking about new projects?
De Vivi: I’m working with the gallery at the moment. I’m also starting to think that I could move abroad in the future. But I don’t want to choose randomly, I would like to apply for an artistic residency sometime soon.
Rail: Is there a place that inspire you more than others?
De Vivi: North-Europe, it could be Holland, Belgium or England...
Rail: Yes, you told us before that your canvases come from Holland, so this could be your starting point.
De Vivi: Yes, I would like to go there! Actually, I just applied for residency in Norway… I didn't win it, but that place is very interesting to me!
De Vivi: So, this is my plan for the future. It is still not so clear… I have just an idea.
Rail: Do you think that your approach towards painting will change in a different context?
De Vivi: I don’t know, partly it probably will, I mean, the environment you are in always influences you in some kind of way.
Rail: Talking about different contexts, do you see any difference between the Italian contemporary art environment and the other ones abroad?
De Vivi: To be honest I think that painting is more appreciated abroad than here, in Italy. In Germany, in Belgium, and in Holland but also in the United States painting and its history are on trend (Jan Van Imschoot, Michael Borremans Jill Mulleady, John Currin). In Romania there is a very popular painting school too (Ciprian Muresan, Teodora Axente, Victor Mann). So there is a huge tendency to go back to painting in general. Yes, I don’t even feel myself so outré. Some time ago the first question that they would ask me was, “Why do you paint? Why this technique?” Half of the interview would have consisted in justifying myself because I paint. Whereas now, painting is considered as an expressive means on the same level as other mediums.
Rail: I’m going to link up with another previous question: does painting still remain for you the only expressive medium or do you work with other different media such as photography, video or sculpture?
De Vivi: I use almost exclusively painting and drawing but, as you saw in my studio, during the preparatory process I use the collage technique a lot. Sometimes I do take some photographs without any particular artistic intention. At times, when I need it, I pose in front of the phone camera with a self-timer. However the technique that I use more, except for painting and drawing, is collage. I’m thinking of refining it, and maybe giving it its own right as a work of art. I’m still working on that.
Rail: And make it suitable for an exhibition...
De Vivi: Yep. I’m still considering this possibility.
Rail: The same thing that happened with your drawings, in some way.
De Vivi: Yes! Also those drawings were made only for a personal use at the beginning, and then… I don’t know, I’m quite selective about my work, maybe I should expand a bit more the range of things that could be shown. And yes, maybe also sculpture could be interesting for me. I really appreciate wax because with this particular material you can do overlaps and glazes and because it’s a warm material that resembles human skin. I’m interested in it.
Rail: Do you think this can become a parallel project to painting? In the future would you exhibit paintings and works made of wax in the same space?
De Vivi: Well, maybe I could try… maybe I could show little objects next to my paintings in a future exhibition. Of course you never know before trying but, you know, I just have this desire to try it out.
This interview was held in Venice (Italy) and conducted by a group of Production Assistants working at the Brooklyn Rail’s project Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale that Society Has the Capacity to Destroy: Mare Nostrum.
- René Girard, Violence and the Sacred (London-New York: Continuum, 2005), translated by Patrick Gregory, 70
- Georges Bataille, Erotism. Death and Sensuality (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986), translated by Mary Dalwood, 80