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A Conversation with Susanna De Angelis Gardel
By Eduardo Grottanelli De’ Santi

In common parlance an autodidact refers to someone who embarks on a particular subject without having undertaken any formal study or training in it. If the self-taught person then “dares” to engage in a range of disciplines, this only reinforces the opinion that he or she is a dilettante, even if a good one, but not a serious or competent professional.

Nothing could be further from the truth when the person in question is Susanna De Angelis Gardel, who does not appreciate being identified by ready-made labels such as painter or sculptor (and probably others too in the coming years), but prefers instead to explain her approach to art as a point of arrival, or rather the natural outlet for an inner search begun long ago with great seriousness to satisfy the deepest, and at the same time most inquisitive part of her personality, namely the part that has always been thirsty for knowledge.

“I’ve learned techniques that have made me realize, even if only to a very limited degree, what we really are, which is very different from what we often believe ourselves to be. I was reassured by the fact that all of them, albeit each in a different way, ultimately confirmed to me the greatness of our being. While practising one of these techniques, I ‘saw’ myself writing my name with great calm and serenity on every single wall in the house. There was no way I could have imagined that within a few years this vision would materialize in the form of paintings I had made and signed.”

A universal language of art exists that takes shape and becomes visible through artistic and spiritual enquiry. This language links past, present and future through a sentiment inherent in all people from every time and place. Art is an essential form of research, it pertains to humankind in general, but at the same time maintains its individual dimension as an investigation about ourselves and the world, developed through the expression of the artist’s interiority, free from any constraint, obligation or duty.

“As I’ve worked, I’ve come to realize that my projects tend to have a content that concerns me personally but is also universal. This is not a matter of choice but rather a necessity, because when I’m working on a theme and consolidating its values inside me, I seem to share them with other people as well. If later on someone looks at a painting or sculpture of mine and gives it their own personal interpretation, for me that’s just an added value.”

Art is often considered a sphere too noble and elitist to be the patrimony of “common” people, but this is not the way Susanna De Angelis sees it. Art often has the capacity to make people slow down the flow of their actions and passions, and even if only for an instant, put their inner life on hold so that they can look at it. In this more contemplative state that art offers us, we feel more aware and in harmony with one another, more willing to stop and try to grasp as much as we can of the true meaning of our existence.

“Art is inside each one of us without exception and it can’t be defined, just as the soul can’t be defined. I believe that the soul expresses itself on different levels depending on its maturity and the art it potentially contains. Everything is inside us: painting, sculpture, architecture, music are closely related forms of artistic expression because they are the fruit of an innate creativity, and through them the artist transmits emotions that often resonate with viewers and involve them.”

Indeed, well before starting to paint, Susanna De Angelis was already aware that art in all its manifestations is the highest human expression of creativity and probably one of the most sacred moments that enables human beings to externalize their inner lives. Thus art becomes a language for communicating with others. The philosopher Maritain stated that “art … is the most natural agent of spiritualisation that the human community needs”.

This new challenge in the world of art, first through painting and then sculpture, corresponds with another particular aspect of Susanna De Angelis’ character, namely the seriousness, thoroughness and rigour she applies to every commitment in life (a family, a husband, two children) as well as her artistic career.

Art critics have recognized her extensive technical preparation, once again acquired as a result of her extraordinary commitment and personal talent. “I created my techniques by experimenting with as many materials as possible: canvases, colours and brushes, and then by trying things out, asking lots of questions at fine arts shops, making drawings, sketches, etc. Experimentation takes a lot of time but is the basis of good work. I immediately loved the smoothness of oil painting, which I’ve adopted for almost all my work.”

Travel, animals, faces, people and moments of real life have become over time part of her artistic practice. “I began with figurative painting because I had lots of photographic material to inspire me, or perhaps it’s better to say to challenge me. I made many trips, so I had many ideas and also I loved photography very much. I chose to test myself by portraying the large animals of the savannah: lions, leopards, cheetahs, zebras, giraffes and wildebeests; and later gorillas, tigers and many others too. After this mal d’Afrique, which found expression in the project entitled Creatures, I wanted to discover new techniques and paint human figures. I no longer worked on white canvas but on the back of it. I named this new project Creatures 2. The subjects were inspired by people I met on the street, like the old Guatemalan or the Indian beggar sitting on the ground or the little girl from Honduras with her basket, or again the little half-naked Chinese boy from Yunnan, eating alone while sitting on the pavement. These people caught my attention and left their mark on me. I don’t know why I wanted to portray all these characters on such large canvases. I’ve asked myself many times but I still don’t have an answer.”

The simple and rigorous rule of life – always joyously applied – to do one’s best and, above all, to do it for oneself, has led De Angelis to the union between a knowledge of materials and manual ability: mind and hand work by reinforcing each other, one teaches the other and vice versa.

Her encounter with sculpture therefore represents the almost natural evolution of a personal journey. ‘I spent more than ten years painting in happy solitude. Evidently that was the state I needed at the time, even though I wasn’t completely aware of it. On the other hand, sculpture overwhelmed me with an enthusiasm that surprised even me. Its three-dimensionality fascinated me from the get-go, and its strength instantly became mine. The pleasure of touching the material and feeling in my hands the power to shape it gave me an extraordinary sensation. My work could finally be expressed in space.

I no longer felt the need to be alone. And so, as though it were merely a decision and not an inner need, I found myself catapulted into a foundry with people I then discovered were wonderful, all very competent in their own specialisation. I believe that there is in us an innate intelligence that guides us, it just needs to be intercepted. That’s how this sculpture project came about, which I’ve called Karékla, una sedia per l’anima (Karékla, a Seat for the Soul). I wanted to use it to represent the whirlwind of thoughts that often stirs our mind and takes it over. Fears, prejudices, stories, hopes… an inner dialogue that very often we’re not even aware of. I’ve portrayed these thoughts, which are forms of energy, with little chairs that chase each other and become tangled up together, creating strange shapes in and outside our mind. Sometimes we wish this mechanism that imprisons us would let up and that our thoughts would calm down, ‘sit down’, leaving room for a feeling of peace. The chair is the object that best evokes the sense of being still, of resting, of ‘being’. I created little chairs with a ‘full’ seat, which to my mind depict thoughts full of energy, and others that have ‘empty’ seats, representing thoughts whose energy has finally dispersed. The figure of the cockerel, on the other hand, is linked to the symbolism of inner rebirth and reawakening.”

Negation, removal, distortion and concealment. In these sculptures the faces appear simply as ancient relics reconstructed by the eyes and mind of whoever is looking at them. And yet they don’t seem to be hiding anything; on the contrary, their minds overwhelmingly communicate all the many forms that inner torment can take: incommunicability and loneliness shuffle around these heads, or sometimes they seem about to explode into different forms, expressing inspiration, creativity and imagination.

The choice of Greek titles for the sculptures and the figures with absolutely abstract faces, without expression, evokes a ‘timelessness’ and a ‘universality’ that make these works extraordinarily participatory in the most profound and intimate human condition.