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.
An Artist at the Edge of a Lake and in the Heart of a Jungle
By Michele Fazioli
Michele Fazioli: So why animals? And more importantly, why animals absolutely and exclusively, and especially why wild animals, ferocious or docile, immobile or captured in mid-leap?
Susanna De Angelis: Because they rouse my passions much more than any other subject: they convey beauty, perfection, energy. And also because I wanted to maintain a guiding thread in this first phase of my work. However, I am already planning a series of works that will represent a shift from animals to human beings: looks, combinations, superimpositions. I’m not completely sure yet, but this “feeling” will soon take form. It will be a “Creatures 2”.
MF : From animals to people, thus almost an evolutionary path, perhaps an unconscious Darwinian trail leading from primordial instinctivity to the ineffable spectacle of humanity… Or am I going too far?
SDA: It doesn’t seem like an overblown statement to me; quite the contrary, I share your interpretation.
MF : But let’s get back to the complex of previous works and of your current works, those exhibited and presented in the catalogue, in short, to this first and (as I seem to understand) non conclusive phase in your creative output: the instinctive animal creature, the powerful, beautiful, fierce or docile, but nonhuman, living being. A desire to know, to pass beyond a threshold of the mystery of nature?
SDA: The choice to portray these creatures, which are among the most majestic and fascinating on our planet, certainly does grow out of a desire to get beyond—at least in my imagination— the wall of mystery and inaccessibility standing between them and me. As I paint them, both during the prep work and in the actual painting, I am a hair’s breadth away from them, and it is up to me to best render their beauty, their expressive power.
MF : Stripes, spots, sinuous forms, crouching leaps, which emit almost a sort of magic, right?
SDA: Yes, that’s the way it is for all my creatures, and not just for the most beautiful and elegant ones. I still cherish the memory of some hyenas illuminated by the rosy light of dawn, immersed in the sacrality of total silence, nursing their young. The magic of that image has been food for my soul.
MF : Mysterious instinct of animality as another world, as the sensuality of nature?
SDA: Yes, there is great sensuality in nature: you see it, feel it, experience it. I am not just thinking of the sensuality of a slinking cat or a soaring eagle, for example, but I think there is also a great deal of sensuality in a sunset or sunrise. It is the magic of Creation that holds within it peace, silence and mystery. Nature is so sensual that it may bring humans to a state of satori, a shiver of connection with the All that may last a few seconds or many minutes. It is an extremely rare sensation which, in a moment of absolute calm and openness, may almost suddenly open you to something unknown, or perhaps forgotten, but something to which one knows one belongs.
MF : Splendid and unapproachable creatures, admiration and perhaps even desire for diversity…
SDA: Yes, it’s true, regarding animals in general I state in one of my writings, “Creatures”, published in the catalogue, that they are what I would like to be but have yet to be… And then I explain why. So, I am not far from Jung’s concept when he speaks about the mysterious primordial enclosed within us.
MF : Instinctive or deliberate hyperrealism? Detailed, obsessively exact realism…
SDA: I try to avoid uncertainty of line; I love precision and thus think that mine is an instinctive realism. I am very careful, however, both in my work and in my life, about not slipping into perfectionism because I think it’s something that it’s better to steer clear of. That’s where I might see an obsessive realism. This is why, when I realize I am indulging excessively in precision of detail, I am reminded of Dalì’s quip when he said that we must have no fear of perfection because we’ll never reach it.
MF : So what about this vocation at a mature age? Desired, sought after, coincidental, astounding?
SDA: I think there’s a design, or a life scroll—as I think of it—for each of us. There are those who discover their aptitudes, their vocations, very early in life, those who discover them later, and others who never do, for a multitude of apparent reasons. In effect, I was amazed at the discovery of this unsuspected passion and at the determination that has stayed with me in these six years of exhilarating work.
MF : You began seriously painting in 2006, a year of intense, and also painful events, such as the sudden death of your mother. Do you think that a greater sensitivity and a strong emotional tension may in some way have rousted something pre-existing in you that had lain dormant? I mean, your talent didn’t get invented on the spot, and so you had, without knowing it, the thread of a vocation, which was finally unleashed by external events.
SDA: I began painting in late 2005-early 2006. My mother left us in December 2006. She was able to see my earliest paintings, which naturally came into being and took form with the slowness that derives from all the difficulties encountered by an autodidact such as myself. Certainly that very painful moment gave me a strong determination to continue, or better, to take refuge in something I originally considered to be just a “game that I was good at”. I think you are right: perhaps I was not aware that the thread of that vocation had always been in me. I remember, in my first six years of life, those happy days spent drawing and colouring in the company of a serene mother who was in love with me, and I with her.
MF : In the past decade you have engaged in a long process of tasting beauty (music, art, travels) but also of delving into existential issues, a reconnaissance of the subconscious and mystery. Encountering chiropractic as a patient (the tell-tale signs of chance: one of your two sons is now a chiropractor, the other has dedicated himself to the thrills and challenges of auto racing…), you have discovered that in and around people there circulate energies that are often unknowable but of which you have no doubts. And this human, and at the same time almost cosmic energy perhaps has had two personal outcomes for you. On the one hand it helped you bring out a creative vocation that had remained silent. On the other, it brought you to subjects which in turn were full of vital energy and natural mystery. Do you feel— when you’re at it, when you’re working— some trace of that source of energy?
SDA: Yes, I feel it flowing right from the beginning, that is, when I sketch the animal in with a pencil. Obviously the feeling is stronger as the image takes concrete form under my hand, as I define my creature with the brush. There is an exchange between us: she transmits an energy full of power, fierceness and perfection, while I, ideally, penetrate into her and it is as if I were painting myself.
MF : So, in early 2006, you pick up the pain, the signs, the perceptions of energy, the discontent of an unfulfilled desire for creativity and begin to paint. We might think of it as a sort of escape from the real, sublimed, in part, in art.
SDA: I wouldn’t speak of an escape, quite the opposite, I would speak of a desire for a greater understanding of and connection with the world, the animal world, which could be a source of enrichment for us. We have, or can access, Consciousness; they can’t. However, we can learn or rediscover much of value from them, but not vice versa. One example among many might be that of learning to perceive the “lion’s roar” at a great distance… Some of us are not capable, some end up in situations where, if they get out, they find themselves perhaps disillusioned, humiliated, defeated. And there are many other teachings we could learn: collaboration, for example. The call of a bird warning the other animals of the presence of a predator is something that could inspire us to show more solidarity in the face of difficulties or dangers. There are many possible examples.
MF : Your places of the soul?
SDA: My house is the place of my soul. But if it weren’t the house I live in now, of which I am exceedingly fond, it would be another, or yet another. My home is where I choose to stay and the place where I choose to stay is the place where my soul finds wellbeing. Then again, more generally, nature is the place par excellence where the soul finds wellbeing and can expand.
MF : Painting is also labour, painstaking effort, rigor, daily discipline.
SDA: Yes, but like other work, it is well rewarded if you achieve a satisfying result. I began painting with an instinctive (hyper)realism because I thought that that was the only way that I would have discovered what I was capable of doing. I didn’t go to art school or take art courses. I started with oil paint, which is still my main medium, and my earliest paintings gave me the courage to continue. I never liked doing preliminary “sketches”, even though, in certain cases, doing so would definitely have made my life easier. The process bored me then as it does now, and so I continue to go straight to the canvas with enthusiasm and a good dose of brashness. I am increasingly fond of giving my subjects a photographic style, one that is particular and non-clichéd. I didn’t think that photography would have affected my work so much, but everything grew out of this passion that my husband has. He shares with me a taste, not so much for a beautiful shot, as for the quest for a particular subject, of the stolen shot, of an intense and usual gaze. When I find a subject that I feel is right for a painting, perhaps in a somewhat particular, whimsical position: for example, the zebras in a line shot from behind, or the leopard captured as it scratches itself, jumps over a big tree trunk and goes off. So right there, I begin my painting with such an enthusiasm that I end up working seven or eight hours a day, and then, maybe even at night, while dreaming, I work a little more!
MF : Hyperrealism also means attention to each and every detail, even the minimum twitch of banal things or beings.
SDA: Even some little banality could be a great subject both to photograph and paint. The choice isn’t difficult, but the search is; it takes up an incredible amount of time. As far as my (hyper)realism is concerned, I am, in any case, leagues away from the American art movement at the end of the Sixties led by Richard Estes, a seventy-five-year-old from Illinois. With overblown exactitude, he reproduced images on the canvas captured with the help of a camera. Hyperrealism, or better, photo-realism of glinting shop windows, subway stations, or entire avenues with flashing cars against a background of blue skies and lily white clouds. I am thrilled when people ask for explanations of my technique. Yes, because the “creature”— that is, the animal—is one, but the techniques I have invented are many and different both because of my desire to experiment, and also because each creature has a different “skin”—and how! A tiger’s coat is totally different from that of a leopard, the cheetah’s is more ruffled than the leopard’s, not to mention the fur of a gorilla, the smooth fur of a zebra, the bristles on a pig or the roughness of an elephant. I had a lot of fun coming up with a technique, using acrylics, that I consider to be a bit particular, based on using exclusively black, while the white that remains is the result of keeping the canvas itself in view. Hence with my acrylic technique, those “famous” whiskers—which forced me to hold my breath when painting them in oil so as not to make a mistake—are the result of a black outline. It requires great care and precision because there is no margin for error, the only other possibility being to deviate the whisker in another direction! You can’t correct using white on black on an untreated white canvas. The eyes are the last thing I paint. I worked for more than two months on the gorilla, often asking myself “and if the eyes turn out ugly, what am I going to do? Throw it out?” It’s a bit of a self-challenge. I had never done such a demanding animal before the gorilla, and thinking of working so long—knowing all the while that the beauty and success of the painting would have been based 90% on the look in his eyes—was a torment for me, but it gave me the shot of adrenaline I needed to go onward with determination and courage.
MF : The techniques. Oil, acrylic, different techniques. Technique is an instrument and instruments too can change. Have you reached a sort of technical “maturity” now?
SDA: I love both oil paint and acrylic, even if, in any case, I prefer oil since it allows nuances and a softness that cannot be matched with acrylic alone. I think one can only think of having achieved a technical maturity if one feels rewarded by one’s discoveries and achieved objectives. I have a lot to learn, to explore, and to discover. Artistically speaking I’m still a babe!! Discovering new techniques is a bit like discovering a new world. One gets impassioned, one sorts through them, sifts through them to an extreme, only to abandon them for something still newer, something that gives “more uncontaminated energies”, that is, other techniques that are still totally to be explored and in which you can get newly and fully involved. All this passion is also effort, discipline, commitment.
MF : If you think of your childhood, do you see any premonitory signs of your future vocation as a painter? I don’t mean so much a talent for drawing but also, and especially, an instinct, an inclination toward a creative language and for a creativity oriented to the wild world, to mystery.
SDA: No, sincerely, I don’t glimpse in my childhood any signs of creativity oriented to the wild or to mystery. I do remember a little girl who, among her many stuffed-animal friends, was in love with an “enormous” sixty- centimetre tiger that was the object of many of her fantasies, her sense of mystery, carried off by the enchantment that wild animal worked upon her. I still have that tiger.
MF : Pavese said that everything gets played out somehow in the intense years of childhood and pre-adolescence, and that then everything we do later in life is a mysterious summons back to those decisive experiences. Do you agree, a bit?
SDA: I fully agree with what Cesare Pavese said. The years of childhood and pre-adolescence are extremely important years in the development of a child. Those years determine one’s psychic equilibrium and stability. As I said, those years spent happily with my mother and father were fundamental for me because they allowed me to face the difficulties that I encountered later in life with stability, balance, and a good dose of “fullness”, “richness”, that I felt within me and that I surely got from that fortunate imprinting that conditioned my soul and my mind. It is a personal baggage which, if one is lucky enough to have it, no one can ever take away from you. Every child should have his own… That’s why I believe that safeguarding childhood should be a priority item on the political agenda of every country on earth.
MF : If you look ahead, you certainly see new phases and, as you said earlier, also a shift in dedication to the human figure. What paintings do you imagine, what worlds do you intend to explore? But, above all, will you always feel nostalgia and attraction for your animals with whom you experienced your creative conversion?
SDA: I am planning, as I said, a “Creatures 2”. I will probably shift to human subjects or I will create a link between animals and the conscious creatures. I strongly feel the presence of a Creation around me: somehow I have to contact it… The methods will be my own, my usual ones: respect, love, humour, photographic style. I will never lose the love I feel for animals, so I don’t want to talk about nostalgia, partially because in some hidden corner of my future paintings there will be a place for them, probably, always.