A poet of harmony

The great novels are autobiographical so it comes as no surprise that ultimately Costantini's paintings are self-portraits. Flavio (39) — the rebel undaunted who has grappled with the collective irrationality of the society of domination — has always known "for whom the bells toll" and we can see it in every one of his paintings, right from one of the earliest, a silk-screen print from 1955, inspired by an episode in Kafka's America (59).


In the young man standing up to a domineering mother figure (1955) we can recognise the young Costantini, not quite thirty years old. And he is the convict behind the iron bars and disbelieving eyes, kept on a leash like some mastiff by a carabiniere (1958); and the innocent victim before a series of military firing squads (1959). In the Tauromachie (1) (2) (3) (Bullfighting) series (1959-61) his is the face we see on the matador, just as he is the one gazing with indifference at a fate that he holds to be inevitable — whilst stricken with death. And he is also the hunted, shot, garrotted, decapitated anarchist, the anarchist prostrate upon his restraining bed, the ones that occupied his paintings for over fifteen years: and his is the gaze that lights up the face of the poets, writers, composers, philosophers and scientists whom his art has restored to us.


Let's examine that gaze: it is never light-hearted, serene or ironic, much less scornful, insolent or angry. His eyes are more often soft and saddened, frank and innocent, startled and bewildered, or severe and intrigued, probing and restless; motionless, disconcerted and vulnerable; embittered and haughty, enigmatic and intense; weary, knowing, solemn, proud and glittering with the tears fought back.


In short, they are the eyes of a witness-participant, the eyes of a hopeless traveller perfectly well aware that he lives in a topsy-turvy world in thrall to absurdity, the end-time of a phase of history. Which may well also explain the obsessive urge to dwell forever, with irrepressible concentration upon the tiniest details, on some chapters from our history which have come to be emblematic of the human condition on the threshold of a new millennium.


In order to convey these moments in a manner loyal to the historical and emotional realities, Costantini, in every instance, submits to a sort of "total immersion" as he tries to step inside his hero, investigating every aspect of his private and social life and tries to relive the same period of history and explore its nuances.


Driven by a compelling need for detail, Costantini spent months at the Central State Archives in Rome and at the Bibliotheque National in Paris, researching the "subversives" who were to become the protagonists of their own unique dramatic acts. The example of his professional historian brother may have encouraged him to frequent those forbidding places which painters rarely visit.


Before turning to art, Costantini had earned his deep sea master's ticket and up until 1955 had sailed the seas, mainly with the military navy and later with the merchant marine. His career choice fitted in with his boyhood inclinations when his heroes had been the great explorers. Today we can see his reading of them mirrored in his paintings.


In his adolescent days these explorers went under the names of Kipling, Salgari, Verne and Poe. With them he travelled in space and time and fantasy. Later, Kafka took him along on a dizzying journey inside himself. And with the novels of those other two great connoisseurs of memory, Conrad — another ship's captain — and Stevenson, Costantini discovered the dramatic side to the idyllic terrain he had roamed as a boy.


The care with detail which is a feature of Flavio's work arises from his determination to get a fix on certain moments from our past and, to some extent, derives also from his boyhood reading. The writers he loves are equally diligent in employing actual or invented detail to flesh out the emotions and sensations they would have us relive.


Having set aside his sailor's uniform, Costantini, in his early work as an artist worked in twoyear bursts. The whole thing began very fortuitously in 1955. While on leave in Portofino he came across an acquaintance who saw something extraordinary in his austere and determined behaviour and persuaded him to work on some designs for a textile printworks he meant to open up in Santa Margherita.


A penchant for writing — rather than drawing — has always been prevalent in Flavio. His ideal model is Kafka (49), but, determined not to become an imitator, he decided to recreate the spirit of Kafka by means of "Kafka-like" drawing. His days were spent designing textiles but by night he read and for the two years 1955 and 1956 he created about a hundred drawings inspired by passages from America, The Trial, The Castle, etc.


Illustration — if we must call it such, although the term is somewhat inadequate — is never a faithful mirror held up to the text. The image has a life of its own and turns into a parallel work — preserving the spirit rather than the letter of the original — only to become an extension and a different echo of it in our heads. His approach calls to mind his wide reading in Nordic expressionism, his lines are lean and austere and the play of whites against blacks is extremely finely tuned. All of it conspires to create an unsettling atmosphere. His human figures are a deathly white and resemble ghosts. The uninked areas have the same dramatic strength as the Dürer engravings that Costantini stumbled upon in his father's library and by which he was deeply affected.


His drawings are populated by memories from the illustrated books he read years back and which we can find in his splendid library which is a real Aladdin's cave, rich in old editions with original engravings:collections of the earliest illustrated papers that delighted out great-grandparents; priceless first editions of Collodi; works by Jules Verne with illustrations by H. Meyer; by Salgari, illustrated by Gamba, Della Valle and Gennaro Amato; by Gustave Doré's plates for The Divine Comedy, mid-way between the fantastic and the surrealistic; or Il Cuore, the pictures in which (works by A. Ferraguti, E. Nardi and A.G. Sartorio) greatly disturb him: "The figures all look as if they have stepped out of Cottolengo". Flavio tells me: by Adolfo d'Ennery, whose serial novel Martire!, published in 1888 with engravings by E. Ronjat provided Max Ernst with such a rich vein for so many of his collages.


Costantini was to tell me: "Those plates are the unsettling memory of the colourless, black and white 'parallel' world in shades of grey fading into immaculate white of Meyer's engravings for Verne's Un capitano di quindici anni. "In this context, there is significance also in the popular-educational vignettes of a 19th century review by the name of Natura e Arte, of which Flavio was made a present at the age of five or six.


I have dwelt upon these visual stimuli from his adolescent years because the sense of space that characterises the plates I cited has largely shaped the singular perspectival relations between each element in Costantini's compositions. Although the scene depicted may be realistic, it seems to exist in a fantastic world suspended in dream.


For some years Costantini reckoned that he could not get a handle on the world of colours. The courage to tackle this fresh venture came to him from his admiration of Mondrian, the first abstract painter to hold his interest and in whom his interest has never abated. The influence of the pioneer of abstractionism can still be seen in his treatment of colours. Costantini's preference is for pure tones, harmonies governed by softening of hues, where each colour retains its integrity before melting into the next. Starting with the addition of the odd touch of colour to his illustrations, he moved from draughtsmanship very gradually into the subdued colours of the tempera which became his favoured technique after 1957 (with a short oil painting interval from 1959 to 1961).


Which brings us to his first tempera works: from 1957 to 1957 he dabbled in portraying the face of violence and oppression; we are presented with carabinieri dragging along clear-eyed convicts; on to the scene come soldiers mowing down defenceless men; we see a pope upon his bier turned into a repugnant mummy surrounded by the representatives of authority.


Almost as if to exorcise the irrational world of the tyrant, he embarked upon his Tauromachie (1) (2) (3) (Bullfighting) series (1959-1961) in which brain triumphs over brute force. And these were his first large format works and done in oils, to boot. Here the black bull — a metaphor for unthinking violence — is done to death by the torero, the executioner in whom we recognise the fore-runner of the anarchist avenger.


The trigger that supplied the leitmotif for this particular stage was a run-of-the-mill event: a stay in Barcelona, during which Costantini attended a corrida. He was left captivated by the spectacle and seized upon the aforementioned aspect which is rarely brought out by the traditional iconography.


Before turning his attention to the personage who embodies repudiation of the principle of authority, Costantini spent two years (1962-1963) concentrating mainly upon episodes from working class life and incidents from peasant history. The opportunity for this came in the form of a commission for a work inspired by the world of work. He painted Terni (1962) — the foundry resembles Dante's inferno — which was exhibited at the Italian Industrial Exhibition in the Sokolniki Palace in Moscow. Among the other fourteen artists chosen to represent Italian art there we can remember Attardi, Bacci, Capogrossi, Gentilini, Perilli, Scanavino, Vedova and Vespignani. The soviet critics stayed away: Khrushchev refused to attend the exhibition, arguing that he had no "time to waste on degenerate bourgeois art".


On the occasion of the Sokolniki Palace exhibition, Costantini who was at that time a communist sympathiser, spent a few days in Moscow. He came away embittered and disillusioned. His search for an alternative to authoritarian socialism led him to reread Victor Serge's Memoirs of a Revolutionary. Yet again it would be a book that induced him to open a fresh chapter in his life. Perhaps in imitation of the historical precision in Serge's book, the titles of his pictures were to be made up of the dates and places of the incidents they portrayed. Gibellina, 1 January, 1894 (7) in 1963 ushered in a series dedicated to episodes and figures from anarchist history. The date records a popular revolt when a mob of peasants, artisans, women and children attempted to occupy the town hall by way of a protest against taxes and local levies. Troops opened fire on two occasions and killed thirteen people, men and women alike, and wounded thirty.


In the picture, the space is split into two contrasting halves: on the left, underneath the shield of the House of Savoy, there is a squadron of bersaglieri with long rifles and bayonets fixed, closing menacingly on a group of unarmed women and men; the ground is strewn with the corpses of fatalities among the demonstrators. In the top right hand corner, symmetrical with the shield of Savoy, flies the red banner of the Fasci del lavoro (Labour Union). The contrast between the two areas, a Manichaean contrast between offence and defence, mirrors the savagery of the institutional authorities and the heart-rending humanity of the rebels. A theme that we can find in all the works of that cycle.


The first picture in the new series tellingly exalts, not the individual act of the anarchist, but rather a spontaneous stirring of tentative collective revolt. That no work in the series eulogises violence is quite revealing also. The individualist anarchist who turns to violence to register his protest is not Costantini's model: behind the terrorist lies the martyr who is the focus of the artist's attention. His desperate act is seen as exemplifying repudiation of an authority turned arbitrary.


In addition to Gibellina.., another typical example here is Barcelona, 13 October, 1909 (13) , which evokes the death before a firing squad of Francisco Ferrer, founder of the Modern School (an educational system that anticipated the most forward-looking modern educational approaches) and guilty of having created a network of upwards of a hundred schools for Catalan youngsters.


Under concerted pressure from the Catholic Church and the big industrialists, the government of Spain's last king, Alfonso XIII had him arrested on trumped-up charges and shot in the Montjuich prison.In Costantini's picture the very cobblestones of the yard are reproduced exactly. The Church's role and that of industry are, however, commemorated by the presence, behind the firing squad, of a lugubrious-looking priest and a top-hatted industrialist with a smug look on his face. As in Gibellina.. the very lines of perspective align with the barrels of the rifles all pointed at the figure of the martyr. The tempera work Chicago, 3 May, 1886 (17) (1968) shows the massacre of strikers (6 killed and 50 wounded) that the May Day holiday commemorates. Here again the treatment of perspective brings out the concentric nature of the repression.


Equally affecting is Vergara, 20 August, 1897 (25) (1971) which records the torment of Michele Angiolillo, slowly garrotted under the complacent gaze of another priest. Similarly heart-rending is Firenze 13 febbraio 1883 (1971) showing Carlo Cafiero prostrate upon a restraining bed in the sinister San Bonifacio asylum. The perspective and dramatic nature of the picture calls irresistibly to mind Mantegna's Dead Christ.


Oranienburg 10 luglio 1934 (1974) records the tragic end of the great anarchist poet Erich Mühsam who was, along with Gustav Landauer, one of the founders of the Bavarian Councils Republic (1919). Arrested by the Nazis in 1934, Mühsam was strangled in the Oranienburg camp.


Almereyda II (29) (1977) too shows someone "suicided" for his anti-militarism during the First World War. Almereyda (his name an anagram of "'y a la merde") was the father of the film director Jean Vigo. If Cafiero's body calls to mind Mantegna's Christ, Almereyda's calls to mind Cimabue's Crucified Christ and the skinny, sad figures of the Tuscan primitives.


In the pictures commemorating the Gibellina riots, the shooting of Ferrer or the massacre of 3 May, we have seen how perspective helps afford greater poignancy to the tragedy of the scene. The lines draw the tangible violence of those in authority towards the central focus of attention: the lifeless bodies of their victims. We move from the empirical to the conceptual with these pictures in which the dynamism of parallel vertical lines (by definition destined never to meet) provides the perspectival solution.


Examining the perspective affords us a key to the hidden meaning of Paris, 5 February, 1894 (1975). As with parallel lines so dignity and freedom can never converge with suffering and fear. The bold figure of Auguste Vaillant who goes to his death shouting "Death to bourgeois society! Long live Anarchy!" is counterposed to the guillotine's vertical structure. The parallels between the two metaphorical situations is hammered home by the second plane of the guillotine, made up of the bars of a gate, leading to a fastening, whereas, corresponding with Vaillant, there is a tall and narrow window representing the journey into the unknown.


In the 1976 work Bertillonage di Ravachol the main lines make up a cross composed not just of the position of Ravachol, subjected to anthropometric registration, but also by the vertical lines intersecting with the fading lines of colour at the foot of the picture. The reference to crucifixion of a new Messiah is self-evident.


Other works in the same cycle contrast the selflessness and courage of the rebels with the dull-wittedness and savagery of the authorities. See for instance Paris, 28 March, 1892 (14) (1963), the arrest of Ravachol: or Nogent-sur-Marne, 15 May, 1912 (16) (1965) which tells of the hopeless resistance put up by Garnier and Valet:for nine hours they held off attacks from hundreds of gendarmes, fire-fighters, Zouaves and Gardes républicaines. Or even Paris, 21 April, 1913 (1965) wherein we look on at the execution of three young Bonnot Gang (26) members, Soudy, Callemin and Monier. The first, standing before the guillotine announced: "I am shivering, but from the cold", whereas the second grinned and exclaimed: "Splendid sight, the death of a man, ehat?" And the last of them stated: "Farewell to you all, gentlemen, and to society too!"


The work that brought this cycle to a conclusion, Casa Ipat'ev (53) (1979) is Costantini's fare well to the ideology of violence which, although it was a facet of anarchist activity, was nevertheless alien to the spirit and letter of that philosophy of life. The last episode shows us the bullet-riddled wall in the room where the Tsar and his family were murdered. Violence is always deserving of condemnation, especially should it emanate from the left, seems to be Costantini's admonition. He confided in me that with this picture he brought down the curtain on the series on the anarchists because he could no longer distinguish between victim and butcher.


Costantini's breaking free from his moorings is reflected in the cycle dealing with the sinking of the Titanic (31) (32) (33) (34) (35) (36) (37) (1982-1984) where the sinking of the great transatlantic liner serves as an allegory for the foundering of our civilisation. The series of portraits of poets, writers and philosophers — a series begun once he had closed the book on anarchy - in 1980 and which continues still, serves as the transition between the two.


Having turned his back on the apostle of defensive violence, Costantini has sought his heroes among the promoters of a peaceable revolution in sensibilities and consciousness. Among the individuals selected by way of ideal models for a multi-personality modern Prometheus we find space travellers, travellers in the imagination like Salgari, Conrad and Stevenson, travellers in memory like Kafka (49), Poe and Nietzsche and the poets who have captured his imagination, poets like Apollinaire, Baudelaire (43), Rimbaud (46), Eliot (40) and Emily Dickinson, or explorers like Freud and Jung - his guides on his travels inside himself.


In esoteric tradition, especially in the East, the heart is seen as the organ of intuitive understanding and the seat of the rational mind. Costantini's composes his pictures with heartfelt understanding — with, as Nietzsche puts it, the great intellect of the body. Delicately and with discretion, Flavio affords us only a glimpse of his models' mundus imaginalis. In this world the rational defers to the utopian - a possibility because it is willed and expected by the collective imagination. The picture moves us and engages us because it invites us into the innermost part of its creator, revealing his idiosyncrasies - which are like our own - and reposing Heraclitus's emphatic motto: "The voice of truth is the common property of all minds."


Up until 1982, in Costantini's works man and his environment had an equal share in our attention. In the Titanic series, man's handiwork too vanishes from the scene. The subject matter of the picture is still and solely the environment: the ship, the natural setting of sky, sea and iceberg. The utter absence of a human presence in all of these pictures which narrate the time sequence of the sinking of the transatlantic liner seems to hint at the absence of any logical justification for the tragedy.


Here again the invention of perspectival solutions and the precision in the details are crucial in constructing a climate of frozen catastrophe. Look, for example, at the bold composition of the tempera work entitled Titanic II (33) (1983): the stern points skywards: the propellers are clear of the water, the bow already hidden from view. The four funnels — a surprising, unsettling device resurrecting the theme of parallel lines destined never to meet - are abnormally perpendicular against the seascape and tight up against one another, almost as if to simulate the elements of a mysterious machine whose function is to drive the wretched vessel to the bottom.


The loss of the great liner — a transparent metaphor for the collective fate of our own civilisation — affords a glimpse of an individual human career shared by the generations catapulted into the political scene of the past forty years when they have witnessed the collapse, one after the other, of their myths and illusions and the betrayal of their every hope.


If we want to turn back to the etymology of the word anarchy — a meaning that coincides with its philosophical and political contents — we find that anarchy (from an-archos) means rejection of hierarchy and therefore speaks to the aspiration to a higher order in the shape of harmony, together with determined movement towards a different relationship with the world, to wit, love. Anarchy is therefore synonymous with harmony and love.


Every one of us carries anarchy within us because we all yearn for love and harmony. But enlightenment is not commonplace and somebody — I would rather not recall his name — has said that the truth is the hardest thing of all to get folk to accept. Sometimes a being appears among us who is possessed by the passion and compassion of the prophet, who manages to display with exasperated clarity the tragic weakness of a man in being incapable of altering the course of history.


Flavio Costantini is such a one. Look at any of his works and you will discover the rhythm of colour and structure made love and therefore identification with his subject. There is never an arbitrary detail nor a superfluous tone to be seen. His approach is rigorously economical and stone-like in its concreteness. Coquetry and "fine art" cannot make any headway because all there is this clinging to and involvement with a harsh, implacable frozen reality which love alone can successfully transform into a work in which harmony prevails at last. As Heraclitus reminded us: "The unseen harmony is mightier than the visible." It is this very undetectable quality made up of heartfelt involvement and utter mastery of medium of expression which affords Flavio Costantini's unmistakable work its poignant aesthetic value.