Some years ago I found myself part of a judges’ panel (for the Bratislava Illustration Biennial) together with the director of France’s leading school for illustrators and in the course of the conversation I happened to mention Flavio Costantini’s name: “You know him then?” — “Sure I do. He’s my best friend!” Whereupon he explained to me that, having stumbled upon one of Flavio’s books (I think it was Ravachol & C., which had also been published in France), he had adopted it as a text book for his students in order to demonstrate the deformation of perspective which remains flat in all its movements: right now, finding myself confined to bed as the result of a fall, I see on the wall opposite a print of the Bonnot Gang (15): there is a motor vehicle which starts off head-on and finishes off in profile; but there is nothing ostentatious about this, for it all looks natural, almost like an oil painting, yet every time that I look at the picture, like many another which I have hanging in my home, I always feel somehow uneasy. In its fixity the scene is a lot more tragic than the fully illustrative works of various Guttosos, Carusos or Vespignanis. Like the streaky seas that look so serene, with that deep blue upon which a tiny iceberg, ship or trans-Atlantic liner feature as attractions on account of their beauty, until we remember that they are the fore-warnings of a tragedy.
In my set designs, often made using collage techniques, I very often use borrowings from Costantini; hardly ever for plays but almost always for bourgeois settings where everything seems so tranquil, but where the audience realises that all is not well, everything is not in place. I used Costantini for Svevo (Confessions of Zeno), for several Feydeau productions where, behind the facade of a solid bourgeoisie there is a whole world of decomposition and where everything seems true but is utterly fake. Recently I had to prepare Ionesco’s The Lesson at the Teatro delle Tosse; I used a very monotonous striped tapestry borrowed from one of Costantini’s pictures and, at the sides, two of his half-opened, half-closed doors and one of his windows in the centre; the thing worked to perfection; a still bourgeois room-scene, unchanged for years, a teacher instructing his pupils; everything looks tranquil and normal in its banality, but at the same time we are aware that there is something unsettling about this monotony and in fact a murder is committed in that room on a daily basis, albeit in the most banal manner, as if everything were naturally predisposed to it.
I believe that there is no painter today as aesthetic and as tragic as
Costantini. His pictures are beautiful, indeed very beautiful, even if
there are bloodstains on the ground, even if the tsar’s children are
hints and shadows of the children doomed to die or already dead, even
if the luxurious staterooms (32) of the Titanic are already awash with
water. What we can say absolutely about Flavio is that he is unique. He
cannot be classed with any contemporary school, being neither a realist
nor a surrealist, must less with the abstract school; his is a world
that he has conjured for himself, starting out by drawing floral motifs
for the garment trade after he realised that the was not cut out for
life at sea (having spent some years as a ship’s officer) and no doubt
the sea has played and plays still a great role in his paintings. Later
he became intrigued by the world of Kafka and later by the world of the
bullfight (1) (2) (3) , at which point he was already beginning to
display the as yet embryonic style that was to develop more fully in
his later works.
Then, losing all illusions about Stalinism on a trip to the Soviet Union, he threw himself into the world of the anarchists, but even they disappointed him; then came the series on the sinking of the Titanic (33); the end of a world that thought itself secure in its opulence; and then the demise of the tsar, a mere shadow of a world that no longer exists, a world upon which he passes no judgement. Beautiful or brutal, one thing is for sure. It is gone.