Arturo Di Stefano

For me, although not for him, Arturo Di Stefano has been a painter-in-waiting ever since I came across his work for the first time, at his 1994 Purdy Hicks show. A verbal response has been a long time coming. Paintings, all works of art, are very patient. On the one hand, that is their job, and a necessary condition of their survival. On the other hand, they would suffer a nervous breakdown if they hung around on the off-chance that the pulses, bones and marrow of a poet who loves painting and music precisely because they are not verbal, would send the necessary signals to the mind’s eye whence come the words. Yes, pulses, bones and marrow are the ante-chambers of the word. The reasons for my delay are unimportant, even to me. But now I sense the day has come:

I want to know and share with Arturo what grabs me in his work. The painterly skill, the architectonic ability, the expressive power, are right there “in your face”. They could be described and perhaps even explained. But what most interests me — a poet and writer not an art critic — in his work is that the story which is the driving force of his art, generated from emotion and intellection, makes its presence felt off stage, a presence which is an absence. The implosive energy remains: the energy of the unseen destiny of anonymous persons. There is a dignity to this deliberate “backstaging” of what, in some pictures, I read as suffering, sometimes associated with cruelty. I am not reading the process of backstaging into the paintings. I am reading it out of them. Arturo is not repressing his feelings or his thoughts. On the contrary, he is a man of great feeling and powerful intellect who deploys what painters know better than anyone how to recognise, explore and convey – surface structures of the phenomenal world as represented by documentary imagination – to tell us something of what is really going on, were we troubled enough to find out, before our very eyes. He, like William Burroughs’ paranoiac, is in possession of the facts.

The artist has made a choice. One reason for refusing the option of absorption into an explicit story is to avoid the danger of frisson. I should make clear that it is possible to tell an explicit story and avoid frisson, for example in Paula Rego’s ‘War’ and the ‘Interrogator’s Garden’. But that is not Arturo’s way. He too directs the viewer but he trusts us in a different way – by proposing that we enter into the spirit, into the human province of the work, by generating our own story, a peopled landscape. Representation is always metamorphosis. ‘Adit’ and ‘Aditum’, to me, hint at a scary story, a back story, perhaps a cruelty being perpetrated on an innocent. Frisson is disabled.

Even without the issue of frisson, Arturo’s non figurative paintings are always suggestive of human presence and he has his reasons: thus the ‘Chapel in Greenwich’ proposes spirituality as it rises towards and at the same time draws on a distant light which creates reflection, in both senses. His ‘Santo Spirito’ in Florence speaks of utter holiness, protected by a plain wall. The cloisters at ‘Santa Croce’ cannot by any stretch of the imagination be said to be realistic, still less naturalistic. In the best sense the picture has designs upon us, indeed is a design upon us. The image is haunted not only by monks who are somewhere else today, at prayer or doing charitable work, but also by generations of monks who walked there. This painting, like many others by Arturo, is a homage to a lost world of the Italian ancestors of the Huddersfield-born artist. Sancta simplicitas is not possible for Arturo, but he respects and loves it, and he reminds us of Morandi, surely one of his exemplars.

Di Stefano is a remembrancer, very knowing, very modern. He directs us away from nostalgia and sentimentality by not drawing (our attention to) human beings, but requiring our inner eye to paint the persons living in that great cathedral which is the collective unconscious, the dead persons he wishes to honour, just as he honours us by requiring our collaboration. Arturo’s ‘Arcades’ are cloisters under another name. I see Morandi’s sisters quietly walking along, while, a few miles away, their brother proleptically announces Arturo Di Stefano. In Arturo’s ‘Coram’s Fields’, the foundlings survive, ever lost to the parents, ever remembered.

‘The Ritz’ in London has not been seen, let alone represented, in this way before. The painter is not denying the man who hands out the Evening Standard there, let alone the billionaire entering the hotel. On the contrary, they are raised, in absentia, to their common humanity, equal in the eyes of the God who intoxicates Arturo (as he did Spinoza), even if God’s presence is equated with or associated with the collective unconscious or group memory. This painting, like all true paintings, is what Merleau-Ponty in a famous essay calls a “coherent deformation”.

London, June 2014

PS September 29, 2014: I visited Arturo’s London gallery to see new and recent pictures. I do not feel any need to revise what I have already written, but would like to add a word about his picture ‘Painting in Raking Light’. I looked at the two embracing figures contained in a classic Di Stefano framework and said: “Kitaj”. Arturo replied: “Giotto, Joachim and Anna”. Yes, Arturo’s picture consciously references Giotto, but I was not wrong: he has also introjected Kitaj, who painted works after Giotto and knew ‘Joachim and Anna’ very well. Giotto, Kitaj, Di Stefano: even as they make art out of life, they make art out of art. There is no contradiction: art and life give each other meaning and this is the dialectic of the imagination, which keeps us human.