Elena Pontiggia, Marco Petrus. From Representation to Rhythm
in Marco Petrus Anthology 2003-2017, Marsilio Editori, Venice 2018
in Marco Petrus Anthology 2003-2017, Marsilio Editori, Venice 2018
For some twenty-five years by now, Marco Petrus has been a painter of architecture. He is an artist who has obstinately imposed his art on the theme of buildings. And yet, as can be noted in this show too, architecture does not exhaust everything that Petrus wants to say. Perhaps more than a subject it is a metaphor.
To explain things better, let’s try to see what architecture actually represents in his pictures. Petrus, through a portrayal of the masterpieces by Muzio, Terragni, Varisco or Portaluppi (to mention just a few of those he has touched on and interpreted) has painted not only those buildings, but also the balance or, more frequently, the imbalance in which we are living. He has painted order, constructive ability, and a proactive vocation, but also the towers of Babel that we come across in our life. In his paintings, architecture also becomes something dangerous when, with the end of the 1990s, his buildings began to tilt, to lean obliquely like modern towers of Pisa. Or else his painting becomes something enigmatic and incongruous, as when the fragments of the buildings no longer hold together and things do not add up.
This is not only a formal contrast. His compositions hover between an idea of repose, of stasis, of calm tranquillity and tranquil magnitude and, on the contrary, the idea of restlessness, metastasis, of visual congestion. The totality of his paintings, then, do not only speak of cities, but also of modern life. Which is a collection of works, constructions, of reached objectives, but also of misunderstandings, errors, or absurdities. Of towers of Babel indeed.
Those of us who, in the words of Montale, are “of the race of those who remain on earth”, look at his buildings shown from below and find them, overall, beautiful but also crooked, at times threatening. Some design error must have ruined them if they seem to us so tilted and in a precarious balance. Of course, there is nothing tragic in Petrus’s work. The burnished colours and the full and crystalline light that floods it, at first sight convey a sense of serenity. However, a subtle unease runs beneath his most recent works: the idea of infinite addenda that cannot lead to a total because the total, the final destination, does not exist. If his buildings do not have a reassuring background sky (blue is a colour that can be replaced by red or yellow), his geometries have neither a beginning nor end. The thousand-storey houses and the coloured stairways of his most recent paintings are spaces inhabited by colour, and no longer have a practical, residential function.
De Chirico, a master who Petrus has thought deeply about, advised to “live in the world as though in an immense museum of oddities, full of bizarre, multicoloured toys that change appearance, that at times, like children, we break open to see what they are like inside. And, disillusioned, we realise that they are empty”. Petrus too has broken his buildings, he has broken them down into planes, but differently from the Pictor Optimus, he has not reached the tragic conclusion that they do not make sense. If anything, he has become aware that they are pure music: a harmony and also a dissonance that do not stop resounding in space.
But then Petrus is attracted by architecture, but also by the geometries that it is made up of. And for him geometry means above all solidity and volumetric fullness. He has never, let’s say, thought of painting Milan cathedral with its spires pointing like arrows towards the sky (those spires that Sironi, the master of classical signs, irreverently called “asparagus”). And yet he has always had them under his eyes, since when as a child he and his family moved to Milan. He is not interested in either the Gothic or the Baroque, not so much because his eye is aimed at modernity, at the times belonging to us even if they are not immediately ours, but because he is fascinated by closed forms and volumes rather than lines and arabesques. Not even the Art Nouveau buildings, of which there are many in Milan and Lombardy, appear in his painting and I would bet (though I have no wish to place limits on the artist’s inventio …) that they will never appear.
So for Petrus, then, geometry is also concision. In his houses you will never see a tenant, never a vase of flowers in the window, never a motif or detail unless it is a purely architectonic element. He cares for a composition without pleonasms, one that has the capacity not to disperse itself in narration, and even less in anecdote. However, as we can observe in Sequenze, 2011, his painting of architecture can also mean a crowd of details, a surreal superimposition of diverse buildings that might make us think of certain drawings by Feininger or of certain photomontages by Paul Citroen (Metropolis, 1923).
In fact his geometries can be taken from works of architecture, but they can also escape and become independent in an increasingly overt process that ranges from representation to rhythm, from depiction veined with a metaphysical realism (almost a magical realism, it comes to mind) of his early works, to the pure construction of forms of his current period. In such works as M 21, 2016, or even more in M 9, 2015 and M 19, again from 2016 and on show here, we can see an interweaving of pillars and pilasters that, by now, have become only surfaces.
So is this abstraction or neo-abstraction? An approach to that “cold” language that at the present time seems to be prevalent in the taste in art? It seems to me that the problem should not be approached in these terms. In Petrus’s work there is, rather, an enumerative vocation, a mysterious serialism, a way of composing through architectural steps and musical scales that can be translated into sculptural elements (the series of balconies, windows, of the stories of a building), or else into two-dimensional elements, into rectangular strips. Or into yet other things. So in his work, then, it is necessary to search for the rhythm. A sculptor like Salvatore Cambosu would tell his students, while making them read a page of poetry, “It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand, follow the rhythm”. In the work of Petrus too we must follow the rhythm. Perhaps there is nothing else to understand. There is to be observed a movement of diastoles and systoles, a scansion of forms, a composition that becomes a number (rhythm, etymologically, belongs to the same family as “arithmetic”), but that does not stop glowing in all its colours. Because, when it comes down to it, harmony wins.
BETWEEN BALANCE AND IMBALANCE
There is a continuous transformation in the paintings by Petrus which, however, at times is elusive because the coherence of his themes can be deceptive. That is, it comes about that what is happening to this Milanese artist is what happened (and this is not a comparison, it should be understood, but a hope) to such a master as Morandi. Our idea of him is that he always painted vases and bottles, but in fact his style and language changed over the years, from the metaphysical period to the more sensitive one in the 1930s, and to the tactile period that Arcangeli has compared to lyrical abstraction.
We have the idea that Petrus has always painted buildings. But how has he painted them? A brief digression about his development might help us to understand the differences that exist in his work and that testify to the anxiety behind an art that is incapable of being comfortable with repetitions and formulas.
Let’s start with Notturno, 1993. Petrus was at the time thirty-three years old, but his cursus honorum was as yet relatively brief. Only two years before he had held his first solo show at the Galleria Noa in Milan, with catalogue presentations by such a protagonist of visual poetry as Vincenzo Accame (the author, among other things, of illuminating studies of Jarry) and such a critic as Alessandro Riva who was always to follow Petrus closely. Again in 1993 the artist held his first solo show in a public venue, the Centro San Fedele, and it was reviewed by Riva, once again, and by the historian of art and architecture Rossana Bossaglia, to whom we owe the rediscovery of the Italian Novecento movement (Per un’analisi della fortuna critica di Petrus rimandiamo all’approfondito testo di Roberto Dulio in questo catalogo).
(Incidentally, Marina De Stasio, a sensitive interpreter of the painting of the time, also wrote about him. Her life and work were interrupted all too soon.) The Centro San Fedele has been mentioned here, not so much because it had some strategic relevance in his career, but because it can be considered as a symbol of this point in his development. In fact, in the 1950s this venue, managed by the Jesuits, was the first to host the young artists of the existential realism movement, one of the last movements to paint the life of modern cities and which had some influence on Petrus himself.
But how did the young artist come into contact with the world of painting? His training, as has been noted various times, did not take place in an art college but in his family, because he was the son of the painter Vitale Petrus, born in Kiev, in Ukraine, in 1934 and who died prematurely in Milan at only fifty years old.
From the 1960s/1970s Vitale was an intense interpreter of a figuration with strong visionary accents, which really ought to be better known. The story of the “extremely Milanese” Marco Petrus, moreover, is more complex than might be thought at first sight. His ancestors were from the Friuli area, and in the nineteenth century one of them searched for his fortune in Russia, where he found work in one of the country’s marble quarries. The artist’s grandmother married a Ukrainian, Alessandro Petrus, the father of Vitale, but in 1938, during the terrible period of Stalinist purges, the family returned to Italy and went to live in Udine. Their contacts with Russia were interrupted.
Vitale studied at the Venice academy under Saetti, and in his pictures he took to heart the lesson of Venetian colour. In Venice he met his future wife, Giuliana, who was from Rimini, and this is why Marco – to get back to him – was born there in 1960. Rimini, however, was only a parenthesis. In 1963 the family left Veneto and moved to Sesto San Giovanni, just outside Milan. This period, halfway through the 1960s, was when in the Botteghe area of Sesto there was formed a kind of artists’ district. Studios were opened in the town by such painters and sculptors as Nagasawa, Castellani, Forgioli, Simeti, Barbanti, and many others: a world that was to leave its traces on Marco’s childhood. Finally, in 1965, Vitale and his family moved to Milan and, in 1969, to Via Solferino in time to see the last moments of the vitality of the nearby Bar Jamaica, which in earlier years had been the legendary meeting place of the Milanese artists.
In the meantime Marco studied in a disorderly manner, worked as an apprentice in an art printing house, became interested in photography, undertook a journey to South America, and enrolled in the architectural faculty. With the death of his father in 1984, he opened a printing office which, besides guaranteeing him work, became a meeting place for artists.
But to get back to Notturno. It is a view of Milan, an echo of the walks that Petrus loved to take at night in the deserted and almost metaphysical city which was at last immobile, without cars, without speeding, without anybody. In the painting figures do not appear, and their absence was to remain a distinctive trait of the artist’s painting. How come, we might ask ourselves? To express a sense of solitude? In fact it is not this that interests Petrus, nor, moreover, do feelings in general. His buildings never have psychological, emotive, accents, and even less melancholy ones though, all the same, they are good tempered. It is rather that figures would shatter that alienated, vaguely dreamlike atmosphere of the composition by insinuating into the image a realism that is not a part of the artist’s poetics. And then, from a formal point of view, their presence would fragment the compactness of the design, the barricading of the buildings’ masses.
Furthermore, the application of the paint in Notturno is lighter and more sensitive with respect to the artist’s later work. A clue to what is behind this, besides the “atmospheric” title, is the attention paid to the shadows of the night, to the sky with its skeins of clouds, and to the road surface with its colour changes. The painting has something cursive about it, a less consistent “handwriting”, underlined by the distant point of view and the weak light of the lamps that scan the empty space in the foreground. Echoes of Sironi are mixed with those of Hopper and a certain existential realism.
We find the same style again in another 1993 work, Tram, a yellow vehicle that is reminiscent of the same subject in Sironi’s Paesaggio urbano con tram, to be seen in the Museo del Novecento in Milan. Here too the application of the paint, developed through hatching and shadows, is more immediate with respect to later paintings.
The language was to change in the second half of the decade, as can be seen for example in the city landscapes of Torre Valasca, 1996, or Ca’ Brütta, 1998. Here the composition is no longer a view of Milan, and the artist’s attention lingers over a single building: a significant example (and a quite frequently forgotten one) of twentieth century architecture, almost always of the “Novecento” architecture of which the major protagonist was Muzio.
By now the painting of Petrus was clearly conceptual. In Ca’ Brütta there are no longer any painterly effects, unless those, lightly hinted at, of the traffic indications on the road in the foreground, and the whole work conveys a sense of metaphysical alienation. The viewpoint of the composition, furthermore, is unusual. How many times has Ca’ Brütta been photographed, and how many times have we seen it in books about architecture? Many, but none has ever captured it from that point in Via Turati. This is not by chance: the most typical elements of Muzio’s masterpiece are the Palladian arch (which joins the two bodies of the building) and its simplified orders, in agreement with a synthesis that was also at the heart of the “Novecento” poetics of Sironi and Margherita Sarfatti. Petrus, instead, is not interested in a didactic description of the buildings. What interests him is that extraordinary artistic period, the 1920s, with its sober classical grandeur, but he avoids its most typical elements. The painting came about from the juxtaposition of clearly defined volumes, but avoided its iconic status as a monument. If those volumes, instead of belonging to a building, were only superimposed cubes, for him it would be virtually the same thing.
Of course, since the early 1990s Petrus has been the artist who has been most widely inspired by the historical events of architecture in the twentieth century, above all in the years between the two World Wars, in Milan but also in other places such as Venice, Trieste, Ljubljana, London, Shanghai, New York, Prague, Moscow, Naples and other cities. His real sketches, the preparatory drawings, are the photos that he shoots along the road, finding new angles and framing. In harmony with the great lesson of Gabriele Basilico, he has been an interpreter of those twentieth century works of architecture that were, until a short time ago, hidden or underrated. But then the beauty of a certain kind of architecture from the 1920s and 1930s was rediscovered, not by art historians, but by photographers, film directors, publicists, and graphic designers. And by such painters as Petrus.
Having said all this, it is necessary to say at once that the work by this artist has never been an illustration of architecture but an autonomous formal research, one that has found in these buildings a starting point for telling his own truth. For saying something else.
However, let’s continue to follow his career. In about 1998 Petrus’s paintings again changed their aspect. Let’s look at Casa, 1998. This is a detail of a building in Via Vettor Pisani, Milan, at the crossroads with Via Tunisia, a road that the artist has always loved. “It reminds me of New York for its buildings, each one of which I find more beautiful than any other, from the 1930s onwards. It is the whole combination of the buildings and the road that create a work of art”, he stated in a recent interview (Massimiliano Chiavarone, Milano è la mia palestra: Mi sono allenato per dipingere la sua pelle. L’artista Marco Petrus e il rapporto con la città, “Il Giorno”, 24 May 2015).
In Casa the earlier squareness has been replaced by an oblique composition, while the total reproduction of the architectural body has been replaced by a fragment. This is not a question of a definitive metamorphosis, such as is seen in later works which maintain a dominant vertical (Torre, 2000). However, it is an obvious change that, with its prevalence of the diagonals and the close-range viewpoint, almost makes us forget the subject and transforms it into pure geometry.
The overturning of the point of view derives from that continuous search for new starting points and motifs that, as we have seen, animates the artist’s painting. It therefore derives from a formal need for experimentation. We are forced, though, to take note of the tension and imbalance introduced into the composition. It is not by chance that a work painted shortly after, inspired by a building in Bolzano, has the eloquent title of Soqquadro, “Turned Upside Down”. The buildings loom over us and could crash down onto the street. Houses as a secure refuge have been supplanted by a construction as an extraneous body. A known object has suddenly become indecipherable.
Such works as Soqquadro also ushered in the beginning of the visions from below that accentuate the monumentality of the buildings: not a triumphal and celebratory monumentality but, in the contrary, one filled with alienation, as though it were a Gulliver suddenly awoken among the giants of Brobdingnag. Of course, differently from Swift’s novel, there is nothing sarcastic in these dangerous buildings, and yet their threat has something anticlassical, which now takes the place of the modern classicism that Petrus had searched out and represented for a long time.
The next step is to be seen in Upside Down, 2002. The painting is inspired by a building in Via Dante in Udine, but its real subject is a game of mirrors with the building which, at the top, seems overturned. The limpid vision of the earlier works is doubled, as though by some strange enchantment.
This upside down view was developed in various ways in the following years, juxtaposing various buildings from the same city (as in London suspended, 2003), or from different cities, in an unreal dialogue (as in Upside Down, 2005, where the Rasini-Lancia tower in Milan is overlooked by a building in London).
A chapter to itself is the group of works Belle città, where the beauty of the individual elements generates an ungracious effect, thrown as it is into a convulsed crucible. In fact, beauty is being repelled by the chaos of our cities.
Another chapter, equal yet contrary, is that devoted to Scampia, where the town planning mistakes and the degraded buildings of this Neapolitan neighbourhood have been translated into an ordered and smooth design. Petrus is not interested in civic and sociological painting but, paradoxically, he too makes a condemnation, by translating the ugliness of that alienation-creating building into a harmonious and elegant form. Which is also a way of indicating how houses (and things) might be, by silently juxtaposing them as they are.
And here we are today, with pictures based on buildings but that are by now rhythms of colour. Or perhaps it is already tomorrow. The painting of Petrus never stops keeping surprises for us. Let’s keep an eye on it.