Walking Home


In his recent film Francofonia, Aleksandr Sokurov creates parallels between the fate of the artworks from the collections of the Museé du Louvre during the German occupation of the second world war and the story of the voyage of a - presumably modern - container ship loaded with artworks. In the film we can hear the voice of the Russian director in a series of phone calls with the captain of the ship as it is pummelled by waves and risks sinking, creating an emotional atmosphere suspended between terror and the sublime. The man steering the ship faces the decision to throw his precious cargo overboard to lighten the vessel in order to save his life. As the minutes tick by, the situation takes on the air of an epic struggle, where the ship becomes an arc containing the entire culture of Europe built on centuries-old values. Inspired by this film, the painting Outlying (2015-2016), by Giuseppe Gonella, portrays a voyage which captures the same expressive pathos.

At the heart of the painting is a porthole, through which we can glimpse a seascape where the spray of water thrown up by a storm helps create a vibrant pictorial composition. In stylistic terms, it is interesting to note that this is part of a recent series of works where the artist has abandoned his usual acrylics in favour of oil on canvas. Despite the fact that this change of technique necessitates the use of slower brushstrokes, the final result we see in the work is painted with a pounding rhythm that is all the more vibrant in its depiction of a tempestuous sea. The artist has returned to a technique that he had not used for many years in order to search for new challenges to the gesture of painting, which in this case is manifested through full-bodied masses of material, very different from the tonal brushstrokes so dear to the Venetian tradition he grew up in.

The virtuoso results we saw in previous cycles were elaborated through refined anatomical elements. Here they are substituted by a tension produced by the material, which contributes to the construction of a figuration that tends towards expressionism. In the painting we can see the figure of a woman with an undefined appearance. This finds its formal equilibrium through a number of patches of yellow colour that seem to engulf her in the whirling motion that spreads across the canvas. There is no point in seeking the precise identity of the veiled woman (nor should we fall into the simplistic associations with the stories of migrants we are bombarded with every day by mass media), because the artist rejects any kind of journalistic description.
In contrast to the approach we see on television or in social media, which generate ephemeral images destined to be rapidly consumed, his approach to painting seeks to deal with the themes in absolute terms in order to treat them like genuine contemporary allegories, far from any kind of subordinate relationship with reality. What the painting captures so well is not therefore the story of just one woman, or a specific population, but rather the challenge intrinsic to all voyages towards salvation and the desire for liberty that is central to the human experience throughout the ages.

Even more undecipherable is the symbolic scenario that we see in the triptych Fatamorgana (2015), which elaborates a subjective and dream-like transposition of natural landscapes. The first canvas, on the left of the work, presents us with a post-apocalyptic, dystopian landscape: zoomorphic figures emerge from the slime, salamanders that become a virtuoso compositional element, as their forms become one with the flow of the brushstrokes which bring the chromatic spiral to life. On the other hand, the trunk in the foreground brings to mind the admirable balance between naturalism and symbolism which adorned works such as L‘angelo della vita (1894-1895) by the Italian painter Giovanni Segantini. The uncertain horizon makes the context even more undefined, a mirage that is fascinating and disquieting at the same time. Continuing the reading of the work, we cannot overlook the way the central canvas constantly elaborates the rotary movement of the forms, from which an impassive angelic figure emerges. The placid detachment of the figure seems even more evident in the lush description of the hands, which instinctively move to protect the belly, in a pose that recalls the still rather rigid and statuary Madonnas painted between the Gothic period and the Renaissance. The juxtaposition between the chaotic surroundings and the indifference of the woman makes the figure seem even more mysterious, making it impossible to understand her true nature and the work in its entirety. This takes us to a dimension with an indefinable geography, beyond time and loaded with symbols. It generates an unsettling sensation in the viewer, suspended in opposing states of fear and fascination.

The element that unites many of Gonella’s works is the reference to fragments of memory and fleeting visions, translated in painting through the desire to keep a distance from a strictly mimetic vision. This is precisely what we see in the painting A Hair‘s Breadth Far from the Ultraviolet Garden (2015). Here the visual reminiscence of the strolling of a contemporary flâneur is imaginatively re-elaborated in the painting. The gaze rests on the interior of a garden, made inaccessible by a fence that seems to be mingling in some parts with a mysterious vegetation with un-natural colours, making it into a place with an arcane air.

Among the subjects addressed by the artist we also see pertinent cultural references, for example in the work Baal (2015). This is inspired by the Bertolt Brecht play, which tells the tale of the dissolute life of the young man who gives his name to the piece. Not unlike the director Volker Schlöndorff, whose Baal was played by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1970, Gonella makes the contemporary bohème into a hero, or rather an anti-hero. The painted figure, with his suspended and dreamy expression, echoes Brecht’s approach to shading the character with a touch of autobiography, or, if nothing else, with empathy. While Gonella does tend to elaborate the scene in absolute terms in order to make it a universal experience, every figure that emerges from his canvases is nonetheless a piece of himself, to some degree. In this way the young poet, that Gonella has unconsciously associated himself with, turns his melancholic gaze towards the floor and is surrounded by a fluttering mass of colour that seems to express the unavoidable nature of events.

In Portrait of the Court Jester Gonella - Tribute to Jean Fouquet (2014) there seems to be a touch of irony in referring to a historical figure who shares the artist’s name. However this work explores a curious subject addressed in a 15th century painting of the tale of a court jester described in many literary sources as the protagonist of numerous novellas. In Gonella’s work the figure is brought up to date with the appearance of a contemporary young man, caught in an unconcerned, un-natural and highly theatrical pose. We have seen that many of his works contain a dimension of complicity with his subjects, but the artist is also capable of producing self-portraits, such as Self-portrait - Milky Haze (2015). Here, his own image is shown within a vortex of material and colour, which has been the most emblematic aspect of his painting for many years, used as a way of expressing the eternal tension that underlies the human condition.

A more placid atmosphere can be seen in his female portraits in the series Yonder (2014-2016), where each portrait is an opportunity for exploring form. The figure in the paintings is always the same, head and shoulders portrayed in a series of different poses. There are significant stylistic variations to test a different way of deconstructing the form, or to develop abstract colour fields. These amalgamations of materials are taken to the breaking point, which we see in the most successful paintings, where there is a cancelation of the physiognomy of the face through the overlaying of an image that is divorced from the scene. In these works we can clearly see how the artist does not just transfigure the real world through memory, but also appropriates pre-existing images, or, as we see in Walking Home (2014-2016), he takes this even further, simulating the specific mimetic malfunctions created by digital errors. The painting shows a cat’s rear legs suspended in the foreground, the front of the cat is not to be seen. Gradually we are able to discern three incomplete human figures among the touches of colour. However, these shreds of bodies do not have the drama we see in the anatomy of Géricault or Goya, because they use the formal expedient of an optical and intangible deformation. The painterly gesture of Gonella seem to be reproducing a visual glitch, thus generating these glacial bodies, lacking any kind of carnal nature, which leads us to reflections on the problems of language itself. The impersonal condition of this flesh is juxtaposed in the construction of the artwork by the exuberance with which the oil paint is used. At times the brush is abandoned in favour of anything that comes to hand that can be used to work on these material surfaces and create the crumpling that at times recalls the frottages of the surrealist Max Ernst, and the sense of the unknown he wanted to create. As a result, there is a dialogue between two forms of chance in the same painting. The first is typical of today’s digital culture, the second is entirely object-based, analogical and part of modernity.

In considering the entire body of recent works by the artist, we can see how the true power of Giuseppe Gonella’s figurative painting comes from his ability to represent the anxieties, fears and aspirations of contemporary humanity, without resorting to a realistic narration. Rather he challenges the canvas with splashes of colour and material to make an existential content emerge, seeking evocations that are both intimate and universal.

Translated by Simonetta Caporale

‘Walking Home’ originally was written in the occasion of the exhibition ‘Walking Home’, Magic Beans, Berlin, DE. Copyright © 2016 Carlo Sala.


Carlo Sala is an art critic and curator working for various art magazines. As a member of Fondazione Fabbri’s Scientific Board he curates the modern and contemporary photography festival F4 / un’idea di Fotografia and the Francesco Fabri Contemporary Art Prize focused on emerging and International art. In 2010 he curated – together with Nico Stringa – the Venice Pavillion for the 12 International Architecture Exhibition, Venice Biennial. He collaborates with public exhibition venues and private galleries; he wrote essays for about thirty publications edited by among others Allemandi, Marsilio, Mimesis and Skira.

On the Eternal Return


A moment everybody knows and has experienced before: when our head slowly sinks into water until our eyes are at the water level, the gaze is divided and we literally float between two worlds. Below, the silence of the sea, and above, all the here and now of the world, the wind causing the waves to ripple, sunshine, light. Giuseppe Gonella calls the painting that captures this moment Under the Skin of the Sea, and it sums the theme of the exhibition: De aeterno reditu, on the eternal return.

Water is the origin of all life, and therefore it is significant that under that skin, life pulsates in the form of fluorescent particles, microorganisms that represent the beginnings of evolution, while at the same time, in the far distance in this world, the island Pontikonisi emerges from the water, probably the model for Arnold Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead.

The big, fundamental themes of time, life, death, and new beginnings that Gonella addresses in all his paintings are the contextual reference that holds the exhibition together and unifies it. His point of departure is the mural painted directly onto the largest wall of the gallery, showing a monumental landscape of ruins: collapsed columns, centuries-old witnesses that have already seen all the pictures of the life narrative that is displayed in the paintings. They will also accompany those paintings that this life narrative will have in store until its end. Two small canvases are framed by the mural: the Guardian of the Sun, a small yellow bird that appears repeatedly in the paintings, is juxtaposed with the Guardian of the Night, a sinister reposing faceless figure, enwrapped in a distorted chessboard-pattern. It is no surprise that Giuseppe Gonella refers to the chessboard, which is also a paraphrase of society, games where life and death is at stake, to symbolize the darkness of the night. Such contrasts like the ones evoked by Under the Skin of the Sea can frequently be found in the dialogue of the paintings. Each of these contrasts invites us to explore the field of tension created by it. Here a nursing mother, symbol of life-giving force, but also a kind of cyber creature, there the hint of the mythical creature Ouroboros that is self-sufficient: “The past bites everything in the future into its tail.”

In another painting, Reassuring Horizons, a figure dressed in a transparent rain cape walks through a destitute end-of-time landscape, while in Sunny Side Up several people, paradisiacally naked, are grouped around a huge tree trunk. Like DNA, neon-colored tracers run through the paintings, evoking memories and emotions. Sometimes bright plains grow out of these lines, fragments of color that together form the ground on which Gonella usually just intimates figurative elements. The humans in his paintings are rarely executed completely, rather, they are often depicted overlapping themselves, transparent, like in the two paintings In the Same Breath #1 and #2, as if they were not really present, but rather about to move between times.

Most of Giuseppe Gonella’s paintings bring together several moments, like snapshots that are elusive in terms of their temporality. This interplay between finiteness and infinity adds to the contested field of contrasts in terms of content an apocalyptic dimension. Acting for the beholder, the jester in Portrait of the Court Jester Gonella – Tribute to Jean Fouquet exposes himself to the immense impact of the paintings, and his terror is clearly visible in his pale face. Just like in Mente Locale, Gonella does not suggest that things will come to a good end, and it is not easy to face up to that. But there is some small comfort: his paintings show some kind of survival, even though it doesn’t seem to be the survival of humankind. We yearn to be back under water, Under the Skin of the Sea, in the dreamy silence and its colorful, pulsating particles from which life evolves, in the hope that evolution may take a different path, so that the peaceful paradisiacal vision, which Giuseppe Gonella can also paint, may prevail.

Translated by Wilhelm Werthern

‘On the Eternal Return’ originally was written in the occasion of the exhibition ‘De Aeterno Reditu’, Egbert Baquè contemporary, Berlin, DE. Copyright © 2014 Helge Baumgarten.


Stories of light and colour. The painting of Giuseppe Gonella

Pietro C. Marani 2013

A boy touches a sheet of paper or draws on a grassy lawn or brushes the surface of water, bent forward like a modern-day Narcissus in a Caravaggio painting. His fleeting beauty is not what is revealed to him when he looks into the water. He feels dissatisfied. Indeed, frightened by something, by a discovery that will change the course of his day or his very life. His face looks worried, the shadow of his hand is drawn on the blank sheet of paper. A foreboding, perhaps. He hid here, behind the arches of a rusty iron bridge or beside a subway in an area where people don’t normally pass by or perhaps by the sides of a bridge where cigarettes are thrown or where young people leave their beer bottles behind or where they take drugs. The water – and I reckon it really is water – flows slowly. Maybe there’s rubbish too that’s floating along. But just as the water flows by, so does life. This, though, is a split second, a flight, a flash of sun and light before real life sucks him back in forever with its whirls and eddies in a dizzying voyage into the unknown. Now, though, he’s only fourteen or fifteen and he’s discovering for the first time ever something that’s bothering him. It’s not love, nor sex but something that intrigues him and that fascinates him but that now he seems to be refusing since he’s scared of it (once again let’s think of Caravaggio’s Boy Bitten by a Lizard). Whatever message will he have found on that sheet of paper or that floating piece of plastic? A message that hails from a life that flows below the surface, like an underground river? Yet this is the story that we are told by the great, most beautiful painting by Giuseppe Gonella A place behind the buried rivers (2013) and we know neither the end nor the fate of this boy who, like many others painted by him, appears to be embarking on life from the streets, keeping bad company in desolate suburbs of American or Asian metropolises or in the solitude of a basketball pitch or a field where, by chance, someone had left something on the ground, like in Found Trail. Adolescents who get lost in a globalised world, swirling and threatening, like the boy in Gas station or the boy who draws on the ground in Self made man or, yet again, the boy depicted as a bully in Thunder clap. These are not “rent boys” of Pasolini fame. They’re wearing T-shirts, Bermuda shorts and flip-flops bought at Alcott or Zara. They inhabit the outskirts of rich cities, in middle-class areas. They use I-pads and cell phones even though they’re not doing so well at school. All of these “portraits” – like snapshots taken by a webcam by mistake (added to the ones taken of the bad boys); like those heart-rending snapshots of the man and woman sitting down and kissing (are they perhaps the parents of some of those boys?), in Il filo delle ore (2012) – look as if they were in a wind beaten scenario like in some part of America devastated by a tornado. They make up a sort of contemporary “Spoon River compendium” and the scenes might be Cape Cod, Miami or Los Angeles if it were not for the quality of the light and the colours that would point to a rather more Mediterranean setting. More like the Còte d’Azur than Forte dei Marmi. This is where the training of the artist comes in to be more than merely handy: the light and the reflections absorbed in Venice, while studying glass and mosaics, reflected in the water, provide a starting point from when we may analyse the artist’s culture and artistic vision. An artistic vision that has fed from chromatic relationships and from a sense of light that, having re-experienced and reabsorbed the most recent trends in contemporary art, has enabled him to return to figurative art with a material and a technique that is completely new and wholly coherent with the apprehensions of the world of youth (and not only) that the painter is examining and representing. Nevertheless, in these new paintings by Giuseppe Gonella, there is – fortunately – neither any pleasure to be felt in the depiction of internal discomfort nor recourseto any miniaturist (although he would be more than able to do it) or anachronistic painting that would create ghosts and nightmares for the psyche or post-Surrealist hallucinations. His style is fresh and free. The air can still be breathed in even though it is swept through with the wind which blows things away and drags them into a continuous and disorderly flow. There is, though, not even a question of there being a “new wild guy”. His visual culture and his sensitivity do not allow for this particular label (nor, perhaps, for any other sort of label) and his pictorial technique could not appear more different from the heavy and violent one employed by the “new wild guys”. Neither is his an inventory of contemporary stupidities nor is it a sort of destabilisation of vision as in the fashion of Sigmar Polke with contaminations between “high” and “low” culture (as defined by Robert Storr). The “portrait of a chair” that almost infuses Gonella (in Evidence of time, 2013) with Matisse-like undertones is thus significant just as it is in The Vegan with the Arcimboldo-like transformation of the character into what he is eating. Lastly, his denial of the figurative element (photographically evoked in parts, then cut, or scraped away or almost entirely cancelled) obtained by fragments of flat colour combined haphazardly (just as a crazed mosaic artist would do) or in strips or bands of colour layered over one another does not evoke the informal abstractions of Gerhard Richter. They do, however, suggest the tears and lacerations of Mimmo Rotella or a badly-done and scuffed colour photocopy – caused by used up cartridges, as can be seen in the small portrait Tentativo di fuga. This is due to the fact that Gonella, while remaining faithful to figurativity, strives also to manipulate it. Thus, yet again, he reveals the artist’s link between popular culture and the image of the “ego” this time not only publicised by photography and cinema but also by cell phones and the web. If it were not for the heart-rending melancholy that these young adolescents as well as older figures in his “stories” provoke in the viewer and for the intrinsic beauty of the video-like cuts of the images – full of intensity and freshness in colour and material – we would perhaps be able to define Gonella’s painting as a real sort of web painting, a fresco of modern-day “mal de vivre”, elevated into painting or a video window on the world that neither Google or Amazon will ever be able to offer. This is because it is a question of an “interior” world, a world of primordial sensations, of mental photographic stills transferred into a new harrowing data bank of the contemporary world, made with instruments that, as has forever been, have been those of the painter: light, colour and the painter’s mind.

‘Stories of light and colour. The painting of Giuseppe Gonella’ originally published in Giuseppe Gonella ‘Involved’ (Bonelli Arte, 2013) on the occasion of the exhibition ‘Involved’, Galleria Giovanni Bonelli, Milan, IT. Copyright © 2013 Pietro C. Marani.


Pietro C. Marani, Full Professor in History of Modern Art in the School of Design at the Politecnico in Milan. He is author of thirty books and more than three hundred essays, articles and scientific writings devoted to the art and the architecture of Italian Renaissance, translated in eight languages. He has been Co-director of the restoration campaign of the Leonardo’s Last Supper and Deputy-director of the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan. He is President of the Ente Raccolta Vinciana (Milan, founded 1904), and Member of the National Committee for the publication of Leonardo’s Work (Rome, founded 1903). He has been curator of many exhibitions in Milan (Palazzo Reale, Castello Sforzesco, Pinacoteca di Brera), Florence (Casa Buonarroti), Rome (Musei Capitolini), Venice (Palazzo Grassi), Parigi (Musée du Louvre), Montreal (Musée des Beaux Arts), Torino (Venaria Reale), New York (Metropolitan Museum), Tokyo ( Metropolitan Art Museum). Among his interests are the contemporary art and art criticism.

Giuseppe Gonella. Involved

Carlo Sala 2013

A youth stands before closed shutters, face shadowed and unrecognisable, holding a sheet of paper which is slowly burning. This highly enigmatic figure is at the centre of the painting Er by Giuseppe Gonella. The artist’s intention is to present us with an allegory for artistic research, wherein everything burns quickly as it is continually assailed by new doubts. The subject of Er is setting alight a metaphorical testament1, which, like all artworks, condenses the successes and failures of a journey made up of experiments, changed ideas and tensions, driven by constantly evolving emotional and intellectual needs. Er embodies the essential characteristics of Gonella’s artwork, which does not seek a clear narrative, but rather bring together characters, objects and places which are visionary, timeless and transfigured, and which at times seem to lack any evident coherence. Different levels of reading are united on the canvas through narrative elements that can be extrapolated or interpolated; they inspire powerful triggers to pass beyond the figurative epidermis. What is the girl crouching in the field looking for? Who is hidden in the tent beneath the leaden skies? Who is the young protagonist? These and other questions immediately spring to mind. Gonella does not seek to create forms of conventional narratives, rather he deliberately leaves the plots incomplete. These are scenes which invite the viewer to put themselves in that situation - to become involved, as the title of the exhibition suggests - in order to discover, invent and perceive the thoughts and motives which reverberate deep beneath the formal surface. Whilst displaying remarkable formal qualities, Gonella’s works never offer a purely objective representation.The iconic aspects, such as figures and elements of landscape, alternate with great flashes of colour and abstract surfaces. These unite different painting techniques and move the composition towards an evocative, rather than simply descriptive, meaning. As such his painting is part of the current vein of research that seeks to give a new meaning to figurative work through a strong adherence to topical issues with an original and personal stylistic matrix. The origins of this work come from many sources, but a key element is the powerful trigger of fragments of visual memory. In the act of painting these are affirmed until they come to fit the original compositional design. He draws on a personal archive made up of snatches of reality, memories and evocations, but also appropriates pre-existing images that, through the painting process, become subjectively deformed, overturning their initial functions and meanings. The same thing can be seen in some of the work of the Dutch photographer Viviane Sassen, where they are used simply as a pretext for changing a certain posture or suggestion. The artist’s imagery is also made up of images that come from outside art history: these are derived from mass market magazines or from the Internet, where he also finds simple vernacular photographs. Whilst painters from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries could find “modern life” by painting in plein air or from direct observation of the beating heart of the city, there is nowadays a second and complementary type of daily life which passes through the unpredictable tangle of the web. Look, for example at the central figure in the painting Walking at home, caught in the typical pose of one taking a photo of themselves to publish on social networks. Here we can clearly see the short circuit the painter creates in relation to the original image: the calm and reassuring nature of the gesture is dematerialised by a formal and emotional pruning of the figure. As such, unpredictable atmospheres are created from seemingly straightforward transpositions, elaborating the poetics of the artist.Modern-day society is tangled up with an excess of information, stimuli and images - Gillo Dorfles spoke of this in Horror pleni2. A consequence of this is the need for some artists to reexamine or re-experience the present also in a more completely introspective dimension. This is exactly what Massimiliano Gioni sought to highlight in his Encyclopaedic Palace at the Venice Biennale with the inclusion of Andrè Breton’s emblematic death mask: the closed eyes of the poet lead us to an interior dimension which passes beyond and cancels out the transience of mere appearance. Gonella does not let himself be overpowered by the insistence on hyper-realism which visually saturates our society. If we wished to create a bold parallel (bearing in mind the artist’s background in Venice), we could perceive an intellectual affinity with Tintoretto. The antique teachings of the Venetian Mannerist can be seen in the use of rapid brush strokes, dense with an eloquent chromatism, and above all in the inventive freedom of the scenes, creating numerous levels of reading and ultimately twisting the normal sense of construction of the scene. As has already been noted, this tangling of images and chromatic surfaces seeks to transmit suggestions which the viewer can make their own and explore through their openness to a plurality of interpretations. Each pictorial micro-cosmos encloses within it contrasting emotions, such as anxiety, hope or uncertainty, and is a pretext for discussing the human condition. The painting Shelter shows an improvised refuge, perhaps the outcome of a sudden flight to seek out an anachronistic and romantic realm. This is a painting which, whilst nonetheless filled with doubts, seems to be a perfect response to No place left to hide- a distinctly dystopian work from 2012 which uses cold and disquieting tones to testify to the impossibility of finding earthly and emotional shelter. In Shelter we are plunged into a suspended and unreal atmosphere. This is accentuated through the technique used, which combines numerous painting approaches: there is a figurative element which leaves space for a large abstract field, worked with the rapid use of pallet knife, but there is also a white area created with a slash of paint which becomes a pause in the frenetic rhythm of the colour, thus creating a silent and reflective tone.Uncertainty and anxiety dwell in Gonella’s works, but there is also the vitality and audacity of figures projected into the future with vibrating chromatic touches. The essence of his painting is the staging of situations which, whilst they overturn reality in compositional terms, are faithful expressions of the composite and profound aspect of humanity in relation to a frenetic and constantly changing present.

1. Definition used by Giuseppe Gonella during an interview in his Berlin studio, August 2013.
2. Gillo Dorfles, Horror Pleni. La (in) civiltà del rumore, Rome, Castelvecchi, 2008

"Giuseppe Gonella. Involved" originally published in Giuseppe Gonella ‘Involved’ (Bonelli Arte, 2013) on the occasion of the exhibition ‘Involved’, Galleria Giovanni Bonelli, Milan, IT. Copyright © 2013 Carlo Sala.


Carlo Sala is an art critic and curator working for various art magazines. As a member of Fondazione Fabbri’s Scientific Board he curates the modern and contemporary photography festival F4 / un’idea di Fotografia and the Francesco Fabri Contemporary Art Prize focused on emerging and International art. In 2010 he curated – together with Nico Stringa – the Venice Pavillion for the 12 International Architecture Exhibition, Venice Biennial. He collaborates with public exhibition venues and private galleries; he wrote essays for about thirty publications edited by among others Allemandi, Marsilio, Mimesis and Skira.

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