The nature of watercolor painting, as is typical with most art forms in general, has significantly evolved over generations of time. The history of watercolors illustrates a gradual change from being used by Baroque artists primarily for sketches and cartoons, to being used to capture nature and botanical scenes, as well as landscapes and portraits.
The medium, however, was not destined to remain confined to the literal, natural, or realistic world we experience around us in the waking light. Today, there are countless approaches to the use of watercolors, and it, too, like the work of Charles Burchfield, would find its way to the realm of abstraction, symbolism, and conceptual art indicative of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and beyond.
Consider Francesco Clemente’s “After Attar's 'The Conference of the Birds' V” for instance. This watercolor painting makes no attempt to represent the natural world in a realistic fashion. We can see recognizable imagery such as human forms and birds, yes, however they have been juxtaposed together in such a way that there just has to be some form of conceptualization at work. To develop a deeper understanding of Clemente’s painting, it is helpful to first obtain a deeper understanding of the artist himself, as well as the influences that impacted his artistic style.
Francesco Clemente is an Italian painter who was born in Naples, Italy in 1952. His paintings display influences from both surrealist and expressionist art movements. After studying architecture at the University of Rome in the 1970s, he explored his psyche with the use of psychedelic drugs and traveled to India to experience Hindu spirituality. Clemente’s artwork embodies these influences as it often depicts many subconscious, dark and conflicting psychological aspects of human nature. His paintings also draw upon the dream-like extensions and transgressions of ordinary daily life explored by Surrealist artists like Giorgio De Chirico, and builds on Expressionism's revelations of interior emotional states.
This helps to put one in the proper frame of mind to discover the motivations of Clemente in this piece, however what might the symbols found within the painting allude to? The answer might be found in the inspiration for the piece’s title, “After Attar's 'The Conference of the Birds' V”. “The Conference of the Birds” is a popular epic poem written by Persian poet Farid ud-Din Attar.
In the poem, the world’s birds come together in need of a king. The wisest bird, called the hoopoe, proposes that they should find the legendary Simorgh, a mythical Persian bird similar to a phoenix. The hoopoe leads the birds, each of whom represent a specific sin, through 7 valleys, each of which represents an obstacle preventing man from attaining enlightenment. From the many birds that begin the journey, only thirty birds are left that finally reach the dwelling place of the Simorgh, a large lake. There, the birds ultimately discover that the “Simorgh” is the reflection of their own faces in the lake.
From here, one can make their own judgments as to how, and why, Clemente chose the imagery, and composition of the imagery, that he did. However, it is undeniable that the use of watercolor in this piece allows it to truly take on the life that it does. The luscious use of yellows in the figures, in addition to the transparent washes in the background lend itself to creating an organic, and surrealist, feeling to the painting that would not have otherwise been obtained through a more opaque use of paint. It helps one to relate to the painting on a biological, almost cellular level, as is alluded to by the symbols present between the male and female figures. It opens up discussions about sexuality, transference, and the singularity of one’s identity, as well as the psychological struggles we all face individually, and collectively.
Similar symbols, motifs and concepts have presented themselves within many of Clemente’s most popular paintings, and throughout the 1990s, Clemente had artwork exhibited by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Royal Academy of Arts in London, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Sezon Museum in Tokyo. New York City’s Guggenheim Museum even featured a major retrospective of Clemente’s work in 1999.
— Daniel Bala
Daniel Bala is a visual arts teacher in the city of Buffalo and a graduate student at the State University of New York College at Buffalo.