Sun, 24 Oct 2004

The artistic escapades of painter Cristiano

Carla Bianpoen, Contributor, Jakarta

Renato Cristiano: A Journey through Painting
Bruce W. Carpenter
Published by Mon Decor Gallery, Jakarta
Designed and produced by Archipelago Press
An imprint of Editions Didier Millet, Singapore
150 pp (77 plates)

Earlier this month saw the launching of one of the most comprehensive and well-written books examining an artist who lived for more than a decade on the island of Bali.

Renato Cristiano, now 81 and residing in Rome, is hardly mentioned in the literature on expatriate artists in Bali. Yet he was among the most important expatriate artists working in Bali in the years after World War II and the struggle for Indonesian independence.

He has had major exhibitions in Italy, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Indonesia, and his works can be found in museums of note, such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and the presidential palaces of Jakarta, Bogor and Tampaksiring in Indonesia.

Cristiano's residence in Indonesia began with a four-year stay in 1955, then alternated between long and short-term sojourns until today, as he still spends at least a month each year in the island of his artistic fulfillment.

In addition to Cristiano's time in Indonesia, this book, which comes in a manageable format and in a reader friendly layout replete with beautiful plates, follows him from his formative years in Foligno, an important early center of the Umbrian Renaissance. It thus facilitates an understanding of his nascent fascination with Renaissance masters that was to have an enduring impact on his works.

Containing a detailed description of Cristiano's intellectual evolution against changes in the political world order, it gives due space to every phase on this path, which the artist expressed on the canvases of his sizable oeuvre.

The first 58 pages tell of his endeavors toward excellence, highlighting intellectual, spiritual and metaphysical explorations, and the fusion between Eastern and Western cultures that is the basis of various works.

Born in 1923 in Rome, he spent his youth in Foligno, surrounded by the idyllic Umbrian countryside. He enrolled in the Academy of Fine Arts in Perugia, but soon dropped out, dissatisfied with the conventional training of the school. From then on he followed his own path of exploration, absorbing and studying movements that were bringing new ways of seeing, such as the precursors of avant-garde art like the Futurists, the CoBra, and Abstract Expressionism at the time.

Philosophical and metaphysical foundations of art and life, and the relationship between the two, took his attention, leading to intensive study of modern scientific theory. It included anthropology, geology, astronomy and archaeology, as well as Western and Eastern philosophy, with comparative religion and mythology, mysticism and metaphysics.

Not surprisingly, art for Cristiano switched from purely a matter of esthetics to connecting ideas and forms to deeper undercurrents which ran through the human psyche.

The massive oil canvas The Dream marked his engagement with this proliferation of ideas, signifying his next step into abstract art. He was only 21 years old, living in a small, narrow house where accommodating this huge canvas of 200 x 260 cm was a real challenge.

Particular ideas or concepts were worked out in cycles or series of paintings, starting with his seminal Rain, and followed by Testament, a seminal milestone in his development that bridged his naturalistic, figurative past and the abstract style of the time.

Testament II included religious and mythological themes, and Testament III entailed a stylistic blurring of the distinctions between the dense layering of backgrounds and the figurative, extending from 1984 to the present day.

Reason and Instinct (Sun and Moon), a work in the Traces cycle, was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) from Cristiano's second solo exhibition at the Schneider Gallery in Rome in 1959.

In the painting, a radiating image of the sun and crescent moon were created from Cristiano's hands and feet, which he had pressed into pigments of various colors and impressed directly onto the canvasses. Cristiano has described the work as a symbol of the polarities in the universe, identifying the sun with the masculine and the moon with the feminine.

Other cycles included Consummation, in which he explored the metaphoric destruction of painting, and Light of Colors in which he sought to recreate light through systematic use of complementary colors, followed by Archipittura.

The Four Seasons of 1962 included four large compositions representing the chronological stages in the cycle of human life, appearing as biblical epics modeled on the Balinese "rose of the winds".

A colossal work Prometheus '72 was symbolic of the powers of creativity which were becoming scarce in a modern age lacking in imagination and daring.

Among his largest works, Christian Era: Prophecy and History, painted in 1994 and used on the book jacket, shows Cristiano's spirituality expressed through syncretic symbols.

Cristiano's Balinese oeuvre has three loosely defined categories of work: the realistic works, which sought to capture the essence of Bali and its people; a group of works tracing their inspiration to Renaissance drawings and paintings; and the series of paintings with backgrounds containing gold and silver, reminiscent of Byzantine icon paintings.

The second part of the book, Eternal Idyll, is divided into themes distinguished in "Faces", "Work", "Play", "Myth", "Religion" and "Allegory", each introduced by elaborating text.

When Cristiano arrived in Bali in 1955, he was an accomplished painter, an autodidact with wide experience after dropping out of the Academy of Fine Arts in Perugia and living around the world.

Of a solitary nature, he did not mingle much with fellow expatriate artists or local artists in Bali, although he did have frequent encounters with his first Indonesian collector, then president Sukarno. He chose to maintain his solitude in his studio in Putung, high on the edge of a cliff.

Manggis Beach, where he lived with his Balinese wife, was also fairly isolated, but local fishermen with their sinewy bodies became a favorite subject in his works.

Here he rediscovered his fascination with the Renaissance. Balinese people, like elongated figures set in vistas of layered coloring, evoke a dreamlike world, one that could be anywhere on the globe were it not for the unmistakable temples in the background.

The distinct fusion of East and West, with elongated figures standing out of the blur that veils the landscape taking the appearance of a Balinese painting when seen from a distance mark his latest works.

A closer look reveals the artist's sense of duality, of two worlds in which neither seems to be real. Perhaps such is metaphorical of his world today.