Myth and dream: the fables of Antonio Santacroce
Bernhard Waldkirch

Geometry can never replace the myth.
Octavio Paz

Favola della volpe e la lepre, 1997 During the year 1997 to 1998, Santacroce realized a series of layered tempera paintings on paper, which are recognizable as merely white traces from flitting figures and animals. At first glance, he drew these inconspicuously – small masterpieces with names from Greek mythology or simply called them fables. On one page we recognize a four legged creature, which waltzes along the floor. Another has just stood on his hind legs to impress an adversary. Yet another paws at a hole with his front hoofs while a bird like creature with a long beak and legs struts by. Many of these scenes are familiar to us from walks in the park or the outskirt of the city. For Santacroce such passing observations of the everyday deliver the material of which his fables are made. It is up to us to recognize the allusion to Aesop, the father of classical modern fable or the meaning of a narrative and not least the moral of such picture stories. At the very least we must vary them according to our current taste if not completely reinvent them. In the purest sense fable means an educational, often satirical narration, in which animals as well as humans interact and express a general truth or moral. In a further sense, it is the simple sequence of a poem – the foundation of a story, whose plot one can graphically portray with a few strokes. Consequent to the fables, we can also connect Santacroce’s pictures with mythological names: Pan e la siringa, Teseo e Arianna, Il sogno di Atteone. A few spots, strokes and hints encompass the sketch like framework that suffice for the picture of gods and semi-gods, with part human part animal stature to come to life. One of the oldest fables that connects us with the Middle East is the story of Paradise. Every time there are moments that decide over the success of a figure constellation: a tree, a snake, resting figures on a mountain ridge, which wear scale skin dresses or are equipped with wings. These scenes may be enough to make associations with impressions of paradise in Christian iconography; however they have little in common. What is it then that connect such fleeting color sketches with our awareness of myths? Is it the dark monochromatic backgrounds that spread out like original sin behind the figurative happening? Is it the precarious existence of these schematic fable creatures that allows them to dissipate like clouds after a storm and consolidate into new forms? Or is it just a subtle interaction between tightly enclosed and liquid contours; from the clear silhouette to the overflowing?

Myth and Logic
Favola della volpe e la cicogna, 1997 For Mircea Eliade and those generations marked by war and totalitarians, the myth belongs to a safeguarded existential minima moralia of every culture: “Today one begins to understand that the symbol, the myth, the image belong to the foundation of spiritual life. It is possible to mask them, damage them, depreciate them; however one will never eradicate them”. Myth analysis of the twentieth century states that the myth, contrary to the logic of philosophers and politicians, “follows logic of double meaning, ambiguity and polarity” (Jean Pierre Vernant). Therefore, it is a kind of thinking without terms and definitions – “another logic than the logic of logos” (J.P. Vernant). Consequently, work on the myth today seem more necessary than ever before to us. Because of its semantic candor, it proves to be especially helpful where various ethnic groups coexist at border crossings; where immigrants meet daily with the permanent residents. The thinking of others in myth is always existent; it only has a fruitful effect when the tension of the logos or the criticism of myth is endured. Since the enlightenment, criticism of the myth has not been silent. Nevertheless, it could not make it disappear – on the contrary. For Gainbattista Vico myths and logos were two modes of speech which preconditioned one another. Between the silence of the pictures and the rational discourse of the language evolved the fruitful territory of myth analysis, which occupies us today. We find ourselves in-between the verbal and non verbal when we work on the myth, but let us not be mislead. The critic of the demystification of the world as it is demanded by post-modern myth analysis does not mean that the dominance of myth has to be reconstructed. Once myth criticism was exposed as myth, there was no path that led back to the naïve belief in myth. In this sense, the famous word of Nietzsche in Fröhliche Wissenschaft hold and will always hold the key to the secularization of the European spirit of modernity: “to know that one dreams and continues to dream”. “A secularized culture” wrote Gianni Vattimo “is not a culture that has simply abandoned its religious traditions, but one that continues to integrate it into life as traces, concealed and distorted models, and are therefore still present.” A living culture demands that we redeem the myth from falling silent in order to provide it with an active part in the formation of our daily life. It is in our power to denounce myth with inhuman practices and to redefine them according to our present needs.

Theater, Masquerade and “Archaeological Dreams”
Pan e la siringa, 1997 Antonio Santacroce was raised on the east coast of Sicily near Syracuse and went to school in Catania. As a boy, he became familiar with Sicilian culture, history and its festivals. At a young age, he was interested in theater, created set designs and also performed in classical world literature. Traveling abroad, he studied the great European and North American museums while working and exhibiting in numerous galleries. The color graphic medium was Santacroce’s initial success. Thereafter, he discovered his artistic style relatively late. His first sketches were of piazzas and bars, which were drawn on trips or during theater rehearsals. His dramatist background is in evidence as he groups people in these compositions and involves them in discussions or lets them slip into roles of commedia dell’arte. Until the early 1980’s, the stage is a significant element of his picturesque work. Society is portrayed as a big masquerade. “The world is a momenchance” commented Goya in his Caprichos: “Face, dress, voice is all a disguise”. In the Cahiers Paul Valéry noted laconically: “The crime is the dropping of the mask”. He struck the nerve of his time, which through judgment and lack of civil courage drifted further into the hell of the Holocaust. Without choice the masquerade of the twentieth century has brought society to a point where individuals are made to look alike as well as act uniformly. Mass hysteria, in which the individual is vaporized without responsibility, takes the place of the masked balls and eventually ends up in a macabre dance of the dead. It was Ensor, Klee and Beckmann, who revealed the true faces of the modern humans as a product of the ideology of human scorn in their cold brutality, dilapidation and ridicule. Brilliantly, the Mexican poet and essayist Octavio Paz denounced this one sided ideology of liberalism. “It [liberalism] defends the human being although it ignores half the humans who in a dream of myth express: communion, the festival and eroticism”. For Santacroce people differentiate themselves only slightly from one another: those who mask their indifference and arousal with hollow contentment and those fragile loners, who out of pure fear of withering away keep their distance and take care not to reveal their feelings. With the series Sogno archeaologico and Catania Sotteranea, Santacroce's expression and style changes at the end of the 1980’s. Excited by fragments of frescoes, vases, stele, sarcophagi and mosaics in his southern Italian land, he takes us on a journey into the past. What drives him is not the inventing of a new individual mythology like Harald Szeemann did in 1972 at Documenta V, nor is it the continuation of the modern in the mist of a radical questioning of their concepts. Santacroce finds his form in the discourse of long extinguished myth. He searches for boundaries and finds those of a mysterious white fire regardless of their public resonance. In the words of a Pirandello critic: “In the core of every humanly poetic masterwork there is a flame”. In the series Dare e Avere (Give and Have), Santacroce shows his mastery of classically schooled pictures in the field of psychic improvisation (Paul Klee) for the first time. As if from nothing, these compositions firmly emerge and wane on the edge of the precipice leaving their unapparent traces behind. These images are memories of the artist’s life experiences, which without constraint are mixed with stories all of us have read. These are the great legends as fables, metamorphosis and myths, long ago canonized, that appear here on the soil of the everyday as surprising and highly unusual blossoming.

Myth and Dream
Teseo e Arianna, 1997 Santacroce develops his own sphere of white. As in a dream, he guides the brush over the colored background and with a few strokes gives meaning to a complex happening. Myth and the everyday casually fuse themselves as if we were actually present. Where prior the chaos was ruled by brazen laws, today the grotesque compositions of dreams now disintegrate all that is firmly trodden. Eros in the form of sleek cupid and his dubious helpers ridicule everything holy in the myth. So appears the virility of Priapus, the coarsely built vegetation deity, who since the time of Alexander the Great in the Greek – Roman cultural region was at best laughed at and cursed at by the church priests. He did not suffer from decrepitude – quite the contrary. In modern, progressive mythology the garden god develops into a macho type. In his erotic Giuochi, Santacroce has us ponder and allows us to find an unbeatable ally. The phallic symbol emerges numerous times, once as a cruise missile that is secretively brought into position by cupid’s companions holding a wide, outstretched net. Another time it appears as an alter table or in the form of a watering can in the sky. It seems that only with the ominous interaction of power, religion and belief in miracles can the hypnotizing affect of the myth be averted and not through critic or art. Without avail the over zealous and annoying specters beat their pranks until the message is no longer heard. Homer already recognized the diverse meaning of dreams that haunt the dying during their sleep. He described their appearance as beaming white, as the sum of the supernatural energeia that inspires, but also seduces long before it shows its true colors in moral meaning. The paintings of Santacroce prove most productive when both focal points – myth and dream participate with equal intensity. Dream as the ultimate mediator and actor in Santacroce’s art shall now be the monologue. If we place ourselves in the position of a Sicilian artist next to Nietzsche, Freud and Eliade, also Homer, Ovid, Pausanias and Virgil, then it is easy for us to acknowledge them as authorities. This holds true even more so when the dream dispensing sleep in all the great works of cultural history, from the myths of creation to the holy scriptures all the way to film, does not stop artistic peak performance from being achieved. Very soon we shall understand this paradox better. Pausanias says that the sleep is the deity preferred by the muses. From this one could deduce with the concordance of Shakespeare that the artist who is intimate with the ancient world always understands himself as the genius of sleep. Since antiquity there has been a close correlation between sleep and artistic inspiration. Ovid associates himself with the god of sleep, whose spoken name is Morpheus, and sees him as an exceedingly active partner. Morpheus is the creator of forms, who disquietly contours figures at night while the artist sleeps. His assistants are Phobetor the intimidator, a creature that is part predator, snake and bird, who works while the dream god Phantasos simultaneously transforms himself into rock and tree landscapes. Therefore, since the time of antiquity all scopes stand open to the creator of dream: from the imitation of nature to the transformation of natural archetypes through fantasy with a single difference. It is a god who administers the dreams; the Greeks call him Hypnos, the Romans named him Somnus. Artistic inspiration for cultured Greeks is always a manifestation of the divine, whose praesentissimum numen is revered by the delirium of the prophet. Even when one no longer believes in the gods and was inclined to associate with a philosophical school, there was no escape from metaphysics. Dream is a facilitator of concealed truths that deserves profound interpretation and has left its traces on Freud and Lacan. For the ancient dream interpreter, there were two categories of dreams: the visionary dreams, which can truthfully and with clearly visual pictures foresee occurrences that will have happened as announces or whose completion is eminent. The dreams of lies (Italian: menzogne / French: mensonges) with their dark, fragmented and multi faceted pictorial language, which is resistant to interpretation and contradictory reality. It is not difficult to guess, which of these categories our time expresses most interest in. The ambiguity becomes a signum of the modern that challenges the viewer to participate actively in sense making. Modern time has already changed the paradigms. The artists of Mannerism, specifically Taddeo Zuccaro, define the roll of sleep as the mediator of the inner vision (disegno interno). Three centuries prior to Romanticism, experience showed that every clear perception was preceded by long phases of chaotic dreams, melancholic and meditation. Both categories of ancient dream schematics were brought together in a productive relationship. The modern individual no longer allowed himself to be inspired by transcendental instances, but rather began pulling works out of his inner necessity. This permitted the principle of creativity to be a precondition for the free evolution of modern art. Precursors can be best observed where the artistic imagination is tied to a few or to unclearly defined categories: the grotesque of the 16th and the capriccio of the 18th century.

The Pictures of Sleep
Sogno premonitore di Atteone, 1997 Since his youth, Santacroce lives intimately with the art of antiquity. Nevertheless he is one of us – one, who takes the modern as pretense in order to unmask their myths in playful gestures. The mode of presentation that speaks to him with honesty is the grotesque which makes the balance between the distant and the near. Through this approach his pictures read like an ironic commentary of current events. His improvised figure compositions are similar to the fantastic suggestions of dreams, although their historical provenance is not negated . An artificial revitalization of the ancient grotesque is not the case with Santacroce. He places much more emphasis on the spin-off of expressions towards fantasy, improvisation and aleatoric. As previously mentioned, these are influenced by of ancient sleep reception, which was adopted in the 16th century. In his treatise Disegno, Anton Francesco Doni compares the grotesque with fantastic forms one could read in the clouds, with air castles, chimera, phantoms, dreams and many other “impossible forms”. In a commentary to Vitruvs De Architectura, Daniele Barbaro writes that the irrational creations of grotesque painting must be held for an aleatoric work of dreams – for picturea somnium. The Neapolitan painter, architect and antiquary, Pirro Ligorio agrees. He speaks of the “grotesque, of extravagance, of fantastic forms that are similar to dreams”. All these impossible forms, in scholarly terms, deviant representation within a strongly regulated art canon, position the relationships of dominance so as to be unquestionable, yet provide a noticeable irritation. Since this point, their potential for disturbance in art criticism can no longer be disregarded. The grotesque transform themselves from the painterly genre to the modus pingendi, whose paintings are uncontrollable like the awakening of the subconscious. Since the centuries of enlightenment and revolution, few excellent painters have rendered homage to the genius of sleep as did Johann Heinrich Füssli (1741-1825). He spent eight years in Rome before he settled in London, where as a celebrated historic painter was dedicated to depicting the nocturnal side of European culture in suggestive paintings and drawing. Füssli summarizes his vision in his Dictum 231, which is at the same time a program for the coming centuries: “Dreams count as the least investigated area in art and that one could call the personification of mentality”. Crucial to the artistic impact is not that we recognize a myth, but simply that someone knows how to personify it and is able to say how and why he does this. Santacroce’s work on the myth takes its support from the major oneiric artists of European art history; from Füssli, Böcklin, Redon, de Chirico and Max Ernst. Santacroce encounters their exact and elaborate dream compositions with the ease and speed of an improvised stroke. This is spoken of in Italo Calvino’s Lezioni americane, where ease and speed are diagnosed as the stylistic features of the new millennium. Perhaps it is exactly the omnipresent forms of acceleration and dematerialization that renew our understanding of the myth today. It is truly a paradox for Calvino, who also searched for refuge in the classic myth as the modern aggravated him. At the beginning of his book, he writes: “With a myth one should never be in a hurry”. This time it is Perseus, who rushes to the aid of the beleaguered artist. In order to severe the head of Medusa, the hero relies on the clouds and wind – the lightest things he can find in his surrounding. To avoid the petrifying expression of Medusa, he looks at her face indirectly through a mirror reflection. Under the protection of Perseus’ shield, the artist can safely rethink his relationship to reality. He is able to deposit the flood of images in his memory and account for every detail like a film still before his inner eyes. It requires more than just the mastering of one technique learned in academia in order to present a myth in pictures. As Santacroce’s oeuvre impressively underscores, a few strokes can awaken life on a sheet of paper. He, who subscribes to lopsided logos and has forgotten to experience the reality of the myth, does not have command over his sustainable consciousness. “Geometric can not replace the myth” (O. Paz). Since time immemorial, the myth has taken hold of human existence and changed it fundamentally. Through the mutual putting forth of the myth, we become collaborators of another time –contemporaries of a new beginning, who in a festive act of observation become existent.

(Traduzione di Marina Thui)