An ancient fable. Antonio Santacroce
Alessandro Masi

Dare, Dell'incontro di mezza estate, 1988 Myth, Mediterranean-ness, nature. There is all this in the art of Antonio Santacroce. An idea of ancient material, which migrates from the horizon of the past to precipitate in the present as a fulguration. A sense of magic, recalled by the artist through mysterious ebullitions of forms, floating surges of energy, stains of colour and vigorously modelled surfaces, enclosing in themselves that solemnity and that happy liberty of instinct that constitute the two apparently conflicting faces of a remote civilization. Before being a draftsman, painter, sculptor, engraver, set designer and potter – for he works indifferently in all these fields – Santacroce could be defined a sincere intellectual. If, indeed, the present-day universe of art suffers from the Pindaric flights of very distant hands and over-abstract concepts, the consistency, the infallible ability to follow the thread of an initial thought represents the gift that can distinguish him and raise him above a certain decline of the artist today, who has perhaps lost sight of the ethical basis of his profession. Art, true art, is always evocation but evocation, in order to be powerful and to succeed in its intent, needs solid certainties. However, it is not only a matter of cultural commitment, calculated with ratiocination and palette: in Santacroce there lives an uncontrollable emotional élan. In order better to adhere to his own fundamental intuition of feeling, which knows it is transitory though deep, aware that his visions constitute the tessella of a reality suddenly waking from millennial lethargy, only for a few instants put in contact with ours, which is different and parallel, he has chosen to entrust himself to the soft spread of gouache and tempera, to the graphic boldness of Indian ink, to the rapid malleability of clay. His secret consists in having preserved amazement at (re)discovery. The task of a person that creates art, at bottom, is to be always ready to welcome what nature has to recount, overcoming that initial distrust that it can show towards any type of external “intrusion”, and transform oneself into a laboratory of forms in continual production. More simply, Santacroce faces life with a pure mind, awaiting promptings and revelations, but with all the luggage of a culture that roams from myth to the deepest values and mysteries of nature, which have always fascinated him. And in the interlacement that arises between the philological reading of the mythographic datum and its translation into image, in the aura of fabulating suspension which Santacroce is incapable of renouncing, there certainly lies the most attractive aspect of his artwork. In Santacroce the discovery of the classical world and myth dates from the years of his adolescence, when during his excursions out in the country he often came across testimonies of a remote and vanished past. The instinctive desire to recover finds scattered and corroded by time, to guard them and preserve them, and not only from definitive material destruction, constituted the natural premise for the start of precocious reflection. Born in 1945 at Rosolini, among the captivating stimuli of the splendid land of Sicily, Santacroce had the good luck to grow up in a family atmosphere that was certainly not conventional. His father Giovanni, wholly devoted to the defence of the weakest, since he was a young man had frequented the workshop of a well-known cart painter, and he wrote political and satirical essays, which he loved to illustrate with lively drawings. Antonio approached art beginning to attend courses at the art institute in Catania an d listening to the teachings of Pippo Giuffrida, a delicate neorealist, of the social painter Carmelo Comes and the vigorous colourist Francesco Ranno. Encouraged by his teachers and having received some recognitions, in the sixties he devoted himself to scene painting, working with the Teatro Massimo Bellini and Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, and so his first melancholy sketches were devoted to the fantastic world behind the scenes, to characters in costumes, actors and walk-ons; they were exhibited at the La Scaletta Gallery and Il Cenacolo in Catania. Avere, Dell'incontro dei cavalieri, 1988 Then came the discovery of Rome. Here, in this extraordinary workshop of languages and researches, of modes and tastes, the culture clubs and the art magazines supported the exponents of the New Realism and the New Dada and the abstract expressionism of Matta, De Kooning, Pollock and Rothko. The most important galleries in the capital guested the informal art of the protagonists of the contemporary panorama: these were the last exhibitions of works by Mario Mafai and Piero Manzoni, the first ones for Mario Schifano, Tano Festa, Pino Pascali and Giulio Paolini. The Piazza del Popolo group gave rise to the rich and jagged Italian Pop season, uncertainly poised between stereotyped image and protest, while in those years, for the first time in Italy, Christo did one of his famous empaquetages on a statue in the park of Villa Borghese. Yet when Santacroce returned from his Roman sojourns, moving to Switzerland, where he began to work at the Wohlen foundry, his approach to art proved miraculously intact. The decision to be faithful to an intelligible language, to vindicate the inexhaustible principles of figuration, was manifested in engraving. The artist experimented with this technique in the seventies, after he returned to Catania, as well as with watercolour and Indian ink in disquieting paintings that were dark and powerfully oneiric. But it was above all with the emergence of an “antiquarian” vocation, when Santacroce’s “archaeological dream” went beyond the heritage of his grotesque and theatrical imaginations, that the way for the versatile artist to go began to be clear. From the impenetrable textures of his temperas, transfused by Attic vase painting or a Pompeian fresco, there appeared outlines of wrestling athletes, players, gymnasts, acrobatics and metamorphoses of bodies and colours. Male and female nudes, warlike limbs and slender flesh, at times only shadows and lights animated by a strange interior life, were caught conversing against the background of Greek and Roman scenes just hinted at. And then there were sibyls, priests of mysteries, riders, matrons, Sileni. There was Hellenism in appearances and narrative rhythms that, far from imposing itself as a mere aesthetical or compositional model, continued to preserve a strong visionary coefficient and impassioned and painful lyricism, perhaps descending from knowledge of northern painting (Klee, in particular) which the artist enriched during his long sojourns in Switzerland, as a teacher at the Freudenberg Artistic High School in Zurich. Santacroce asks the figures that take on consistency under his brush, freed as by unpredictable enchantment from a subterranean life, to tell the secret of their adventures, in which humanism and paganism fantastically cohabit, and invites them to project their bitterly disillusionary teaching into the present. “Myth serves to get close to awareness of the limit that is proper to humanity” according to the artist’s own words. “It serves to balance the desire for power, for dominion, that is inherent in man, putting him in communication with a mysterious dimension that makes us more aware of that same limit.” The Pinacotheca series began in the eighties and has been continued down to today. It sparkles with red and earths, transuding Baroque mannerism and gilded sensuality. Then there are the “lava figures”, constructed with the incandescence of Etna, the temperas with chalky and Mediterranean colours peopled by the protagonists of the ancient fables (the warlike Athena, armed with a shield, the desolate Penelope, entangled in the fragile geometries of her cloths, hot Pan, the imprudent Actaeon), and finally the most recent Dittici del Dare e Avere. But Santacroce’s ideal penetration into the ancient, more than through other mediums perhaps finds its highest expression in sculpture, to which he devoted himself in the nineties, travelling on the subtle archaisms of his bronzes wedged into the exuberant folds of baked earth, celebrating the creative action of man and fire. Fire, the vital element par excellence, is still that of primitive Sicily, hence of the roots and passion of Santacroce. This artist, as generous and sincere as that of his seductive calligraphies, has never feared the passing of time.

(Traduzione di Denis Gailor)