by Roderick Conway Morris

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Marco Anelli
Marco Tirelli in his studio in Rome

An Italian Artist's Perspectives on What Lies Beyond

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 17 October 2012


Marco Tirelli lived the life of an artist from an early age. He grew up surrounded by the children of visiting scholars and artists at the Swiss Institute in Rome, where his father was the manager. The family lived in an apartment in the Institute's grand 19th-century Villa Maraini and, in view of his precocious talents as a draftsman, the aspiring artist was assigned a studio of his own there at the age of 15.

Now 56, Mr. Tirelli said that living in the villa with its surrounding gardens was like being brought up in a time warp, in an oasis of old-world tranquillity near the Via Veneto, the epicenter in the early 1960s of the flamboyant and rackety lifestyle depicted in Federico Fellini's film 'La Dolce Vita.'

'So I'm a rather strange Roman,' he said. 'I grew up here, but I never felt entirely part of it. And this has had a big effect on my work because I've always sensed a tension between places, real places, and what lies unseen beyond.'

This year the artist staged his most ambitious show yet, with an installation of 25 canvases, 3 meters, or about 10 feet, tall but of varying widths, created especially for the occasion, occupying both pavilions at the Museo d'Arte Contemporanea Roma's 'Testaccio,' the museum's temporary exhibition space in a former slaughterhouse. The project was organized in partnership with the Musée d'Art Moderne de Saint-étienne Métropole in France where it is set to open next autumn.

Mr. Tirelli has spent much of his time since childhood occupied with drawing, both as a preparation for his painting and as an end in itself. Graphic works demonstrating the processes through which he develops his ideas on paper will be the subject of another exhibition, at the Istituto Nazionale per la Grafica gallery (behind the Trevi Fountain) in the spring.

Since the early 1980s, Mr. Tirelli has had a studio in the former Cerere Pasta Factory in the San Lorenzo district of Rome. He is counted among the members of what came to be called the San Lorenzo School, a group of young artists who found space in the former factory from the 1970s onwards, and who have produced works in a wide variety of styles. He has a studio on the top floor of the factory, where I recently went to meet the artist, whose works can be found in museums in Italy, Austria, France, Germany, Japan and the United States.

Over the last decade, Mr. Tirelli's painting has given rise to a series of large-scale canvases of geometric objects and arresting contrasts of light and darkness - rendered with an extraordinary combination of boldness in design and subtlety in perspective and painting technique to create astonishing trompe-l'oeil sculptural images and vibrant visual effects.

These paintings are difficult to categorize. They are metaphysical in that they share the aspiration of Giorgio de Chirico during his Metaphysical Painting period 'to show what cannot be seen.'

'I was incredibly struck, for example, how in 'Il Vaticinatore' de Chirico showed the shadow of a statue, but not the statue itself,' he said. 'So the statue was absent and yet present.'

However, the means by which Mr. Tirelli strives to realize his metaphysical visions are entirely different from those of the Greek-born painter. Indeed, to explain the purpose of his works he turns not to other painters but instead to the early 19th-century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi's 'L'infinito' (Infinity). In these verses the poet, sitting on a hill, his view of the distant horizon impeded by a hedge, imagines 'endless spaces beyond,' perceiving that immensity, through intervening layers of physical reality, only in the mind's eye.

'I'm fascinated by surfaces and what is on the other side of them,' Mr. Tirelli said. 'Dürer was intensely engaged with this concept of 'perspicere,' of 'seeing through,'' he added, referring to the Renaissance German artist. 'And, of course, the use of perspective to transport the viewer through the immediate surface, the canvas or the wall, into another world is its classic manifestation in art.'

While maintaining a base at the Cerere factory, Mr. Tirelli spent much of the 1990s and the last decade in a remote house in the mountains of Umbria in the region of Spoleto, pursuing his art in an almost hermitlike fashion. 'I am not religious in a conventional sense, but Umbria is a deeply mystical land,' he said.

The utter darkness of the night when he looked out of the window of his house there, far from artificial light sources, had a profound influence on his artistic vision, he said.

'You knew that there were mountains and woods and a world out there yet you could not see them in the almost total blackness,' he said. 'And by shining a torch out into the darkness, you could see the complete division of light and darkness. The church fathers described God as light, but I began to conceive of an all-enveloping God not as light, but as darkness.'

Interestingly, Mr. Tirelli studied not painting but set design at the Fine Arts Academy in Rome, and he is an admirer of the Swiss theatrical designer Adolphe Appia, echoes of whose style can perhaps be found in the geometry and dramatic illusionistic lighting of Mr. Tirelli's own works.

'I was in many ways more interested in the ideas behind designing scenes, rather than in pursuing a career in the theater,' he said. 'Ideas are very important to me and I think that technique should derive from those ideas as the method of representing them. In stage design the construction of the scene should be the clearest possible expression of the essence of the drama. And that is what I am trying constantly to do in my paintings: to concentrate, to reduce, to distill every element down to its vital essence.'

Mr. Tirelli considers himself neither a figurative nor an abstract artist and draws on a vast archive of accumulated objects, drawings and photographs to build his images, which are finally elaborated in his imagination, rather than taken directly from nature or actual objects.

The starting point for his large canvases is a small drawing. The amazingly nuanced 'sfumato,' or vaporous blurring of contours, that give his final painted objects such an arresting three-dimensional appearance are based, he said, on years of practice, particularly with gradations of shading in charcoal on paper.

The completed drawing is then scaled up to make stencils to divide the main fields of the final painting. He then creates the image using a pointillist technique, using principally airbrushes rather than paintbrushes - except when applying highly diluted, transparent layers of color.

As with pointillist paintings, Mr. Tirelli's images are constructed of tens of thousands of small dots, but thanks to the use of the airbrush, these are minuscule, far smaller than those of conventional pointillist paintings. And, despite their apparent monochrome appearance from a distance, Mr. Tirelli's images are in fact composed not only of white and black paints, but also yellows, ochres, greens, blues and other colors, which reveal themselves only on very close inspection.

To purify the paints and prevent the airbrushes from becoming clogged, the artist first filters his colors through pieces of tulle, bought from a bridal dress supplier and inserted in glass cones that lend his studio the appearance of a chemical laboratory. He then dilutes the paints to achieve different levels of viscosity before spraying them with painstaking precision onto the surface of the canvas, the size of the dots being decided by minute variations in the pressure of the airbrush.

Each canvas probably represents up to a month's work, but Mr. Tirelli said he worked on several canvases at a time, switching from subject to subject, to keep his vision clear during this process. 'And also to stop me from going mad,' he said.

One challenge presented by the artist's idiosyncratic painting method is that it is extremely difficult to correct errors, which makes the immaculately crafted and consistently even finish of these large canvases all the more remarkable.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023