In the years around 1980, Francesco Clemente was one of a group of young Italian painters who broke free from the sterile abstraction of Minimalism and the humble materialism of Arte Povera, art movements that had pronounced painting, especially figurative painting, a dead medium. The painting revival that began in Italy sparked an international stylistic shift that persisted throughout the 1980s and involved artists such as Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, and Julian Schnabel. Known broadly as Neo-Expressionism, this movement revitalized painting and brought back individual expression by using sensuous color, gestural technique, narrative content, and the human figure on a grand scale.
La stanza della madre was a commission for the inauguration of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. This series of seventeen panels evokes the large-scale decorative murals of Medieval and Renaissance palaces. As is usual with Clemente, elements from previous works reappear, defying any strictly linear definition of stylistic development. The artist’s recurrent motifs serve as a visual lexicon linking one work to the next. References to elemental forces—earth, water, fire, and air—are juxtaposed with symbolism from Indian culture, religious history, and astrology. In La stanza della madre, Clemente used a stage backdrop from the 1920s as his canvas. The patches in the material and its faded background design serve as the basis for the painting and enhance the lyricism of the work. Finally, “stanza” recalls the Renaissance stanze, rooms that provide refuge from the outside world.
Clemente’s metaphoric vocabulary is deeply rooted in the body, and the artist’s many variations on the human form indicate its primacy as a symbol for how he envisions the world. Representing both wholeness and fragmentation, freedom and constriction, the body is Clemente’s ultimate vehicle for expressing life’s dualities, especially in the many portraits and self-portraits produced throughout his career. In much of Clemente’s work, eyes and genitals are prominent. For him, these sensitive regions serve as channels between the interior realm of the psyche and the exterior world of nature and culture. An artist with close ties to Italy, America, and India, Clemente has always used the influence of foreign cultures to explore the interface between self and surroundings.