Voltaire once said that the secret of being boring was to say everything. The same holds true in art, both at a technical and a conceptual level. Great artists don’t paint every hair on somebody’s head or every pore on their skin: they suggest, and leave our imaginations to fill in the gaps. Similarly, their paintings don’t tell us explicitly what we’re supposed to think: instead, they leave us free to imagine and contemplate. Sometimes it’s infuriatingly impossible to understand a painting: academic debates have raged for over 80 years about the meaning of Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait and nobody really knows why the barmaid’s reflection in Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère is in the place it is.
Luca Indraccolo’s paintings tantalise in this way. Although it’s obvious what they represent at one level (a naked woman on a garbage heap, or a man slaughtering an eel), they have a depth and an ambiguity to them which makes their contemplation rewarding. We talked to Luca about ‘Farhan’, one of his portraits.
Lot5: This is a fascinating painting, and much more than a straightforward portrait. It’s as if it’s a section of a much wider scene or painting: it inspires me to ask what is happening beyond the small window that we can see. I’m asking myself: Who is this man? Where is he from? What is he thinking? Why is he dressed that way? What is he looking at? I hesitate to ask you, since your answer might destroy the illusion, but is there a story behind this painting? Or is the point to provoke those questions, but remain ambiguous?
Luca: Exactly. I want people to make up their own idea about this person and the wider setting. I find that even when I explain exactly what I want to achieve with a certain image, people always react in their own way and feel whatever they feel. This is what I love about art! When people connect with my work emotionally and create their own stories that makes it worthwhile for me.
But I will answer your questions. I hope you won’t feel like I’m revealing the killer’s identity right at the beginning of a cheap crime story! Farhan is a man who I met on the street. He’s a historian, a political activist (with whatever connotations you feel like attaching to that). I’m not exactly sure where he’s from.
I went out with the intention of documenting (with camera and interviews) some of the more interesting characters who were occupying the streets outside St Paul’s cathedral in protest a few years back. My original idea was to combine oil portraits of the most interesting people with some of the key words from their interviews about their political views into the image.
It was only afterwards that I realized that what I wanted to represent went beyond the words the people had spoken; and here lies the issue. I can only speak for myself, but I have a hunch that most visual artists would be in a similar situation when I say that I have a clear idea in my head of not necessarily how exactly the picture will turn out (although this is pretty clear), but the mood – and that isn’t quite the right word – I want. That is why as soon as I start trying to describe it, I feel it loses some of its purpose and power.
Lot5: People often think that painting is simply copying reality, but of course there’s much more to it than that, as I think this painting demonstrates. Can you give some examples of the deliberate choices you made when you composed and painted it?
Luca: I deliberately moved Farhan off to one side of the picture frame, as if he were addressing an audience. The gold laurel leaves in his crown were there in real life, and the costume is nothing more that a jacket with a sheepskin collar which I enhanced the texture of.
Lot5: You’ve said in the past that there are so many painters you find inspirational you can’t list them all. Your brushwork is, in many places, highly abstract. Are there any painters who have inspired you in this respect, either in general or in this painting in particular?
Luca: I am very much drawn to a school of realism that is more impressionistic than photographic. You’re right in mentioning the abstract quality of the paint as I’m endlessly fascinated by the plastic quality of the medium; though I see the abstract element as a by product rather than the aim of the painting. The starting point is always representing an image and an idea and I explore how far I can go with the shapes and edges without losing the image. Think late nineteen century Spanish or Italian, like Mariano Fortuny y Marsal and Antonio Mancini.