Return to Articles


by Elenore Welles

(Pepperdine University, Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, Malibu) In the 1970s, Sandro Chia was in the forefront of Italian figurative painting. He was part of a movement loftily titled Transvanguardia, or “mythical conceptual” art. In the 1980s, he was termed a Neo-Expressionist. His present works have evolved into a form of Expressionist-Classicism. His use of vibrantly colored, swirling brushstrokes are reminiscent of the environmental dynamism of the Italian Futurists. At the same time, he shows an affinity with the enigmatic allegories found in 17th century Classicism.

In fact, Chia draws quite freely from art historical precedents. Although he reuses classical iconography, he reinterprets and updates mythology to his own ends. The themes may be ancient, but they are sheathed in modern dress. In Sudden Inspiration, for instance, he recalls the cloying drama of 19th century Realist allegory. A figure with a bow and arrow floats Chagall-like from the sky. A man in modern attire dramatically holds his head as he is about to be struck with a great idea. A vivid blue and green background, rendered in nervous abstract strokes, adds the contemporary touch to hoary iconography.

Large, rounded Picasso-esque figures seem to blend Baroque expressive elements with the kind of classical ideas found in 17th-century Arcadian landscapes. But it is merely the ideas that he borrows. Chia evokes the hero in a landscape rather than the heroic landscape. In landscapes by Poussin, for example, there is a give and take between background and figure. Chia’s figures exist in less ordered post-modern settings. They define themselves by their painted surfaces, and it is that which energizes their environment. Often dwarfed by their surroundings they manage, nonetheless, to possess a sculptural permanence.

“Painter’s Litany,” o/c,
112 x 80”, 1998.




"Sudden Inspiration,"
o/c, 78 x 68", 1998.

"Donation", o/c,
67 x 59", 1998.



"Two Figures," o/c,
34 x 30", 1998.

Whereas 17th-century landscapists appealed to the intellect, Chia’s worlds appeal to the senses. Having a Good Time, for example, depicts a pot bellied male nude asleep in a sea of leaves--not exactly the kind of figure found in idyllic classical paintings. The rosy fleshed hues and intense greenery add a distinctively hedonistic tinge--an evocation more in the Romantic vein.

Subtle transitory nuances of nature, such as the intensity of the texture or the vividness of the colors, evolve as metaphors for emotional experiences and moods. Whether set in bucolic environments that are benignly tranquil or swirling with turmoil, Chia’s figures seem to project an existential aloneness. They often appear to be locked within their own inner worlds, disconnected from their surroundings in a studied way. In Conversation two figures sit beneath trees. They are comical, apelike forms with sloping shoulders and muscles that seem to be melting. Although smaller than the trees, they project a voluminous force. Ostensibly in conversation, they appear detached, as though each is listening to his own inner voice. A connection between them is forged solely by a multicolored sun in the background.

These existential heroes attain a spiritual interdependence with nature that makes them subject to the vagaries of the unexpected. Yet, they manage to prevail--impervious and seemingly undaunted. In On the Tree, Under the Tree trees loom large and lean precariously. But one figure sits blithely on a limb while others gather peacefully below. Dressed in bright reds, yellows and blues, they are sublime in their mellowness.

Haunting forms sleep, meditate, rest, paint, prance and play. Are they poet, muse, philosopher--or merely manifestations of “everyman?” The narratives are ambiguous. Man and nature not quite utopian in their evocations, but heroic nonetheless. Delacroix professed that nature is rendered according to one’s own temperament. Chia’s environments evolve from imaginary forces that both reflect and clash with reality.