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Gianfranco Asveri

Born in Fiorenzuola d'Arda in 1948, Asveri lives and works on the hills near Piacenza with his dogs. He has neither attended art academies nor studied art in other ways, but after a difficult childhood and adolescence he began painting in 1969, finding a reason for living in art. After an initial period in which he expressed himself with a traditional figurative language, since the eighties his painting has acquired a more instinctive and personal gesture, rich in colour and material, close to the expressionism of Art Brut. Characterized by an instinctive and emotional pictorial style, Asveri approaches the surface with a powerful and primitive gesture, which he nevertheless combines with other, less perceptible expressive matrixes, like the memory of artistic images. Profound and vital, Asveri's painting is inspired by an observation of reality: the animals the artist gathers and takes care of, lives with and loves more than anything else, to whom he dedicates his drawings, paintings and poems. The economic paper "Il Sole 24 0re" recently listed him among the ten most important artists of the Italian market. Several critics have written about him, including Luca Beatrice, Paolo Blendiger, Luciano Caprile, Maurizio Corgnati, Elda Fezzi, Flaminio Gualdoni, Elisabetta Longari, Lorenzo Kame|, Nicoletta Pallini, Elena Pontiggia, Giovanni Quaglino, Mauro Rosci, Giovanni Seveso, the poet Ferdinando Cogni, Ivana D'Agostino and Claudio Vela.

Gianfranco Asveri

Nato a Fiorenzuola d'Arda nel 1948, Asveri vive e lavora ai Gasperini sulle colline piacentine in compagnia dei suoi cani. Non ha frequentato accademie né ha seguito studi artistici di altro genere. Nel 1969 ha incominciato a dipingere, trovando nell'arte una ragione di vita. Dopo un periodo iniziale in cui si è espresso con un linguaggio figurativo tradizionale, a partire dagli anni Ottanta la sua pittura è approdata a un gesto più istintivo e personale, ricco di colore e di materia, vicino all'espressionismo dell'Art Brut. Rappresentante di uno stile pittorico fortemente istintuale ed emotivo, Asveri aggredisce la superficie con una gesto prepotente e primitivo, che lascia tuttavia convivere con altre matrici espressive meno percettibili, memoria di immagini artistiche. Con un afflato profondo e vitale, la pittura di Asveri scaturisce dall'osservazione del reale: gli animali che l'artista raccoglie e cura, con i quali vive e che ama sopra ogni cosa, ai quali dedica disegni, dipinti e poesie. Il quotidiano Il Sole 24Ore lo ha recentemente segnalato fra i dieci artisti di punta del mercato dell'arte italiano. Di lui hanno scritto critici quali Luca Beatrice, Paolo Blendinger, Beatrice Buscaroli, Luciano Caprile, Martina Corgnati, Maurizio Corgnati, Elda Fezzi, Stefano Fugazza, Flaminio Gualdoni, Elisabetta Longari, Lorenzo Kamel, Domenico Montalto, Nicoletta Pallini, Elena Pontiggia, Giovanni Quaglino, Alessandro Riva, Marco Rosci, Maurizio Sciaccaluga, Giorgio Seveso, Claudio Vela e il poeta Ferdinando Cogni.

Arriving at Asveri's house just as evening falls, leaving the Via Emilia as it snakes around the hills, climbing up the narrow road to the house overlooking the valley - the last in the village of Gasperini - is perhaps the best way to cross the boundary between two worlds, the world we habitually live in and the one in which the artist has chosen to live.

The twilight caresses things, making shapes both more uncertain and more essential, sharpening our melancholy and nostalgia for the day we have left behind, but it seems to be intended specifically to lessen the sensation of transition. As I seek my destination, my eye wanders beyond it to the architecture of the trees, never as clear and beautiful as at this time of year, when, with all the leaves fallen, the buds not yet awake, awaiting the explosion of warmth of the new season, the nervous tangle of branches casts a silhouette against the surrounding light and air. As l try to pick out the artist's home among the houses that make up the village in the falling darkness, l am greeted by the insistent barking of his seven dogs, once strays but given a loving welcome here. Asveri, with the air of a wise patriarch or an old Indian chief attempts to quiet the whirlwind of motion and barking, and points out, there, at the edge of the garden, where the land ends and drops off to the valley, the tombs of the dogs that have reached the end of their days: each stone bears a name written in white paint, the memory of an animal that was unknown but found an identity and a home here. l note that from this point, we can see both Asveri's house and the winding river at the bottom of the valley, reminding me of the serenity of home and dream of adventure.

As soon as I enter the house I can smell turpentine. "A painter lives here," I note right away, and the impact on the eyes is as strong as the impact on the nostrils: some of Asveri's paintings are hanging on the walls, while others, waiting to go to his next exhibition in a few weeks' time, rest against the wall of the ground floor room he uses as storage. The artist shows them to me one by one, and I soon find myself immersed in their colours and shapes. It is hard to say whether what I notice the most is the explosive force of the pigments - reds, yellows and blues laden with passion, abandoned to the intimate ways of the heart - or the dizzy joy of the forms and signs that have been created.

If we go back over Asveri’s voyage in the past twenty years, since he discovered the value of paint as matter and made it the womb in which to graft and germinate his innate talent for drawing — I'm thinking of his landscapes and portraits of the early 'eighties, when he started mixing marble dust with his pigments and making works in which we can see the influence of some of the great Emilian painters (Morandi, Moreni, Mattioli), of De Staél and Congdon - we can see that Asveri has always attempted to be a mirror of the world that surrounds him, in a process in which reality is leavened by fantasy, continuously reinvented in the imagination, and moves forward toward primary forms and colours, those which children naturally know how to use. Asveri's career - for the worst mistake is to call him a "naif" artist, who spills what he has inside onto canvas or paper without any kind of cultural mediation or filter — is that of a painter who loved, and attempted to make his own, not only the painters we have mentioned but artists such as van Gogh, Varlin, Bacon, Klee, Mirò, Dubuffet, some of the members of "Cobra" - such as Corneille, and others who, beyond their use of the informal idiom, left us a heritage of total, unconditional abandonment to the enchantment of colour and the relationships among pure pigments and later felt the irresistible attraction of simplicity, of absolute poetry, which can be said in only a few words: in his case, of colour and shape which we might describe as "childish", using the word in a sense that is by no means limiting. In short, it is as if Asveri, having loved and introjected certain great artists, had with time discovered that he was still missing something, that his true masters were actually children, with their willingness to make themselves vessels of epiphany rather than of forms and colours. Of course he could not entirely divest himself of what he had learned and practiced, and so his childlike vision was grafted onto an educated use of matter and colour- his dogs recall both children's drawings and Calder’s. So that Asveri's regression - if that is what we want to call it, though the term is not quite right - is exactly the opposite of that which occurs in real life: not from simplicity to a form of complexity that ends up blunting some of the senses, but from culture to a spontaneity better suited to receiving the revelation of things. Asveri has developed a more direct language, capable of communicating with greater strength and universality; and he has made good use of his acquisitions, which, after all, he has never cast behind him. Thus Asveri has managed to develop some of his natural talents and made certain technical accomplishments his own - which is clear in the way he treats matter, unravels signs, conceives of the only apparently simple complexity of his compositions, rich in internal references and echoes - but he has also chosen to go back to conquer that vision - perfectly congenial to his world and his imagination - which common sense had perhaps required him to give up or try to forget. And the result is that his works are the product of an eye that blends culture with tenderness, wisdom with innocence. Like Mirò, Asveri allows himself to be enchanted by it all, even by that which appears modest, that which has already been seen and catalogued over and over again. In him we feel an anxiety for the dream, an endless desire for the adventure of the imagination, in which even the simplest forms of life continue to surprise him. It is as if a child-gene has been introduced into Asveri's painting at a certain point, and he has been working hard for years to come up with an alphabet of forms, a repertoire of symbols. After the experiments of the ‘eighties, rich in tonal sensibility, brighter and brighter fields of colour begin to appear in Asveri's painting, in which the symbol carves out a shape, a furrow that splits open the earth before sowing - nature and its cycles are often directly, materially present in the artist's work, for he knows them well. And so Asveri's increasingly simplified forms begin to appear: children with wiry limbs, a triangle representing the trunk and a vaguely oval or circular shape outlining the head, within which seeds (like those of a watermelon) allude to eyes, nose and mouth. The sun and the moon watch benevolently over these inhabitants of the earth, who express all their wonder at finding themselves on the stage of the world. Asveri's theatre is gradually enriched with more and more characters: marionettes, idols, clowns. The bestiary grows too: at first it was just dogs and owls, but now there are birds, snails, cats, goats; nature is revealed in flowers, sunflowers and trees; the earth is inhabited with houses and the sky is navigated by clouds.The dots disappear in the heads, and now it is closed lines that draw the nose, mouth, eyes and eyebrows. Planes fuse together, are inverted, overlap; everything is mixed up in Asveri's big, flowing, weightless theatre, and the coloured pieces of the mosaic are linked together with paths that reconstruct a map of the world, a cartography of sentiment and visual associations, a portolan chart of the tenderness of the eyes, As Asveri's painting evolves it moves back and forth like a pendulum, with innovations and returns that always preserve the acquisitions of the past. A stage based on informal painting might be succeeded by a period in which his paintings are articulated by a preference for complete, essential geometric forms, for the spatial relationships created among these forms and the colours that fill them — and here Asveri seems to have been enchanted by Klee. Yet this rarefaction may give way to a crowded wood, thick with signs: in bodies and houses and people, vertical and horizontal lines meet and cross to create a weave, like a child’s game traced with chalk on the courtyard pavement. Colour and shapes have evolved over time in Asveri's painting, but the sign is still his obsession, the cornerstone of it all. His sketches of his dogs clearly reveal that Asveri is good at drawing: the sign of the pencil or the dry-point navigates loosely across paper or stone, giving in to the sensual pleasure of the mind that guides the hand, instinctively defining outlines and assonances to close, after lingering to state the truth of a form with a sudden swerve, with the gentleness of a curve.

With time his signs have become even freer, more spontaneous, if this is possible, as if they were the product of an automatic movement, of drawing in a trance. The artist's recent works include a number of memorable drawings engraved in a black or white square of colour. In many of these paintings there is a tessera of colour, with the hilly landscape or the carefree outline of a dog. Asveri seems to use this allusion to a world that he identifies with so strongly, is so intimately bound up with, as his signature, his proudly exhibited identity, and more: a way of handing down his values. We may be deceived in two ways as we behold these works. The viewer dazzled by how easy they appear to be, may be tempted to conclude, as so many people do before certain paintings or photographs, that "I could do that! Or he may be tempted to find something insincere about this childlike vision, as is often the case when there is a great gulf between an artist’s life and background and his works. But Asveri's painting does not deserve these judgements. I must confess that the sight of his works inspires in me, beyond the pleasure of viewing them, a sense of bitterness, which I have often felt, for the loss and mutilation that always occurs in people's ability to express themselves right after the end of childhood. It is as if we need to sacrifice something important in order to become first adolescents and then adults, as if we need to cast off our innate knowledge or ability, our capacity to look at things with clear eyes, as if, in order to be able to learn more, we need to empty ourselves out, deprive ourselves, get rid of something in us that is intimate and original — that extraordinary ability of children to burst out the truth in its simplest form. This is even sadder if we think that the process of internal growth that each of us becomes familiar with on his or her way through life is based partly, more or less consciously, on reinvention of the past: a necessary tool for exploring new terrain and imagining and planning new things in the future. Asveri's people, his houses, his dogs, his stars have their origins in his imagination, rather than in direct experience, which we always reinvent to some extent when we reconstruct it in order to talk about it or paint it. A child, when he draws or colours an image, takes it back and lives it over again in his memory.

The clear eyes of a child, ready to be amazed by the world, are what we need to learn much more about things than we can discover later on, once we have "filed them away" in our minds and defined them with a name or a label. After this, only rarely will they be able to ignite our imagination, to link us with a distant time, a sound, a scent or a voice. After all, once we know the name of something, and are too familiar and confident with it, once we have already got a definition for it, however fallacious, we have done away with all the marvel and the wonder, and we walk right by it without seeing it. Much of the essence, the truth of this thing will be lost to us forever. Elèmire Zolla bitterly calls childhood "the glorious, betrayed introduction to existence, (. . .) the ideal place where the unity and ecstasy from which every feeling issues is concealed". And Loris Malaguzzi, who came up with the pedagogy used in the nursery schools of Reggio Emilia, speaking of "The eye that jumps over the wall", their exhibition and emblem, writes: "it is an exhibition which attempts to record the breaking of the rules, the joy of climbing over the wall of the obvious and the banal which ought to reveal the pleasure and the hard work of learning, the joy of discovery, of making hypotheses and theories, that ought to represent a struggle against boredom". And so we ought to realise that Asveri's approach to his way of painting, his challenge to boredom and banality, cost him a lot of hard work. But it was the only way to climb over the wall of the obvious and the banal, to contemplate the splendours of the hidden treasure once again. It is odd that Asveri should have divided up the rooms in his house in such an unexpected way. His studio is not in one of the biggest rooms, it is not easy to get to through a door on the ground level or the first floor; to get to his studio you have to go through his bedroom — with that feeling of intimacy violated, of having to move around with care and respect, which I always get when, for example, a collector takes me to see the paintings he has put up in his bedroom. Asveri's studio is the most secret, least accessible part of his house, as if he had set up barriers, filters, impediments: this is, after all, the temple where he goes to get in touch with his idea of the sacred. There's something Baconian about this studio. It is not the mess and disorderly piles of stuff captured in all the photographs of the British artist's workshop, but organic matter that is deposited here and in some way continues to live and germinate — there is an uninterrupted chain between one day spent painting and the next, made up partly out of concrete, tactile memory of what was used to do it, what was deposited here. Asveri cannot get rid of any of the things he has used for painting: and so there is a stack of jars; a pile of paint tubes, squeezed empty; strips of wood from frames; over there is a pile of paper used to wrap pastels; he even keeps burnt-out light bulbs in jars; and the easel is surrounded by a mountain of layers of paint which have dried out and solidified into a sort of multicoloured lava, as if a volcano erupted here. In this windowless room that lets in only a little light from outside, with the low painted beams of the ceiling hanging over us, we breathe in a feeling of unstoppable growth of organic matter. And I think that life here will end when the process of accumulation and proliferation of this matter has invaded and suffocated all the oxygen that is left, used up every breath: and then there will be no more room for paint or for the painter, who will somehow be engulfed by this silent, fervid life that has risen all around him. I think that this studio is, in the end, the measure of how much time Asveri has left - and he knows it. This workshop is somehow a work of conceptual art, which ought to be reconstructed in one of his exhibitions, or at least represented in photographs. In the end, perhaps Asveri expresses, in a different and less sophisticated form, the same visionary quality as Roman Opalka, when he paints his numbers on the canvas, gradually changing their hue, and puts a snapshot of himself behind the canvas documenting how his appearance has changed as he travels toward death, closely linked with the change of hue on his canvases. I think Asveri would agree with Opalka's statement that "to grasp time, we need to view death as a real dimension of life. The existence of a being is not fullness, but an entity that is missing something. The being is defined by death, which is what it is missing.” So it is not inappropriate to speak of Asveri's studio as a temple: in this claustrophobic place of expiation and purification, numbed by the insistent smell of turpentine and pigments, we embark on a difficult, solitary path, travelled by very few. I had seen some of Asveri's works in the past - not many, actually - and I was struck by the strength of their truth, though I was suspicious of what had built up around the artist, as is so often the case: a sort of legend, a special aura, which he definitely has and takes with him wherever he goes, but which often ends up obscuring the value of the work of art, when it is seen through the deforming glass of his biography. I myself may have run this risk in speaking of the artist's studio, but what I think is important, in the end, is saying that Asveri's paintings and drawings must be seen, looked at and touched as if they had been created by an unknown artist. His tough life, with its sufferings - the orphanage, the trouble and hardships of family life - that have in part been assuaged, but have by no means been forgotten, even once he earned recognition as an artist - must not get in the way of or mislead our understanding of his works. Asveri is a true artist; let us cast off all prejudices in our interpretation and immerse ourselves in these forms and colours, in this primary happiness - in the enchantment of this hidden treasure - and let ourselves be carried away by this "childlike" way of seeing things that we lost so long ago. Asveri's painting is a great lesson in freedom: perhaps, despite what we have been told and had imposed on us, we can grow up without ceasing to look at the world with those clear eyes, open to all the epiphanies of the real world, to every burst of feeling, that only children seem to have.

Text by Sandro Parmiggiani