The stark white light of Rome is one of my earliest recollections. I remember it reflected in the fountain of the dusty, pebbled park where I played each day under the tall umbrella pines, and off the Tiber across the street from our house. Sometimes I would hear the loud, amplified singing of Fascist hymns booming through the air from the stadium nearby, which drove my mother to slam shut windows and rattle down the blinds. And all the while that unforgiving, uncompromising light of Rome.
Around the time I was three, Italy began to pass racial laws, and as Jews we had to leave in order to survive. In January of 1938 my mother, my sister Anna and I boarded the huge Italian liner Conte di Savoia bound for New York. My fascination with ships began at this time. The liner's stabilizers had been removed and the big ship bobbed around in the Atlantic storms like a cork. Its dramatic lifts and dips thrilled us children who, unencumbered by adult supervision - they were all seasick - had free run of the splendid, lurching mammoth. We learned to count watching the portholes go from sky grey to deep water green.
We settled in Manhattan where I attended the neighborhood nursery school and where I sold my first painting for a nickel. When I was six I enrolled in Public School 173. We were the children of Europe. Our I.Q.s were carefully measured and we were encouraged to develop our skills and, in my case, artistic talents. When I was nine I was given the responsibility of heading a team to create the sets, props and posters for the school's pageants, plays and musical performances. Competition among schools was fierce and I was very proud when my background scenery design, General George Washington Crossing the Delaware River, was prominently featured in the New York Sun.
At thirteen I entered New York's High School of Music and Art. I enjoyed the lively, creative atmosphere. But then my mother fell ill and died, and my father decided we should return to Rome. I was reluctant to leave the optimistic world of my youthful, talented companions. Coming back by sea to my native Italy, I felt that each passing day was pulling me inexorably backward in time. We disembarked in Genoa, birthplace of my mother, where my Dutch grandparents had a villa in the nearby hills. The crystalline stillness of their little garden, pierced occasionally by the gentle sound of distant church bells, was quite a contrast to the accustomed roar of New York.
That autumn my sister and I joined our father in Rome to live in the apartment on the Tiber we had fled ten years earlier. Rome seemed strange and foreign to me then, the people still feeling the pain and bitterness of the war. It was the time of De Sica's Bicycle Thief and Fellini's I Vitelloni, a time of resentment and misgivings, before the postwar boom. Our family life was enhanced in 1951 when my father remarried. My stepmother Lotte, an artistic and caring woman, was very supportive of my work.
On the advice of my father's friend, architect Giovanni Michelucci, I enrolled in the class of the painter Roberto Melli at the Accademia di Belle Arti. I was fourteen, too young for the course, but on the enrollment form I closed the top of the four making it look like a nine to seem nineteen. Being tall for my age I thus passed quietly into the adult world of art studies. My father accompanied me on the first day of classes. When I hung back shyly from the others, he pointed at another young woman standing to one side and suggested I go over to speak to her. As we began to talk, she started undressing, and I realized she was our model. Over the next year I was to sketch her at least two hundred times.
Roberto Melli was the perfect teacher. A true artist, a writer, a poet, an art historian, a wonderful, steadfast painter, he had been one of the moving forces of the art movement Valori Plastici whose doctrine stressed the importance of light in the creation of geometric mass, of volume in space, of planes of color. Although Melli never left Italy, his art was international in its creative freedom. "How fortunate you are to have ended up with me," he often told me. Melli was remarkable for his youthful enthusiasm which had endured the cruelties of the war and its consequences of poverty, and because he was a Jew, isolation and ostracism.
When I was seventeen, Roberto Melli was art critic for the newspaper Il Paese. An old man with a rolling limp, he walked with a cane, which he also used to gesticulate and punctuate his remarks. To my delight, Melli chose me to accompany him on his rounds of the Roman galleries. Eventually I began to keep notes and write critical essays. I wrote about forty pieces, many of which were published. Melli and I would meet several afternoons a week at a sidewalk cafe on the Via del Babuino, planning the day's strategy at a little round table over two granita di caffe con panna served in fluted glasses, gratifying a sweet tooth we had in common. Then we would make our rounds, sometimes together, sometimes separately. At dusk, a swallow-filled, bell-tolling Roman dusk, that for some obscure reason filled us both with an almost desperate melancholy, we would go to our homes to write our pieces for the next day's deadline, mine corrected and occasionally revised by my father.
Guided, encouraged, and sometimes bullied by these two wonderfully intelligent and gentle men, I never faced the lonely fearful doubts some of my friends endured. This was a particulary inspired period of my life. Thrust suddenly into the world of creative adults, I was freed of childhood preoccupations and could paint at will. And how I painted, as though being chased by the Devil. I would be covered with paint in my haste to accomplish and would finish a painting in a few hours with miraculous ease, almost as if someone were painting right through me. I never stopped long enough to bother with style, just content, because I was afraid the subject would somehow elude me and I would never be able to express the rapture I felt. Outside, the Roman light, that had once seemed so ominous, had become revelatory, sparkling on the pearly surfaces of the Tiber and its bordering buildings, touching off planes of color that vibrated like music.
I had my first public exhibition with another student, painter Marcos Grigorian, at the Bar Bruzio, a little cafe near the Accademia. My first one-man show was at the prestigious Galleria Il Pincio on the Piazza del Popolo. The paintings glowed inside their antique frames lent to me for the occasion, while wonderfully fastidious Melli admonished and fussed up to the last moment when I lacquered the oil paintings for the vernissage. I was warmed by the welcome given me by the many artists who stopped by during those few weeks of the exhibition, including Corrado Cagli and Carlo Levi, Orfeo Tamburi and Rosai, Afro and Mirko, as well as so many others of the younger generation.
After the Pincio exhibit closed and my four years at the Academy were behind me, I realized for the first time just how introspective and solitary the profession of being a painter was to be. Gone was the camaraderie of the Academy. My friends had returned to their native countries to make their ways. Even the good Melli told me, "I have taught you all I know, now go out into the world and look at the masters." I was on my own, and accepted an invitation from my aunt Gilda to visit her in Israel.
Jerusalem at the time was divided by a cruel wall. I remember visiting the Bezalel Art Academy and being cordially received by the respected artist Zahara Shatz, and also meeting the famed Mordechai Ardon and the young painter Naftali Besem. I recall the piercing intelligence of their glances and their almost palpable creative energy, and I admired their sturdy art. I saw their symbolism, however, as an abstraction, a distraction from the simpler, basic truths of the landscape. I could not adopt the approach of the Israeli artists; to me it was enough - indeed it was the only possible way - to try and convey, working right there on the spot, the bliss I felt, a sort of mystic oneness with my surroundings which at the same time felt quite natural. There was no way I could impose my ego or any pre existing thoughts in my renderings of this miraculously evocative landscape, where earth and sky all but speak.
Working in Israel made me realize the light was different there in its interplay with earth and sky. It was almost as though the light itself suggested the imagined and real events that had occurred in that ancient land. Divine intervention seemed very close at hand in the powdery desert landscapes, cruel rocks and the misty sea. I toured the small, mythical country and painted a number of pictures which I showed upon my return to Rome at the Galleria l'Asterisco.
Quite different from Israel was the landscape of Paris where I worked the following year. There the sky keeps its distance, held at bay by blue-gray clouds, and we are left to our own devices. In the long summer afternoons, sometimes until nine o'clock at night, I would paint in the streets of Paris or on the banks of the Seine.
It was in Holland that I began to see the sky as a constructive element, another plane that was part and parcel of an architectural whole, with its own properties of texture and mass, not just as an accomodating background. I accepted a summer grant from the Royal Academy in Amsterdam, where my fellow artists and I were closeted in separate studios, a situation I found puzzling after the bolstering bonhomie of the Roman Academy. I worked in relative solitude, but I was not lonely: painting near the Amsterdam docks, I would be surrounded by groups of solemn workers. I could not imagine what they were thinking. No one smiled or spoke. As they filed away, men and women, they left on my palette little tokens of affection, chocolates or cigarettes. These quiet acknowledgements touched me more than carefully worded compliments.
My two exhibitions in the Netherlands made me realize that art in Holland, where the briny, filtered light precludes any technique except oil, is not thought of as a joyous, natural activity: styles and doctrines are taken very seriously and work is literally examined by the critics with a lens, in one case a jeweler's loupe. All aspects of the paintings were meticulously noted.
In 1958 I packed a crate of paintings and went to New York. It had been a long time since I had seen the United States. I had my first one-man show at the Barzansky Gallery, exhibiting work from Israel, Paris and Amsterdam. The number of galleries at the time was about six hundred, all competing for attention. I felt like the proverbial needle in the haystack. I had not remembered how huge New York City was compared to Rome.
This sense of vastness and isolation influenced my art. I was overwhelmed by the variety and yet the sameness of the Manhattan vision. Each day, each moment, the light was different. Sometimes it would be cool and northern. Sometimes with the sun reflecting off the corroded brick buildings of the West Side where I lived, it was as hot and southern as Naples. I had seen the buildings of Europe as reflections of a personality or a culture. Here the contrasts were amazing, and not just in architectural style, but in their wish to evoke the past even in its most capricious aspects - and all this posturing high up in the sky of the city amidst the vast indifference of its citizens, who went about their business on the sidewalk hundreds of feet below.
This vision was for me the summation of modern life. Here in stone, steel and cement were my companions in flight, architectural beings amassed haphazardly, each an important personality, whose contrast created yet other beings, other atmospheres, other paintings. These symbolic rooftops, turrets, spires, decaying decorative friezes and walls with faded legends almost illegible, bore witness to the indifference of the surrounding city and the corrosive passage of time, more tangible here than in any other part of the world. It seemed pointless to extract myself from what I saw, to try and formalize these visions by simplifying their shapes or ignoring their exactness. It was their reality which was miraculous. Certainly pictorially it was quite a challenge. I found myself, who had run off a painting in a few hours, meticulously painting row upon row of windows, each reflecting a different light, painstakingly evoking brick after brick like rosary beads, to be sure that the whole would convey just the right texture, the right tonal value. Where others seemed to find emptiness, I found a wealth of sensual revelations waiting to take form.
Right after the Barzansky exhibit closed, I left with my crate full of pictures for a tour of lectures and exhibitions in the West. I played the role of an exotic traveling salesman of art, showing paintings in spacious, often forlorn galleries. The cultural centers I toured were akin to medieval monasteries, places of learning in the middle of endless fields of corn and wheat, where in those days, before widespread television had unified us all, people thirsted for the outside world.
Scattered in this almost cultural vacuum I found fine painters, sculptors and potters. We would cling to each other like shipwrecked souls who meet by chance in a sea of grass. But how kind and spunky the students were. Sometimes they would congregate in the snow under my window and sing. I painted their portraits at rest and attending classes; we were all about the same age, and shared secrets or swapped stories like college roommates.
When the tour finished, I returned to New York where I met my future husband, a lawyer whose interests lay in human rights. He was later to head Amnesty International in the United States. His family was in New York and mine in Rome, so we married aboard the ocean liner S.S. Constitution somewhere in between. Like many young couples, we settled into a tiny New York apartment. A storefront became vacant across the street and I moved my paintings into it. It was the first of a half dozen studios. Each time I moved to a bigger one, my paintings got larger. A few mornings a week I taught history of art at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art. The rest of the time I painted in my Lexington Avenue storefront studio.
When I was expecting a child, we moved to larger quarters on the West Side. I had no idea what a wonderfully creative act having a child would be! We were blessed with a gloriously beautiful son Alexander in 1962, and four years later with a lively, lovely daughter Daniela. These children changed the way I painted, not during their early years of babyhood when I worked during lulls in routines of sleeping and feeding, but later, when the children needed to know why things were the way they were, continually asking for explanations, narratives and evaluations. They renewed my sense of wonder. I had to be more exact, clearer, more descriptive. This reflects in my paintings of these years; careful portraits, cheerful orderly landscapes and bright flowers. Self-analysis, introspection, and taking great chunks of time to develop an idea were replaced by a gentle flow of reflections and revelations worked out on a patch schedule a bit at a time, the way a spider weaves its web.
The storytelling quality of my work during my poster years came from being with my children. I liked to work late into the night while the children were sleeping. When we become parents, we become narrators. The artist's single-minded need for abstraction gives way to the joyous complication of explaining the world, while at the same time celebrating its wonders. And so it was fitting that during all their childhood years, I painted pictures of celebrations and festivals, bringing home the buoyant diversity of the world.
Keeping up is not easy in a place as impulsive as New York, where avarice can down a landmark overnight or, paradoxically, human sweetness can conjure collective miracles like the jubilant, celebratory parades of sailing ships up its broad rivers. So many factors contribute to the regeneration of this City, which like a child grows despondent and cruel from lack of caring or, conversely, rises to Olympian heights of human grace in response to what it senses as loving tribute or worthy effort. And so it follows that those of us creatively involved with the City perforce become custodians of its past and nurturers of its future.
In 1973, I rented a studio at Union Square where I did a series of landmark paintings. The forlorn nobility of these buildings moved me. I became interested in their plight, their vulnerability. These paintings also admonished us to cherish our precious architectural heritage, for in the booming, relentless construction of the City, many proud sentinels of the past were threatened. Some succumbed outright to greed, others were dispatched because too little value was placed on their historic importance. Often the lofty and idealistic statements of their architects were muted as inevitably the roles of the buildings changed with the changing times.
New York has little patience with architectural nostalgia vis-a-vis the dynamism of change. Worthy buildings suffer the indignities of the old from the clamoring self-assertion of the new. Especially wrenching was the threat to graceful, massive Grand Central Station which I studied in depth, creating dozens of detailed drawings and a large painting later shown at the Vanderbilt Avenue headquarters of the Committee to Save Grand Central Station. The painting, widely publicized, found its way into the public consciousness where it revealed the particular beauty of the subject while alerting the viewer to its possible destruction. It was my first experience with the large scale propagation of ideas through artistic imagery. Here began my ongoing, almost romantic interaction with a vast, unseen audience.
In 1976, in the splendid halls of the New York Yacht Club, I heard described the upcoming New York harbor spectacle: a parade of the world's largest sailing ships to celebrate the Bicentennial of the United States. The following morning I met the organizing force behind this vision, Frank O. Braynard, a sea historian, illustrator, and dreamer - a regular Wizard of Oz. When I described the picture I wanted to paint, he exclaimed, "You are the answer to a virgin's prayer," and so I began to paint the large oil Parade of the Windjammers. New York Magazine featured the painting across two pages as living proof that the fiscal and moral doldrums of New York City were over at last. The final sketch was seen by Kent Barwick, Commissioner of Landmarks, who suggested it be printed as a New York subway poster and helped arrange it.
The Port of New York rises in spires from its roots of granite. Isolated by reflecting water, it is more an entity than a port. It is an astounding, glittering backdrop for even the most banal seagoing activity. When the careful planning of men produces a spectacle of great sailing ships and ocean liners that circle like great white pearls around its gleaming throat, Manhattan becomes the stuff dreams are made of. Impossible to see unless one is out on the water or up in the sky, it becomes the task of an artist to convey some of this splendor. The complexity of Manhattan's architecture seen from afar, especially the magical twinkling of its million lights, is for me best portrayed using the painstaking technique of drawing, then painting with transparent inks on rich, creamy French paper. The unifying impasto of oil painting is more adept at conveying volume and surfaces of mass than the changeling curtain of New York's skyline.
My first poster, the first of over fifty in the next twelve years, shines brightly in my memory as something magical. It was as though all New York became enchanted. The public display of my painting as an oversized subway poster was an astounding experience. When the poster had been installed in the rectangles along the platforms of a hundred stations, I would take the local train and head downtown lust for the fun of seeing them flash by.
After more than a decade of American posters I turned once again to Europe for inspiration. Venice has always been a siren call for me. On the desk I keep a picture of my great-grandmother with her family posing languidly on the terrace of their villa Near Treviso. Festival and fancy dress fascinate me, so in February of 1986 I went to see the Carnival in Venice. I was unprepared for its splendor. It was not so much the organized part of Carnival, although that year Venice had a rich array of street dancers, concerts and performances; it was the frenetic enthusiasm of the participants, their number and their dazzling costumes against the backdrop of ghostly nighttime canals, alleyways and piazzas. Unhampered by the noise of modern life, these timeless figures pulsated at will, suspended in the golden foggy light.
But even Carnival must come to an end, for what is it but a temporary release, a deliberate escape into the world of dreams - and I went home again to New York. Yet the element of transfiguration, the fluid intermingling of reality and imagination I had witnessed in Venice stayed on in my mind and in my art.
In 1987 I went on safari in Africa and came face to face with yet another reality, the kingdom of animals. I felt the need to visually justify their existence in the modern world. I wanted to describe the awe I felt in the presence of their unique vitality, their grandeur, and so I painted them larger than life against the glass, steel and bricks of the inner city. This bizarre juxtaposition is the painter's way of contrasting our instinctive, primitive nature with the harsh, intellectual fantasy of the metropolis. The purity and exotic beauty of the beast transcends the cerebral confines of the city.
Morning Note was painted in 1989 with these thoughts in mind. The lion stalks across a dark foreground. Behind him in the dawn light the city comes awake. I enriched the image with a buoyant note of hope, a promise of excellence in the dawning day embodied in the flying figure. In fact Morning Note is a tribute to the clarion sound of the young American trumpet virtuoso Wynton Marsalis, and the poetry of music, its emotive quality and evocative power, that can propel images right onto the mind's eye.
Whereas the flying figures, animals, winged buildings, gulls overhead and personages among the planes, spheres and towers of earlier paintings were meant to impart movement and a note of humanity to the whole, the shift toward fantasy in recent works creates dramatic impact and comes from a need to transcend rather than define, to liberate rather than explain, to see things from a distance and help the soul fly.
- Letizia Pitigliani
"When you cease to dream you cease to live."
- Malcolm Forbes