Thursday, June 28, 2007

Birth Of A New Aesthetic
1956 - 1960

By 1956 a major shift had occurred in Martich-Severi’s visual language. The last remaining remnants of figuration present in The Immaculate Conception are by now absorbed into spacial rhythms of line and shade. These ‘spacial rhythms’ were created mostly in biro, a humble medium which became the artist’s primary expressive means over the next forty years.

Alongside the biro works are several stunning large scale compositions in oil and sand, as well as a number of smaller pastels. The works in oil and sand, and pastel reveal the vivid abstract colourist in Martich-Severi for the first time.

An obvious question which arises is why biro? We find the answer to this question in Introduction to Icilio’s Works 1965 by George Berger:

"These delicate drawings in a technique which was entirely new in 1956 when IMS first began to develop it, filled an actual, practical need in the artist’s life. He was laid up in bed, his physical health ravaged by powerful sicknesses.."

Martich-Severi was not the first modernist to make a major aesthetic leap through ill health; the equally bed-ridden birth of Matisse’s cut-out form provides an eerie resonance, and perhaps the basis for a study on the psychology of illness and creativity.

There was also possibly another factor which might be considered. It is significant to note the almost complete lack of known creative material between 1954 and 1956. I have a suspicion that this time may have been a period of serious creative crisis. Martich-Severi sensed the end of figurative reference within his imaginative vision To follow the drifting line drawings of 1953, leaving all else behind was quite possibly an extremely frightening proposition. It is difficult for a non - artist to understand how this might have been so; imagine being told one evening that you must leave your home and all your possessions and follow a path to a tiny hut in order to receive further instruction. Psychologically an artist lives within the emotional fabric and formal structure of his language. When the law of growth, or ‘muse’ says ‘follow me’, what else can be done? The artist may resist, but this will only bring suffering. Ultimately he must leave his beloved structures -all he knows, and embark.

What does this have to do with the biro as a principle medium? It is my guess that Martich-Severi worked his way out of a point of un -knowing, through an unassuming, almost accidental approach to his drawing. Physical limitations, due to ill health certainly helped precipitate the move. Perhaps they surprised him, these early biros, and the medium was so simple and accessible, why not continue using it?

An artist’s progress is fraught with doubt, uncertainty, surprise, accident, assembling, dissembling, arrival, and departure: these are the staples of his creative existence. It is easy to forget this when presented with the panorama of a life’s work.

During this time, in the United States, similar non-figurative developments were in motion. The artists Hans Hofmann, Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman were all immersed in radical, non-linear fields of colour. We could add to this list Sam Francis, Clifford Still, and Robert Motherwell. Phillip Guston was also actively dissembling, however a senseof figurative movement never entirely left his brush. In Australia Peter Booth would not enter his transformative colour-field phase until the 1970s.

Godfrey Miller, Ian Fairweather, and Roger Kemp were perhaps Martich-Severi’s closest Australian counterparts; however they were also all extremely different. Miller was seeking an ever more complex linear and chromatic vibration, Fairweather an almost numerically loose dance, and Kemp never lost his symbolist character; rather than let this element go, he integrated it into his gathering storm of pictorial integrity. Formally, I would say Martich-Severi lay somewhere between Miller and Fairweather. His biro works approached the vibrational intensity of Miller’s paintings, whilst maintaining the sense of rhythmic, curvilinear dance alive in the compositions of Fairweather. There was no known artist in the United States developing such a graphically based abstract language; only Henri Matisse in France was heading in that direction, his dance of cut-outs swimming towards pure abstraction. Matisse , however, by the early 1950s, had reached the end of his life, whilst Martich-Severi was at the beginning of his mature development.

The path of fractilization which Miller took to such intense levels never entirely seduced Martich-Severi. His aesthetic development was, in retrospect, very balanced: from complexity of composition he sought counter balance in works of Formal reduction and simplicity. There is certainly a danger in being seduced wholly by any one path. The great Russian painter Pavel Filinov was consumed, like Miller, by a sense of infinite fracture. We might say ‘but what a great example of linguistic commitment’. The problem is, such a ‘commitment’ entails a psychological, if not spiritual state which begins to lose sight of its compliment nature: the seamless whole. Picasso, undoubtedly felt this warning, as he left his most complex cubist language for the monumental forms of his neo-classical phase.

ike Picasso, Martich-Severi instinctively sought balance in his art and life, even as he took both to their extreme poles of expression. The oil and sand composition featured on the previous page, is the work of a cool mind, a spacious mind. It is an aesthetic counterpoint to Secundo, a blue biro work from 1958, which gyrates with an almost psychedelic energy.

The pastel composition from 1958, featured left, reveals the formal legacy of the Sorcerer group of works from the early 1950s. Its sharp and sudden lines recall the drifting line drawings of 1953. For the first time planes of colour and tone begin to amplify and empower the graphic element; a seed for the major works in felt pen which would follow in the decades to come.

Text: copyright James Waller 2007. Image: Composition, Martich-Severi 1950s copyright Serge Martich Osterman.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Illumination and Catharsis

Along side the arabesque drawings for sculpture from the early fifties are another group of compositions which differ markedly in feeling and appearance. They are drawings of sudden angles and bright illuminations, as opposed to wistful and dream-like arcs. What they share with the Bosbelli group is the formal dissembling of the figure and the growth towards a pure abstraction. Two line drawings from 1953 featured on the page fifteen reveal the architect of form within the artist; they are perhaps the most naked example of the drifting posts of change within the artist’s language. Gone is the emotional narrative of the Bosbelli studies; present is an awareness of the spirit of space and line themselves.
Sorcerer, composed in 1953 in coloured pencil, reveals the artist in a true state of transformation; indeed it reveals the artist as transformation. Following the narrative of the title one may discern a figure of light on the right stretching out a cape also of light. Emerging from the cape against a shadow-like void , is a multifaceted, multi coloured figure. The lines maintain the most tenuous hold on figuration: from within the ‘cape’ a new aesthetic is emerging, is always emerging; a purely abstract breath blows from within, visual references and codes are disappearing. One might call this ‘surrealist’, however the artist was never attatched to movements, and the ‘surreal’ element in Sorcerer is only a brief moment in Martich-Severi’s ever evolving language.

Sorcerer certainly has very little in common with the expressively surrealist paintings of James Gleeson and The Angry Penguins, active in Melbourne at the time. Their paintings convulsed with the social tremours afflicting post war Australia; whereas Martich-Severi trembled in the light of an inner path. His surrealist element was always the passage way, never the destination.
Sorcerer owes its allegiance to a body of works, executed mostly in pastel and conte, the first of which appear in 1950. These are explosive works, generated through sharp, cutting lines. The energy is revelatory and is the result of a ‘profound psychic acceleration’, to paraphrase Joseph Brodsky. There are two seminal works, along side Sorcerer which belong to this group. They are The Immaculate Conception of 1953, and St. Sebastian of 1949. The latter is the most discernably figurative of the three, and heralds the other two. It is marked by an incredible intensity of feeling. St. Sebastian emanates profound suffering and an aching sense of surrender. The Immaculate Conception is fully charged with one electrifying moment; there is a great sense of apprehension and embodiment, communicated through the hyperstasistic energy of its line.
I would like to dwell here on the idea of the work of art as a passage way. A charcoal work of 1950 entitled Portal provides us with a clue to the artist’s consciousness of this aspect of creativity. St Sebastian through the ultimate renunciation of a martyr stands head bowed at the passage way to the next life. The Immaculate Conception becomes a portal into the world of the divine, whilst Sorcerer conjures out of itself the figure of a new reality. Conception, birth, and death are the states of realization behind this group of works. There is something of the pagan rite, which breathes through Sorcerer and recalls Paul Gauguin’s The Magician of Hivaoa of 1902.
The work of art allows the spirit to breathe, and the mind to cognize a further step into its own true, as yet unrealized nature. Each composition is a stepping stone in the river, in the interminable night of our blindness. There is no knowledge of destination, only the miracle of the new stone.
If we go beyond the metaphoric offerings of these works we begin to see the conflagration of form taking place; the early to mid fifties can be seen in this light as the major furnace of Martich-Severi’s oeuvre. From this furnace a new aesthetic understanding begins to emerge.
Text: copyright: James Waller 2007 Image: Sorcerer, 1953 copyright: Serge Martich Osterman.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Influence And Context; VanGogh And The Emigre

If we cast our gaze momentarily on the art world of Australia in the 1950s we encounter an avid cast of painterly myth-makers: Boyd, Perceval, Nolan, Tucker, Gleeson, Olsen, Vassilieff, Fairweather; these are Australia’s official ‘modernist’ canon. What unites these artists most, in retrospect, is the almost anarchic temperement of their painting; oil pant flickered and flew, scumbled, dribbled and encased itself onto their canvases. The pictorial mood was essentially expressionist, and resonant with strong social concerns.
Martich - Severi’s paintings of the 1940s are not far removed from this creative ethos. Looking at his Jug With Flowers from 1947, one is immediately reminded of John Perceval’s intensely rhythmic canvases. The common element here is a love of Van Gogh. The Dutch Master had a profound impact on the emigre from Fiume, as he did on many of his Australian contempories. The influence can still be felt in Baccanti and re - emerges as late as 1965 in the painterly abstraction of works in vitreous enamel.
Perhaps if Martich -Severi had continued in this vein he may have been embraced and celebrated by his adopted homeland, just as Dannilla Vassilief and Leon Kossoff had been. His essentially graphic aesthetic spirit, however, as revealed by these drawings for sculpture, was leading him in a new direction; one closer in heart to his Italian lineage.This lineage gained its power and grace from its graphic release and formal restraint.
There is a highly developed sense of tension in Itallian art, a legacy of the ancient Hellenes, which Martich-Severi certainly inherited. He became, then, an anomoly in the Australian painting landscape. A new nation attempting to forge its myths and identity would have difficulty accepting into its story the metaphysical flowering of an art from another nation.

Text: copyright: James Waller, 2007. Image: Jug With Flowers, 1947 copyright: Serge Martich Osterman.

Sculptural Essence of Line: Early 1950s

Martich-Severi’s development was truly sustained and never deviated from the aesthetic logic which dwelt and grew within him. Whilst this language found most complete expression in the small scale biro and felt pen forms, its energy flowed naturally into three dimensional ideas. An undated folio of drawings, called Bosbelli Sculpture Drawing Folio, reveals the importance of line to the development of the artist’s sculpture. We may guess these drawings to be from the early 1950s, given their similarity to a composition in ink from 1952, entitled Baccanti, and the logic that they must pre-date certain sculptures. The link to Baccanti, to drawings of the late 1940s, and compositions in the late 1950s endows the Bosbelli studies with a dual significance; they inform and give clues to both the artist’s three dimensional and two dimensional language. Hence this discussion deals with them in relation to both developments, whilst a comparitive study of Martich - Severi’s entire corpus of sculpture is discussed later on.
As works of art in themselves, the Bosbelli studies impart a deep tenderness and sensuality. They also provide us with a rare glimpse into the initial stages of creative thought. Here we find the artist in a state which is truly light, free, and emotionally resonant.
Due to many factors, not the least of which were financial, Martich-Severi realized very few sculptural projects. The principle exceptions were Adam, Eve , and Diana, the formal seeds of which may be found in these studies. Adam, Eve and Dianna, realized in 1965 and 1963 respectively, were conceived as drawings in 1951. The drawings hold a very similar feeling and rhythm to the Bosbelli studies, strengthening the previously estimated date of the latter.
Thematically the Bosbelli studies and Baccanti belong to a tradition of arcadian celebration of love, dance, and music. Whilst the formal qualities of Constantin Brancusi and Jean Arp come to mind, it is the spirit of August Rodin and Henri Matisse which resonates in kinship with these works.
A monograph of drawings, printed in 1974 confirms the date of the Bosbelli studies to 1951. The works reproduced in pgs 20 and 21 of the monograph includes Amanti in Vollo, a drawing included in the Bosbelli sculpture folio. The other works on these pages, have unfortunately not as yet come to light. Like the Bosbelli studies already mentioned, these works are a deeply beautiful expression of sensuality, love, and music.

Baccanti painted in ink in 1952 holds a special spiritual resonance in Martich-Severi’s oeuvre. Like in his drawing studies, the veil of artifice is truly lifted in this beautiful, unassuming work. The forms speak, without hardly seeming to be there. There is the feeling of an ancient carnival, of timeless music; it is another world which awakens a distant memory within the viewer. One thinks of a pagan festival situated in no time or place; forever suspended on the horizon of our knowing. The Discovery of Music holds a deep affinity with Baccanti, suspended as it seems in that same distant festival. There is an aching melancholy present here, a feeling of profound pathos which would haunt the chain song of Martich Severi’s future biros.
The theme of music is one which is naturally manifest throughout the oeuvre. One thinks of the dark and brooding self portrait of 1948, and the oil ‘fugues’ also of the1940s; these are direct references which convey the artist’s instinctive affinity. The analogy runs as deeply as the visual investigation. The Discovery of Music and Baccanti do not dwell on the surface; they delve, rather, into the mystery of cognitive awakening, the moment of discovery of a deeper world.
The awakening of love is perhaps the most richly celebrated theme in all traditions and art forms. The tender convergence of arcs in the Bosbelli studies reveals a unique and sophistiacated modernist enrichment of this ageless story. In feeling one thinks of Chagall’s gravity - defying lovers and Matisse’s amorous ballads of line which celebrate the poems of Stephanne Mallarme.
A fine artist, like a fine poet, may elicit much with an extreme economy of means. This is especially true of Martich-Severi, whose oeuvre is an exemplary example of humble material turned into gold. Baccanti exists, with other compositions of the early 1950s, as a bridge to a new aesthetic understanding which began to evolve in the artist’s work in the latter part of the decade.

Thursday, June 7, 2007


On the occasion of the fifth Venetian exhibition of Icilio Martich - Severi, Dr. Vincenzo Aurigemma wrote in the introduction to the catalogue, the following words:
"This continuous search is doubtless one of the characteristics of the artist’s inner being. A constant factor in his work as an artist - a joy and also a burden for him - is the invention of ever new ‘modes’ of expression."
Fifteen years later, the artist James Gleeson wrote a dismissive review, criticizing Martich - Severi’s plethora of styles, and proclaiming that ‘none of them work’.
Icilio Martich - Severi is at the time of writing virtually unknown to the wider Australian public. The words of Dr. Aurgemma, written in 1950, touches one of the core reasons. When the artist and critic, James Gleeson, dismissed Martich - Severi in 1965 as ‘an artist in search of a style’ , he not only completely misunderstood the work of the artist from Fiume, he also dealt a serious blow to his career.
It is with a sense of necessity and privilege that I have set about the task of this book. As the first in depth study and catalogue of Martich - Severi’s entire oeuvre, I believe it reveals a Modernist Master; every bit a flower of the Italian tradition as Justin Obrien., only more so for he extended its formal and spiritual language. Consequently it must also show an artist of deep significance to Australia’s cultural vibration; its visual language, awareness, and understanding.
Throughout his catalogue introduction, Dr. Aurigemma touches upon aspects of Martich - Severi’s creative spirit, in a way which is almost prophetic. The two following excerpts are fundamental to any retrospective analysis of this artist’s work:
"Severi is constantly engaged in an effort to free himself from reality. This effort, at times stormy and at times serene, has progressively transformed his vision of things till nothing is left of them but movement and colour. an artist he was immune - pardon me - untouched by the influence of schools and academies, and freely followed his own natural impulse; a necessity, now, in his search for the coloured forms in the depth of his being..."
The ‘stormy and serene’ qualities are prevalent as a presiding duality throughout Martich - Severi’s oeuvre. Their mature manifestation lies within the dual development of his corpus of compositions in biro, and his ‘colour song’ of compositions created in felt pen. The former is perhaps the most sustained chain song of pathos and dance in Western art; whereas the latter reaches states of complete inner transparency and balance. The ‘search for the coloured forms in the depths of his being’ relates inimically to this state of inner balance.
The spirit of an artist is a vibrational mystery; the artist’s life a continual answer to its call. Somewhere between the call of the vibration and the answer of the artist’s life dwells his or her most blessed purpose. Martich - Severi answered with ardent passion to his calling. Love, dance, music, becoming, departing into Timeless Space; these are the themes which dwell in his answer, and the forms it took graze the very soul of our human longing.
Ceramics, sculpture, oil paintings, works in felt pen and biro, vitreous enamel, fibre glass, acrylic, metal leaf, charcoal, pastel, ink, monoprint, watercolour, and lithography. In unearthing the artist’s archives I came to expect the unexpected and still met with surprise! As with Picasso, it is Martich - Severi’s spirit of line which energises and unites all of his endeavours. He himself asserted as much in a drawing monagraph printed in 1974:
"DRAWING is, was and will be the basis of any sort of visual art...drawings are the most free, spontaneous, direct expression of the artist. In the drawing you have the real original idea. Later you have to work, to feel, to put all the skill in but the creative act is done."
Consequently, in putting this catalogue together, as much attention has been paid to drawing studies as to the most highly realized compositions. Often the boundary is blurred, as with the corpus of compositions in biro; whilst they reach varying degrees of ‘completion’, the sparest works hold a pictorial integrity comparable to that of Paul Cezanne. Martich - Severi’s oeuvre challenges, as many have done in the twentieth century, the traditional hierarchy of the plastic arts in western visual culture. His masterpiece of 1976 is a composition executed in biro on canvas. What a wonderful inversion of the status quo! I have tended throughout this text to use the term ‘composition’ rather than ‘drawing’ due to the very ambiguity this intimates. The main exception has been in referring to studies for sculptures, where the pictorial idea is intended for another form.
Martich - Severi’s preference throughout his life was for retrospective exhibitions; exhibitions which included a rich variety of forms and mediums, from different periods, viewed side by side. A catalogue is also an exhibition of sorts, and in ‘curating’ it I have found it necessary to do the exact opposite. The principle reason for this is so that we may gain a sense of a clear aesthetic development, and for the visual joy of seeing an unabridged revelation of form.
The most fitting words of introduction to this artist’s oeuvre are from Martich-Severi himself. I quote here from his drawing monograph printed in 1974:
"Altogether I am happy that Art exists, I am grateful to the artists past and present who gave me so much enjoyment, and I hope to give you some enjoyment myself."

text, copyright: James Waller 2007. Image, copyright: Serge Martich Osterman