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The silence of mermaids

Marco Alfano

Francesca Poto has been working very hard and bravely on the idea of "figure" and on the hidden and mystical meaning of "composition". The artist goes further on experimenting and enriching chalcography techniques. She combines the sharp and carved signs of burin and drypoint with the weightlessness of aquatint, so creating a "short circuit" between the heaviness of tools and the pursuit of lightness.

During her training at the Academy for Fine Arts in Naples in the mid-seventies she was faced with either recovering the idea, felt as dominant at the time, of drawing as shown by photography or the need of getting closer to a sort of international style as the "informal art". Conversely, Armando De Stefano, one of her maestros, was combining the figurative art with a strictly ethical consistency, recovering the nineteenth century tradition of realism together with a new imaginative tension, without integrating it but leaving it cultured and difficult and basically still misunderstood.

At that time, as Francesca tells me, she loved the austere analysis and the slow technique of the etching procedure which allowed her to study, in a detached but mindful way, some faces discovering the signs of aging (with a quite raw physiognomic appearance and sharp lines). Her drawings became a testimony of a sensitive but mastered observation from a distance, during years in which nobody was resisting to being more modern even when that modernity had already been overcome as for the informal art. The idea of "modernity" was then there and didn't leave any space to the existence of a heartfelt imagination in the field of art.

The uncertainty and hastiness in her production in that world felt by the artist as very much different from her nature, gave her the possibility to turn continually back during a precious and fruitful time in which she went on teaching young people. At the beginning of the new millennium, in difficult and conventional years, when the feeling of trust in an indefinite progress was changing into recovering "fundamental values", the artist's reserved nature led her to investigate the potentials of imagination resting more than on the mystery of an indecipherable modernity, on the deepness and beauty of ancient myths that her mind had already foreseen and will then reveal.

That was what I observed in her engravings in the summer of 2006 during a visit to her home-studio: an imagination freed from fashions, exemplifying how it proceeds and expresses itself. In the meantime she had chosen some techniques as etching and aquatint with the strong belief that they better express the feeling of lightness and delicacy, but also watercolours and oil painting, this last one meant as overcoming the natural opaqueness of the background. She had, in so doing, recovered the glazing technique, using a means which is itself a contemplative exercise and therefore provocatively out of fashion. Such a choice made her discard other solutions such as the ones of the painting "a corpo" originated from the nineteenth century realism and then used also by the informal art generation.

That research appeared immediately to me as an important evidence of an artist who today works out the ideologies and plans of a generation, which grew so much as to suffocate the inspiration and warmth of imagination. Such a trend caused in art schools and academies the decrease of teaching drawing techniques in favour of a "free" development of creativity. The imperative is still today to be "updated" and "not provincial", to a compulsory and orthodox adaptation to contemporary art trends. This is a tragedy which has generated a devastating imaginative and sentimental poverty in an art which measures its value according to chance and material intrusiveness. Conversely, Francesca is convinced of the potentials that drawing and figures keep in their fundamental "language", a necessary journal to write down one's own thoughts with frankness.

The first etching titled Baža inutil (burin, drypoint and aquatint), belonging to the beautiful series devoted to Mermaids, reveals the precious meaning of one of the classical fundamental myths. The stony rock is slowly shaped with black or sepia ink profiles and there the artist seems to have meditated for a long time on Klinger's rocky landscapes, without being objective or trying an attentive transcription of "reality" but deeply understanding its high value of mental concentration. I found these same aspects of intellectual clearness and spiritual purity in the flamed and elated colours of the sky, the destructive fall in the precipice of the winged creature, half woman and half bird, who, defeated by Odysseus, throws herself on the rocks. As for the techniques, Francesca explained how hard it was to carry on the experiment of assembling three engraved matrices, confiding for the printing in Vittorio Avella and Tonino Sgambati's long lasting experience. The final result was obtained through the setting of successive printings of the zinc plates on the same sheet of paper.

A sequence of other two etchings, titled Antarctica, follows this first one marked by a solemn and gloomy flavour. Here the Mermaid is outlined with the background of a sky lightened by a dazzling dawn with pink, red and orange colours. She looks motionless on an icy bank before her devastating flight; in another image she is reached by the deathly precognition of black birds. These were art works in which the artist had found the troubled mystery of the Mermaids' chanting. This could be also turned, according to Kafka's famous posthumous passage, into their silence. Ulysses had been condemned to Hell by Dante because his unwise hybris didn't appear to be based on any spiritual value; the deceiving hero had convinced his mates after the siege of Troy to go on towards an indefinite destination, to go for the "foolish flight". Ulysses' love for knowledge was not addressed to "learning" but moved by curiosity for the world, from a secular, horizontal perspective which inevitably leads man to wreckage.

That image of the Mermaid sounded like an upsetting metaphor of contemporary art, devoured by the devil of techne, of our bewilderment at its vain proposals without any sincerity. And if it was silence what Odysseus pretended not to hear when he met the Mermaids, or if he didn't understand their "poetic words" sounding like a "vertical" crescendo, is not such an absence similar to the anguish of an art which is retreated in itself trying to ingeniously combine scattered elements?

In the last sequence, titled Baires, the Mermaid falls towards a desert city (which could be any metropolis in the word), devoid of history and identity. This is the image of a civilization which killed all the myths, forgot the Mermaid's feminine power of imagination which here appears again drawn on the paper with a sanguine trait and merges itself in the last image with the dark and terrible appearing of the birds.

In Canto, a series of two large engravings resulting from assembling thirty zinc matrices, combines the burin and drypoint carved lines with the evanescent fluidity of aquatint plates. Some images evoke a feeling of nostalgia for a beauty which seems to vanish and recall Mediterranean myths like the ones pictured with bright purity by Herbert List's Hellas photographs, with naked young men, in modern features, among white marble ruins. The hypothesis that it could be a surrealistic assembly of images and letters - a sound title by Erik Satie says ironically avec ťtonnement - immediately disappears to give place to the composition of different imageries referring to silence as guardian of chanting, to the pursuit of a truth of the heart more than visual. Finally a smile appears, Edith Piaf's moving farewell to the audience still full of her aching and sentimental voice and the astonishment of those ones who still see the Mermaid who fills with her shadow the narrow sky of our age.

In other and more recent engravings, the troubling and awkward appearance of Molpo's sinuous profile gives place to slowness, a suspended time, a more serene form in Argot, in the smooth bronze of the Pompei athletes' bodies. Lastly the daring coming back of the Mermaid in Sounion on a temple in ruin whose foundations seem to be shaken by the dark intense black of the carborundum. These are images which reveal Francesca Poto's unceasing aspiration to a form evoking ancient beauty and, at the same time, to the daring and fascinating possibilities offered by signs.