Zeusi: In the Temple of Memory
The sketches that accompany Aricò’s last work, his fascinating and frightful Zeusi [Zeuxis], are arranged almost as though forming a procession towards their conclusion, and it is indeed only its completion that shows that they are what underpins it. This clear, immediate relationship recalls others, which justify the imaginary placing of the work on the altar of a temple of Mnemosyne. First and foremost, the link is between this and other works by the artist. Zeusi erases all of Aricò’s previous works, and yet recalls them all. At the same time, as was often the case in previous works, it erases its artistic past by the very action that takes it on board. This leads to its extreme Aricò’s voraciousness with regard to the history of art and its archetypes.
The name of Zeuxis the painter, who lived in the second half of the fifth century BC, was already legendary in ancient Greece and he later became a myth of art, being handed down by way of Latin authors (Cicero, Pliny and Quintillian among the most widely read) all the way to the age of humanism and then to the modern period, and eventually to us. Leaving aside the famous anecdotes (the birds and the painted grapes, the girls of Croton, and so on) and the quality of his painting as described by ancient sources, what attracts Aricò is his mythical side and his constant presence in the long journey of the history of art. Zeuxis, both in name and myth, remains. Not as a leftover in the margins, but as something confirmed in its own negation, as something that, by being remembered, constitutes the present. Aricò had returned many times to Zeuxis in significant notes and texts, and - possibly attempting a definitive approach to the myth in an intimate appropriation - also in his art.
Here we need to read a veiled, but precise autobiographical reference in Aricò’s tale Una risata indecifrabile (1995). Through the screen of the relationship between pupil and master, Aricò appears to allude to his relationship with the great masters and the mythical figures of the history of art, as we also see in other stories of his, as well as in a number of his works. Aert de Gelder, Rembrandt’s last pupil, tells of the death of his master, or rather of his “ultimate” work - the one in which he dies. Rembrandt’s terrifying laugh - which Aert heard one night as his master worked on the painting - reverberates in the smile of that self portrait as Zeuxis, which captures all “the immense pain of life”. But we also hear the laughter that stifled the ancient painter when, having finished painting it, looked at the portrait of a flaccid, wizened old woman. When he went back to his master’s studio to tidy it up, de Gelder found the work as he had never seen it. The surrounding scene, which alluded to Zeuxis, had disappeared and only Rembrandt’s face remained, while “the innermost meaning of the work had been erased at this point”. Erased, and yet not lost. Erased, but now the object of constant repetition, of reiterated memory. “Since then”, says Aert, “I have done nothing but paint countless copies of that painting as I saw it that terrible night, when I heard my master’s laughter. That laughter still rolls around my conscience like a death rattle.” The reference is clear when we return to Zeusi, and to the meaning that this long chain of cross-references appears to have for Aricò.
We might reflect on which of the potential references best sheds light on the relationship between Zeusi and the rest of Aricò’s work. For example, the continuity that links this work with those of the 1990s, and especially the later ones, can be seen in the increasingly restless, and yet measured way in which he treats the surface of the work, in which we find distant echoes of his very earliest works. These recall the form of creations such as Sensus 3, to which Zeusi is very close, even though the orientation is different. Or we can focus on the bright, vibrant use of colour, which is something that runs through various periods of his art. I mention these examples simply to suggest how not only they, but also the elements that can be found in a study of this nature, however complex and useful, would not on their own be sufficient to convey the sense of anxiety that permeates the work.
The underlying thread that emerges from this story reveals an obsession - which is not only psychological, nor even linked solely to a conception of history - with always making the same work over and over again. It is an obsession with memory, with always recreating the same thing, saving what was made while simultaneously erasing it and making it new - the same new. It is an obsession with repeating the story of the myth, and keeping it alive. And, fundamentally, it is a metaphysical obsession for Aricò: an attempt to recall something that, precisely because and in so far as it is recalled, is not what should have been recalled. It is a perception of how memory is always a memory of the immemorial, of the quintessentially solitary; an impossible but unavoidable task, which has to be accomplished each time. Zeusi is an image of the immemorial that is to be found in every memory - a living vision that tells us of the process in which its presence consists. This may say something about the technique used to construct and reconstruct the canvas, revealing the overlapping of the moments involved in its creation, thanks in part to the liquidity of the acrylic. And yet this, too, is only an image. It is another memory -one that recalls the act of recollection -which means it can only be the result, and also the failure, of the search for it.
An unpublished note by Aricò, which is undated but quite probably from the time when the work was created, illustrates this way of thinking. Let me quote an excerpt: “A work like Rembrandt’s Self Portrait as Zeuxis came from a particular experience of the artist: that of loneliness and failure. And yet I feel it concerns me, too, because his failure becomes all failures. This work shows us a far more complex reality. [...] Failures do not appear on the stage of life. But they exist in our conscience as a haunting reality.” This is the link between Zeuxis - a myth we observe once again as filtered by Rembrandt - and the obsession with memory, in our inability to grasp a definitive detail that can turn into an image of the relationship that makes up each distinctive detail. And, for us, the image of this great failure is Zeusi.
The disquiet and appeal aroused by Zeusi feeds on the memory of the beholder and, in his presence, the individual reference, the individual memory, becomes inessential in its solitude. No less than in the artist himself, it feeds voraciously on history and memory. And its myth snatches away the minds of those who attempt to catch hold of the scattered echo of the narrator. And thus it watches over the temple of memory.