T03469 WATER BEARER 1981
Oil and pastel on canvas 81 1/2 × 67 (2065 × 1700)
Inscribed ‘Sandro CHIA 1981’ on reverse with an outline of a fish
Purchased from Anthony d'Offay Ltd. (Grant-in-Aid) 1982
Exh: Sandro Chia, Anthony d'Offay Gallery, December 1981 – January 1982 (no catalogue); Italian Art Now: An American Perspective, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, April–June 1982 (17, repr.); Sandro Chia, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, April–May 1983 (20, repr. in col.); New Art at the Tate Gallery, Tate Gallery, September–October 1983 (repr. in col. p.35); Sandro Chia, Bilder 1976–1983. Kestner-Gesellschaft, Hannover, December 1983–January 1984 (31, repr. in col.); Forty Years of Modern Art 1945–1985, Tate Gallery, February–April 1986 (works not listed, repr. in col. p.114)
Lit: Anne Seymour, The Draught of Dr Jekyll, An Essay on the Work of Sandro Chia, 1981; Carter Ratcliff, ‘On Iconography and Some Italians’, Art in America, LXX, September 1982, pp.152–9 and repr. cover; Jules B. Farber, ‘Holland Focus: 2 High C's From Italy’, International Herald Tribune, 7–8 May 1983, p.7 (repr. in reverse)
Chia's paintings at the time of the ‘Water Bearer’ were almost all of figures, usually engaged in some startling action. He had several times before depicted men with fish, notably in the etching, ‘Self Portrait with Fish’, 1978, in which a large fish lies along the bare feet of the standing figure. The artist said in conversation (17 April 1986) that the origin of the ‘Water Bearer’ was his chance sight of an illustration of a classical sculpture of the same subject. He made several preparatory drawings, including a complete study in coloured chalks (24 × 11", signed and dated 1981, Josh Baer Gallery, New York); the colours in this are less bright, notably lacking the strong red of the fish's tail. The subject, he said, was its title, and both were invented together: since the fish lives in water the man, by association, is a water bearer.
Chia's subjects are often men or boys travelling, and usually also enacting some role. An essay by Anne Seymour based on conversations with the artist was published by the d'Offay and Sperone Galleries for the London exhibition of 1981 which included the ‘Water Bearer’. She describes the metaphorical character of these subjects:
This perhaps gives substance to the feeling one has, that the male figures in Chia's pictures are searching for something, or perhaps that they are pilgrims of a sort, for they often seem bound on some unidentified mission. They are, the artist points out, figures born of painting and thus possessed of a strong code of morals and justice, for the rules of painting are strict and the responsibilities heavy. He sees them as having something in common with heroes and with monks, and their moment of action in his painting as being their moment of ecstasy. Embodying thus the moral lessons of painting they become part of man's great pursuit of the absolute and their existence a physical step towards mystery.
The boy carrying a fish recalls the story of Tobias in the Apocrypha (Tobit 6, vv. 2–3), who was told by an angel to take a large fish with him on his journey to find a bride. The story was often painted during the Italian Renaissance, although not in the same way. There is no specific connection to Chia's painting, but he confirmed that the subject was relevant to it, as part of the same family of images.
The painting is signed and dated on the reverse of the canvas with an outline of a fish saying, in a balloon, ‘Sandro Chia 1981’. An etching of the subject, in reverse, was published in 1983 (Sandro Chia Prints 1973–1984, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, repr. p.46).
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986