Illustrated companion

Sandro Chia is one of a number of young Italians who in the late 1970s turned away from Minimal and Conceptual Art to create a new kind of figurative painting. Like many of his colleagues Chia draws freely on the art of the past to create a style that is entirely personal, yet is enriched by the echoes of its sources, which here include a classical sculpture of the same subject, as well as Italian Futurist painting. In execution Chia's paintings are notable for the energy of their drawing and paint application, and particularly for the extraordinary inventiveness and richness of their colours and textures, exemplified here in the treatment of the background.

Chia's subjects are often men or boys travelling, and in an essay based on conversations with the artist, the art historian Anne Seymour suggests that 'the male figures in Chia's pictures are searching for something, or perhaps they are pilgrims of a sort, for they often seem bound on some unidentified mission.' There is also a suggestion that they represent Chia's view of the role of the artist: '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.' Chia's water bearer here is certainly a heroic and virile figure, and the fish can probably be read as an additional symbol of this virility. Although carrying a fish, the figure becomes a water bearer by a process of poetic association (metonymy) in which an attribute of water, a fish, comes to represent water itself. This poetic substitution has enabled Chia to create a striking symbolic image, which may have a further dimension in its relation to the Bible story of Tobias and the angel. Chia has said that there is no specific connection between this and his painting, but that the subject was relevant to it, as part of the same family of images. In the Bible, Tobias is the son of Tobit, author and narrator of the Book of Tobit. He is sent by his father, who has become blind, on a dangerous journey to retrieve some money left with a kinsman. To accompany him he finds a companion, who is in fact the angel Raphael in disguise. At the end of a day, washing in the river Tigris, Tobias is attacked by a huge fish 'which would have swallowed him.' He succeeds in killing it and is advised by the angel to retain its gall bladder, heart and liver. These later enable him to marry a virgin whose previous seven husbands have mysteriously died on the wedding night before consummation, and, on his return home, to cure his father's blindness.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.278