T03551 MIDNIGHT SUN 11 1982
Oil on canvas 79 × 98 1/2 (2010 × 2507)
Purchased from Anthony d'Offay Ltd. (Grant-in-Aid) 1983
Exh: Francesco Clemente, The Midnight Sun, Anthony d'Offay Gallery, January–February 1983
Lit: Mark Francis, ‘Pagan Mysteries’, Francesco Clemente: The Fourteen Stations, exhibition calatogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, January 1983; Giancarlo Politi, ‘Francesco Clemente’, Flash Art, No.117, April–May 1984, pp.12–21; Francesco Clemente, Pastelle 1973–1983, Munich, 1984; Michael Auping, Francesco Clemente, exhibition catalogue, The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida, October 1985, repr. in col. pl.18
In January 1983, two major series of paintings by Clemente were exhibited in London. The Whitechapel Art Gallery showed ‘The Fourteen Stations’ (in fact, a cycle of twelve paintings, supplemented for the exhibition by three other closely related works) painted in New York in late 1981 and early 1982. At the same time, a slightly later series, also consisting of twelve works and also completed in New York, ‘The Midnight Sun’ i–xii, was exhibited at the Anthony d'Offay Gallery.
For six years before taking a studio in New York late in 1981, Clemente had spent part of each year in Italy and part in Madras in India and had worked with a range of media, his choice being based on the particular cultural context in which he happened to be working but also being influenced by specific imagery (see Mark Francis in ‘Pagan Mysteries’ cited above, p.37). In New York he began to work on a large scale in oil paint for the first time, finding this medium appropriate to the city; in an interview with Edit deAk (Interview xii, pp.69–70) he said of the earlier and more sombre of the two series:
... I wanted to get something new going and to do that I needed to do something that I didn't know, and that was to paint large oil paintings. I added the light, the light of the night, which I knew very well from the paintings I lived with when I was a little boy in Naples.
In another interview (Flash Art, cited above), he discussed the two New York series first shown in London:
..., I've always worked in what I call collections rather then cycles, always on this idea of starting from the beginning and working my way through a technique or a process, say of creating a frame and working inside this frame to try all its possibilities, and even go beyond. I've always wished that these collections would be scattered round the world, and that everyone would see just a fragment. I've always been interested in the idea of a collection on one hand, and in that of a fragment on the other - the idea that the work always refers to another work that can't be seen but exists or will exist...I drew quite a lot between 1971 and 1978. I did thousands of drawings, very dry and severe, each of which was tied to an idea. From that time on my energy has gone into executing these works that aren't just born like that...
In a brief conversation with a Tate curator (at the time of his London exhibitions, January 1983) Clemente confirmed that those being shown at the Whitechapel Art Gallery were painted in the winter of 1981/2 and said that he had originally intended the second series (‘The Midnight Sun’) to be a repeat. However it had developed independently and he had worked on each painting in sequence rather than on several at one time. He referred to a narrative thread running throughout the group but said that this was personal and not important in a wider context.
In a lecture on t 03551, given at the Tate Gallery in September 1983, Mark Francis said that despite the Northern inference of the title the work was started on Capri and completed in Clemente's New York studio in October/November 1982. The 12 paintings within the series are only very loosely related to each other, unlike ‘The Fourteen Stations’ (now coll. Charles and Doris Saatchi) which constitute a more formal set. He also referred to T03551 as a ‘summer’ painting, contrasting it with ‘Station xi’ (‘the thousand eyes of the night look down on the lovers clinging together’, Whitechapel catalogue, p.41, repr. p.27, op.cit) and said it was related to a sequence of drawings reproduced at the end of the catalogue. Mark Francis suggested that there was an iconographic connection with the Hindu legend of the God Indra who was punished for a sexual indiscretion by having his body covered in a thousand marks of the ‘yoni’ or vagina; to ease his shame, these were eventually changed into eyes.
‘Midnight Sun ii’ shows three figures, one female the other two androgynous, one being blindfold; their bodies are intertwined in what might almost be a swastika configuration, against a honeycomb ground which is ‘pierced’ by numerous eyes, with, in most cases, clearly painted pupils; however, the eyes are ambiguous images as they also appear to be boats, having in some cases painted sides and all being rigged with lateen sails - suggesting the Mediterranean and giving the impression of both looking through the canvas and resting upon it. Clemente has used a similar image in ‘Station x’ (repr. Francesco Clemente: The Fourteen Stations, p.25) where a female figure holds up a small rounded boat with mast but no sail.
Michael Auping writes (in Francesco Clemente, cited above, p.11):
One should not be surprised if it takes time to ‘understand’ Clemente's pivoting spray of images. The connections and cross references between his autobiographical analysis, mutating self-portraits, erotic fantasies and fears, and odd anatomical expressions combined with his fascination for metaphysical systems (Christianity, alchemy astrology, mythology, the Tarot) all overlayed with his reinterpretation of various artistic sources (ancient, Renaissance, Surrealist, Hindu, Expressionist), create a labyrinthine field that is not easily deciphered by normal codes of logic.
The artist has said of the complex repertoire of images in his paintings:
I'm always interested in building up my paintings as though they were force fields, like those diagrams in the crossword section of the paper where you have to connect the dots. In another sense they are born as ideograms. After the severity of ideograms they go on to a more theatrical state. I've always seen my paintings as ideograms in costume, clothed or disguised. They have the ideogram's capability to express, to make references...they are a field of relations that makes reference to another field of relations without resorting to direct allusion. At that stage, if I think like that, I have no need for reality. I have to think, then afterwards I need reality to do away with the grotesque. And I need reality as a commonplace. I always have to lead the painting back to a commonplace appearance [in Flash Art, op. cit.]
The postures and gestures of the trinity in T03551 suggest some sort of ritualised sexual activity and a connection with Tantric imagery. The eye has numerous traditional symbolic associations-the all seeing eye of God, the sun, the eyes of the sky gods (or stars), the oval female sign surrounding the male circle (suggesting androgyny), and the third eye of Shiva, or wisdom, in Hindu philosophy. Ships, too, may be interpreted as representing the female principle and Fortune. The goddess of antiquity is associated with ships; as mistress of the sea, she is sometimes depicted blindfold and holding a ship or in a ship (see the figure on the left in T03551 and the central figure in ‘Station x’).
The arrangement of the figures suggests a spoked wheel. The eye motif also relates to Clemente's interest in depicting the orifices of the body, as discussed by Michael Auping (op.cit.) and Francesco Pellizzi (p. 153 in the same catalogue). The following works illustrated in the catalogue also relate to T03551: pl.28, ‘Everything I Know’, 1983 - a pastel drawing which includes a reclining figure whose body is covered in blue eyes; pl. 63, ‘Midnight Sun iii’; pl.29, ‘Midnight Sun iv’; pl.30, ‘Midnight Sun v’. In addition, the ship/eye motif appears between plates 24 and 25.
This entry has been approved by the artist.
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986