the “swallow boy” takes to the air again in Salento with the recent opening of an art gallery in Lecce, and beyond…
His Milan studio is a kind of wunderkammer. Objects, mementoes and souvenirs of a traveller, an explorer of the soul, picked up who knows where. Driftwood and shells, animal skulls abandoned on beaches and imaginary deserts merge together in impossible geographies and dreams, some of which are begun here and end somewhere else - on canvas, on the walls of galleries, palatial buildings and museums, in town squares.
This is the shadowy den of an epic poet, a nomad of art, the “swallow boy", as Raffaele Carrieri called him, expressing through this visual concept the artist’s deep aversion to conformity. And then there is his library of 400 books on Picasso, an artist like himself, free and rebellious. "I have the complete set of the Cahiers d'Art ‘Pablo Picasso par Christian Zervos’" (33 volumes), Ercole Pignatelli proudly says.
On the morning of November 20th, 1953 he arrived by train in Milan from Lecce where he was born on April 28th, 1935. He was only 18 years old and carried just a few lire in his pocket, the proceeds of paintings sold at an exhibition organised by his grandfather, an esteemed medical physician in the Salentine town of Lecce. Here in Milan, rainy, grey with soot and in the grip of a bone-chilling cold, he happened to see a banner advertising a Picasso exhibition, the first ever to be held in this city, which had begun in September but was extended until December.
In the days that followed he was a constant visitor to the exhibition at the Palazzo Reale, admiring works that were so varied in style and colour but so recognisable for their uniqueness and energy - the works of the painter who claimed that in order to draw you have to "close your eyes and sing". Ercole, on the other hand, had always kept his own eyes wide open on the world, on things and emotions, ever since that first day in November.
"In the afternoon I found a room for rent at no. 5 Via Formentini, and the same evening I came across Bar Jamaica. There I met Lucio Fontana who introduced me to Milena Milani, a famous writer. She in turn introduced me to Carlo Cardazzo, who later became my dealer... And then Salvatore Quasimodo, Ugo Mulas, the first to make photo portraits of me, Piero Manzoni and Roberto Crippa." On December 12, 1953, just 22 days after his arrival, Ercole Pignatelli had already completed a portrait of Carlo Cardazzo, while Lucio Fontana became one of his greatest friends and enthusiasts, so much so that they frequently exchanged paintings. Ercole had brought with him to Milan a palette of colours that he mixed himself using pigments and boiled linseed oil because "tubes of oil paint cost too much". "These colours were so thoroughly mixed”, he said, “that the result was a material full of a sombre, almost Kafkian expressionism. They evoked certain paintings by Munch and Kirchner, with a typically youthful element of drama.
The subjects of the paintings were influenced by the atmospheres of Salento, typical of the rooms of the austere 17th-Century house in Lecce where I grew up, with antique furniture, rhomboid tiled floors, high, dark ceilings, vaulted, barrel-shaped and star-shaped..." He also carried with him, however, the memory of that fascinating and romantic series of terraces connected by stairs and steps, culminating in the dreamlike vision of an almost oriental landscape with masserie and palm trees on the horizon. "On some days I could even see (or perhaps just imagined) a blue line, probably the beaches of San Cataldo. Pure poetry that has always been present in my work." Just like the reflections and hazy appearance of a body of water which deforms but also acknowledges and amplifies forms, people, like a mirror that reflects its image as a reminder to yourself of your own cultural identity before exchanging with other cultures, other landscapes. This is a symbol which, like that of snakes, exorcises the fear of drought, a remnant of Ercole’s Salento origins.
He first depicted water at the age of seven, a tiny pool alongside a wood with trees that reflected in it, on the cover of a shoe box which is still guarded jealously by his son Luca. Many years later the theme was repeated, like a mantra or a macroscopic mandala, along the walls of Palazzo Lombardia in 2011, on a wall of the Moros winery of Claudio Quarta in Guagnano in 2012, and at the Triennale of Milan in 2015 with Fabio Novembre. The artist’s free, energetic style is enchanting. He uses neither traces nor sketches, at times following no structure whatsoever, demonstrating extraordinary physical strength and stamina, perhaps the legacy of years of underwater fishing. When he arrived in Milan his perception of colours immediately changed, as if the air and the climate had purified them, making them less material and allowing his style to emerge. A style which on occasion has involved that of people outside the art world, with the artist offering his brush to the likes of Roberto Formigoni, Fabio Novembre, Claudio Quarta and his daughter Alessandra, in a sort of initiation rite or collective liturgy, almost as a way of creating a bond, a continuum, a ‘Germinazione’ (germination). This, in fact, is the name Ercole Pignatelli has chosen for three of his works: a sculpture presented in 2010 to the city of Lecce with Claudio Quarta, a fresco at Palazzo Lombardia in 2011 and another he painted live in the Moros winery in 2012. He also gave this name to Galleria Germinazioni IVa.0 in Lecce, which was opened on March 18, 2017 by Mirella Coricciati. Pignatelli named the opening exhibition ‘Fourth Dimension’ - that which completes existence, defines what has been sown today to sprout tomorrow, leaving a trail for future generations and thus making sense of our lives. Almost at the same time, Potenza dedicated an anthological exhibition to him at the Archaeological Museum.
Ercole Pignatelli has lived in Milan for over 64 years. "I felt Lecce was too small for me, and when I was 16, together with Bruno Orlandi, a great painter from Trepuzzi who died tragically at 23, I was expelled from Lecce Art School. Though at 15 I had already decided I wanted to become a painter." He is careful to point out, however, that even then there were enlightened teachers such as Luigi Gabrieli from Matino and Aldo Calò, a sculptor from San Cesareo. Though he has never looked back, Salento emerges now and again in his works, unconsciously, in the untamed nature, the vineyards and the clusters of grapes, but also the architectural elements of monuments and churches, part of a visual and cultural DNA that cannot be ignored and that Ercole Pignatelli absorbed through his eyes and transformed into pictorial or sculptural works. "Recently, I happened to photograph the facade of the Chiesa del Rosario in Lecce, and when I zoomed in I discovered for the first time that one of the decorations is similar to my ‘Basamento’...". Ercole lives day by day, he does not create projects and his inspiration only comes when he is beginning a painting on canvas or a sculpture or standing in front of a wall.
It is an alchemy of energy, poetry, passion, colour and matter that is first created within him and then becomes an almost primordial force of nature, which in turn is transformed into an art performance. This is why it is a unique experience to watch him paint, using very long poles or on scaffolding, tirelessly tightrope walking for days on end, with his ponytail and his hand directly connected to his eyes, his heart and his head as he composes a unique visual narrative, invariably to a background of classical music. It may be, however, that instead of making a painting or sculpture he will compose a poem. He has already written around 700, in fact, following a creative path that developed, unpredictably and spontaneously, alongside that of painting. Besides, as he himself says, "Have you ever seen a swallow fly straight? Swallows fly up and down, they never stop, and that’s how I am. I have always hated labels, because deep down I am still the ‘swallow boy’ I always have been."
Photos courtesy of Galleria Germinazioni IVa.0, Lecce