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MAKING WAVES: David Ligare “Florence: The Enigma of Time and Space”

July 30, 2020 | Allyson Hitte | Press Room/Blog

This week on MAKING WAVES, we’re sharing a special essay written by artist David Ligare about the creation of his painting, “Magna Fide” recently acquired by the Monterey Museum of Art.

“It is an eternal phenomenon: the insatiable will always finds a way to detain its creatures in life and compel them to live on, by means of an illusion spread over things. One is chained by the Socratic love of knowledge, another is ensnared by art’s seductive veil of beauty fluttering before his eyes, still another by the metaphysical comfort that beneath the whirl of phenomena eternal life flows on indestructibly.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

The Birth of Tragedy, section 18

I have spent the past thirty-five years trying to avoid the conventions of Contemporary art not as a naïve criticism of the very real discoveries of modernism but as an attempt to understand and to reintroduce history back into the resisting culture. I have made a particular study of Greco-Roman Classicism in its original forms and as it has appeared and reappeared for over two and one half millennia, it is the eternal phenomenon and it marries the Socratic and Aristotlian desire for knowledge with the transcendent pleasure of beautiful images. Rather than being inflexibly attached to the present day, I have tried to allow myself to flow freely back through history and choose useful elements as inspiration and as emblems of a renewed and even radical new intellect in art. I have called this position the “literate picture.”


In October of 2012 I was sitting at a cafe in the Piazza Santa Croce having a coffee when I realized that I was looking at the exact scene that Giorgio DeChirico had looked out on in 1910. The sunlight was strong and golden, the shadows were long and dark. It was the view and the Florentine experience that inspired his painting, “The Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon,” the first of his many magical and evocative cityscapes. For me, and I would guess, for DeChirico that experience had a deep meaning. It might have been what T.S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world, where past and future are gathered,” a time when everything pauses and coalesces into a coherent vision that is both new and ancient.


The many paintings that followed DeChirico’s revelation in Florence inspired much of the philosophy of art and literature in the twentieth century. The idea of the enigma, the mysterious moment that he mythologized was perhaps the greatest influence on the leading proponent of Surrealism, Andre Breton, who described DeChirico as reappraising “the basic perceptions of time and space.” (Breton essay, Giorgio DeChirico, 1920) For me, and for many others, the essence of Florence is just that, a meeting of time and space.


But, I believe that the idea of the enigma must necessarily change from an exploration of the unknown and unknowable to a representation of that which we still must know. The enigma, the great question, attracts us to the knowable, which is where we must be in our history. So much of the past is the roadmap for the future. I often cite fifteenth century Florence and fifth century BC Athens as shining examples of how any society, no matter how small or remote in the world, can produce the most astonishing works of art, literature and science. The key is, of course, the leadership that inspires the population to do great works.


I have been visiting Florence frequently for over thirty years. Despite the challenge of the tourist culture there is, I believe, a centrality to it’s meaning and its importance in the world and that there is a supreme value to using the past as represented by Florence to create the future. A new flowering remains a constant possibility.


One focus of my Florentine attentions in the 1990’s was Filippo Brunelleschi and his investigations into and adoptions of ancient architecture. This inspiration resulted in two of my paintings that were meant to point out several of his contributions. In the first, my Ponte Vecchio/Torre Nova, 1996, I added a Neo-classical tower to the Vasari Corridor in the architectural style inspired by Brunelleschi with a pediment, arches and a strygilated balustrade. When I first showed the work in an exhibition in London in 1997 I accompanied it with postcards and t-shirts of the painting in recognition of the Ponte Vecchio’s status as a Pop icon. I have, also, from time to time, surreptitiously added postcards of my painting to postcard racks around Florence: a quiet conceptual intervention. (see ARTISTA, 1997) But my point was to emphasize Brunelleschi’s use of the ancient classical architectural elements that he had studied in Rome surmounting the, then modern, Medieval bridge. It was the past becoming the future


In 2000 I made a large painting of the Florence Baptistery, (Prospettiva) viewed from the doors of the Duomo. Brunelleschi’s biographer, Manetti, described the architect/artist as having made a painting of the Baptistery from that exact position as the first demonstration of linear perspective. This was a great intellectual leap recognizing the science of seeing. It also represented a metaphor for a system of agreement between all the visual elements within a view. Indeed, it describes the exact position of the artist/viewer within the depicted space. In my painting this system of agreement is represented by two figures seen through the imaginary far doors shaking hands.


While out on the Tuscan Coast with my friends, Gianni Cacciarini and Daniele Cariani in 2014 I made a small drawing in my notebook of an invented rock formation containing a shrine set in a quiet sea and sheltered by a coastal pine. The shrine consisted of a plinth with a stone sphere. My idea was to honor Leon Battista Alberti. In 1997 I had painted a small still life with a white sphere and the inscription, “Verum Philosophium.” In his book De re Aedificatoria, Alberti wrote that, “nature herself enjoys the round form above all others as is proven by her own creations such as the globe…” I produced a small drawing and then an etching printed by Arte Grafica in Florence in 2014 and then, when I returned to my studio in California I painted a large version of this idea that I have called, MAGNA FIDE or the great belief.


Clearly I was inspired by the pines along the shore and also by the rock formations in the sea at Talamone, but more importantly – and obviously – I was inspired by Arnold Bocklin’s series of paintings called “The Isle of the Dead.” Bocklin painted a series of five paintings in Florence in the 1880’s based, according to some historians, on the English Cemetery, and, I believe that that is the source of DeChirico’s enigma and so much melancholic mystery in the twentieth century from DeChirico and Dali to Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock and Emilio Vedova and even Arte Povera artists like Mario Merz. The enigma suggests that there are things we cannot know, the nonsense of dreams and irrational behavior. I would like to propose that the enigma can also occupy an idea or an image with a golden atmosphere of tenuous beauty and it can, in addition, make beautiful a specific idea that we should all know and embrace. I have long used the balance between opposing elements in my paintings, what Nietzsche called the “primal unity.” In this case it is the irrationality of the enigma paired with the rationality of Alberti. In describing Bocklin’s influence on DeChirico, Paolo Baldacci writes that rather than seeing him as an outdated academic, “DeChirico saw Bocklin as the prophet of a new vision capable of reconciling myth and contemporaneity by way of a transcendent annulment of time and history.” (DeChirico, The Metaphysical Period, 1997, p. 38)


I propose in my paintings, inspired by the real underlying Florence, the Florence of deep humanistic thought and scientific discoveries that there are new insights to be found in the example of the ancients and in the bravely active and hugely inventive minds of the fifteenth century. I believe that people everywhere can follow the examples of Brunelleschi, Alberti, Galileo, Bocklin, DeChirico and so many others to build and invent the future as a place of substance, depth, significance and great beauty. All wrapped in the golden beauty of a powerful and enigmatic light.