Francesco Clemente, iconology of “il mio corpo è rosso per formaggio”

Stefano Pirovano

Francesco Clemente painted ‘Il mio corpo è rosso per formaggio’ around 1980, the year of his first participation in the Venice Biennale and his first exhibitions in New York. Let’s discover the work in its details and understand some of its hidden messages.

What follows is an in-depth analysis of Il mio corpo è rosso per formaggio, a painting by Francesco Clemente from around 1980, currently belonging to the Collezione Maramotti in Reggio Emilia where it is on display. Its technique is acrylic paint and markers on synthetic fabric glued on canvas; it’s over 4 meters wide and 2 meters high. In 1982 the work was part of the Transavaguardia: Italy / America exhibition at the Galleria Civica in Modena and at the town hall of Pisa. Between 2002 and 2003 the painting was included in the Transavanguardia exhibition at the Castello di Rivoli in Turin.

Note: You can navigate the interactive image below, clicking on the orange pins to learn more about the different parts of the painting, or on the green pins to read important quotes by art historians and the artist himself. Full screen view recommended.

The year 1980 is crucial for Francesco Clemente. According to the detailed biography by Rene Ricard found in the catalog of his 1999/2000 retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, staged in the Lloyd Wright’s cone, 1980 is precisely the year when Clemente (born in Naples in 1952) makes the Big Apple his new home, a move with serious implications for any young artist at the time. 

In the Fall of 1980, his work is part of a collective exhibition at the gallery of Gian Enzo Sperone (then called Sperone, Westwater, Fischer), which marks his American debut. The same group show also includes Sandro Chia and Enzo Cucchi. In December, the gallery of Annina Nosei features a few drawings by Clemente in what will be his first American solo show.

The premise to these two exhibitions is nothing less than the Venice Biennale, in which Francesco Clemente participates in the Aperto 80 section curated by Achille Bonito Oliva and Harald Szeemann. [here the history of the Biennale of those years. Ed.] At the same time, Clemente participates in several group shows in Germany, and in a collective exhibition at the Kunsthalle in Basel, whose catalog includes texts by Jean-Christophe Amman and Bonito Oliva. In short, 1980 represents a real turning point for Clemente.

The Burning Man, directed by Ravi Chopra, 1980, India, movie billboard.

The compositional structure of Il mio corpo è rosso per formaggio reminds of the great Bollywood cinema posters, often hand painted by specialised genre artists and recognised by critics as one of Francesco Clemente’s visual sources at the time. In 1978, the artist along with his wife Alba and their daughter Chiara, who was born the year before in Piacenza, contracts hepatitis in Madras (the current city of Chennai in India). The disease greatly affects Clemente, who nonetheless exhibits works in July of that year at the Art and Project gallery in Amsterdam. [here is the exhibition dedicated by MoMA to the gallery’s bulletins published between 1968 and 1989. Ed.]

Self-portraiture has become a trope for Francesco Clemente as it had before for his friend Alighiero Boetti, whom he joins in Afghanistan in 1974 on a journey that marks an era. In Il mio corpo è rosso per formaggio Clemente paints himself as the ultimate protagonist. A trickle of blood, or a residue of food spots the left side of his lips. His eyes look contemptuously at a vanishing point outside the canvas. The tie, yellow and narrow like a brush stroke illuminates the scene from the right-hand side of the composition. It is a fashionable accessory, worn at the time by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Wharol, who in 1982 paints a triple portrait of Clemente wearing a suit and tie. Mapplethorpe will portray the same features just a few years later. 

Robert Mapplethorpe, Francesco Clemente, 1985. Courtesy of Tate London.

The other characters in the story are a long fishbone, a man who just shot himself in the legs but doesn’t seem to suffer very much, and fifteen cheeses with holes. They remind of the videogame of Pac-Man, launched the same year by the Japanese company Namco.

Il mio corpo è rosso per formaggio sounds like the title of an unwritten narration, inspired by the author’s biography and self-parodic in tone. The two telephones on the left-hand side might symbolise the “internationalism” of which Francesco Clemente is a great example. A frequent traveler, his attitude matches that of Bruce Chatwin, the great travel writer of In Patagonia, which was published in the same years. 

With regard to the elements on the left temple and on the chest of the figure, they seem to relate to the idea of ​​fragmentation of reality, a theme dear to the artist over many years. There is no hierarchy of the parts, therefore there is no order to follow. Each element is worth in itself, and so is every relationship between them. The skiing elephant, the double hook that perhaps was used to catch the fish, the scissors, the pacifiers, the two crosses, the heart on the skate, the mouth with the inscription X12, the lightning with wheels, the two symmetrical comic figures facing each other: those are the hints provided by Francesco Clemente. It is up to the viewer to weave the narrative in the framework that the author has set with a poetic rather than didactic approach. The figure of the traveler differs from that of the tourist. Clemente’s painting is an invitation to interpretation rather than a puzzle to be solved.

Francesco Clemente, Moon, 1980, gouache on twelve sheets of handmade Pondicherrty paper, joined with handwoven cotton strips, 245,7 x 231,1 cm). Private Collection, Courtesy of Sperone Westwater, New York and MoMA, New York.

The themes of illness and psychological suffering return in two works also from 1980. The first is Sun, which belongs to the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The second is Moon, now at the MoMA in New York. Unlike these two paintings, from which it differs in many respects, Il mio corpo è rosso per formaggio is not included in the Guggenheim retrospective. A similar work titled Fortune and virtue seems to replace it in the show. The two share size, formal structure, the parodistic tone, and the presence of a “Boetti-like” phrase that runs through it, which in the case of Fortune and virtue says “La ruota della virtù la ruota della fortuna” (the wheel of virtue the wheel of fortune).

Francesco Clemente’s self-portrait stands on the left of this painting too. Blood streams out of his left ear, his trousers open to show his erect penis, which is also reflected in the allusive forms that populate the right-hand side of the work. The other elements are a bed, which in the central part reinforces the reference to Van Gogh’s injured ear, and a stylized cyclist making the sign of victory while in a large dreamlike bladder, pierced by Clemente to pop crystal droplets out. Compared to Il mio corpo è rosso per formaggio, the influence from cinema posters is much less present in Fortune and virtue, which is borrowed from a private Swiss collection for the Guggenheim retrospective.

Text of the type seen in the two paintings is not to be found in Francesco Clemente’s later work, and the same could be said for their Twombly-like composition. However, there exist three drawings from 1979 that bear similarly shaped writings: one is titled Pane and represents a baguette bread with the inscription “cane” (dog). It was auctioned at Christie’s New York in 1989; the second is untitled and it represents a ruler above which the word “vetta” (peak) is written. It was auctioned at Christie’s New York in 1989; the third represents a baby girl—maybe the artist’s daughter Chiara—also placed on the left-hand side of the sheet, in the middle of the words “one” and “only,” which give the work its title. It was auctioned at Phillips London in 1988. 

In the light of Francesco Clemente’s production before and after 1980, there is little doubt that both Il mio corpo è rosso per formaggio and Fortune and virtue may have been started or even completed before 1980, a biographical context and a stylistic moment that would seem more consistent with the themes covered in the two paintings. Note: the artist declares the guess that the work is from 1979 is a good guess, but he cannot confirm this a hundred per cent.

July 27, 2020