The first thing I heard when I entered the Palazzo delle Esposizioni for the inauguration of the exhibition Sergio Ceccotti. Il Romanzo della Pittura 1958-2018, was the noise. The humming choir of too many people that are crammed into a room to look at paintings, while they talk about the art, the artist, or both. I was tired that evening and was tempted to turn around and leave but decided to affront the crowd instead. I am so very glad I did.
I went alone to this particular opening and it’s been a while since I’ve seen an art exhibition on my own. Although I enjoy sharing such experiences, there’s something about watching art in solitude. I guess it’s easier to fade away into that humming choir and let the noise separate the world and all it’s everyday worries from whatever is hanging on the wall inside the gallery.
Funnily enough, the most striking thing about the art I saw in the Palazzo that evening, was its recollection of everyday life, everyday Roman life in particular, and I was caught completely off guard by how vividly the artists has painted a life that eventually is also mine.
Sergio Ceccotti is s Roman artist and apart from some from Paris, many of the paintings on display were uniquely Roman. Aided by Ceccotti’s clear, strong colours that provide the paintings with volume, Rome itself, not the famous monuments but the houses and streetcorners and bedrooms where we live our lives, seemed to swell out of the lifeless frames on the wall and into the exhibition hall. The details in the paintings connect the motives with your own existence. The tennis player on the TV screen on the wall in La robe verte, the cornetto and steaming hot coffee on the table in Sonata, or the murales on the wall in front of the old Roman villa in Esterno notte II, they are not abstracts, they are what we see and do every day.
But Ceccotti is known for more that realism. Among other things, he is famous for his continuous allude to crime novels. His paintings are like the first pages of detective stories, film noir, gialli, call them what you want. There is that open door, that stripe of blood or that light from the lamppost that makes you want to know what happens next – or what happened before that point. It all works and although it is bizarre, Ceccotti never loses contact with his audience. Like in all good crime novels, the setting is a life that we recognise, and that recognition makes the story seem real.
Ceccotti is also a prominent advocate for the painted version of magical realism; a genre that can be best described as South American novels on canvas. A superb example is one of my favourites among his paintings, Guardando le stelle. We are not in Rome, for once, but in a location by the sea, it looks to me like Positano outside of Naples, and a naked woman is staring at the stars while she smokes a cigarette. In a glimpse, you see all what you can’t really see: the party in the town below, the man on the bed inside, and you can literally feel the scent of her warm body and the perfume of her tobacco. It is seldom to see such tangible scenes of suspense in paintings that are otherwise incredibly figurative and realistic.
In fiction writing, we are taught not to concentrate so much on the meaning of the story as the story itself. Whatever the ‘deeper meaning’ of a story is, it will be revealed by the words on the page, like a mystery that is slowly unfolds, even to the writer himself. All stories worth telling and told well contain these deeper truths, but nobody knows what they are until the story is finished.
Looking at Sergio Ceccotti’s paintings, I wondered if it is the same for painters. I was asking myself if the artist had deliberately set out to paint the ambiguity, tension or fear that accompanies our lives, or if these issues just grew out of the paintings along with the strokes of the brush, without prior conscious thinking. In the accompanying catalogue that I bought (I always buy the catalogue when I am particularly impressed by an exhibition), the artist answers the question himself: ‘I paint what I have to’ he says, ‘not what I want to. When I find myself in front of a white canvas, the painting starts taking shape as if induced by a force unknown to me’.
So maybe life is just like that, full of mystery and beauty, and the artists among us have the gift of seeing this clearly while the rest of us spend a lifetime looking for it without recognising it, even when we have it right in front of us?
I was still pondering about this when I left the by then much more discrete humming and strolled into the Roman evening. The city that Ceccotti had brought to life inside, was waiting for me to be a part of it, and I walked down via Nazionale to Piazza Venezia, enjoying the familiarity of the sound of the relentless traffic and the light from the lampposts on the sidewalk. I stopped at a supermarket that was still open to buy dinner, and continued on foot through the ghetto, a shortcut on my way home.
It’s been a while since I’ve been to the ghetto, and I managed to take the wrong street and unwillingly ended up on the Teatro Marcello side, opposite of where I wanted to go to. I was about to turn back when I heard the sound of a piano.
At first, I thought somebody was practicing in a living room above me, but the sound grew stronger and I couldn’t help being drawn to it. Then, at a dead-end road that leads to a little square from where you can overlook what is sometimes known as the ‘Piccolo Collosseo’, I had prime view of a little improvised scene that could have been the motive of a Ceccotti painting: from a small improvised podium in front of the 2000 year old construction, a tuxedo-dressed pianist was playing Rachmaninov for a handful of listeners.
Magical and mystical, yet doubtlessly realistic, not least because it was Monday evening and I had a bag of groceries in my hand, it was endlessly beautiful. As I stood there and enjoyed the music, I realised what exactly made me like Ceccotti’s art so much: His ability to play with the infinite attraction of the unexpected and to visualise the subtle beauty hidden in the mystery of every day life. It’s all there in front of our eyes but most of the time, we see past it. What Ceccotti does, is to remind us of it.