Author | Francesco Paolo Campione

  • Benetti
  • 11 min read

Creation and desire. The art of the origins by Andrea Benetti

The first man who plotted on a wall an intentional sign, or left an image of his own hand as if the projection of a shadow, changed forever the fate of his own race. That line, engraved rather than painted, that imprint either positive or negative, marked an irreversible difference to the rest of the humans and placed him – to stay there forever – at the top of a hierarchy whose role of command would be very easy to define, and yet infinitely complex in its developments: that human broke away from the others for his capacity to render in images, to give a concrete form, to what he saw. In short: to elaborate symbols.
Perhaps the environment of those first artistic experiments was not hospitable, although not corrupted. The world around man was constantly changing, everywhere nestled dangers and mysteries, wonders and horrors: nature itself looked like an insatiable predator, determined to challenge the life spaces to that more evolved being. And yet in the act of representing that same nature, that human found the winning tool to govern it, to understand its threats and exorcise the fear of that strenuous challenge. He was certainly not the strongest being created by biology, but compared to others he had detected a peculiar resource, which turned out to be the most powerful: that man was collecting representations, because he had the intuition that the filter of art made the world more easily understandable, and therefore containable.
Maybe the development of intellect and the refining of cognitive faculties allowed the first humans to become the first of a race of creators; or perhaps, more suggestively, the exercise of art helped reinforce their intelligence, to make their language more complex and significant; perhaps both things together: no other creature was able to develop a communication system of voice and image, of something that was – at the same time – itself and different from itself.
In the cave of the island of Maros in Sulawesi, where finds going back to more than forty thousand years ago were brought to light, the silhouettes on the walls – realised using the hands as if stencils – remind of an X-ray of slender and gracious arms, of elongated fingers: that ancient artist was maybe a woman and to that gesture, similar to an apprehension, had entrusted the will to take control of those places, to frieze ownership through a sign that was – at the same time – a sort of symbolic self-portrait, or a true body synecdoche: that hand, able, in contrast to many other animals, to grab objects and look after them, to transform matter, was the most advanced technological tool reached in its evolution process by living species in the space of millions of years. At La Pasiega in Cantabria the history of art goes even further, and jumps to the Neanderthals of sixty-five thousand years ago. Those ancient humans did not have the slender shapes of modern beings: their elusive foreheads and their projecting brows, made to hold their strong jaws, and their massive body size seemed created for combat rather than creation and esthetical contemplation. Yet those first humans had developed an extremely complex abstract thinking, able to symbolize the surrounding reality and translate it in figurative images. Perhaps they did not know beauty, but still could gave it life and translate it in painted images. They had been capable of project their mind on a wall, to fix there their desires and fears: here at La Pasiega the representations (in truth not too stylized and almost realistic) of cattle are drawn within a figure in the shape of a staircase, probably an enclosure where animals were kept. It could be the first iconography of history, the first image of a plant or a map: they might have created a sense of possession, or perhaps they had learnt that in order to know the world you need to create a stable image of it. Moreover, by repeating the representation, collecting images upon images sometime overlapping authentic iconic palimpsest, they had become the initial collectors. The walls of those caves, in places far apart from each other, but from the same decorative phenomenon, started to a be a sort of art gallery where the fictional element of those communities could mirror themselves as in a perennial desire for physical and mental well-being. It was probably an inchoative form of religion to inspire their artistic doing, and yet those places embellished by paintings and graffiti gave life to a reassuring world, at the top of which – as if a creator divinity – was man. That was the turning point, capable of building a performative mental structure: the act of making helped being in the making, with increasing ability the intelligence built upon itself, able to ascend to new levels of difficulty.
It would be wrong to believe that the true conquest of art was just in capturing the similarities between real and artefact, that ever close correspondence between representation and model. With images more and more complex and virtual (in the graffiti of Grotta of Addaura at Palermo, dating back to fourteen thousand years ago, the authors were already experimenting with perspective rules and the proportions of figures from the foreground), the ancient artists elaborated without cease a system of aniconic figures or beings that had no relation to the world of experience. On one side there was the desire to reproduce what was surrounding the artist, in a continuous observation and rendering, on the other the willingness to give life to an interior reality infinitely wider, where the confinements of nature were either more tenuous or not existing. To make art did not just create a more logical and plastic mind, neither developed organizational abilities of space beyond art itself. To generate images helped to imagine, and enlarged that horizon of fantasy that would become the inextinguishable deposit of creativity.
Throughout centuries art would proceed in the path of realism, swinging each time between a representation poised to improve and its degradation towards ugly. Everything though, either giving an enchanted and reassuring image or exploring the regions of ugly and horror, would eventually find its way into beauty. In truth, art was destined to become an instrument of power, a propaganda tool, always measuring itself as a mirror of reality. There never was in fact a regime art that was not a transparent image of what was representing, a duplicate of the world. Yet the irrepressible phantasy of the first artists of history stayed forever uncorrupted, alive like magmatic matter buried within ice. When art freed itself from the need to celebrate sovereigns and patrons, many artists turned their attention to the origin of expression: that meant, simply put, to free that creative power that for centuries had been kept under wraps to the advantage of figurative expression.
When Carl Einstein published in 1915 The black sculpture, Picasso had already completed for some time Les demoisells d’Avignon: a manifesto of art that was now not only gazing at a remote past, but also at cultures of places that eurocentrism placed under submission. If the great masters of the history of art were destined to rest in a sort of inaccessible empyrean, where they could not be any longer disturbed by pedantic and annoying imitators, now the nameless artists of centuries ago were coming back with the irrepressible strength of their phantasy. The livelier essence of creativity was not in the cathedrals, in the great palaces, in the sleepy museums: it was rather at Altamira or at Lascaux, at Levanzo or at Laas Gall in Somalia. In all these rupestrian cave sites spread all over the world where man, representing reality or giving way to his imagination, had created himself.
The art of the origins of Andrea Benetti comes then to the end of art. And perhaps we could be led to believe this could be the end of the story. He arrives there with a project of hope, in a world that has buried hope (and with that humanity, identity, curiosity).
When in December 2006 he published his manifesto of neo cave art, he could not have imagined that his words would resound even more present almost twenty years ago. He recognised the urgency of going back to a deeper authenticity, to a livelier sense of beauty, to a sense of the value of things that could not dictated by the frenzied greed of profit. It would be wrong to believe that those words, although ominously prophetical, longed for a return to an uncorrupted golden age. Past does not come back, luckily, and every attempt to return to the past always translated in catastrophe. Rather the message of Andrea Benetti went, then and now exactly in the opposite direction: let us build a different future starting from those who created that future, thousands of years ago, with the incoercible power of imagination, with the respect for the environment, with the enthusiasm for ideas.
With makeshift tool, with materials nature offered and instruments they themselves prepared, those ancient people had already imagined everything. Every consideration that came after, deceptively progressive, would have just been a pale copy. From here the sustainable experiments of the artist, the use of natural pigments – sometimes even from daily eating – inspired from those first painters of history. That repertoire of figures and plastic forms, of archetypical geometry, enriches itself with bright colour schemes: the technique of Andrea Benetti retraces the creative dream of those past centuries, with suggestions from the great artists of the 20thC; artists who – in turn – looked at the origins of art: Wassily Kandinskij, Mark Rothko, Joan Mirò, Paul Klee.
The exhibition at Palazzo Zagari is the completion of a creative path where the artist has, painting after painting, built his own image of Venice. In the gothic and bizarre lines of the palaces, in the winding progression of its canals, the genetic code and its signs seemed already engraved: what was left to do was giving shape to that desire. That dream comes alive in the seventeen paintings exposed, each a vision of that internal and enchanted world where the creativity of those ancient artists – like in an eternal present – is never exhausted. And perhaps that is precisely the antidote to the ill of the present.

Francesco Paolo Campione
Professor of History of Art and Museology and History of Collecting | 
University of Messina |