Donald Kuspit

Again and again, with a majestic obsession, ugo Riva represents woman, giving her body and spirit a convincing sculptural presence. Woman after woman, each lovely, tender, solemn,sometimes a madonna, sometimes a venus, always with a certain inner perfection, suggests a guiltless existence.

Riva’s women,naked or clothed, classically draped or perfect classical nudes,are certainly not the biblical eve—fallen women. Sometimes Riva’s woman is enthroned, sometimes casually seated. When she is an object of worship—aloof on an altarpiece—she represents sacred love, when she is a seductive muse, in casual disarray, she represents profane love. Riva clearly idolizes woman, but he is not intimidated by her. The psychoanalyst wolfgang lederer has written a famous book documenting the fear of woman through the ages, but Riva has no fear of woman, only admiration and respect. She may represent virtue or vice, as she has in the patriarchal society of the past, but Riva does not have a patronizing attitude to her: she is an autonomous being, whatever the symbolic use to which she may be put, for example, when she is given the wings of victory. Riva’s women know exactly who they are. They do not exist for what the feminists call the male gaze, but for themselves,however privileged men may be to gaze upon them.

But what is particularly significant about Riva’s sculptures is not their healthy attitude to women—as unusual as that is—but their classical style. More than to women, Riva pays homage to classicism, the only style in which the real and the ideal are seamlessly united. This is one definition of beauty, and Riva’s art—not just his women—is beautiful, more particularly, a reworking of the traditional idea of beauty. But Riva does something more in his representations of contemporary women: classical beauty fuses with modern glamour.

In general, he explores every kind of beauty, combining and recombining them in endless variations, sometimes to mannerist effect, sometimes with a romantic flair, always with a certain stately precision.

Riva may be obsessed with female beauty, but he also knows his art history. He ranges freely from antiquity to modernity, using classical,christian, and abstract devices—sometimes idiosyncratically together—to artistically frame his female figure. Sometimes she is posed standing in front of what seems like a constructivist sculpture (virtually all open space), sometimes she sits on what looks like a solid marble block covered in drapery. She may recline on what looks like an archaic (etruscan’) couch, or ride on a device that looks like a chariot and litter in one. In other works she sits in a niche, its doors open like a traditional altarpiece to reveal the sacred mystery within. The sculptures in which she rides alone are particularly striking, not only because they ingeniously combine modernist ideas of construction, found objects, and traditional figuration, but because they suggest that woman can move by her own power, confirming her independence. Sometimes Riva’s women are dressed in ancient robes or elaborate renaissance gowns, less often in fashionable modern clothing. Sometimes his sculptures are colourful, at other times they are grey and sober, reflecting in their changing tonalities the different moods of the figure. Whatever their mood and situation and pose, Riva’s women exist in a space of their own.

It should be emphasized that Riva’s verisimilitude—particularly when it comes to rendering the textural complexities of drapery and clothing,indeed, virtually any material surface, be it wood, flesh, metal,stone—is breathtaking in its virtuoso execution. Perhaps nowhere is this more self-evident than in the sculpture in which flesh and cloth are dynamically juxtaposed, creating a certain friction and excitement. This is especially the case in the wedding dress sculptures, particularly in the work which juxtaposes a seated woman and a wedding dress mounted on an upright mannequin. Brooding in a minimalist framework, she seems to contemplate the possibility of being another self, perhaps with a certain melancholy: marriage means a loss of autonomy. This subtle work indicates that Riva understands the social reality of woman,however much he mythologizes her.

It is an amazing act of empathy—as all his sculptures are—suggesting that he understands woman from the inside.

It should be emphasized that however beholden to tradition Riva’s sculptures are postmodern. They are not simply copies, but creative reprises with a contemporary purpose. Whatever else postmodernism means, it means that the avant-garde revolution is over. A good deal of contemporary art is living on past avant-garde capital, but many contemporary artists are returning to the pre-avant-garde past for inspiration. This new traditionalism involves the belief that traditional art is a fresh creative resource at a time of stale avant-garde art. There are many postmodernists who parody tradition—the relentlessness with which they do so suggests that they remain addicted to it however much they despise it—but there are many other postmodernists who have a positive attitude to it. For them it is not a dead cliché but a living opportunity. It is a place where one can learn what avant-garde art has forgotten—beauty. (One may recall that the abstract painter barnett newman said that’ the impulse of modern art was the desire to destroy beauty.)for Riva, the tradition involved is the italian renaissance, in all its facets—many of his figures allude not only to those of piero della francesca, as he has said, but to the subtly elongated figures of the mannerists (it is worth noting that his blue is derived from the virginal sky blue of luca della robbia’s ceramics)—not only because he is italian, but because the renaissance was a period in which art reached a peak of perfection that has never been surpassed. Avant-garde art may be more innovative—although that is debatable—but it is less perfect, as its fetishization of improvisation, with its casual spontaneity and incompleteness, suggests. Premised on the perfection of ancient art, renaissance art realized a more complex, demanding perfection, involving the transformation of ordinary mortals into immortal emblems, as though deified by art. Figures acquired a certain romantic intensity—a density of purpose and being—even as they remained classically perfect, however subliminally.like renaissance figures, those of Riva mediate perfection through familiar forms, giving them mythical import. Indeed, Riva’s figures suggest the mythical perfection woman has by reason of the fact that we are all born of her. She is a more consummate being than man, as Riva’s repeated apotheosis of her makes abundantly clear. Even when woman stands next to and slightly at odds with a man, as she does in one sculpture, she is dramatically herself rather than subservient.

Art historically, Riva’s classically inspired sculptures—his romanticized classicism—repudiates all that futurism, the italian contribution to modernism, stands for. In “the foundation and manifesto of futurism,” 1908, marinetti declared that “we will free italy from her numberless museums which cover her with countless cemeteries.” for him, old art was a “funeral urn.” he preferred “violent gushes of action,” famously asserting that “a race-automobile…is more beautiful than the victory of samothrace.” as Riva’s winged victories show,this is not true—the race-automobile is less beautiful, for it lacks the quiet nobility essential to beauty. This indwelling nobility is concrete in Riva’s classicized figures, as it is in all classical sculpture. A century after marinetti overturned the values of traditional art, they have returned in Riva, suggesting that the fascination with modern dynamics evident in futurism has outlived its day. Classical beauty has not, perhaps because there is a need for an oasis of beauty and stability—like a museum—in the ugly, unstable world. Also human beings, however allegorized,as in Riva’s figures, remain more marvellous than objects, even if they are technological marvels.

Riva has understood the romantic paradox of classical style: rendered with exquisite care, material fact becomes imbued with immaterial feeling.ever since the italian renaissance, the ambition of high art has been to create a so-called “speaking likeness,” that is, a portrait that conveys the inner life of the figure through its outer appearance. The ideal is emotional as well as physical verisimilitude. In no art is the integration of the external and the internal more seamless and subtle than in italian renaissance art. We immediately “see into” renaissance figures—and Riva’s neo-renaissance figures. In both cases we see their inner being through their outer appearance, the internal reality in turn enriching the external reality—enhancing its already vivid life. Riva’s female figures feel intensely yet never lose their classical poise, which is the secret of their gracefulness.

Donald Kuspit