Wolf Gunther Thiel

Ugo Riva is a sculptor and an artist who has contributed essential figurative sculptures to the art history of our time. His work deconstructs the sculptural discourse of his times in many ways. Riva took the opposite position to the contemporary sculpture discourses, as suggested in Minimal Art and Pop Art of the 60ies to Arte Povera of the 70ies, Neo-Geo of the 80ies or Context Art of the 90ies by focusing on the human figure. Michael Duncan writes in 1996: “For most of this century, depiction of the human figure has been overshadowed by abstraction. This has been particularly evident in sculpture, which seemed to relish modernism’s breakaway from equestrian monuments and heroic statuary.”

Auguste Rodin believed that an individual’s character was revealed by his physical features. Rodin’s talent for surface modeling allowed him to let every part of the body speak for the whole. Speaking of ”The Thinker”, Rodin illuminated his aesthetic: “What makes my Thinker think, is that he thinks not only with his brain, with his knitted brow, his distended nostrils and compressed lips, but with every muscle of his arms, back, and legs, with his clenched fist and gripping toes.” Sculptural fragments to Rodin were autonomous works, and he considered them the essence of his artistic statement. His fragments—perhaps lacking arms, legs, or a head—took sculpture further from its traditional role of portraying likenesses, and into a realm where forms existed for their own sake. Rodin’s most original work departed from traditional themes of mythology and allegory,modeled the human body with high realism, and celebrated individual character and physicality. Ugo Rivas bodies are often incomplete and provide an erotic, dramatic and aggressive effect. Riva proves with his work that Rodins idea of individuality as well as the torso as a pars pro toto of representation of the human figure is still of high discursive potential and therefore of high importance to the art discourses of our days. Especially today while the inflation of artistic positions, the fleed of paintings and sculptures suggest an ephemere importance for just a moment as Warhol puts it, for the moment of beeing contemporary. Riva represents a different type of artist, who still sees his work in the classical tradition and art historian perspective and the relevance over generations. That goes along with the classical idea of sculptures. Throughout most of history, the purpose of creating sculpture has been to produce works of art that are as permanent as possible and that is definitely one of Rivas leading ideas.

Ugo Riva uses allegories as a figurative mode to represent a complex often classical alliterated state of mind. Since meaningful stories are nearly always applicable to larger issues,allegories may be read into many stories, sometimes distorting their author’s overt meaning. The overt meaning behind Rivas usage of allegories is the desire for the deep storage of his artistic thoughts and expressions through times. He stands in opposition to the contemporary discourse of politics, artheoretical fights for authorships or gender acting. When Riva implements aspects of nudity in his sculptures like in 4_85,12_89, 43_99 and uses it as a moment to signify fine art, he alludes to a tradition which we know since the Renaissance. Kenneth Clark explained in his book “The Nude” in1956 that nudity was between the classic greec antique and the early 18th century a signifier of sculptures in the field of fine arts. Riva hold on to this idea and opposites some ideas of feminists and queer critiques of the nude in both art theory and practice. In the post-war era, the physicality of the body was boldly explored in body and performance art. The aesthetics of early performances couldn’t be further removed from the unbroken surface of the nude: the body is – sometimes literally – opened up to reveal what is normally unseen, and highlight both the fragility and vigour of life as we know it through action artists like Gina Pane or Hermann Nietsch.

Ugo Rivas idea of sculpture is an archetypic and overall idea of the human beeing as a holistic and phantastic phenomenon. The sculptures allegorizes the beauty and preciousness of human existence per se. His sculptures symbolize and particularly personify the abstract idea of human existence. It is the human existence per se in all their existential shades from spiritual enlightment to deep sorrows and scare as well as beauty and euphory. In this way Riva continues the sculptural tradition of the nude and interrogate the aesthetic as well as social mechanisms by which the naked body was stripped of its sensuality to become a vehicle for allegory. He keeps the sensual dimension of the body as part of his artistic expression and faces the critiques of dogmatic mondernists.

The iconography of Gustave Moreau the french symbolist, is of impact for my understanding of Rivas work. Therefore it ignores Kramers ideas of modernism. Gustave Moreau was one of the leading Symbolist artists. His preference was for mystically intense images evoking long-dead civilizations and mythologies. As Mario Paz puts it: “Moreau’s figures are ambiguous; […] all his characters are linked by subtle bonds of relationship.” This seems to be a good description of the relations between the figures in Rivas work as we see it in 25_92, 47_00, 63_04. The relationships between the figures seem not defined in terms of emotional or rational relations, they keep a mysterious and mystical relationship. Kramer gives us anyway another clue which might be due to both ”Moreau’s art is excessively elaborate, precious, morbid and ornamental.”

This description excessively elaborate, precious, morbid and ornamental shows parallels between Ugo Riva and artists like Gustave Moreau or Gustav Klimt. As it was for the historical set of artists representing symbolism a reaction against Naturalism and Realism into a fictional set of ideas which were connected to the idea of “Golden Age”. The term stems from Greek mythology. It refers to the highest age in the Greek spectrum to a time in the beginnings of Humanity which was perceived as an ideal state, or utopia, when mankind was pure and immortal. A “Golden Age” is known as a period of peace, harmony, stability and prosperity. In literary works,the Golden Age usually ends with a devastating event, which brings about the Fall of Man. This idea of the golden age – also sometimes called the imaginary Arcadia – was remarkably present in the time of the symbolism and is in many sculptures of Ugo Riva.

The return to mythological topics in Rivas work represent the desire for an existential and timeless legitimacy for art. Art understood as a transmitter of content, spiritual as well intellectual enlightment and validity of artistic ideas. Art becomes an expression through the different periods of art history and history of european or global culture in general. It represents an artistic ethos and attitude which reaches and refers to the classical importance of art. Masterpieces of art were produced in and for their time, but never have lost the relevance for the reception through the times. Symbolism was largely a reaction against Naturalism and Realism, movements which attempted to objectively capture reality. These movements inspired an opposite path in favour of spirituality, the imagination, and dreams; this path to Symbolism begins with that opposition. This opposition is remarkably visible in Rivas work. Ugo Riva opposites the contemporary art movements which are concerned with social, political or gender issues and confirms his interest in l’art pour l’art.

The Symbolist manifesto (‘Le Symbolisme’, Le Figaro, 18 Sept 1886) was published in 1886 by Jean Moréas. Moréas announced that Symbolism was hostile to “plain meanings,declamations, false sentimentality and matter-of-fact description,” and that its goal instead was to “clothe the Ideal in a perceptible form” whose “goal was not in itself, but whose sole purpose was to express the Ideal”: In this art, scenes from nature, human activities, and all other real world phenomena will not be described for their own sake; here, they are perceptible surfaces created to represent their esoteric affinities with the primordial Ideals.

There is a visible link between symbolism,golden age and Ugo Rivas work: The desire for a more sophisticated, more elegant way of looking at the existence per se. Therefore the word ideosyncratic could be helpful. Idiosyncrasy comes from Greek “a peculiar temperament”, “habit of body”. It is defined as a structural or behavioral characteristic peculiar to an individual or group. The term can also be applied to symbols. Idiosyncratic symbols mean one thing for a particular person, as a blade could mean war, but to someone else, it could symbolize a knighting. By the same principle, linguists state that words are not only arbitrary, but also largely idiosyncratic signs. Verlaine’s concept of the poète maudit in turn borrows from Charles Baudelaire, who opened his collection Les fleurs du mal with the poem Bénédiction, which describes a poet whose internal serenity remains undisturbed by the contempt of the people surrounding him. From my understanding this describes the selfunderstanding of Ugo Riva very well. Also his approach goes beyond Arthur Schoppenhauers pessimism, who held that the purpose of art was to provide a temporary refuge from the world of blind strife of the will. For Riva it is more! It is a manifestation of an alternative to the profane world which stands out through times. And there is a difference between Riva and the Symbolists. While the Symbolists see art as a contemplative refuge from the world of strife and will, Riva sees it as a serious alternative to change the counsciousness of the specatator on middle and long terms.

Putting sculptures in a public space is most often an artistic intervention on long terms.Baudelaires description of the poet in the poem Bénédiction describes a poet whose internal serenity remains undisturbed by the contempt of the people surrounding him. We already proved this artistic attitude for Ugo Riva. The view on another time companion of Beaudelaire draws attention to a different aspect of Rivas work: Edgar Degas. He is regarded as one of the founders of Impressionism although he rejected the term, and preferred to be called a realist. A superb draughtsman, he is especially identified with the subject of the dance, and over half his works depict dancers. These display his mastery in the depiction of movement, as do his racecourse subjects and female nudes. His portraits are considered to be among the finest in the history of art. Degas’s work was controversial, but was generally admired for its draftsmanship. Regarding Ugo Rivas work we like to focus on “La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans” from 1881 by Degas.

“La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans” is a sculpture by Edgar Degas. Degas’ use of mixed media in this sculpture provoked the art world at the time. Having modeled her in fleshlike tinted wax, Degas gave the Dancer a real cloth skirt, a real silk bodice, a wig of real hair with a green ribbon tied around its long braid, and pink ballet slippers. To understand public reaction to this work, it helps to be aware of the debate in artistic circles at the end of the nineteenth century concerning polychrome versus monochrome sculpture. People were used to dark bronzes and white marbles. Degas’ wax tinting and his addition of other colorful, nontraditional elements such as the dancer’s net skirt, hair, and satin bodice and shoes,presented an array of textures and surface finishes that took people by surprise and would later influence the modern sculpture of cubists, surrealists, and later twentieth-century artists.

In the field of classical sculpture the reception is still used to monochrome bronce, marble, wood or steel. Everything between Henry Moore and Richard Serra, every sculpture which is polychrome is still cutting the edges of the representative idea of monumental sculpture as we see it within the monuments in the United States or the Peoples Republic of China. Ugo Riva takes a different position, he uses a polychrome colour-set for his sculptures. He deconstructs the classical idea in the traditional oppinion on sculptures and colours. The tradition of polychrome sculpture as we see it in Rivas work.

The idea to compare Degas with Riva is following many of the ideas we already discussed. The idea was to see the perspectives of contemporary or modern sculptures within Riva and Degas. Thinking of Degas, were would we find his sources in art history? 150 years earlier in France Rococo provided the established cultural frame. In the painting of the time we recognize a lightness of behaviour in arcadic gardens which refer to the aristrocratic and royalistic pleasure and paradise gardens. References we recognize for example in the paintings of Antoine Watteau or Francois Bouchet which represent the delicacy and playfulness of Rococo. Looking at Ugo Rivas work Watteau’s commedia dell’arte player of Pierrot, ca 1718-19 seems to show iconographic parallels. Sir Michael Levey, a British art historian and former director of the National Gallery, London, once noted that Watteau “created, unwittingly, the concept of the individualistic artist loyal to himself, and himself alone”. If his immediate followers would depict the unabashed frillery of aristocratic romantic pursuits, Watteau in a few masterpieces anticipates an art about art, the world of art as seen through the eyes of an artist. This reminds us of Beaudellaires description of the poet and our understanding of Riva. Watteau’s theatrical panache is tinged with a note of sympathy, wistfulness, and sadness at the transience of love and other earthly delights. This description could be also used for describing Rivas artworks as well as for Degas dancers. In my oppinion the artistic attitude is visible in all three positions.

The attraction Ugo Riva shares with Degas and Watteau is their individual idea of classical beauty which they express openly in their work. Classical beauty refers to an idea which was invented in the greek antique as personified by Venus or Aphrodite. Socrates postulated, that the main task of the artist was to give a standard idealised contour of the human body in exact proportions to gain balance and harmony. We can still admire this in the statue of the “Aphrodite of Melos”, better known as the “Venus de Milo”. The idea was rediscovered in the Italian Renaissance as we can see it in the drawing “Vitruvian Man” by Leonardo da Vinci. Today the ideal of the perfect human body is a result of culture: religious functions, economy, advertisment, and other factors and therefore a contemporary construction as it seems. The definition of beauty is not an immanent and objective quality of things, since every age, place and social class formed its own ideal of it, ideal beauty is corresponding with the aesthetic feeling of people of a respecting period. Different than a scientist who has to build his view on facts and results an artist can express his own opinions or feelings on the topic of beauty. Ugo Riva does not avoid to manifest his idea of beauty of the body in his sculptures.

Wendy Steiner underlines the assertion that modern art is purposely ugly and attempts to trace the intellectual roots of this monstrosity through the philosophies of Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke, early twentieth century arguments of the avant-garde and the movement to banish the feminine, the sentimental and the beautiful in striving to attain the shattering experience of the sublime. Steiner’s exploration offers intriguing flashes of astute understanding into the apparent destruction of beauty and the rejection of the female subject as an aesthetic symbol in twentieth-century art. Ugo Riva opposites this idea of destruction of female beauty and deconstructs through his work this common artistic idea of the 20th century. He proclaims the resurrection of beauty and aesthetic primacy as acceptable terms of judgement and evaluation and proves they are still very valid for contemporary artistis work.

Wolf Gunther Thiel