When, in a Milan gallery years ago, I first saw paintings by Gastone Novelli (1925-1968)—including some of his early 1960s nearly all-white compositions in which washes of paint and drawn lines create an airy, fluctuating ground across which the artist inscribes with paint brush, pencil, ink and pointed instruments series of delicately drawn letters and words, sometimes distributed upon irregular grids—the thought came to me, after the initial exhilaration of discovery receded: why didn’t anyone ever tell me about this fantastic artist? Maybe if I’d been longer in Italy someone would have, but no one in New York had ever mentioned his name. Did American viewers think his work was too close to Twombly’s? In fact, Novelli emerged from the same 1950s Roman art scene that nurtured Twombly and Rauschenberg. Far less gestural than Twombly’s writerly practice, and closer in spirit and form to experimental poetry and Paul Klee, Novelli’s alphabetic paintings are more likely to evoke maps than graffiti-covered walls. Billowing and diaristic, expansive and soft, they have more affinities with a current abstract painter like Joanne Greenbaum than with any of his contemporaries.
For all its apparent playfulness and gentle palette, Novelli’s work has a far darker side that only emerged fully some three decades after his death thanks to the attention of two of Europe’s greatest writers, French novelist and Nobel laureate Claude Simon (1913-2005) and German writer W.G. Sebald (1944-2001). Near the beginning of Austerlitz (2001, translated by Anthea Bell), an artfully digressive and haunting meditation on memory and the Holocaust, Sebald mentions “the fragmentary tale of a certain Gastone Novelli” which he came across in Simon’s book Le Jardin des Plantes (1997). In Sebald’s retelling, at the end of the war Novelli is so traumatized by the imprisonment and torture he has undergone that “he found the sight of a German, or indeed any so-called civilized being, male or female, so intolerable that, hardly recovered, he embarked on the first ship he could find, to make his living prospecting for diamonds and gold in South America.” In Brazil, Novelli lives for a time with a jungle tribe whose language consists, Sebald (paraphrasing Simon) tells us, “almost entirely of vowels, particularly the sound A in countless variations.” Upon his return “to his native land” (Sebald doesn’t identify him as Italian), Novelli begins to paint pictures: “His main subject, depicted again and again in different forms and compositions. . .was the letter A. . .in ranks of scarcely legible ciphers. . .rising and falling in waves like a long-drawn-out scream.” Now let’s shift from Sebald to the beginning of a longer passage in Simon’s Le Jardin des Plantes (translated by Jordan Stump, Northwestern Univ. Press, 2001) on which Sebald’s acount is based: “There recurred [in Novelli’s paintings] a checkerboard construction with uneven lines, the horizontals sometimes leading toward a vanishing point situated outside the canvas, disappearing, with, inside the squares, an alternation. . . of letters, numbers, more-or-less-erased fragments of sentences, vague scrawls in which one can make out what might be bodies, interlaced limbs, awkward ithyphallic silhouettes, breasts.” On the next page, Simon tells how Novelli’s last step is to smear the canvas with a “thick, white, creamy paste whose composition he kept secret, into which, sometimes using the handle of his brush, or a pencil, or a wider scraper, he would inscribe those superimposed lines of uneven letters, wavering like a scream, repeating themselves, never the same:
Penetrating through the successive layers of Sebald’s and Simon’s narratives (and mine?) resembles the experience of looking at one of Novelli’s actual canvases, navigating through its palimpsest structure. (I can’t help thinking, here, of another writer, Marcel Cohen, whose collections of fragmented, Holocaust-haunted narrative prose are filled with second and third hand retellings in which witnessing and distance are given equal weight.)
Novelli’s first appearance in Simon’s book (when he is initially identified only as “Gastone N——-“) is on the beach at Ostia, where writer and painter have gone swimming with two women. Before they enter the sea, Simon asks Novelli to translate some lines from the catalogue of his latest show. “After the preface he began to translate the title of his paintings as well. I told him that those I’d understood but he continued all the same and suddenly, when he’d just read Voule dire caos and Paura clandestine, he stopped. He was still holding the catalogue open in his hands and seemed to be reading the titles to himself when suddenly he told me that at Dachau they had hung him by his wrists until he fainted. Maybe he would have told me more, but just then the two young women, one Greek and one Spanish, emerged from the waves and came back to us, wringing their hair.”
After I posted the above, the great Sebald-centric blog Vertigo added more details about the Sebald-Simon-Novelli connection (and a made nice comment about The Silo).