PETER DE FRANCIA: DRAWINGS
By Dore Ashton
Peter de Francia observes the world and draws his conclusions. Literally. The history of his working life is the history of his passions. They range from a deep reverence for kindred spirits in the history of art who, like him, could not avert their gaze from the follies and atrocities committed by mankind, to the enunciation of a clear, lifelong position as an anti-fascist. He is a seasoned cosmopolitan, not only by birth (a mixed lineage of British, French and Italian) but by conviction. His method as an artist has been to engage in spirited dialogue with artists representing a specific strain in art history. Their names are apparent in his drawings: Beckmann, Grosz, Picasso, Léger, and behind them Goya, Daumier and Hokusai. De Francia’s ceremonious bow to other artists has often been misunderstood. He is far from being Goya’s ape. Rather, he prolongs a great Western tradition initiated by the ancient Greeks of wielding quotation—a method that would have been understood and applauded by Walter Benjamin. In this de Francia is a master, witty and subtle by turns, and thoroughly honest. He never concealed his desire to pay tribute to the chorus of artists excoriating the outrages of their time.
In his early twenties when the Second World War ended, de Francia shared the general European rebellion against pre-war mores. He took, and still takes, a certain satisfaction in being against the grain. While many other artists of his generation plunged into the adventure of informalism, or abstract expressionist idioms newly established both in the United States and Europe, de Francia found common cause with artists who insisted on documenting the ravages of fascism, and alerting the world to unsavory currents in the postwar political landscape. As everyone knows, by now, such artists did not find much favor in the burgeoning prosperous West. A truly gifted painter such as Renato Guttuso, who was an authentic fighter in the Italian resistance, was ignored or denigrated in both the United States and Britain. In his defiance, de Francia sought out Guttuso, and saw in the somewhat older painter a courageous model. Guttuso managed to incorporate formal lessons from Cézanne and Picasso in clear and unabashed polemical paintings. The same was true of another of de Francia’s admired sources, Edouard Pignon, a true proletarian who had as a boy worked in mines and had never abandoned his working-class ideals. Pignon was befriended by both Picasso and Léger, and eventually, by de Francia.
De Francia’s choice of mentors did not help his career, nor did his political views during what I.F. Stone called “the haunted Fifties”. Much to his credit he did not back down, although, as he once said, he felt “increasingly marginalized, consigned to an Index of proscribed genres.” Although in the beginning, de Francia addressed topical events in his need to bear witness (something Primo Levi insisted was the task of men of conscience), as he matured he increasingly broadened his imaginative range. What began as direct commentary evolved into allegory. To be precise: allegory derives from the Greek word allos—something else. De Francia’s drawings after the 1960’s increasingly indicated his interest in endowing his subjects with a past—not only an historical past, but a past of myths and dreams, even if, as some of his drawings of the 1970s reveal, those dreams are grisly nightmares. (If the drawings in the series labeled after Goya, Disparates are nightmares, as the titles tell us, they are all too familiar 20th-century nightmares.)
Anyone sensitive to the long history of modern nightmares will recognize in de Francia’s drawings not only a general one of consternation, or better, indignation, but, thanks to his careful structuring, the sting of specific events. These are rendered most often in swift charcoal notations. Few are the contemporary draftsmen who can capture in a linear contour the range of human gesture de Francia has registered. Like Beckmann, whom he still cherishes, he knows how to stage his battles with spatial infinity, and how to make the most complicated set of relationships legible. Beckmann reported: “All these things come to me in black and white. Yes, black and white are the two elements that concern me.”
In his later drawings, de Francia renders homage to Beckmann, sometimes, as in Disparates (Procession), in cunning allusion, as in the epauletted figure below brandishing a fish. Or, in Disparates (No Clear Evidence of Atrocities), the packed composition grounded in floorboards—the same floorboards that Philip Guston borrowed from Beckmann when he embarked on his murderous adventures with the Klansmen. What is striking in this series of nightmares is the way de Francia can carve up and assemble spaces by means of the slight gradations of the charcoal line, occasionally heightened or diminished by the slightest of rubbings or erasures. (I can remember sharing thoughts with de Francia many years ago about the way Matisse could create a spatial world by dimming or rubbing out charcoal lines.) I’m certain that for de Francia, as for another artist in this family of acerbic critics, George Grosz, “a drawing board is like a battlefield, or a place of execution, or it can become an amusing diary, or a bitter one.”
Throughout de Francia’s musings, or exclamations in drawing, there is the possibility of reading the daily responses to what has passed in the world, but also, to what has passed by way of thought in his inner world. When he was in his mid-seventies, for example, he drew the acrid Blind Man’s Buff. We see an elderly blind man led by a child, strolling through a claustrophobic space, a gallery adorned with the wreckage of centuries, from the cracked classical male sculpture to the torn abstractions on the floor. De Francia cannot leave it at that, but includes a uniformed soldier starting out of his frame in order to urinate on a work of art on the floor.
But not all of de Francia’s musings are wrought of horror. Sometimes he drew enigmatic tableaux that display both humor, and, it must be said, a certain lascivious pleasure. I think of the mocking Birth of Aphrodite. The amusing parody of a Lucas Cranach beauty (and I’m sure it was not lost on de Francia that Cranach was sometimes described as a brothel keeper) standing in the breaking waves beside Uranus’s severed testicles, oblivious to the ominous hands reaching down from the sky, follows Hesiod’s version of the story. This drawing is at once comic and serious. De Francia cannot help being parodic even in his mythic allegories. His engaging portrait of Prometheus, brandishing his fire like a toreador at a bunch of classical heroes including a sybaritic Socrates (we can tell since he has a broken nose) bespeaks a compulsively parodic imagination, as does another Prometheus who walks among us like Picasso’s blind minotaur.
Arshile Gorky used to say, “for a long time I was with Picasso, and now I am with…” All honor to those who can be “with”. De Francia has been “with” many confreres in the historical family of artists. But he has also been alone, as a survey of his oeuvre will surely indicate. His drawings spin out a prolonged narrative with many different inflections. He speaks of drawing as a language of “expressive notations”, and a universe of “sheer diversity”. As he says, “mark making can never be neutral.” What distinguishes his drawings is not his stubborn defiance but rather, his clear, syncretic visual thought. He would say his “vocabulary”.
Too many of de Francia’s defenders are defensive. I think it is important to bear in mind his urbane culture; his consideration of many ways of thinking visually. He is the author of a very intelligent book on Léger; the illustrator of the poetry of Aimé Cesaire and René Char; and a conversationalist of renown. He is quite capable of seeing the point of artists whose language is foreign to his own practice. I can attest to that: I was once on an international jury with him, and heard his astute comments on each work for three days. When it came to awarding the grand prize, de Francia argued vigorously and well for the work I myself thought was the most distinguished. It was a huge, weighty abstraction by the young John Walker.
As I said, de Francia is a cosmopolitan, an artist who sees not only what meets the eye, but also what moves the mind.