For a long time German artists have been attracted to Sicily. During the 19th century Otto Geleng, a red-haired painter from Berlin, and Wilhelm von Gloeden, a handsome baron and photographer from Wismar, came to Taormina and stayed until their deaths in the 20th century. German composer Richard Wagner came to Palermo in 1881 and completed his last opera in Sicily.
I am not German but my ancestors, the Weisers, were. Johann Conrad Weiser came to the American colonies in 1710 after his wife, Anna Magdalena, had died and after French troops had destroyed his crops. England’s Queen Anne offered free land in the American colonies to Germans like Weiser who had fled to England. I like to think that my German ancestry explains my love of Sicily, an attraction that was strengthened by my partner Norman Mathews, whose grandparents—the Cangialosi and the Speras—grew up in small towns near Palermo.
The history of Sicily is a long and ferocious parade of conquerers. For 3,000 years cultures have invaded the island searching for wealth and control of Mediterranean trade routes. All of these cultures have left marks on the island—some of the marks are like fine pencil lines others like the swipe of a fat brush loaded with paint. All of these marks have given us an island with a tremendous variety of visual information and inspiration.
Sicily sneaks into your spirit and then sets up shop. She shakes up your view of life—and of death—and she teaches you new ways of seeing the world. After long stays on the island my paintings have different color harmonies, new energies and more interesting architecture.
Artists come to Sicily and spend the first few days wondering where to start. There is the landscape, a landscape of great variety sizzling under an abundance of sunshine. There is a magnificent volcano and a lot of beautiful blue Mediterranean Sea. There are Greek temples and crumbling villas. Opera houses, concert halls and churches are filled with music. Dancers dance and puppets do amazing sword fights. Sicilians shop at outdoor markets overflowing with artichokes and tuna and blood oranges. Beautiful girls and handsome boys hang out in piazzas lined with palm trees. Gardens and parks show off extravagant banyan trees and brilliant bouganvillea and flowering jacaranda trees. To all of this we must add the work of Sicily’s many writers and poets.
Where does an artist begin? I live and paint in New York, a city that is about vertical architectural shapes and unstoppable energies. That can be inspirational but I have, after a few years of visiting Sicily, become addicted to the more varied images of Sicily.
In art school my paintings were about people—about New Yorkers doing the things New Yorkers do. They don’t own cars but instead ride in an underground train. After spending several summer weeks in the Italian Alps the landscape took over my work. Gradually the landscapes became abstract.
Abstract painting is difficult for a lot of people. Is there a way to explain abstract painting? The late Spanish painter Antoni Tapies, in an interview with the New York Times, said that people should think of abstract painting as music. If you listen to classical music or jazz improvisation you know about harmonies and dynamics. You know fast and slow and loud and soft. And you can hear the lines of a melody. That is not serious music theory but it is a musical awareness that makes a direct connection to the elements of abstract painting and drawing.
Listen to the first symphony of Johannes Brahms. It begins very strongly with pounding timpani and a main idea coming from the violins and cellos. Against the timpani the woodwinds and violas play descending chords. Then the basses and the bassoons join the timpani. Brahms used the orchestra’s various instrument groups, instruments that have different colors and acoustic shapes, to create an architecture, a musical architecture, very much like the architecture of an abstract painting.
The streets of Sicilian towns and villages are a feast of old, crumbling stone walls, walls that tell me stories and whose structures relate directly to the compositions of many of my paintings.
When I was in Randazzo I found an old stone wall that is reminiscent of the Brahms symphony and that has an architecture very similar to some of my paintings.
Jazz pianists love to improvise on “My Favorite Things,” a song from Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. The pianist begins to play the tune pretty much as Rodgers wrote it but then brings in some altered chords that change the melody and make it something new. You can still hum it but it has new colors. The tempo and the dynamics may change. The jazz pianist has reassembled the melody and has created a new architecture with new lines. It is, however, still a great tune.
Sicilian folk music provides a direct link to abstract painting. Descended from Gregorian chant, Arab chants and Greek and Arab laments, the folk music of Sicily’s peasants and workers is really an artist’s palette of colors and lines and shapes. Harvest songs, work songs, lovers’ laments and gentle lullabies are all accompanied by instruments that are unique—the zampogna, the Sicilian bagpipe; the marranzanu, a jaw harp (sometimes called a Jew’s harp) that is placed partially in the mouth and which makes a very strange twangy sound; the friscalettu, a reed pipe that plays very high notes; the tamureddu, a skin drum; tambourines of various sizes; and castanets.
All of these instruments create the same kinds of sometimes bright and sometimes subdued colors that I use in my paintings. The melody line of the zampogna is broad and heavy while the melody played by the friscalettu is light and thin and cheerful. Sicilian American folk singer Michela Musolino describes Sicilian folk music as “a beautiful cultural medley.” It is that medley that gives us a musical bridge to abstract painting and a better understanding of that type of painting.
It is not just music that shares a structure with abstract art. I also see a strong relationship between abstract painting and modern dance. Modern dance often does not tell stories. Instead the dancers’ movements break the stage into shapes with lines and energies. Abstract painting does the same thing but with paints and brushes and pencils. Abstract paintings are about lines and shapes and about colors and energies.
Palermo’s Ballaro market is a bustling place. It goes on for blocks. If you are in an apartment building that overlooks the market you look down on a hodgepodge of brightly colored rectangular awnings that cover the stalls. It’s an abstract painting just waiting to be painted.
If abstract paintings are like music, then Richard Wagner’s long visit to Palermo in 1881 and 1882 demands a painting. During the months he lived in Palermo he completed Parsifal, his last opera, the opera that many critics consider his best. Wagner and his wife and children lived at the Grand Hotel et des Palmes. I can’t walk by that hotel on the Via Roma without thinking of the German composer.
During one visit to Sicily Norman and I took the Circumetnea Railway around Mt. Etna from Catania to Giarre-Riposto. A series of seven paintings that I call Etna Madrigals came out of that trip. Why madrigals? Madrigals, which were very popular in the 16th century, are songs that tell stories. I am not a singer or a story teller but I wanted my paintings to sing the energies of Mt. Etna.
The Etna paintings are about the shapes of black and gray solidified lava flows and about scrubby vegetation trying to send roots into disintegrating volcanic rock.
Leonardo Sciascia’s book of stories titled The Wine-Dark Sea encouraged me to paint a series of three paintings—really a triptych— with dark concentrated colors and pencil lines. Sicilian literature has a music and an architecture of its own.
There is a strong pride in Sciascia’s stories. There is also a lament for the corruption and poverty in Sicilian society. The music he makes is often in a minor key but it is accompanied by a nostalgic lyricism. It was the title of this collection of stories—a title that comes from Homer’s Odyssey—that influenced my paintings.
The streets of Catania and Syracuse and Palermo are filled with the beautiful faces of young women and handsome young men, most of them the product of the gene pool left by the Greek, Arab, Spanish and Norman cultures that controlled the island for so many years. How do these young people inspire abstract paintings? It’s easy. They are very seductive. Even if they are not aware of it—but they probably are—they flirt. I thought about the sparkling dark eyes and the long sexy eyelashes and then I knew—this is about a seduction. It cries out for bright, hot colors and busy pencil lines.
I painted a series of five paintings that flirt. I call them A Hot Sicilian Afternoon. Each painting has a subtitle that describes a stage in the seduction: I smell dreams in your hair; You kiss me, your mouth filled with sunshine; I see you naked and understand your smile; Lost in a mirror, our bodies hum an ancient tune; Your skin tastes of cinnamon and midnight. Seductive, flirting beauty is a strong inspiration.
If you have read Danilo Dolci’s Sicilian Lives, an important and revealing book, you know how the work and life of a shepherd can be sad and lonely but also quiet and reflective. I was so moved by Dolci’s interview with a young shepherd that I painted a series of four small paintings that I call A Shepherd’s Song. Like the Hot Sicilian Afternoon paintings I gave these paintings subtitles—Rain falls into his dreams; Silence gathers in the hills; Sing him a sad breeze; and Cover the moon with violets.
The Catacombe dei Cappuccini in Palermo are something that some tourists avoid. Skeletal and decayed cadavers hanging on the walls are difficult for people who have an unreasonable fear of death. When Norman and I visited the Catacombs I saw something besides death and the decayed remains of doctors, lawyers, monks, women and children. I saw life. The halls of the catacombs smell not of death but of ancient fabrics and desiccated leather.
The cadavers were all dressed in very fine clothes or the clothes of their professions. I wanted them to tell me about their lives. Who did they love? What were their joys and their sorrows? Did they like the opera? Did they like to dance?
There is a charming married couple hanging on one wall. She is dressed in a red dress that is trimmed in lace that once was white and he wears a dark blue velvet blazer and a burgundy vest. Their clothes today have soaked up the dust of many years. Her head, now a skull, is turned to her husband. She asks him a very important question. He looks down to the floor and has no answer for her. I looked at them both and was filled with a kind of sadness I didn’t know existed.
When I got back to New York I pinned a piece of primed paper to the wall and painted the catacombs in a painting I call The Catacombs Gavotte. I wanted to imagine that after the monks close the catacombs for the evening the cadavers, like puppets on strings, continue their lives with intelligent conversations—and singing and dancing. They dance a stately gavotte to celebrate life.
On the island of Ortygia in Syracuse there is the Teatro dei Pupi, which is owned and operated by the Mauceri and Vaccaro families. We had never seen puppet theater so we bought tickets for a late afternoon performance. In the program, part of which was in English, I learned that many of the stories in Sicilian puppet theater come from Ludovico Ariosto’s Renaissance classic, Orlando furioso.
Swashbuckling at its most exciting. Knights in very bright armor loped off the turbaned heads of Saracen villains. The heads and turbans sailed across the stage and the kids in the first rows of the theater screamed and cheered. When a knight sliced a Saracen in half from head to crotch and he fell to the floor of the stage in two halves the kids went wild. And why not? This was terrific and inspiring theater.
I had not read Orlando furioso but bought both volumes of the Penguin edition, all of about 1,600 pages. I read and I read. And then I painted—one painting called Orlando in Love and three small paintings called Orlando furioso.
In the small paintings Orlando explodes when he discovers that Angelica, the princess from Cathy that he has fallen in love with, has married Medoro, a young pagan. His frenzy sends his intelligence to the moon—literally—and he tears off his shining armor and all his under clothes and runs through the forest naked, uprooting trees, smashing boulders and eating raw wild boar. My three small paintings about his blood-and-thunder rage are without a doubt the most reckless paintings I have ever done. A crazed, naked knight had taken over my brushes and pencils.
Sicily has inspired many artists. I like to think that I share an artistic and intellectual space with Otto Geleng and Wilhelm von Gloeden. I also feel an artistic kinship with Sicilian expressionist painter Renato Guttuso. His painting of the Vucciria market in Palermo and a painting of the carusi in a sulphur mine are among his masterpieces.
There is an energy in his paintings and an understanding of Sicilian life that I hope I have begun to capture in my abstract paintings. Like Guttuso, I can’t imagine ever failing to find inspiration in Sicily.
To see more of my paintings, many of which are in a series, go to my website at www.toddwlehman.com. At the website you can click on each painting to enlarge it.