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Surrealism at 100: Giovanni Guida explores hidden depths with innovative grattage

Artist Giovanni Guida with the work "Vital breath, in the blue of the sky"
Artist Giovanni Guida with the work "Vital breath, in the blue of the sky" Copyright Artists own
Copyright Artists own
By Katy Dartford
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To mark the 100 anniversary of Surrealism, Euronews Culture spoke to the Italian artist Giovanni Guida, deemed by some to be the heir to the movement's pioneer, Max Ernst.

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As the art world celebrates the centenary of Surrealism in 2024, one Italian artist has been making waves lately for his unique approach to painting that pays homage to the tradition, echoing the pioneering techniques of Max Ernst and Spanish surrealist painter, Remedios Varo.

Giovanni Guida, born in 1992 in Acerra near Naples, is the youngest artist to be included in major encyclopaedias for using the 'grattage' technique, a method of scratching a, still-wet, painting to reveal underlying layers. "The goal is to remove the chromatic pigment to make the primordial colour below resurface," Guida explains.

This method, first developed by Ernst, allows Guida to delve into the subconscious, revealing hidden emotions and memories. Guida first came across this method in 2005 when he was studying painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Naples. His tutor Mariarosaria Castellano taught him to use his nails, almost like claws, to tear the "skin" of the painting, reaching its "bowels."

Guida innovated Ernst's use of brushes and spatulas to scrape, using new tools and everyday objects, such as scalpels, blades, wire brushes, stilettos and sponges, alongside his hands.

100 years of Surrealism

Born out of the earlier Dada movement, Surrealism was officially founded in 1924 in Paris by André Breton, who penned the Surrealist Manifesto that year. However, the term "Surrealist" was first used in 1903 by Guillaume Apollinaire in the preface to his play Les Mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tiresias).

The Dada movement that emerged during World War I, was an avant-garde, anti-establishment artistic and literary movement that rejected traditional aesthetic standards and embraced chaos, irrationality, and absurdity. It was a form of protest against the societal and cultural norms that the artists believed had led to the war.

Surrealists added to this Sigmund Freud’s theories of dreams and the unconscious aiming to liberate creativity from the constraints of logic and societal norms. They experimented with automatic writing and drawing to tap into the subconscious mind.

Max Ernst, a German Dadaist, was crucial to the emergence of Surrealism. Moving to Paris in 1922, Ernst brought with him his innovative collage work, which fueled Breton's imagination. Ernst's techniques, including frottage and grattage, involved using textured surfaces to create spontaneous art. His 1927 painting Forest and Dove exemplified these methods.

Although it waned as an organised movement, Surrealism's impact on painting, sculpture, literature, photography, and film has endured, influencing countless artists and movements that followed.

Ernst and Guida

Ernst's influence on Guida's work is profound. "Ernst was fundamental to my studies to free creative forces rich in suggestions and evocations, less theoretical and more unconscious and spontaneous," he says. His concept of art as a product of the unconscious mind resonates deeply with Guida, who also admires Remedios Varo for her unique style and themes of escape and rebellion. These inspirations can be seen in the surreal landscapes and mystical themes of Guida's paintings.

The artistic relationship between Ernst and the Surrealist painter Leonora Carrington has also deeply influenced Guida's use of grattage and frottage. "Their strong vital impulses translate into 'artistic sublimation' through pictorial gestures," he explains, seeing their work as a mystical elevation that informs his creative process.

Guida says he is inviting viewers to explore multiple levels of meaning, from reality to the unconscious and the sacred; "Dreams and reality, transcendence and immanence, rationality and fantasy in my paintings are always interconnected".

As the world marks the centenary of surrealism, Guida sees his work as part of this broader artistic legacy. "Imagination, unconsciousness, and automatic writing are words we must reflect in 2024," he says. He hopes this will deepen the understanding of surrealist techniques and their relevance today.

Tearing the Veil

Giovanni Guida grew up admiring frescoes and paintings in Neapolitan churches and the works of Caravaggio and Masaccio, an Italian Renaissance painter famous for The Crucifixion, Guida's faith also marks his art form, which has influenced his use of Christian iconography in his work.

He notes that his tactile and symbolic approach alludes to the tearing of the temple's veil in Jerusalem when Jesus died, "a metaphor for unveiling the sacred," he explains, and a symbol of the separation between humanity and God.

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Some of Guida's most famous pieces include Dionysus (2017) Apotheosis (2015) And you will heal from all diseases... and I will take care of You, (2020) created during the Covid-19 pandemic. 'Apotheosis of Dante Alighieri in Florence: the Love that moves the sun and the other stars,' was created for the 700th anniversary of the Florentine poet's death.

The sacred is also stressed in his use of Lapis Lazuli blue, a “heavenly” Byzantine blue, that "carries a divine force that transcends the human,” explains the painter. The artist was not the first to use Lapis Lazuli; the pigment was also used by Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Guida's grattage technique is also influenced by Schopenhauer and Heidegger's philosophies, seeking to unveil the essence of things. "The veil falls forever and lets you see what is hiding," he says, invoking Heidegger's concept of alétheia, or truth as "not hidden."

Guida believes his art bridges tradition and innovation, resonating with both contemporary and traditional audiences. "Cultural references, tradition, and innovation marry thanks to a mind capable of 'thinking globally'," he explains, emphasising the fluidity of knowledge and art in our "liquid society."

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Giovanni Guida with the pictorial cycle 'Temples of the soul'
Giovanni Guida with the pictorial cycle 'Temples of the soul'Giovanni Guida

World Encyclopaedias

Being included in the world's encyclopaedias for his use of grattage is a milestone for Guida, as it cements his significance in the contemporary art scene. Of his recent mention in Deutsche Biographies, a German-language biographical dictionary, he says it "allows me to activate a metacognitive activity during the Ernst period in Germany," drawing parallels between Ernst's experiences and his artistic journey.

As well as the Deutsche Biographie, Guida's name appears in encyclopedias, such as the structured vocabulary of art and artists (Vocabulary Union List of Artist Names) of the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles, the Italian Encyclopedia of Sciences, Letters, and Arts (La Treccani), the Encyclopedia Sapere (De Agostini), Encyklopedia PWN of Poland, and Nationalencyklopedin, the most comprehensive contemporary encyclopedia in Swedish. He also features in the records of major national libraries like the Library of Congress in Washington and the National Library of Paris.

Beyond grattage

Guida is also experimenting with other techniques like fumage, decalcomania, and aerosol art. These methods, he believes, reduce the artist's role to that of a spectator, enhancing the mind's hallucinations and allowing the artwork to emerge organically.

While Guida has upcoming exhibitions, he emphasises the importance of experiencing his art beyond the canvas. "I would like people to remember not to adhere to the present necessarily but to open up and live the 'distance'," he says, inviting viewers to go beyond conventional perspectives and embrace the totality of the experience.

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Looking ahead, Guida aspires to transcend the art world's conventional boundaries: "Enter not into the world and systems of art, but into the truth of the mystery of art," he says. He envisions an art that goes beyond form, regenerating itself in relationships and social contexts.

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