“Not St. Girolamo” by Francesco Clemente
Artist Francesco Clemente described the human body as “a comma in the text of the infinite.”(1) This comment can be interpreted in many ways. The artist explained that the body is the “place between” the inner world and the outer world, with the skin being the point in common between outer space and inner space. The life of the imagination, he believed, was just as real as the outer world, only not as “substantial”.(2) An individual human life is a sovereign moment in the greater flow of life, but it is also a comma in the text of the wider world. Each person is hyperlinked, point by point, to the next, in a process that is never at rest. Not only are lines of communication always active, but the process as a whole evolves us as a species.
A text such as I am writing is a comma in the text of the infinite. It is a moment of reflection, a mirror up to what I am doing as one link in the chain of life. And an artwork such as Clemente’s Not St. Girolamo is a comma in the text.
Who is St. Girolamo? First of all, he is not a Saint. Thus far the attempts to canonize him have been unsuccessful. That is, if the Girolamo Clemente refers to is Girolamo Savonarola. Savonarola (1452-1498) was a Dominican priest who led Florence in crusades of fire against the art of the Renaissance, which he considered to be immoral, as well as the “Bonfire of the Vanities”—a massive burning in the Piazza della Signoria of mirrors, cosmetics, fine dresses, paintings, musical instruments and poetry manuscripts. If this is the Girolamo Clemente refers to, then his title might refer to those attempts to make a saint of him: not this one! We know that Clemente’s mind and brush wander freely throughout world history, and that in his painting Perseverance a man carries the Pantheon in his arms amidst scatological debris.
Yet when we look at the etching, we cannot be sure what, if anything, it says about Girolamo Savonarola. We see two panels that seem to bear no relation to each other. In the upper one, a tangle of what appears to be barbed wire loops down to merge into the tails of a lion and a lioness. A naked man is stretched between the beasts, and he seems to be in sexual contact with them. The image encourages allegorization. One might decide, for example, that the primal instincts of man are to be closely guarded, that under the proper watchful eyes (of a priest, a church?) they can be tamed. But what about the page superimposed on top, upon which appear a few scratches and an unidentifiable object? In both form and content it is an intrusion onto the allegory, the interruption of something unknown from the outside which unsettles any attempt at allegory. Perhaps this is exactly the point, that all attempts to create structure and meaning will be undermined, over and over. But this is only one panel. We have the bottom panel which, again, seems to bear no relation to the top one. Why are these two items cobbled together?
Before taking a closer look at the bottom panel, let us admit that there is much to unsettle the mind about this work. Not only can we not decide what it means, disturbed as we are by the conjunction of incongruous elements, but its very execution is disturbing. There is the juxtaposition of a color panel with a black and white panel, but beyond that we see smooth, almost graceful lines in the upper panel contrasted with an overall crude execution in the bottom one. It’s almost as if Clemente drew the latter with the opposite hand he customarily uses. The work dates from 1981, and during this time Clemente can be compared to artists such as Borofsky, Schnabel and Salle in his adherence to bad aesthetics. Riding on the tails of Conceptual art, these artists wanted to return to figurative painting, yet by being deliberately bad they demonstrated their serious commitment to the conceptual approach, and avoided being accused of a retrograde movement. One must remember that in the early eighties one could still—just barely—believe in the idea of an avant-garde (even if one wants to argue that advanced artists were actively dismantling the notion). Clemente acknowledged the weak lines of the etching. He said that they were a deliberate part of the work.(3)
What of this bad drawing? What is going on in this black and white image below the color panel? We see a man—or is it two men?—in an apparent struggle. We see the body of one man, but the arm shown on the right resting against a pole or a column (propping it up, pushing against it, balancing on it?) is the left arm of the body, while the arm shown on the left holding up another pole is the right arm. Is his right arm twisted around his head or is that circular echo of the man’s head really a second man? (One is reminded that when Savonarola was put to the rack and twisted out of shape his right arm was saved so that he could scratch his signature onto a bogus confession of heresy.) Is it one man divided, split in his struggle? There is a play of light and dark: a light pole and a dark pole, a light banner waving and a dark one waving, but the figure or figures are shown as white only. For this reason especially I see one man, and the dark image behind him as a shadow—a shadow which is also a hole—a chasm that threatens to tear the man down. His skin is peeling off in pieces, and there is darkness underneath, yet the pieces which seem to have fallen away paint the outer darkness with their light, or at least cover it with their opacity. And maybe that second head is really the skin peeled off his skull. I think again of Clemente’s statement about the skin being the place in common between the inner and the outer worlds, and I wonder if the bottom panel says something about a struggle between the two.
Rainer Crone asks Clemente to talk about Not St. Girolamo. But he doesn’t, he only talks around it. He claims not to know what the work means, but that all of our questions about it, the work’s title, and the explications of critics all combine to create a chain of inquiry along which we wander, never coming to rest. This never coming to rest at a final meaning, the artist claims, makes the work “objectively poetical”.(4) And true, I’ve been looking at it for twenty years now and never tire of the questions it asks. Clemente’s comments, and now mine, have gone into the mix. Perhaps someone will read this article and ask different questions, or reach different conclusions.
A final word. When the executioner put the torch to the bound and branded heretic, Girolamo Savonarola, there in the Piazza della Signoria where the tyrant had carried out the destruction of Botticelli’s paintings, he is purported to have said, “The one who wanted to burn me is now himself put to the flames.” Who will exalt in this destruction of a man? Not “Saint” Girolamo, but a man, another comma in the text. When a human being finds himself on the threshold between the two worlds, and chaos clashes with order, and the point between the two (the person’s sense of self) becomes confused, bewildered by the blinding light and the unknowing dark, let us remember that this moment can be greeted in two ways: with terror and the anxious grasp of impossible categories, or with joy and the embrace of infinite possibility. The former is all too easy for us, confined to a body, limited and weak. Let us have the strength, together, to recognize the latter.
1. An Interview with Francesco Clemente by Rainer Crone and Georgia Marsh, Vintage, 1987, p 47
2. Ibid, p 61
3. Ibid, p 43
4. Ibid, p 43
Mark Kerstetter steals time away from restoring an old house in Florida to write and make art. His poetry is forthcoming in the July 4th issue of Unlikely Stories and he is the author of The Bricoleur.