Inside the silence


CARLO COLA – Inside the silence


Carlo Cola- Room with a View

When I say Room with a View I don’t mean Edward Morgan Foster’s marvellous novel (nor even the poetic film adaptation by James Ivory). I’m thinking instead of what the novel did not express and  so of what is left unsaid and merely alluded to in Carlo Cola’s painting, its hidden, even invisible aspects. It is as if each of his paintings were located in a solitary place, removed from its immediate surroundings, as if on the highest point of a hill. And, in actual fact, Carlo paints in an isolated room, at the very top of his house,  a room which can be reached only by way of a steep wooden staircase. The stairs are between the outside and the inside of reality: on the one side, far below, there is the city and its old winding  streets; on the other side, further up, in a sort of tower, there is a kind of quiet retreat,  gradually detaching itself from the surroundings almost as if it were in the middle of a desert or forest.

We are already in a room, and it is from this room that, especially in the last few years, Carlo has been creating his paintings. He is a painter who cultivates a love for solitude, but this is an interior solitude, a secret one that is enjoyed within an imaginary space because Carlo, in reality, has an intensely active social and working life, a life with many deep human relationships. However, when he paints, it seems that he closes the door of his tower-room and immerses himself totally in his art. This is the central aspect of his aesthetic sensibility: to paint as if we were moving through the picture; or a forest or desert. Stones, pebbles and twigs could be collected along the way.  Also, in his paintings, bizarre objects or even simple furniture, seem to be visible as if through a kind of mist. It is there that we discover them, as if carefully gathered by an archaeologist. Carlo Cola is, in truth, a collector of memories. He needs to preserve them, to place them inside a larger showcase:  the secret room of his art and his imagination. He is a painter who travels a lot in his mind , a painter who needs to have a solid wall around him where he can place his objects, his paintings, his memories. Scattered around him are a huge number of  jugs full of strange liquids, like an alchemist. On a table lie hundreds of tubes of colour, some new, some already used, some squeezed or twisted, or hardly touched, which through the practice of painting have become soft, almost fluid.  They look like glimmering precious stones in the lamp-light. Around him, old wooden doors are half closed, while the tower reveals another maze. The colour is in his paintings and it is also in the room where he paints, glimmering like some oblique sunlight, as if the pigments from the tube flowed all around like water from a stream and had found a still place on the walls of the room, on the floor, on the painter’s hands. The room has a bizarre quality of its own, the accumulation of objects makes you think of the room as the Wunderkammer of an ancient collection that is characterized by randomness, the painter’s casual whims;  a place where order and disorder meet. Also there is a hint of Carlo Cola himself in these paintings, although no human figure is ever visible. He enters and leaves his paintings, not literally of course,  but as if he has become at one with his colours. There are no mirrors in his room and they are rarely to be found in his paintings. Mirrors are just deceptive, dazzling surfaces, they are opaque, they try to escape within the depth of the walls. Everything is part of that which is depicted. It’s almost a mystery how all those objects exist within the room. The painter says that he has drawn those rooms from actual places, they are the Rooms of Picasso or of Chagall, the Room of Balthus or of Marguerite Yourcenar, of famous and unknown people, but can we believe painters even when they seem to be telling the truth? True Painters, of course, never lie, they always tell the truth, but this is a truth that only belongs to the origin and history of those who paint, not the history of those who look at the painting and who ignore, must ignore, what that room has been based upon. These works are like ships that have crossed the desert. They are covered with a thin layer of salt, the wind has pulled and torn their sails, the sea has burst through the hatch, sea birds have flown through, the very structure shows the storms they have faced,  they have been transformed into castles, towers and precious gems by the painter. It’s like the desire to investigate the universe before or during creation. Too much time has passed. We see only the finished result and must be content with that alone, like mortals must be satisfied with what they can see with their own eyes. Also the room has made a journey through time and memory. We know that it comes from far away, from other experiences, that it has already lived for a long time, but we are interested in its current life, what it is now. We are like Alice, we went through the looking glass, we went beyond the mirror, we entered a room that is on the other side, and it is here that Carlo Cola’s artistic adventure begins.

Meanwhile, we can begin by asking ourselves what happened inside his paintings, inside that bedroom, that drawing-room, that library. We have the impression that everything has been placed the wrong way up, even if each object is just where it should be and the furniture is firmly anchored to the floor or rests against the wall. There is order certainly, but at the same time those objects now have an elusive quality, they are transparent, intangible, they have another face. We can hardly recognize them, even if they clearly resemble objects like a table, a chair or a lamp. They have already acquired another life, another form, another sensitivity. We don’t know what happened in that room;  was there a crime or a love story or just another dreary kitchen sink drama, but we can still hear the echo of distant words which are hidden within the folds of rugs, still whispering  and slowly falling, like grains of dust, onto the chairs or wardrobes.   Someone went through that room, someone lived within those four walls, but now there is nobody, only silence reigns, all who were there have already departed through an invisible door (a closed door at the bottom of the room), like the actors at the end of a play. The stage is now empty, but ghosts remain, as in certain stories by Henry James, in which it is difficult to distinguish the dead from the living (The Altar of the Dead for example) or the living from the ghosts (as in The Turn of the Screw  and others).  These paintings are also inhabited by ghosts,  whose shadows still slither along the walls and whose rustling steps are still present. They are abandoned places and at the same time places that are still possessed by some unknown presence, by reddish reflections passing through one wall to the next, by the memory of the old inhabitants of those places who have long since silently departed  or even died. Perhaps they are still talking behind a door;  they will never come back. That room too has become a place of pain and regret. 

Objects are restless. The bookshelves, the books scattered on the floor, the sheets, all refer to a lack of order. The painter has raised the curtain for a short while to allow those objects to enter. In a sense he has imprisoned them, we can look at them as if they belonged to an unknown time. But the painter can always let the curtain fall without warning, closure may come unexpectedly as happens when the visitors to a museum realize it is late and have to hurry towards the exit before the lights are turned off. In the same way, in Carlo Cola’s rooms there are surely ways in and ways out but they are  a long way apart and it seems that to move across these spaces will take a long time, a place with no end. Those objects, which look so remote, do, actually, pull back those who walk in front of them, as if they grasped the viewers by their arm or their clothes, as if they wanted to prevent the gaze from turning away. Where have the owners of those objects gone? They were surely there a moment ago, now they are  gone.  There is no one left, only the echo of their presence, only the furtive rustle of their steps. What we see belongs to the past, we are now contemplating only objects that are somewhat greedy, that are possessive, that have not forgotten their past and what they endured. They try to capture the attention of those who pass nearby as they themselves have been captivated,. They are also passionate objects. They still want to be inhabited,  possessed, to keep on living under the skin and inside the body of other inhabitants. Those objects do not want to die. They want to rediscover the excitement of life, they want to be loved. They are also erotic objects, because of their dense, strong colours which dominate every shape, but above all because of their passion, their insatiable greed and intense desire to carry on living. The candelabra hanging above looks like golden or enflamed stalactites, they still exude the flow of a subterranean rain that penetrates the walls of the house like the tempestuous blood in the veins. These drops have oriental perfumes and scents, human secretions, but they have been embraced by a region that seems to have borders with Asia and Africa, so rich is it with colours, imagination, character and passion. You sense that the sea is not too far away. Those candelabra look like bodies that fall from ceilings, like coiled snakes with bright skin, with golden reflections. That room has an old flavour, it almost looks like a jewel box. The poetics and drama of interiors has a century long tradition in painting (and also in literature), from realism to symbolism, which would take too long to list here but those interiors were conceived to contain a clearly visible human presence, the real, physical body of its inhabitant. However, in these paintings the body is absent, it has been forcibly removed, it has been excluded. Only the objects remain, as if space had closed in on itself like a trapdoor, as if it had become impenetrable, inaccessible. But the game of illusion manages to capture my gaze and, for a moment, I feel as if I am sitting in one of those chairs, waiting for an unknown visitor, or as if I am lying on that bed, which once belonged to someone else, waiting for a sleep that will not come.

His art, with its sumptuousness, has the characteristics of a stage setting for a passionate drama but it also represents the scene of an intimate confession, whose memories , both happy and unhappy, remain. His art is a bit like the antechamber of Hell as Sartre evisaged it in his play Huis Clos or perhaps, even better, like the antechamber of Paradise [Heaven] as Dante imagined it, or  as Milton did, a paradise that has not yet been conquered, that is very far away. It is not a rarefied and impalpable paradise, but a real one, as it must have been when Adam and Eve inhabited it, placed in the very far East, surrounded by two rivers, the Euphrates and Tigris, and just abandoned by those two unhappy beings, punished for a venial sin. Perhaps behind that wallpaper the biblical snake still slithers: we do not see it, but we can detect its presence from the swelling of the objects which the light has slightly deformed. We see those furnishings and yet we do not see them, we are never sure that they are at their place where its original inhabitant had placed them in the remote past. They have certainly never stopped their imperceptible movements, slithering slightly along the floor,  leading a secret, restless existence. However, there is nothing arbitrary in those places, nothing artificial, a new law has taken possession of that place and if the painter has tampered with the scene or has changed the arrangement of the furniture, this was his right. Everything seems subjected to a new equilibrium, that is, the inscrutable right of art to dictate where a particular piece of furniture should be placed and, above all, which colour it should be. This is where another law interferes, the law of aesthetics and harmony, which stems from the sensitivity of the artist, from his creative energy. That room is already another thing entirely and will transform into yet another room, it is free to assume a different shape: the painter has entered that secret place and he has revisited it in his own way, not from a whim, not out of madness, not to violate it, but because all those objects are not just objects, they are like little flames that flicker in the night, they are wandering souls, they do not come only from reality, but come from another interior intuition in the painter’s mind.

At this point of his artistic evolution – which is material, spiritual and perhaps also affective – it seems that every object appearing in his paintings, at some point during its journey, has tumbled in on itself, has crumbled, has dissolved into infinite chromatic particles; but the painter, with his enduring patience, sometimes even impatience,  has reassembled them, has rebuilt them, has healed their wounds, has dug them out from the depth of the earth;  in the same way he did after digging under the foundations of his old house – or his tower as we like to call it – which is built right in the historical centre of the city; he, by chance, pulled out ancient amphora, fragments of old furnishings that he then  reassembled them bit by bit. His rooms also come from the depth of the earth, from the dungeons of his mind, from the soil that mankind has trodden on throughout the centuries. The painter does the same thing here, it is work that is apparently manual, carried out using colours or powder. Carlo Cola paints as if he were still digging among rocks.  It is part of his nature, I don’t know how much he is aware of this, but it is surely a mental mechanism. He needs to plunge his hands into this primeval magma, in the earth that conceals its ancient treasures. This is why he sometimes uses images that already exist, real images, rooms that belong to unknown or famous people. This is only the starting point. It is the beginning of a mental amalgam. Carlo Cola has the soul of an archaeologist in the desert who is digging in the sand to unearth some antique sarcophagus or, at least, some humble trace of humanity that existed there and left some fragments behind. Carlo Cola travels through the past while staying inside his room, in the same way that someone like Xavier de Maistre did, when he was imprisoned in his room for forty two days as a punishment. He was, as we would say nowadays, under house arrest because he had been in a duel. But Xavier de Maistre was not really a swordsman, he was not just an anonymous, undisciplined officer of the Sardinian army, he was also a writer and, above all, he was a painter. That is to say, he saw his room through the eyes of an artist and described it in his famous novel A Journey Around my Room not only describing what he saw, but also how he remembered it, the way it could have been after years had passed, the way he recalled it and imagined it. He wanted to be precise and methodical, but, at the same time, he was ironic: “My room is placed  at the forty fifth degree of latitude … After the armchair, proceeding in a northerly direction, you can find the bed, which is placed at the end of the room…”, or “The walls of my room are decorated with paintings and prints that embellish it and which I would like to show you”.  This is why Xavier writes, this is why Carlo Cola paints. Xavier, above all, would travel in his mind, like Carlo Cola does so in his paintings. In another novel, again set in his room, Xavier defines his journey as a night expedition and this is the way Carlo’s paintings should be defined, as if drawn by semi-darkness.

His room is not the work of an architect or an interior decorator, it is rather the poetic work of a painter searching for hidden emotions. It is always a room that has feeling. It is the Camera Blu (Blue Room) of lovers – which could equally be Rossa (red) or Verde (green), depending on the mood. In Room With a View, by Forster, the Florentine landscape which the English female tourists search for and want to see from their window; is a metaphor of the freedom which at least one of them longed for. The window that appears in Carlo Cola’s paintings often consists of pure brightness, it is a golden space lightly covered by a shimmering veil. The landscape lies beyond the light and the light is the true romantic landscape that intrudes upon the more dramatic interior of his rooms. The light is the metaphysics, the room is part burial ground, part museum, part daily shelter of wandering souls and part the search for quiet  in a romantic tower. The suspicion remains that something dramatic happened in those rooms or in the rooms of that library. In another novel by Forster, Howard’s End, the main character dies when a whole library shelf, on which he had been leaning, comes away from the wall and crushes him. Books literally rain down and submerge him. Also in Cola’s paintings there is something of this idea of being suddenly submerged. Those objects have just stopped falling, they have just reached the ground, perhaps the old inhabitants of that place have been choked by the weight of that furniture or those beds. As a matter of fact, houses have their own way of living and dying that does not always correspond with that of their inhabitants. Houses are living beings, they know it and they also want to announce it. Furniture is also living. This is the idea of metaphysics. As Virginia Woolf wrote in Jacob’s Room – a novel as delicate and fragile as a watercolour, as transparent as Japanese lamps made of coloured paper – a room is a magic place: “Jacob’s room had a round table and two low chairs. There were yellow flags in a jar on the mantelpiece; a photograph of his mother;  cards from societies with little raised crescents, coats of arms, and initials; notes and pipes; on the table lay paper ruled with a red margin – an essay, no doubt — … There were books enough; very few French books; but then any one who’s worth anything reads just what he likes, as the mood takes him, with extravagant enthusiasm …. Listless is the air in an empty room, just swelling the curtain; the flowers in the jar shift. One fibre in the wicker arm-chair creaks, though no one sits there”. This already sounds like a description of Carlo Cola’s paintings. Towards the end of the novel Virginia Woolf repeats the same concept: “ Listless is the air in an empty room, just swelling the curtain; the flowers in the jar shift. One fibre in the wicker arm-chair creaks, though no one sits there.” How many imperceptible creaks can one perceive also in the furniture of this art?

But what then lies beyond that room? What happens beyond those walls? Is there the normal life one can observe along the streets of Cesena or Forlimpopoli?  But, above all, what is there? Nothing? Or is there an unknown city? A city of the Year One Thousand? Or a future city? Are there more cobwebbed houses? Landscapes of the soul? When the painter dragged himself outside  his rooms and went outside, what happened was a phenomenon that still intimately belongs to the artistic stimulus: the roofs, the houses, the castles, the trees that he painted  also look as if they were inside a room, also neither the earthly landscape nor the urban one has ever left his tower. They say the same thing that was stated by his rooms, which are so strangely devoid of real doors and points of entry, with the exception of the bright rectangle of a window tearing through a wall. Here too each entry seems slightly reticent, unapproachable, and looks more like a trap rather than a real door. Also his landscapes seem placed on a solitary mountain top or at the peak of a hill, with walls made of herbs or shrubs, as if they were the walls of a forest, and windows which are only openings onto the void made of a mystical light.

The heart of those rooms is burning, is ageless. It is an inaccessible heart. Little by little those rooms have turned into sanctuaries or ,better still, altars. There are also in these paintings the interior of churches but there are no worshippers. What is outside, in the open, is only the projection of an imaginary city. They are not inhabited cities, they are architectonic hypotheses, even if we can recognise them it is a recognition that we want to erase or forget. We want to go beyond, embark on the imaginary journey that the painter has undertaken. That table is in fact also an altar, that chair is a bishop’s seat, that bed is the Virgin Mary’s bed, even if in the past, in the real world, it was occupied by a whore. Then, also that window is not a normal one but is a church window, it is the rose window that divides the outside from the inside, it is just a transparent veil that moves gently in the wind. Those books scattered on the floor, or lined up on the shelves, perhaps tell the apology of the saints, they are old missals, or perhaps tell erotic or forbidden stories. Those houses that suddenly rise from the earth are only the projection of those rooms. Going through a door is always risky, as many fairy tales tell, but we are  sure we will not meet Bluebeard, perhaps not even Beelzebub, because beyond the threshold  lies  the absolute kingdom of solitude.