Painted in 1963, this work is one of an important series of early ‘sign’ and ‘letter’ paintings made in the late 1950s and early 1960s which mark the beginning of Kounellis’ extraordinary artistic odyssey and form the basis from which his later, strongly material, art was born.
Drawing on fragmentary elements taken from real life in the form of words, signs and symbols often deriving from hoardings and logos found in the streets of Rome, these paintings attempted to forge a unique and poetic union between art and life. Inspired by the mystical extension of painting made by Malevich’s Suprematist abstraction and adopting a Manzoni-like achromatic white ground as his base, Kounellis sought, in these works, to establish a poetic synthesis between painting and reality and between material and idea through the conjunction of ‘real’ elements with the painted canvas. In a move that anticipated his later addition of ‘real’ living elements such as horses, a live parrot or caged birds into his paintings, Kounellis here began, to paint and affix stenciled letters and fragments of signs and words onto the predominantly white surface of paintings.
In this work, dating from shortly after Kounellis’ first stenciled ‘alphabet’ and ‘sign’ paintings, the artist has eschewed the overt material realism and strange disjointed syntax of their ‘real’ letters, numbers and arrows in favour of a more conventional painterly approach. It is one that directly contrasts a forceful and singular graphic progression of painted diagonal strips with the vague, open and mysterious disorder of a misty white ground. Evocative in some ways of both the “Number” paintings of Jasper Johns and the palimpsest-like painterly topographies of Cy Twombly with whom Kounellis had exhibited in Rome in 1959, this work most closely relates to recent paintings of Mario Schifano in its concentrated focus on a single iconic fragment of ‘reality’ ambiguously set into a mysterious and highly evocative painterly background.
This painting is also extremely rare within Kounellis’ oeuvre in the fact that it bears a title. The vast majority of Kounellis’ works, paintings included, are all left untitled, as if they were seemingly equal fragments somehow related through their collective anonymity to the same central golden thread of memory, repetition and the ancient past that appears to run through and distinguish all his work. Appropriately, in the rare case of this painting, its long, French title is itself evocative of another of the persistent and unifying themes of Kounellis’ highly eclectic and labyrinthine oeuvre - that of the passage of life as an apparently endless or cyclical journey of perpetual departure and returning. The phrase,‘Venez dans l’ île de Cythère en pèlegrinage avec nous. Jeune fille n’en revint guère ou sans amant ou sans époux’ ('Come to the island of Cythera on a pilgrimage with us. Nary a young girl came back without a lover or husband’) derives from a passage in the early 18th Century play Le tres cousines by Dancourt. It is a passage long thought to have inspired Jean Antoine Watteau’s most famous painting, the work now dually entitled Pilgrimage to Cythera and Embarkation from the Island of Cythera because it remains a mystery as to whether this famous painting actually depicts an arrival in or a departure from the legendary Greek island.
Situated in the district of Piraeus, Cythera is thought in Greek mythology to be the island of love on account of its claim to be the birthplace of the goddess Aphrodite. For Kounellis who grew up in the busy port of Piraeus during a period of great strife and division in the aftermath of the Second World War, Cythera would have held its own significance - a mythical and distant haven of stability and peace perhaps, when set against the turmoil and constant activity of the port. It is also perhaps, in this same sense of contrast that this painting, with its fixed, sign-like band of motional diagonals set in opposition to an apparently endless, misty and ethereal background may also relate to Watteau’s masterpiece. For this very simple formal contrast between an open, abstract and very painterly space and a clearly delineated, fixed street-sign graphic suggestive of motion, not only formally echoes Watteau’s painting to some extent, but it also invokes a similar sense of ambiguity. Both paintings share a strange ethereal atmosphere of simultaneously implied movement and fixed place, one suggestive of both departure and of staying put and all somehow magically coexisting within the same pictorial space.
In this context of the implied motion or rhythm of space within Kounellis’ static forms and signs, , it has often been argued that it was his childhood experience of life in Piraeus that determined this aspect of his work. Most especially in the way in which the disjointed syntax and arbitrary rhythm of the letters, numbers, signs and symbols of his early alphabet’ paintings created a distinct sense of progression and of movement that appears to be reflective of the life of the port. Kounellis’ spatial arrangement of stencilled stamp marks and directional symbols for example, often recall and evoke the apparent arbitrariness of those acquired by shipping crates as they pass from harbour to harbour and ship to shore. They are signs, symbols and marks that ultimately are reflective of both a mysterious unknowable external logic and of a profound sense of continual journeying or indeed of odyssey.
It is in this respect that Kounellis’ work approaches the same distinctly Mediterranean sense of metaphysics and laic mystery of the other great Greek-born Italian artist of the Twentieth Cenury, Giorgio de Chirico. For this language of fragmentary signs and symbols is not only one that Kounellis, in Piraeus, would have seen on a daily basis but is also one indicative, in a wider sense, of an external mystery that penetrated the fixed arena of his childhood and spoke intriguingly and enticingly of a wider realm of existence. Whether such symbols consciously or unconsciously prompted the rhythmic structure of Kounellis’ early use of signs, letters and symbols in his paintings is not known, but it is, nevertheless, exactly this same sense of a wider language of real things existing beyond the shores of the artificial realm of painting that these paintings poetically evoke and which, ultimately, Kounellis intended them to reveal. With its poetic title about love and pilgrimage and its invocation of Watteau’s masterpiece, this painting too invokes a similar sense of mystery and odyssey through the simple and familiar graphic imagery of a street sign.