Lockdown: Francesco Clemente has reinvented himself in an extraordinary way

Judith Benhamou Reports
Judith Benhamou Reports - November 2020


A star in New York

With enough experience, if not years, in the art world, one will inevitably have heard of Francesco Clemente since the late 1970s. He is a famous exponent of the Italian art movement known as the Transavangardia, which took up painting at a time when the practice was being called into question. Clemente became a star during the 1980s in New York. If we must heavy-handedly sum up his work, it could be said that the artist who was born in Naples in 1952 is known for his figurative painting style imbued with a symbolic charge.


Collaborations with Warhol and Basquiat

He was friends with Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat – together the three of them made paintings known as “collaborations” – and travelled to Afghanistan with Alighiero Boetti in 1974, he was also photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe in 1982, and for many years he divided his time between India, his adoptive country, and New York. His iconographic and metaphorical repertoire draws on western and eastern traditions, featuring figures subject to transformations, distortions, and contortions. Self-portraits also form part of his recurring visual vocabulary.


Figuration and metaphor

During the instability of the late 2010s, the art world saw a return to figurative works and a surge of spirituality, including in the visual arts. Francesco Clemente doesn’t like to use the word “spirituality”, which he finds cliched, so we could say that it has been a long time since he produced a painting with a metaphorical purpose.


Chenonceau castle

I met him for the first time in 1995 on the occasion of his exhibition staged by his long-time dealer, the Zurich-based Bruno Bischofberger, at Chenonceau castle. I was just starting out as a journalist at the time and I must confess that I didn’t recognise the man who was with him that day: Allen Ginsberg.



The years went by and Clemente is an artist who – without doing so deliberately, just by being who he is and has always been – perfectly fits with the zeitgeist of today. I had a shock when I received the images from his gallery in Brussels, Maruani-Mercier. A few weeks ago they displayed the work there that he has made during lockdown in New York. The paintings are powerfully striking. There are fourteen paintings entitled “bestiary” depicting figures from medieval mythology that are half-human, half-animal, from the tradition known in Italian as “Grilli”.


Japanese prints

As Clemente explains in his interview, he doesn’t know why he has featured the dates in prominent lettering on each composition. He suggests the possible influence of Japanese prints, which would often embed poetry on the margins of an image.


No ethnocentrism

Clemente also fits perfectly with our times because he is acutely aware of the multiplicity of geographical realities. He observes, for example, in a vision that cuts short any tendencies towards ethnocentrism, that lockdowns have been in force for a long time in Syria and Sudan.


With Boetti in Afghanistan

He talks very simply and generously about a variety of topics such as his trip to Afghanistan with Boetti in 1974, the notion of poverty, his love for New York and India, and above all how he created his iconography during lockdown. It would have been interesting to ask him about the art system today – he has also just exhibited at the Levy Gorvy gallery in New York – but, as I had expected, he didn’t want to broach the subject. His current dream is to travel by plane so that he can fly to India, but also to visit Isfahan.