The Impermanent and the Eternal
The Origins of Pavement Art
The most frequently asked question of a street painter is “What happens when it rains?” The second is “Aren’t you sad when it washes away?” Kurt Wenner has been asked these questions thousands of times while creating his art. As with all questions that are asked repeatedly, the temptation is to give a brief answer; however, some questions that are asked in just a few words deserve a proper response.
No matter how many times these questions are asked, they always force me to pause for a moment. Normally, I am not in a position to give a full explanation, because I am working in a public venue and it would take too much time. The problem with these questions is that they contain a common misperception by society that art is solely a product, but street painting puts the focus squarely on the act of creation, as the final product will not last forever. There is no way to return to the artwork after weeks, months, or years and rework it. In the end, the image results from the act of drawing. and it shows all the strengths and weaknesses of the artist. A street painting is a work in progress for most of the time it’s on display, and audiences are particularly engaged by the opportunity to observe the creative process.
European nobility made art into a commodity by buying, trading, and stealing it from one another. Only during the last centuries has fine art been perceived almost exclusively as a marketable commercial product with a fixed value. This has led to the current and often confused perception that the cultural and artistic worth of a work of art is determined by its profit-making value. Because street painting cannot help but be tied to impermanence, it reminds the artist and the observer of the ancient origins of the artistic process. Ephemeral art (art that is fleeting and impermanent) is rooted deeply in Italian culture, and stems from the pagan world when all of life was seen as transient. Religious rites and processions played an important role in marking events during pagan times, and such traditions continued throughout the early Roman era, directly inspiring secular celebrations.
Rome’s military successes were celebrated with parades, which, like pagan processions, were based on the idea of marking the passage of time. To honor god-like beings such as triumphant military generals, the Romans created lavish public spectacles filled with temporary decorations. Among the most famous of the military parades was the Triumph, which was awarded by the Roman Senate to a returning victorious general. The general would arrive at the place of festivities in a chariot drawn by a team of horses and would lead his army through a temporary triumphal arch erected in his honor. As the general and his soldiers made their way through the parade route, they passed fountains flowing with wine, observed theatrical acts on barges set on false lakes or moored along a riverbank, and passed alongside obelisks, provisional arches, and structures all made from papier-mâché.
What remains of these elaborate celebrations are the enormous stone triumphal arches of Rome today. Although commissioned immediately on a general’s triumphant return, a permanent stone arch took years to create and therefore did not exist at the time of the actual festivities. The permanent arches were created as lasting symbols in what was otherwise perceived to be a very short-lived world. An enormous part of the ancient world’s artistic production was comprised of impermanent works of art that would only survive a single celebration. Street painting is rooted in the ancient idea of impermanence, of creating images and decorations that survive but a single event.
With the emergence of the Catholic Church, a liturgical calendar was established to continue the tradition of processions and religious ceremonies. The most famous procession is the Via Crucis, literally the “Way of the Cross.” It marks the passage of time by the movement through the Stations of the Cross. An annual reenactment of a procession also indicates the passage of time moving through eternity. In the early centuries of Christianity, processions with a miracle working icon or reliquary were often held to ask for divine intervention to end plagues and other natural disasters.
While painting a Madonna in front of a church, I could feel how weakly the pastels gripped the earth and how truly temporary my painting really was. To help it last a little longer, I’d cover the picture at night with clear plastic to protect it from the feet of passersby. The impermanence of the artwork made me realize that its creation was part of a larger cycle of tribute and ritual. Eventually, the painting was washed off or faded away, and the offering was complete.- KW
If a procession moved God or a saint to intervene on behalf of the beleaguered people, it was often made into an annual event to commemorate the miracle. Processions, along with pilgrimages and festivals, offered a brief respite from the misery of daily life, which was often fraught with disease, violence, hunger, and endless toil. Temporary spectacles were accepted without question in a culture that was more concerned with the spiritual realm than with earthly permanence. Early street painters were often regarded as pilgrims, in part because of their itinerant lifestyle, and also because of the icons and biblical scenes they created. With the simplest tools and a minimum of physical comfort, they were able to create inspirational images.
Italy has few permanent reminders of the many ornate and sophisticated celebrations that temporarily graced its piazzas and transformed its public spaces beyond recognition. In preparation for sixteenth-century pope Leo X’s entrance into the city of Florence, for example, every available artist and artisan spent months preparing decorative carriages, plaster triumphal arches, wine fountains, obelisks, and pyramids, along with decorative columns and statues, all to give the appearance of an idealized city.
Buildings and walls were covered with trompe l’oeil paintings and murals. Great, luxurious swags of extravagant fabric and garlands graced the area. Masks, floats, banners, costumes, and exotic animals were used in enormous processions. Grand temporary arches were placed in prominent spots along the procession route for floats, horses, and carriages to pass under. Similar grandiose spectacles were constructed for royal marriages, visits by important dignitaries, and other secular celebrations. Historically, street painters have always followed a circuit of these events as they provided a venue for the art and a collective consciousness that was receptive to it.
Street painting is mostly an enjoyable process, although a painting is rarely brought to completion without some physical discomfort. When an artist is working outdoors, extremes of heat and cold, wind and rain, can cause a great deal of discomfort. It is also hard on the body to be bent over and concentrated for hours on end. While working on a street painting, I am always aware of the metronome-like movement of the drawing process in contrast with the frenetic and chaotic movement of traffic and pedestrians. It takes a lot of patience and faith to work on an image outdoors; it’s tough to be at the mercy of forces much larger and stronger than you.- KW
In contemporary Italy, the lavish celebrations of the nobility and church have disappeared. However, one last vestige of this tradition can still be seen in the numerous sagre and feste (festivals and holidays) held once a year in most villages, towns, and cities throughout Italy. While all of these events seem to share a common dedication to delicious food specialties like pasta, risotto, melons, wine, or truffles, they almost always have a component that honors or celebrates a saint, a pagan god such as Bacchus, or an ongoing annual fair from a time when kings and dukes ruled the area. Street painters still follow a circuit of these events. Two other forms of ephemeral art still exist widely throughout Italy.
The infiorata and the pula toscana are processional art traditions, akin to street painting. The more famous of the two is the infiorata, which is painting with flower petals, with the most renowned festival being held every year since 1778 in Genzano on the day of Corpus Domini. The infiorate occur sixty days after Easter and can be found throughout central and southern Italy. An infiorata takes days of preparation, as the flowers must be sorted by color and the petals carefully removed and stored in cool water until the moment of the event. On the night before Corpus Domini, the artists trace an outline of their design on the pavement. They then work for hours laying the colorful petals in place until they have created a wonderful show of color that resembles a carpet. This vibrant display of flower petals depicting images of the Madonna, saints, and religious scenes is then walked on as part of the annual procession. The dispersion and scattering of the petals and images sacrifice to God the devotional efforts of all those who participated.
The pula toscana came to Italy with the Bourbon kings of Parma, and is very similar in nature to the infiorata. Each year, colored sawdust is carefully placed on the street to create elaborate pictures and murals. The murals are admired for a brief time, and then a religious procession passes over them, scattering the sawdust and sacrificing the images. Some events allow artists to combine media and use materials such as colored glass, birdseed, and sand. While street paintings do not usually disappear in a programmed fashion, and there is no tradition of processions passing over them, they do share many common elements with these other forms of ephemeral art.
During the past two decades, street painting festivals have succeeded in transforming large public spaces with bright colors and spectacular imagery. The most famous of these festivals in Italy is the Incontro Nazionale dei Madonnari, held on Assumption Day in Grazie di Curtatone outside Mantua. Each year on August 15, the piazza is turned into a colorful tapestry of religious images. Traditional subjects such as the Madonna adorn the pavement momentarily before returning to the elements. In this way, street painting shares in the sacrificial and spiritual impulse that underscores the paintings made from petals or sawdust. Street painting enables anyone to create his or her personal version of this ritual and weave it into the everyday fabric of society.
Several other cultures celebrate the ephemeral with elaborate paintings made from impermanent materials. In almost all cases, they are works of a spiritual nature, and their destruction is just as important to their sacred purpose as their creation. Kolam paintings are made from finely ground rice and placed outside Hindu homes. Each day, women rise before dawn to prepare their doorsteps for the artwork by sweeping and cleaning the area thoroughly. They then carefully sprinkle white rice flour onto the ritually purified surface and make auspicious designs of their own choosing. A kolam is like a painted prayer, which also serves as a sign of invitation to welcome all into the home, including Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, beauty, and good fortune. Over the course of the day, as people come and go from the home, the kolam will be destroyed. The next morning before anyone else has risen, the women will begin all over again and create new sacred paintings to draw blessings to their homes and families.
As a street painter, I usually set out for a new site very early in the morning, because it was important to me that the public, and especially the nearby shop owners, see the quality of my work when they arrived. As I was setting out my supplies, the pavement and surroundings often felt cold and gray, even forbidding. I’d concentrate on my work, and by the time I looked up, the morning sun would be wending its way through the buildings, giving color to the world in the same way that I was giving color to the pavement.- KW
Tribes throughout the American Southwest and in northern Mexico practice sand painting. The Navajo tribe uses the art form in curing ceremonies. Painted prayers call on powerful spirits to help people suffering from disease. The Navajo word for sand painting, ikaah, literally means “the place where the gods come and go.” These paintings depict specific Yei, which are divine beings who can help a patient. An aspiring Navajo medicine man may work for years perfecting just one design.
Images like the kolam and the Tibetan Buddhist mandala are highly symmetrical and geometric in nature. The use of a formalized geometry invokes the passage from the physical (or manifest) world into the world of pure spirit. The Navajo medicine man makes a painting by carefully sprinkling finely powdered sandstone onto the floor with the tips of his fingers. This fine sand contains such agents as vegetable-based pigments, pollen, and pulverized flower blossoms that dye the sand in the five sacred colors (white, black, blue, yellow, and red). Each ritual artist has his own private formula for the colored sands. After the painting is finished, the medicine man performs ceremonies to offer the spirits respect and make them welcome. The Yei will only enter into a complete and perfectly executed painting. At the right moment in the ceremony, the medicine man touches the painting and then the patient, thus transferring the power of the Yei to him or her. The gods will later depart from the painting. The medicine man then destroys the image by brushing the sand away in the direction opposite to the one he started from. He collects the sand and takes it outdoors. It contains the last vestiges of the disease, and in destroying the painting and scattering the sand, the disease itself is removed from the patient.
For centuries, on the opposite side of the world, groups of Tibetan Buddhist monks have created intricate sand paintings designed to purify and heal the suffering of inhabitants in a troubled world. The idea of impermanence is central to Buddhist doctrine. All material phenomena are considered to be illusions that mask the state of nirvana, or enlightenment, which lies beyond the field of change. Tibetan sand paintings usually depict mandalas, cosmic diagrams of the Buddhist universe, which includes celestial, terrestrial, and demonic realms, with the Buddha’s heavenly region in the center. On a subtler level, mandalas are diagrams of the inner world of the psyche, with ignorance, conflict, and desires depicted around the periphery, and nirvana in the still center. Mandalas are used as meditation maps to guide seekers to enlightenment.
The process of making a sand mandala is itself a form of meditation. Like a large and complicated street painting, a Tibetan sand painting can take days or even weeks to complete. Starting from the center and working outward, the monks carefully apply fine sand colored with vegetable and mineral pigments, flower petals, and ground semiprecious stones. They add fine lines and tiny details by using a long metal funnel, which is ridged around the narrow end like a washboard. An artist pours a small amount of sand into the funnel, and then runs a stick quickly back and forth over the ridges. The vibrations cause the sand to flow out in a narrow, even stream. The monks ritually destroy the mandala, usually no more than a few days after completion. The Tibetans ceremonially sweep the sand from the outer edges toward the center, the opposite direction from the way in which the mandala was created.
The destruction of the painting symbolizes the Tibetan Buddhist concept of the mechanics of death, in which the senses are drawn inward to the heart center. The ritual also denotes the impermanence of life and the fundamental unreality of all physical phenomena. The monks give half of the sand to the witnesses of the ceremony as a blessing. The remainder is thrown into a body of water, which will eventually transport the mandala’s healing effects to the entire world. In contrast with the mandala, a street painting is rarely destroyed in a controlled or ritualistic fashion.
In the United States, impermanence has been a difficult concept for audiences to embrace. Materialistic cultures makes it difficult to accept that an artist’s work will wash away. Many people no longer understand the ephemeral, and when a painting is purposely power-washed off a public space, local newspapers often receive irate letters to the editor saying, “How dare you wash the art away!”
Italian street painting is not a formal religious practice, and street painters today are hardly regarded as performing religious rituals. The effects of their artwork on the environment are subtle and more personal. Most street painters, including Wenner, can attest to the protective powers radiated by the saints and images they portray. Passersby often feel moved and spiritually uplifted by street paintings, whether or not the subject matter is overtly religious.
Click here to continue to part 1- Grounded in Tradition.