Life on the Street 1983-1985

Wenner and Stader after Raphael. Sistina Madonna. Vienna, Austria. Still learning to scale their works, Wenner and Stader created a huge image in Vienna.

Wenner and Stader after Raphael. Sistina Madonna. Vienna, Austria. Still learning to scale their works, Wenner and Stader created a huge image in Vienna.

LIFE ON THE STREET 1983-1985

That summer, Kurt Wenner and Manfred Stader, one of the artists in Rome who had initiated him into street painting, decided to do some painting together. They boarded a crowded, all-night train to Vienna, and arrived in the city exhausted but eager to get to work. Immediately they began looking for a good site. Wenner was still new to street painting and drawing copies of paintings to scale, so he and Stader ended up painting a twenty-foot Madonna! The Viennese responded enthusiastically to the theatricality of the gargantuan painting and gave generously. The two later moved on to Salzburg, Mozart’s birthplace, where the annual Salzburg Music Festival was taking place. However, as Wenner and Stader wandered around looking for a likely site, they discovered that all the streets were paved with quaint but impossibly bumpy cobblestones. Europe is filled with a variety of paving materials, which pose endless challenges to madonnari.

Wenner and Stader after Correggio. Madonna di San Gerolamo. Saarbrucken, Germany. Sometimes the public had a hard time believing the works were actually painted directly on the pavement. In this case, a drunken paperhanger smeared the picture several times trying to lift it up.

Wenner and Stader after Correggio. Madonna di San Gerolamo. Saarbrucken, Germany. Sometimes the public had a hard time believing the works were actually painted directly on the pavement. In this case, a drunken paperhanger smeared the picture several times trying to lift it up.

After their disappointment in Salzburg, they decided to stick to cities that Stader knew, such as Nuremberg and Saarbrücken. Knowing Wenner’s weakness for painting bizarrely large and complicated pieces, Stader selected cities with huge underpasses that protected them from the elements. Unbeknownst to them at the time, many northern street painters work on paper. This is due in part to the weather, and in part because the northern cultures relate better to highly crafted images that take a long time to create. Painting in Germany was decidedly different than in Italy, but the earnings were good and Wenner was saving money to fulfill his dream of buying a camper. One evening while they were in Saarbrucken, a drunken man began yelling at Wenner and Stader, saying, “This is the worst work I have ever seen and I should know, because I am a Meister Tapezierer!” Wenner’s knowledge of German was far from complete, but even Stader was perplexed at the man’s statement, because Meister Tapezierer means “master paperhanger.” The next thing they knew, the man was reaching down and smearing the edge of the picture with his fingertips.

Wenner and Stader partially after Tiepolo. Fall of the Rebel Angels. Nuremberg, Germany. This large composition (fifteen by forty feet) could only be documented by tiling many photos taken from the ceiling of the underpass. An overzealous street cleaner destroyed the work the day after it was finished.

Wenner and Stader partially after Tiepolo. Fall of the Rebel Angels. Nuremberg, Germany. This large composition (fifteen by forty feet) could only be documented by tiling many photos taken from the ceiling of the underpass. An overzealous street cleaner destroyed the work the day after it was finished.

While in Nuremburg, the two friends encountered a German trait that didn’t lend itself to street painting: cleanliness. Each morning at 5 am, a street cleaner would pass by and wash off any paintings he found. The artists had to stand by their painting each morning and physically guard it. As the colder months approached, Wenner decided it was time to buy a camper. With Stader’s help, he found an ancient but sound vehicle that met his budget. It was an old Mercedes that had been used as an armored car for emptying parking meters. This seemed to suit Wenner’s new profession quite well. Stader stayed on in Germany, while Wenner drove south to warmer weather in Sicily.

Wenner and Stader partially after Tiepolo. Detail of Fall of the Rebel Angels. Nuremberg, Germany. Wenner and Stader started with a work by Tiepolo, but improvised on the bottom part, creating their own fallen angels.

Wenner and Stader partially after Tiepolo. Detail of Fall of the Rebel Angels. Nuremberg, Germany. Wenner and Stader started with a work by Tiepolo, but improvised on the bottom part, creating their own fallen angels.

The first place in Sicily he created a street painting was Messina. He made a copy of Bronzino’s Holy Family. The chalk painting looked beautiful on the smooth piazza, and there were plenty of people, but nobody spoke to him and few made an offering. Wenner drove from Messina to the city of Catania, arriving very late at night. He was uncertain if the people of Catania would be receptive to his work, but he knew he wanted to try a simpler painting than the one he did in Messina. He decided to paint a copy of Raphael’s Madonna della Seggiola, a small Renaissance painting with a devotional character that made it iconlike. It was the kind of traditional image madonnari had copied for generations.

Wenner after Bronzino. Sacra Famiglia con Sant’Anna e San Giovannino. Messina, Sicily. This small composition received a cold reception in Messina. Wenner fared better with simpler Madonnas in other Sicilian towns.

Wenner after Bronzino. Sacra Famiglia con Sant’Anna e San Giovannino. Messina, Sicily. This small composition received a cold reception in Messina. Wenner fared better with simpler Madonnas in other Sicilian towns.

Wenner. Sacred Family detail.

Wenner. Sacred Family detail.

I set out my baskets as usual, but they were completely ignored. Instead, the locals placed money directly onto the image itself, sliding bills under the mounting stacks of coins to keep them from blowing away. It was a distracting way to work, but I was very enchanted by their practice of giving an offering directly to the Madonna. It didn’t take long until this charming tradition completely obscured the painting.

Wenner after Raphael. Madonna della Seggiola. Catania Sicily. This famous work was a bread-and-butter image for the madonnaro in southern Italy.

Wenner after Raphael. Madonna della Seggiola. Catania Sicily. This famous work was a bread-and-butter image for the madonnaro in southern Italy.

Wenner’s success in Catania gave him the courage to paint in the towns of Piazza Armerina and Caltagirone. He continued with the theme of devotional Madonnas, as they seemed to go over well with the traditional Sicilians. Wenner found Sicily to be beautiful and fascinating, but it was an austere environment for street painting. Although the initial distrust of the people transformed into warmth and generosity in each town, the cycle repeated itself wherever he went.

After traveling through Sicily, Wenner headed back to Rome, where he met up with Stader, who was preparing to return to Germany. The two of them agreed that Wenner would take over Stader’s spot on the fashionable Via del Corso, where the passersby were a mix of government officials, high-end shoppers, journalists, tourists, and an assortment of young Italians. The location was just across the street from Piazza Colonna and the Italian Parliament, in the heart of Rome.

Wenner. Piccola Madonna. Rimini, Italy. This image was typical of the kind of small picture Wenner created in southern Italy. Not wanting to overdo the copying, he created original images like this one. Some people would not believe they were original, even if they could not see him working from a reproduction.

Wenner. Piccola Madonna. Rimini, Italy. This image was typical of the kind of small picture Wenner created in southern Italy. Not wanting to overdo the copying, he created original images like this one. Some people would not believe they were original, even if they could not see him working from a reproduction.

Such a setting meant that Wenner never knew what the day would bring, as there could be demonstrations with shouting protesters or a general strike that left the streets empty and deserted. But being at the center of Italian politics also meant that the national newspaper’s offices were just a stone’s throw from the painting site, and Wenner soon became the subject of many articles. Unlike sites in most cities where the monetary offerings would start to dwindle after several days, it seemed that the Via del Corso could be worked indefinitely.

Wenner. Piccola Madonna detail.

Wenner. Piccola Madonna detail.

Wenner was content to stay on the same spot for months, washing his finished pictures off and starting new ones. Observing his pictures became a part of people’s daily lives. Romans were especially accustomed to seeing street paintings, and they were munificent in their appreciation of his efforts. Besides tossing coins into his baskets, they showered him with boisterous, effusive compliments. As they left an offering or passed by, they would exclaim, “Molto bello! Magnifico! Squisito!” Supportive shopkeepers who had taught him only months earlier to carefully scrutinize his change so he didn’t get cheated came and lobbed a coin or two his way. Wenner enjoyed the Romans immensely.

As Wenner’s images grew more expansive, they also became more interesting and lucrative. He would now spend three to five days on a picture, which meant he had to protect the image at night. In the evening, he would stretch a sheet of plastic as tight as glass to shield the work from dirt, wind, dogs, and homeless people who might draw on it during the night to get tips from the odd passerby. It rains frequently in Rome, so seeing a picture through to the end was often an arduous task. Wenner soon learned to heed the ranting of several vagrants who were able to predict storms with uncanny accuracy. Every time they would mutter their warnings, he would instantly cover his work and head for shelter. The plastic didn’t keep the painting dry for long, as the water would seep under, but it did prevent the work from being stepped on and the colors tracked all over the sidewalk.

Wenner and Stader after Giordano. San Michele. Ostia Lido, Italy. The artists created this work in preparation for the festival in Grazie. Eventually they selected Pontormo’s Deposition as the subject.

Wenner and Stader after Giordano. San Michele. Ostia Lido, Italy. The artists created this work in preparation for the festival in Grazie. Eventually they selected Pontormo’s Deposition as the subject.

Once a storm passed, I would take off the plastic and wait for the ground to dry. Then, working swiftly with large, bold strokes, I’d redo what had been lost to the rain and continue at a frenetic pace to finish the picture. The pressure of having to draw quickly increased my artistic ability, as did the exercise of copying so many great masterpieces. Because my street paintings were copies and not original works, I was content to produce a vast number of them and then watch them disappear. Each one gave me invaluable information about color, form, and perspective on a large scale. Once a copy was finished, I had learned all I could from it, and was happy to have a rainstorm wash it away!

Wenner after Leonardo and Rubens. Battle of Anghiari. Rome, Italy. In the case of this composition, the original painting has been lost, and it can only be re-created by referring to copies of it.

Wenner after Leonardo and Rubens. Battle of Anghiari. Rome, Italy. In the case of this composition, the original painting has been lost, and it can only be re-created by referring to copies of it.

As Wenner worked on the streets of Rome, people would constantly offer him commissions for permanent paintings and drawings. This became a cultural conundrum, because Wenner couldn’t sort out who was serious and who was angling for cheap, or even free, artwork. Some kindhearted locals began to advise Wenner about who was trustworthy and who was out for a free painting. They told him not to work for priests with churches in the rural countryside (campagna in Italian), as such priests had no resources and would have him painting in return for hospitality. Unfortunately, the language still caused him to often misunderstand people.

Wenner. Battle of Anghiari detail.

Wenner. Battle of Anghiari detail.

Wenner. Three Archangels. Rome, Italy. Another improvised composition meant to be seen from different viewpoints.

Wenner. Three Archangels. Rome, Italy. Another improvised composition meant to be seen from different viewpoints.

One day while street painting, a priest with a magenta-colored cap approached Wennersaying that he had a church in Campania, and needed someone to paint the ceiling. Immediately Wenner assumed that this was the sort of priest he had been warned about and quickly told the priest that he was too busy to accept commissions. Later he learned that he had turned down the archbishop of Montecassino, who had come personally to ask Wenner to paint the ceiling of a major cathedral. In this case, the word Campania referred to a region of Italy outside Rome, and not the countryside, but the sound of the two words is so similar that he couldn’t distinguish one from the other at the time. Focusing so much on the idea of a church in the campagna, he completely forgot that you can identify priests, bishops, and archbishops by the color of their caps.

Wenner after Michelangelo. Jonas. Rome, Italy. Wenner especially enjoyed copying the Sistine Ceiling frescoes. It was pleasurable to work on figures that had been conceived on a large scale.

Wenner after Michelangelo. Jonas. Rome, Italy. Wenner especially enjoyed copying the Sistine Ceiling frescoes. It was pleasurable to work on figures that had been conceived on a large scale.

Two years later, an art restorer told Wenner about an important commission for the ceiling of a famous cathedral. As they walked into the archbishop’s office to offer their services, Wenner recognized the archbishop as the one who had approached him in Rome. He remembered Wenner as well and was very cordial. Unfortunately, he explained that while he had possessed the funds to pay for the ceiling two years before, they were no longer available.

On another occasion, a man in an elegant suit handed Wenner his business card, explaining he was a set designer for the great filmmaker Federico Fellini. He asked if Wenner would come work for Fellini. Wenner did not understand at the time that in Italy when someone hands you a card, it is an important invitation. Two years later, Wenner followed up and Fellini’s secretary wrote a lovely letter saying there were no films in progress at the time. Fellini died in 1993. Not having full command of the language was difficult, but Wenner did not miss every opportunity that came along.

Conversation with nuns. Rome was filled with clergy and pilgrims who were especially appreciative of the street painters.

Conversation with nuns. Rome was filled with clergy and pilgrims who were especially appreciative of the street painters.

Ironically, he was invited on several outings by his East Coast alma mater, which besides telling him as a student that he had no talent to draw had also denied his application to its Rome program. He felt privileged to be experiencing Rome on his own terms. Other people he met invited him to assist with archaeological digs, view hidden masterpieces, see long-closed churches, and climb through secret passages to vaults and cupolas in certain churches to view frescoes up close.

Wenner after Leonardo. The Last Supper. Loreto, Italy. The Last Supper was an all-time favorite of the public as well as street painters. The original is so faded that each street painter gives a different interpretation of the work.

Wenner after Leonardo. The Last Supper. Loreto, Italy. The Last Supper was an all-time favorite of the public as well as street painters. The original is so faded that each street painter gives a different interpretation of the work.

Wenner after Leonardo. The Last Supper detail—St. Thomas

Wenner after Leonardo. The Last Supper detail—St. Thomas

One day as I was working on the street, a bearded man introduced himself as an art restorer and asked if I was interested in seeing the restoration work of the Sistine Chapel ceiling up close. I told him I was, and unbelievably, he returned the following day with an appointment. When we arrived, the restorer was surprised that the Vatican guards knew me by name. As I climbed the scaffolding, I saw the meticulously rendered Signorelli and Botticelli frescoes. Then, straight above me, through an opening in the platform, an enormous foot appeared. Although I had viewed the paintings on the ceiling for countless hours from the floor below, and copied several of them, I was unprepared for the sheer size of Michelangelo’s figures. After months of chalking on the street, I found myself imagining the arm movements he must have had to make to create the enormous forms. Up close, I could see details that are otherwise not visible from below. Standing at arm’s length from the work, I had a sense of the struggle and fatigue Michelangelo must have suffered. Because of that experience, the ceiling is even more remarkable to me.

People of the Streets

Public art. It is the people on the street who directly support the madonnari. Street artists learn quickly what the public tastes are.

Public art. It is the people on the street who directly support the madonnari. Street artists learn quickly what the public tastes are.

Eventually, Wenner did accept several large commissions from people he met on the street. Creating copies of masterworks in a permanent medium was not to his liking, and it was another year before he felt ready to create original permanent works of art. The homeless meant no harm and merely hoped to profit a little from the people strolling through the city after hours. Since Wenner was familiar with the challenges of earning a living on the street, he empathized with them and thought about how he and they could both benefit.

Once I began making original compositions on the street, it became more important to me to protect the painting from damage or destruction by the elements. I wanted to spend my time moving the picture forward, not repairing damage. Sun, wind, and rain all took their toll, but Rome’s large population of vagrants was a problem as well. In order to make a little money at night after I had gone home, they would strip away the protective plastic and pretend to work on the painting, drawing invisible strokes with a cigarette butt in place of a piece of chalk.

Wenner after Parmigianino. Madonna di Santa Margherita. Rimini, Italy. In the summer, street painters follow the Italians in their migration from the cities to the coastlines and mountains.

Wenner after Parmigianino. Madonna di Santa Margherita. Rimini, Italy. In the summer, street painters follow the Italians in their migration from the cities to the coastlines and mountains.

To protect the paintings, he enlisted and paid the more capable street people to guard his work when he wasn’t there. They had a pecking order among themselves, so they worked out their various shifts of protecting the picture. During each turn, a man would pass himself off as the creator of the artwork, collecting all the gratuities and compliments. Late one evening as Wenner passed by on his way home, he saw one of the “assistants” giving an elaborate art history discourse to a small, spellbound group of Romans. As he looked to be about seventy years old, with blackened teeth, he seemed to fit the stereotype of a street painter. He had listened to Wenner respond to frequently asked questions and had memorized many facts and concepts and could now deliver his own lecture with great conviction and gusto. When a person attempted to commission a painting from him, he cited the purity of his work, asserting with disdain that his work was “true art” and could not be sold.

Wenner. St. John detail.

Wenner. St. John detail.

When a picture was completed and there was no rain, Wenner would occasionally take a break for a few days to enjoy the city and its endless treasures. His “assistants” would take over the painting and collect the offerings. They proved to be invaluable, for not only did they look after the artwork, but also they enabled him to hold on to his prime location indefinitely. An unwritten law among street painters is that good sites are always available on a first-come, first-served basis. No other artist will take over an area as long as someone else is working on an image. However, there can be a race to grab a lucrative spot the minute it is empty, even if it is because rain has erased the image. Over time, Wenner’s images grew so large and impressive that the space on Via del Corso was no longer sufficiently lucrative for other street painters with their smaller and simpler images, yet it was still important for his street assistants to guard the spot from drifters or addicts.

Advice to artists. Rome’s “Flower Lady” was a familiar sight in the 1980s. She called out advice to the street painters and reminded the public to make a drop.

Advice to artists. Rome’s “Flower Lady” was a familiar sight in the 1980s. She called out advice to the street painters and reminded the public to make a drop.

I came to know many of the street people, such as an old crone selling roses. When my painting site was especially crowded, the Flower Lady would appear out of nowhere and push her way through the spectators. Pretending to berate me, she would work the crowd, waving her hands in the air crying, “What’s this? Not again! I keep telling you not to paint these large, complicated works. What do we know about art? Give us some little Madonna or a saint and we’re happy. Forget these large masterpieces! You work for days, and does anyone understand it? No, they don’t. Just look at these baskets—empty! You make nothing. Just paint some simple little Madonna, and then people will give you something!” Naturally, her harangue would cause the crowd to drop lots of money into the baskets. After they had dispersed, she would quietly circle the painting and pluck a couple of bills from each of the baskets as compensation. Before departing, she would leave behind an offering of some particularly poor roses.

Small Change

Sorting coins. Italian banks did not exchange coins for bills, but when carefully counted and rolled, street painters could hope to spend them.

Sorting coins. Italian banks did not exchange coins for bills, but when carefully counted and rolled, street painters could hope to spend them.

Early street painters survived on bread, wine, olive oil, and an occasional coin received as donations for their work. By the time Wenner began street painting, coins and small bills made up the bulk of the offerings. He depended on the tips he received, and the virtuosity of his work attracted such appreciation that it ended up causing a considerable problem: too many coins! Most Italian coins were worth very little, which meant there were a lot of them in circulation. As a result, the banks refused to change them into bills or accept them for deposit, and very few merchants would agree to be paid with them.

The baristas at La Tazza d’Oro, a café Wenner frequented, told him to bring his coins in and they’d exchange them. That evening, he hauled a large sack bulging with change back to La Tazza d’Oro. The baristas were shocked at the quantity of soldini (small change). After a rapid-fire discussion involving much gesticulation, they poured the coins into the bags used to sell coffee beans and placed them on the scale to determine their value. It wasn’t long before the Tazza d’Oro had all the coins it could possibly use. Wenner had to find other means to exchange or spend them. In order to possibly convince a merchant to accept the coins, Wenner needed to roll and carefully label them.

Weighing coins. The Italian lira was a bulk currency. Pound for pound, its value was roughly the same as espresso coffee or parmesan cheese. Street painters brought home many kilos of coins each day. Alfredo, the kind manager of the famous bar Tazza d’Oro, weighs and bags Wenner’s coins.

Weighing coins. The Italian lira was a bulk currency. Pound for pound, its value was roughly the same as espresso coffee or parmesan cheese. Street painters brought home many kilos of coins each day. Alfredo, the kind manager of the famous bar Tazza d’Oro, weighs and bags Wenner’s coins.

Then, to be on the safe side, he would let a merchant know up front that he needed to pay with them. It took effort to convince others to accept the neat bundles as payment, but his efforts were rewarded with a good meal, an evening at the opera, or a train ticket for more extensive sightseeing. Eventually, his earnings enabled him to rent a room in a pensione across from the Pantheon. He also found a small room in a nearby piazza to use as a studio. He now had lodging and a studio in the heart of Rome, with his work site just around the corner. He received roughly four thousand coins each week, which meant he could scarcely carry the heavy sacks away at the end of each day. In his studio, there were so many bags piled up that there was practically no room to move, and all the merchants he knew had already accepted buckets of change from him. On one particularly lucrative day, he had to call a taxi, as the coins weighed too much to carry. When the driver arrived, he tried to casually lift the bag so as not to call attention to how much money he had made. In front of everyone, the handles ripped off, leaving the heavy bag firmly planted on the ground. The crowd instantly understood what had happened and went wild with laughter, applauding his good fortune.

Wenner after Barocci. The Deposition. Milan, Italy. This piece was photographed by National Geographic as part of a documentary on street painting.

Wenner after Barocci. The Deposition. Milan, Italy. This piece was photographed by National Geographic as part of a documentary on street painting.

Luckily, Wenner heard about a pizzeria near the Trevi Fountain that was always short of change, because tourists would cast their coins into the fountain before deciding to buy a slice of pizza. Wenner approached the owner, who offered to take all the coins off his hands for a reduced price per pound. It took several trips to transport all the bags from the Pantheon piazza over to the Trevi Fountain. The owner instructed his workers to accept the coins in his absence, most likely thinking there would be just a few sacks full. When he returned, he discovered that his storeroom was full of coins.

During Easter, Rome fills with pilgrims, making it the one time of the year when lots of artists arrive to work on the streets. Rather than compete for space, I suggested to several street painting friends that we work in groups and occupy four heavily trafficked sites. Because we were spread out all over the city, we needed someplace to store our earnings. Each evening, we’d mix all the money together, divide out the bills, and place the coins in my camper, which was parked illegally in front of the Bank of Italy. There were no legal parking spaces near my work site, and I figured the camper was too heavy to be towed, as the wheels had flattened under the weight of the coins. By the end of the week, the vehicle must have had more coins than the bank itself.

Wenner. Barocci Deposition detail.

Wenner. Barocci Deposition detail.

After the Easter festivities came to a close, Wenner and his street painting friends decided to take a day in the countryside to sort, count, roll, and divide up the coins. They packed a picnic of bread, sausages, cheese, and wine, and headed out to the hills of Frascati. They set to work, but soon conversation and good food took over and no one felt much like going through the coins. As the light began to fade, they piled up the sacks and covered them with dry leaves, marking the spot for another day. The group never did go back for the coins.

La Polizia

 When Wenner made his first street painting in Rome, he had no knowledge what laws might govern the art form. As it turned out, street painting is considered a valid form of popular art and is not illegal. However, it is a bit like parking in that it is legal to park in many places—but not everywhere. The problem with street painting is that the legal spaces are not delineated, and asking for permission from the authorities is seldom effective. No official will deny permission, but they will rarely grant it, either. The bottom line is that if you want to be a street painter, you have to accept the possibility of being moved on by the police.

The vigili urbani. The vigili urbani were the branch of police who confronted street painters. The public would typically get involved and side with the artist.

The vigili urbani. The vigili urbani were the branch of police who confronted street painters. The public would typically get involved and side with the artist.

Frequently, on the first day in a new location the police would show up in the late morning. Shopkeepers would typically call them when a street painter starts to work. Madonnari were not known for causing any threat; therefore, it would generally take the police quite some time to appear. By the time they arrived, the image was usually well under way. The police tended to watch Wenner paint for a while before speaking with the shopkeeper, and they normally left without saying anything. Wenner had only one serious encounter with a particularly aggressive officer. A vigile urbano (traffic officer) arrived at his painting, bellowing, “Get out of here!” while kicking over the baskets and sending coins rolling every which way. Wenner would have normally tried to reason with the officer, but in this particular case he was working with a friend, a German baron who loved to act the part when angered. The baron told the vigile, “I’m a real artist, so you should call a real policeman.” While this was all well and good for his friend, Wenner had been in the country far past the official three-month entry limit. The last thing he wanted was a real policeman showing up.

Thanks to my friend, a carabiniere with the power of arrest was on his way! The officer arrived on a gleaming motorcycle, wearing an impeccable uniform. The vigile was by this time in a heated discussion with a crowd of angry spectators. The carabiniere didn’t hide his irritation with the vigile, and proceeded to humiliate him by loudly informing him that we were permitted to street paint, and that it was unfathomable that he had been disturbed for this. The baron reveled in the spectators’ praise, while I disappeared in search of a stiff drink. The Romans always love a good show, and on my return I found our baskets overflowing.

Wenner. Madonna di Rimini. Rimini, Italy. When Wenner tired of copying existing masterpieces, he improvised his own compositions. Pictures such as this were done without preparatory drawings.

Wenner. Madonna di Rimini. Rimini, Italy. When Wenner tired of copying existing masterpieces, he improvised his own compositions. Pictures such as this were done without preparatory drawings.

The most dramatic confrontation with the police occurred in Naples. The neighborhood priest asked Wenner to create a street painting of San Gennaro for the saint’s feast day. The saint’s dried blood is kept in a reliquary in the church and publicly displayed while prayers are said for the miracle of San Gennaro to occur (the liquefaction of the blood). Wenner had just started painting when a police officer arrived and ordered him to move on. Wenner returned to the church and found the priest.

The priest said Wenner had his protection and, more important, the protection of San Gennaro. He advised Wenner to return to the painting, adding that the officer would have already departed. Wenner continued working on the street painting for a few hours before the officer returned with a companion. By then, a large crowd had gathered around the painting. The officers politely attempted to pack up his supplies. However, the onlookers stopped them by unpacking everything and putting each item back in its place. The officers attempted to force the issue, but in a moment of inspiration Wenner faced the Neapolitans and asked, “Is it right to destroy the image of a saint on his feast day?” That was more than the people could take. They lifted up the officers and carried them away.

Counting Swiss change. After the Italian lire, Swiss coins were a dream. No matter how hard the work was, Wenner always felt a bit illicit counting the change at the end of the day, like a small-time crook.

Counting Swiss change. After the Italian lire, Swiss coins were a dream. No matter how hard the work was, Wenner always felt a bit illicit counting the change at the end of the day, like a small-time crook.

By midday, the streets were nearly empty and Wenner was still working, but not without a sense of dread. Off in the distance, he heard sirens approaching and decided he had better quickly pack up his belongings. Retreating into the church, he looked through the door to see police cars pulling up alongside his work. He ran upstairs and interrupted the priest, who was eating lunch. Wenner apologized and explained that the polizia had just arrived. Calmly, the priest said, “You have my protection, you have San Gennaro’s protection, and you have the protection of the Madonna.” He further assured Wenner that all was well and encouraged him to continue with the painting.

Wenner returned downstairs and peered out the door. He could see the polizia cars surrounding his drawing, which now looked like a crime scene. Sensing that the protection of the priest was similar to that of San Gennaro, more spiritual than physical, he opted to put his trust in St. Peter and immediately returned to Rome. He never found out what happened to the painting. Eventually, Wenner would receive a letter from the superintendent of culture, history, and monuments for the region of Campania. The letter gave him sweeping privileges to enter any museum for free and to create a street painting wherever he liked. A similar letter from the Italian national government provided a further talisman. Notwithstanding such high acknowledgments, the possibility of a confrontation never completely disappeared.

Switzerland

Wenner. Madonna of Lucerne. Lucerne, Switzerland. Wenner improvised such pieces to study the perspective effects he would later formalize to create his illusionistic pieces.

Wenner. Madonna of Lucerne. Lucerne, Switzerland. Wenner improvised such pieces to study the perspective effects he would later formalize to create his illusionistic pieces.

Wenner headed to Rome, looking forward to being back on its familiar streets. He had many pleasurable months creating large, elaborate paintings for the appreciative Roman audience. With the arrival of the summer heat, however, the Eternal City is transformed into a ghost town, and without the Romans to set an example of tossing a coin or two in a street painter’s basket, the earnings evaporate. The year before, Wenner had booked a room at a pensione in Rimini, on the Adriatic coast, where he spent the summer working among the hordes of bathers that fill the coastline. Always in pursuit of new sites and experiences, he decided to try summer in Switzerland.

Street painting in Switzerland is not universally permitted. Some cities allow it if you’ve paid for a permit, while in others the police will allow you to stay on as long as they see the locals enjoying your work. Wenner knew about the regulations in just a few cities, which meant the easiest way to find out if it was permitted in the rest was to start a painting and see what happened. He was fined just once, in Montreux. Generally, if street painting wasn’t permitted he was politely asked to move on within a day or two. The Swiss keep a tight rein on their cities with the help of surveillance cameras, and whenever a policeman approached Wenner the officer knew exactly where Wenner had parked and how long he had been painting, and even had a good approximation of his earnings.

 Wenner. The Bern Entombment. Bern, Switzerland. Wenner collaged together photographs of his early works until he found the proper lens to document his works.


Wenner. The Bern Entombment. Bern, Switzerland. Wenner collaged together photographs of his early works until he found the proper lens to document his works.

Life on the street in Switzerland is much easier than in Italy, and the pavement is so immaculate that there is never any need to wash it off before starting a painting. The Swiss are also generous with their donations, which they consider to be a tip rather than a religious offering or a handout. My only complaint about working in Switzerland is the weather. Even in summer, it turns bitterly cold with icy Alpine winds the minute a storm comes up. The storms not only move in swiftly, but they drop a lot of rain and hail as well. Most of my paintings had to survive several bouts of rainfall before completion. When the weather was good, Switzerland was spectacular; there was no better place to be. In Lucerne and Lausanne, I did paint beside crystal-clear lakes filled with elegant swans.

The Swiss accepted street paintings with secular subjects, and this gave Wenner the opportunity to branch out from the traditional religious compositions expected by Italian audiences. The tranquil environment, combined with the flexibility the Swiss showed toward the subject matter, allowed him to progress toward developing his own style of street painting and experiment with allegorical and mythological themes. On the sidewalks alongside the lakes, Wenner first began to refine and formalize the geometry of his anamorphic illusions. Like a true madonnaro, he eventually developed a circuit of lucrative and friendly cities to paint in, and his reputation grew as he traveled among Italy, Switzerland, and Germany.

 

 

Becoming a Pavement Artist

1

Introduction

Wenner after Correggio. Angel Detail. Rome, Italy

It has been about a third of a century since I first sat down on the streets of Rome with my tip buckets and started creating large pastel images. At the time, I expect there were a dozen or two practicing pavement artists in the entire world. Life was very different in those years. This little memoir is excerpted from my book, “Asphalt Renaissance”. Although I would prefer it if people bought the book, which contains many such stories, I know that it is difficult to obtain in some countries and would like this history to be readily available to anybody who is doing a paper, writing an article or making a presentation on the subject of pavement art.

 

The Making of a Madonnaro

Kurt Wenner’s path toward becoming a street painter began years ago at a well-known art school on the East Coast of the United States. An instructor declared that Wenner had no talent for drawing the human form, and advised him to choose an artistic path that did not include figures. Not long after, a guest lecturer recommended that Wenner burn his portfolio and start over. Wenner had entered the prestigious art college expecting to be initiated into the drawing secrets and techniques of the Old Masters, naively assuming that there would be wise teachers schooled in the disciplines of formal art training. The teachers quickly disabused him of such antiquated notions, asserting, “Drawing is a matter of talent—you have it or you don’t,” and adding, “Drawing cannot be taught!”

Blackened Hands. Young street painters generally find themselves blackened from head to toe. With practice, they learn to stay cleaner. The classic madonnari prided themselves on their ability to stay clean.

At the time, I was quite young, and it was difficult to understand how to cope with such comments. Eventually, I was forced to come to terms with the problem. Before the twentieth century, generations of art students studied perspective, light and shadow, anatomy, and other foundations of art in European classical academies. While my attempts at figure drawing were not at the top of the class, none of the other student drawings were at the level of the academies a hundred years earlier. And certainly nothing on the order of a Renaissance drawing was produced by any of the students or instructors. Based on what my teachers said, we had produced an entire culture that lacked talent! I knew this was not the case, and realized we had developed a culture that could no longer teach the foundations of classicism.

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Drawing in museums. At the turn of the century, art students spent long hours drawing in front of sculptures from ancient Greece and Rome. In the early 1980s, Wenner found himself the only artist drawing in museums.

Over the past centuries, students laboriously copied the masterpieces of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Leonardo, and ancient Roman sculptors, minutely observing each brushstroke or chisel mark that added up to greatness. Wenner had long dreamed of such an education, but the sweep of modernism across the twentieth century art world did away with all rigorous formal training. Wenner found the distinguished school he was attending capable of offering him only an education that narrowly focused on breaking away from past conventions.

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Wenner. Torso of Psyche. Naples, Italy.

I had to face the fact that the classical academy of my dreams existed only in my imagination. My ideas and opinions were so out of step with contemporary art education that I often enraged my teachers and was branded a failure. Although I was not yet an adult, my ideas were considered anachronistic. Being young, idealistic, and resilient, I wasn’t willing to accept that I was finished as an artist before I had begun. However, I felt that if I remained at that particular school, the teachers’ prediction that I couldn’t draw the human figure was certain to become a reality. I was forced to choose between giving up my desire to draw the human form and changing my path in life.

Out of a sense of self-preservation, Wenner left the school on the East Coast and enrolled in Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Art Center had a strong drawing program, and Wenner’s heart soared as he watched an instructor draw with so much grace and ease that the works seemed to create themselves. As instructor Harry Carmean worked from life models, he explained the drawing process to the students. To finally see an artist draw brilliantly was exhilarating and disturbing for Wenner. For the first time, he comprehended that art was a process, an act of expression, as much as a final product. As with playing a musical instrument, the act of drawing existed only in time. Wenner could not imagine having that skill.

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Wenner. Torso Study. Naples, Italy.

I began to worry that I might not have the ability to draw in such a decisive and confident way. Fortunately, the teacher put my mind to rest, asserting that mastery of drawing did not ultimately require talent so much as an understanding of the rich formal and perceptual language of Western art. What is called “talent” merely accelerates the learning process. The bad news was that formal training was a difficult study that required years of instruction and thousands of hours of practice. I was fully committed to the idea of mastering the language of Western art; however, there were no degree programs or any scholarship options that offered it.

In order to pay Art Center’s expensive tuition, Wenner worked as a scientific illustrator for NASA at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He spent his time drawing extraterrestrial landscapes according to scientific information provided by the Voyager spacecraft, and creating conceptual paintings of spacecraft for proposed future missions. His job was one that many graduates dreamed of, but for him it was also a means of supporting his studies. Most nights and on the weekends he continued his drawing classes. Eventually, he realized that he couldn’t learn much more from his art professors and that he would have to go to Rome to continue his education.

8While saving up for his studies abroad, he lived a monk-like existence, spending eighty hours a week hunched over a drawing board. Finally, in order to save on rent, he camped out in a sleeping bag inside a defunct wind tunnel. Once a month, the NASA staff would send a supersonic airflow through the tunnel in order to maintain it in working condition. One day, they fired it up on a different day than usual. Wenner searched for his sleeping bag, and while he never did find it, he did notice a fine layer of fluffy feathers coating the walls of the lab. With no place to sleep and a fistful of savings, it seemed like the right time to move on. He left Art Center, NASA, friends, and family, and headed for Rome to continue his study of classical art.

Wenner. The Farnese Hercules. Naples, Italy. This study was done in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples.

I had fallen in love with a study that seemed to have no future. The few students I knew who had spent the years necessary to master the art of drawing would often joke about finding eventual employment as body outliners for the local police department. Ironically, in my case I would come extraordinarily close to this reality by eventually chalking figures on the street for a living. Although the instruction I received at Art Center was brilliant, I felt a need to go to the source of the classical tradition in order to fully understand that tradition. Beginning around 1660, the Grand Tour had served as an educational rite of passage. It was a trip through Europe with an emphasis on artifacts of antiquity and the Renaissance. Young men often traveled with a personal tutor, who could explain the mysteries of art and cultural traditions to them. I was determined to make my own Grand Tour to study drawing. I bought a plane ticket, an Italian dictionary, and a map of Europe, because I had no idea exactly where Rome was!

Wenner boarded the plane with just a handful of rock-bottom necessities that would fit into a backpack. While in transit at London’s Heathrow Airport, he was informed by an apologetic airline official that his backpack had been sent to Singapore. With no bag in tow, he made his triumphant entry into Rome bearing a passport, a notebook, and a map.

13I was completely unprepared to travel in Europe. My first impression of Italy was absolute confusion. I somehow made it into central Rome, and was nearly flattened by a bus when I attempted to cross the street for the first time. I had lots of experience with art, music, and culture, but little with life, and even less with travel or languages. It felt like a miracle when I reached the tiny room I had rented before leaving the States and plopped down on the bed. I wondered how I would ever survive in a city where I had to walk behind a nun to safely cross the street.

Arriving in Italy

New Seneca sm

Wenner. Head of Seneca. This drawing from a famous antique bust is one of hundreds of drawings Wenner executed in European museums to study classical drawing.

It was 1982, and Italy retained much of its Old World charm, customs, and beliefs. The Italians still held strong regional identities, as globalization had not yet begun to homogenize the different cultures. The ancient traditions and art of the Catholic Church were seen everywhere. Life moved at a leisurely pace, with plenty of time to enjoy a good meal and good company. As Wenner settled into his new surroundings, he got started on his to-do list, which he had designed to keep his educational project on track. The first thing was to get an overview of his new living classroom by seeing all the major monuments and museums in Rome.

I never knew there was such a wealth of art anywhere in the world, let alone packed into one city. I was used to spending time at different museums in the United States, but Rome was completely different. Museums in the States were heated and well lit, with small paintings spaced carefully on neutral backgrounds. In Rome, much of the painting was in the form of vast frescoes, surrounded by sculpted moldings and painted and gilded decoration, and accompanied with inlaid marble. I was completely overwhelmed by the dizzying scale and richness of the work. While watching the rain fall through the open oculus of the Pantheon on the fourth day, I knew I had taken in too much.

1. St. George

Wenner working on St. George. This working shot shows Wenner’s careful and precise drawing style based on hours of study in the museums

After less than a week, Wenner had come down with a bad case of Stendhal syndrome, a well-documented illness with flu-like symptoms that strikes tourists whose vision has become over-stimulated as a result of viewing too much grandeur. He spent the next several days in bed, looking up at the fuchsia-colored ceiling in his little room. When the visions of frescoes stopped spinning in his head, Wenner decided to take a more organized approach and went in search of art schools. Unlike the sterile but clean halls of Art Center, these buildings were decrepit, filled with graffiti, and looked like the party headquarters in a third-world country that had suffered a revolt. Classicism was no more alive in Rome’s educational system than it was back in the States, and it did not appear that they would be offering the fabulous art instruction Wenner had dreamed of.

With much trepidation, I entered the Villa Borghese with a small drawing board, a pencil box, and a tiny three-legged folding stool. I didn’t know how to ask for permission to draw in the museum, so I didn’t. A hundred years ago, the museum would have been buzzing with students copying the works of art and discussing each other’s drawings. Unfortunately, I was alone in the large, echoing rooms. I nervously set up my stool in front of a sculpture and began drawing using a sanguine-colored pencil. The early masters often used these blood-red-colored pencils for drawing and sketching. It wasn’t long before I became completely lost in what I was doing.

Wenner working on St. George. This working shot shows Wenner’s careful and precise drawing style based on hours of study in the museums.

He spent months drawing in museums, arriving when they opened and leaving only when he heard the doors beginning to close. He spent day after day communing with the masterpieces, and grew to feel an intimate connection with the artists whose works he copied. Dressed in a pair of jeans and a shirt with the sleeves rolled up, Wenner sat for long hours on his stool, balancing a drawing board on his knees as he worked. By looking at him, few would have guessed the level of skill he possessed. Occasionally, a visitor took the time to watch him work and observe his developing mastery.

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Wenner. St. George and the Dragon. Rome, Italy. Confusion was created with this work by an “unknown” author. The work never reached completion in Rome due to many rainstorms.

I spent vast amounts of time in the various museums throughout Rome, blending into the silence, which was interrupted by loud tour groups, shouting guides, and shrieking schoolchildren. I was often asked directions and did my best to answer questions in fumbling Italian. Many Europeans stopped to ask where I had studied art, which served to confirm my suspicion that good classical drawing classes were as rare in Europe as in the States. In the many months I studied, I never once encountered an art student or an art class drawing in the museums. The exercises I was undertaking were invaluable and built on what I had studied in school. Unlike life models, the sculptures told stories about the artists and cultures that created them. Merely looking at sculptures does not reveal this information, any more than looking at the cover of a book tells the story inside. Only by drawing them is the formal language revealed. I was finally beginning to obtain the skills needed to compose drawings in the classical tradition.

Guards were soon greeting him by name, and each day tourists would crowd around him to watch him draw. Sightseers often asked to purchase a drawing, but it was the museum guards, insulted by the minuscule amounts the tourists offered, who became his patrons for drawings of the masterpieces they so loved and protected. It wasn’t long before he had a list of twenty Vatican guards waiting for drawings. Wenner spent vast amounts of time in the various museums throughout Rome, blending into the silence, which was interrupted by loud tour groups, shouting guides, and shrieking schoolchildren. In the many months spent studying, he never once encountered an art student or an art class drawing in the museums. The exercises he undertook were invaluable and built on what he had studied in school. Unlike life models, the sculptures told stories about the artists and cultures that created them. Merely looking at sculptures does not reveal this information, any more than looking at the cover of a book tells the story inside. Only by drawing them is the formal language revealed. He slowly began to obtain the skills needed to compose drawings in the classical tradition.

14

Wenner after Tiepolo. Adoration of the Magi. Rome, Italy. Bold strokes and bright colors make Tiepolo another favorite of street painters. Large compositions such as this one were favorites with the Roman audience as well.

The drawing sales helped shore up my shrinking savings. However, I couldn’t produce drawings fast enough to pay for food, rent, and art supplies. The thought of being destitute in a foreign country was a frightening one, yet making art was the only thing that held any importance for me. I knew I needed to find another source of income if I was going to be able to carry on studying in the Eternal City.

One afternoon while walking home past the Trevi Fountain, Wenner saw two young men on their hands and knees working on the pavement of the Via del Corso. They were absorbed in drawing a traditional Madonna and Child, using a mixture of thick sidewalk chalks and finer commercial pastels. The image was quite rough, as dirt and the pavement’s texture combined to prohibit fine details or rich color. Wenner was surprised to see a work of religious art emblazoned on the busy sidewalk. People stood around and observed the painters quietly. It was as if the painting were bringing the sanctity of a shrine out onto the dusty pavement, creating an island of calm on an otherwise frenetic corner. He had just come across the work of two madonnari and observed his first street painting. He didn’t know it yet, but his life would be forever changed.

Wenner after Leonardo. St. Anne, Madonna and Child with Lamb. Mantua, Italy. Wenner painted this simple image to pay for his expenses while traveling through the city of Mantua.

The following morning, I approached the same spot. Gathering all my courage, I asked the painters a few questions in halting Italian. Their reply was equally rudimentary, but with a German accent. I was overjoyed, as I spoke some German, and as it turned out they spoke some English. I was astounded to learn that they actually made their living from street painting. From then on, every evening I made it a point to pass by their site, chat with them, and watch them paint.

True to tradition, the artists never revealed to Wenner how much they earned on the street, and like most people, he assumed it was very little. They had plenty to talk about, and Wenner was amazed to learn that they had come to Rome specifically to street paint rather than to visit the museums. Wenner didn’t know it at the time, but one of the two painters, Manfred Stader, would become a lifelong friend. After a week, the artists asked Wenner to paint the head of an angel that had been giving them trouble while they went to dinner. He hesitatingly consented.

Wenner after Raphael. St. John detail. Rome, Italy. Raphael’s pictures remain a favorite for street painters. The simple contours and subtle tones contrast nicely with the texture of the pavement.

I was nervous and self-conscious as I sat down on the pavement. I surveyed the Via del Corso, gazing up at the buildings from this new angle. I then took a deep breath and set to work. To my surprise, it was immensely enjoyable. I had an immediate, visceral response to the soft, fresco-like palette of colors. The populated street was more frenetic than any museum, but I soon became so involved in the work that I didn’t notice the sound of the passing cars, the whining motors of the ever-present Vespas, and the clatter of hurrying feet around me. It seemed like only minutes had passed before my new friends returned from dinner. They perused the angel and complimented my work. Then they emptied the baskets of the donations made while I had been painting and handed them to me in a plastic sack. I had been so absorbed in the work that I hadn’t noticed anyone tossing coins into the baskets. I accepted the sack and realized in that one hour I had earned enough money to cover my daily expenses!

Elated and streaked with grime from the street, Wenner practically floated home, dreaming about how street painting could be his much-needed source of income. He also thought about how it could be a way for him to create the full-scale copies of masterpieces that he had longed to execute as a formal exercise for his selfstudy program. He had not been able to accomplish this, due to a lack of studio space, however, street painting opened up the vast expanses of sidewalks and piazzas in Rome to use as his studio.

Wenner. Drawing from Michelangelo’s Moses. Rome, Italy. This drawing from the famous Michelangelo statue was used by Wenner to create his first street painting.

As soon as I had my first experience street painting I thought about making my own work, and where and what I would paint. With the constant repairs and renovation in the ancient city, finding a spot with a smooth surface and lots of foot traffic would be a challenge. The next day, I scouted around, looking down at the pavement instead of up at the magnificent facades. I had to find a location where I would not block anything or anybody, and as I searched I discovered remnants of other street paintings. Had I walked over these faded images in the past and never noticed? I finally decided on the piazza in front of Termini, Rome’s central train station.

Early the next morning, I headed for the piazza determined to start a street painting on my own. I knew there were risks involved, such as having my fingers stepped on, or being moved on by the police. The idea of being able to apply all that I’d learned in the past months to a full-scale painting kept me from backing down. At the time, the train station was anything but gracious or comfortable. It had been under construction for many years, and was covered in rusty siding that funneled commuters into a narrow corridor. Black-market sellers, drug pushers, and Gypsies all sought their victims here. By the time I arrived at the station, my heart was pounding. I wove my way through the commuters, looking for an appropriate spot to set out my materials. As a visual reference, I was using my drawing of Michelangelo’s statue of Moses. An endless distracting dance of feet fell all around me, but soon a small group of spectators formed, and in their stillness I was protected from the surrounding chaos. I experienced for the first time a phenomenon that would come to repeat itself over and over again: The power of the image transformed not only the space but also everything and everyone around it. As the image grew, so did the audience, and the synergy created between the two was a tangible, positive force.

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Wenner. Moses. Rome, Italy. Wenner first created the image at the Rome train station, then repeated it at a more leisurely pace on the Via del Corso

Being in the center of this radiant field gave me the confidence I needed to set out a few baskets to collect offerings. People tossed in coins immediately and enthusiastically. Given the shadier denizens of the area, I thought it would be difficult to hold on to the money. However, no one tried to take the coins from the baskets. At one point, a large group of garishly dressed Gypsies surrounded me. I tried to ignore their presence and concentrated on my work as they scrutinized the picture. They pointed and talked among themselves, in their own language, until they seemed to arrive at a collective decision. I braced myself. Suddenly they all dropped some coins into the baskets, nodded at me, and then silently departed.

Relieved that the morning had gone well, I crossed the street to a local bar for a much-needed espresso. I was served instantly and given the correct change in a manner that is usually bestowed only on a bar’s regular clientele. I thought I must finally look like I belonged, and then I caught my reflection in a mirror and saw I was covered from head to toe with a pungent coating of sweat mixed with pastel dust and sidewalk grime. I realized the bartender just wanted to get me out of his shop as quickly as possible! That evening, when it grew too dark to see the painting, I packed up and began to head home. Looking at my watch, I discovered that I had spent twelve hours squatting, kneeling, and crawling about on the sidewalk. My bag was painfully heavy with coins, so I tried to take a city bus, but the driver took one look at my appearance and refused to let me ride. I had no choice but to drag my bag and my aching body five miles across town to my room. After scrubbing off the grimy coating, I sat in my room, every muscle painfully sore from the contortions I had been performing all day. I emptied the coins onto the table and counted them. I was stunned to discover that they added up to my daily salary back at NASA.

22Early the next morning, I returned to the train station, and much to my surprise I found the picture not only in good condition, but covered with coins! I found the work much less stressful on the second day. Now that I was familiar with my surroundings, it was easier to enjoy the audience’s appreciation, which increased as the painting progressed. I worked steadily throughout the day, nearly finishing the image. I did my best to keep clean, but I was still black by the time evening came around, and my bag was unbearably heavy with coins. Fortunately, a more compassionate driver allowed me to board the bus home. That evening, as soon as I had washed and put on fresh clothes, I set about counting the coins and discovered my earnings had tripled! I returned to the painting site the next morning and quickly touched up the picture,and then concentrated on finishing. After adding the final details, I stepped back and surveyed my first completed street painting. I was filled with joy; never had I imagined working on such a large scale with so much speed. I was certainly relieved about finding a way to solve my financial difficulties, but more important I was excited about street painting propelling me forward in my studies.

Kurt drawing in 1983. Wenner was only twenty-two years old when he began street painting in Rome.

That evening, Wenner fell into bed, overjoyed, relieved, and utterly spent. Sometime after midnight, he awoke to the damp scent and soft sound of falling rain. With his very first street painting sacrificed to the elements, Wenner had been initiated into the full cycle of the medium. He had also been lured by the siren’s song into the life of a madonnaro.

Continue to “Life on the Street 1983-1985”.

 

Origins of Pavement Art

The Impermanent and the Eternal 

The Origins of Pavement Art

1

Faded Mona Lisa. After a rainstorm, a washed-out, fresco-like image remains.

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.

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Kurt Wenner

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.

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Passing Over a Memory. When a work has faded, pedestrians pass freely over the site.

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.

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After the Rain. Handmade pastels hold up better than the commercial brands, but once the picture is wet the entire surface must be repainted.

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.

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Wenner. Angel with Harp. Mantua, Italy.

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

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Preparing the Pavement. When the rain does not wash an image away, street painters must wash away remnants of old works before beginning afresh.

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.

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Prisciandaro in the Rain. Although younger generations of street painters work hard to maintain their compositions for several days, older artists limit the scope of their work to images that can be executed in a shorter time period. They watch the work wash away with a sense of detachment born of years of experience.

 

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.

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Barolo Bacchus. Wenner composed this bacchanal in competition in Barolo, Italy. The triumph of Bacchus was a popular classical theme recalling Roman triumphal processions.

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.

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The War of Love. Great secular displays of pageantry were also a part of civic life in the Middle Ages. Ephemeral displays on mythological and allegorical themes were created for these events by some of the most famous artists of the day.

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

9

Fireworks Pavilion. European nobility once spent vast sums on impermanent displays such as this fireworks pavilion, which would end up in flames as part of the spectacle. Etchings preserved the memory of the event.

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.

10

The Ideal City. Processions still occur in many Italian towns during important holidays. This procession was for Corpus Domini, the same day as the Genzano Infiorata.

11

Mantuan Procession. Until recently, the miraculous image of Santa Maria delle Grazie was carried in procession through the streets of Mantua, Italy. Now pilgrims arrive to the festival on the fifteenth of August to pay homage to the holy image.

17

Jacques Callot. Fair at Impruneta. This etching shows in extreme detail an important country fair in 1622.

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.

12

Wenner. Hercules Detail. Mantua, Italy. The texture of the pavement can be a beautiful part of the image, but extreme roughness becomes a limitation.

14

Wenner. Angel with Violin. Mantua, Italy. The first original images Wenner created were hard to distinguish from the copied masterpieces. The public began guessing the identity of the “original” artists.

19

The Infiorata of Genzano. The Genzano Infiorata is the most spectacular of the processional pieces created for the holiday of Corpus Domini, although many other cities hold similar celebrations.

18

Destroying the Infiorata. Artists work through the night creating the enormous carpet of colored flower petals; after the procession, children take great pleasure in scattering the decorations.

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.

13

Wenner After La Tour. The Newborn Child. Rimini, Italy. This small picture also lent itself to illumination at night.

15

Wenner. Rimini Adoration. Rimini, Italy. Much of the pedestrian traffic in Rimini was at night. Wenner composed this piece with the light coming from the center. At night, a gas lantern placed at the source lighted the picture.

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.

20

Hindu Kolam. Dedicated to the goddess Lakshmi, the kolam separates the protected world of the home from the unprotected world of the outside.

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.

21

Kolam Festival. At the Mylapore festival, no color is allowed for the kolams. They must also be based on the pulli, or dot, technique—the traditional way of drawing them.

23

Wenner After Honthorst, Nativity. Street painters often usher in the daylight with images created at the crack of dawn. In their own way, such designs are auspicious for the well-being of passersby.

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.

22

Navajo Sand Painting. A sand painting in the Navajo tradition is literally a doorway for the gods. The images have healing powers, and their ritual dispersion eliminates sickness.

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.

24

Wenner. Sky Woman. Green Bay, Wisconsin. Wenner enjoys the imagery of magic circles and incorporates the theme into his own compositions.

27

Tibetan Buddhist Mandala. The mandala is created slowly, as a meditation. Its destruction will be ritual and controlled.

28

Working on the Mandala. Sand is coaxed down a fine tube to create the work over a period of days or weeks.

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.

25

Villaroya. Seven Sins and Seven Virtues. Grazie di Curtatone, Italy. The artist Villaroya incorporated many traditional techniques into this modern work. The seven sins were depicted as Picasso-style chalk images, and the virtues were expressed as still lifes using many infiorata and pula references.

26

Villaroya with His Work. Grazie di Curtatone, Italy. Here the artist is shown with his work. The piece confused the Mantuan jury, which expected more straightforward religious compositions.

29

Premature Destruction. Here a mandala came to a premature end at the hands of a three-year-old. Normally the destruction is controlled and ritualistic.

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.

30

Covered for the Rain. Lots of plastic and tape was used to bring large street paintings through days of stormy weather. Rain inevitably soaks under the plastic, usually within fifteen minutes. The plastic does not prevent damage to the piece but prevents the wet color from being tracked far and wide by pedestrians.

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.

31

Wenner. Head of St. Michael. Rome, Italy. Whether or not a street painting has a religious theme, the image is often uplifting because of the spirit in which it is created.

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!”

33

Chalk It Up Artist. Starry Night Mosaic. West Hollywood, California. The artist makes a brilliantly innovative use of his materials in this composition. The spirit of the work is as close to an infiorata as to a street painting.

32

Street Painting Festival in San Raphael, California. Today street painting festivals create enormous spectacles, such as this rendition of Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling in chalk. The events underline the importance of the ephemeral in societies that are known for their materialism.

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.

 

 

Grounded in Tradition- part 1- Introduction

Grounded in Tradition

1. A  History

1

On the Dry Earth. Terra battuta is a hardened mixture of clay earth, lime, and straw whose use predated asphalt in many public areas. The hard surface often had a rough, cracked texture that was perfect for chalk.

“Bert, what a lot of nonsense! Why do you always complicate things that are really quite simple?” Mary Poppins and Bert the street painter take the hands of two children and jump into a chalk painting. Colorful clouds of dust arise, and the four characters are transported into a magical world. The adventure lasts until the first rainstorm, when their fantasy world melts away and they are returned to the London streets to watch the colors of the street painting dissolve. This famous scene from the film Mary Poppins, with Julie Andrews as the nanny and Dick Van Dyke as the pavement artist, immortalized street painting and introduced the art form to millions of people. Disney studios created the choreography of the scene, but the story itself was the work of a popular children’s book author Pamela Lyndon Travers.

2

In a Puff of Dust. Mary Poppins and friends are transported into a fantasy realm. Bert the screever idealized the figure of the pavement artist.

In her book, the character of Bert is a Cockney jack-of-all-trades who mixes pavement art and street music with chimney sweeping to make his living. The book was first published in 1934, and was an instant success. At that time, most people in the United States had never seen a street painting, and the book was a rare source of allusion.

3

An Artist of the Pavement. This 1872 image shows great sympathy for the artist. Even the title of artist is a promotion from the earlier screever. The term screever initially referred to the writing on the pavement that requested alms, rather than to the picture. The term returned in the 1940s, having lost most of its derogatory associations.

A year earlier, George Orwell, one of the most influential and admired writers of the twentieth century, was among the first to write about pavement artists in his book Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933. Although educated at Eton, Orwell could not afford to attend university and could not get a scholarship. At the age of twenty-five, he moved to Paris to become a freelance writer. Orwell’s outrage at the conditions of the underclass prompted him to live the life of a tramp and write about his experiences. Among those described in Down and Out in Paris and London are pavement artists, whom Orwell treats with a compassion born of shared poverty.

In the 1930s, according to Orwell’s account, there was a pavement artist every twenty-five yards along the London Embankment. Pavement artists appear in literature by the end of the nineteenth century, but except for Orwell’s and Travers’s stories, few written records of them or their works have survived. The street painters Orwell met described universal experiences that could have occurred at any time. One artist who had studied in Paris and made remarkable copies of Old Master paintings on the stone pavement recounts his experience:

4

George Bernard Shaw Admires a Pavement Artist. The famous author poses with a young pavement artist working on the Bentley pavement in London.

My wife and kids were starving. I was walking home late at night; with lots of drawings I’d been taking round to the dealers, and wondering how the devil to raise a bob or two. Then, in the Strand, I saw a fellow kneeling on the pavement drawing, and people giving him pennies. As I came past he got up and went into a pub. ‘Damn it,’ I thought, ‘if he can make money at that, so can I.’ So on an impulse I knelt down and began drawing with his chalks. Heaven knows how I came to do it; I must have been lightheaded with hunger.

Unlike other people Orwell met on the street, the pavement artists were not demoralized by their poverty. He writes of an artist who called himself Bozo:

He had managed to keep his brain intact and alert, and so nothing could make him succumb to poverty. He might be ragged and cold, or even starving, but as long as he could read, think, and watch for meteors, he was, as he said, free in his own mind.

5

James Carling Portrait. This is the earliest known photo of a street painter, dating from about 1870 and showing the boy at about thirteen years of age. He suffered hunger, poverty, and beatings from the police before being arrested on Christmas Eve shortly after his eighth birthday. Today he is remembered with a street painting festival in his honor.

Travers would have also seen the many pavement artists on the Strand, and it’s possible that Orwell’s account inspired her to include pavement art as one of Bert’s many talents. At the time of Orwell, a street painter in England was called a screever. The word appears to refer to the written text that often accompanies the image and asks passersby for a donation, or appeals to their generosity by quoting biblical passages. Early colloquial dictionaries assign the term Scottish or Dutch origins but are uncertain. The word could possibly come from the Italian word scrivere (pronounced scree-ver-eh), which means “to write.” The first screevers in England may have actually been Italians who brought the tradition with them. As can be seen in the film Mary Poppins, a pavement artist often wrote a caption under the image, and added a word or two of gratitude for any offerings. Even today, it is not unusual to see a written description and a word of appreciation for a donation.

6

Franz Klammer. The earliest known photograph of an Italian street painter is dated March 1921. The artist is from Val Sarentino, Bolzano, which explains his Teutonic name.

Orwell does not speculate on the origins of pavement art any more than he speculates on the origins of street musicians, or any of the other ways that people tried to feed themselves and their families in times of need. It’s likely that the large number of street artists and musicians was a result of the law, as busking was tolerated in London and panhandling was not. Simply asking for money would bring an arrest for vagrancy, so some act had to be performed in order for there to be an exchange. Impoverished people without much skill were forced to join the ranks of tramps and move from town to town to avoid arrest. They survived on rations of tea and bread with margarine. These were doled out in bleak shelters where people could stay for a night or two before moving on to the next town.

Unfortunately, Italian pavement artists never had a George Orwell to join their ranks and describe their experiences. The last of the traditional Italian street painters would, however, receive recognition and acclaim in their later years, and eventually see the art form officially recognized, transformed, and diffused throughout the world.

Continued on Part 2- Icons

 

 

 

 

Grounded in Tradition- part 2- Icons

Grounded in Tradition

A History of Pavement Art

2. Icons

7

Wenner. Icon of Christ. Bettona, Italy.

The Italian art of street painting is a visual link between the past and the present. An ephemeral art form, it is rooted in the history of icons, celebrations, homage, and pilgrimage. Nobody knows when the first itinerant artist drew the image of an icon with charcoal and limestone on the hardened clay earth, but testimonials to this tradition reach back for centuries. In Italy, street painters are called madonnari, meaning “painters of the Madonna.” This term applies not only to street painters, but also to any artist who produces simple images of the saints, especially the Virgin Mary (Madonna in Italian). The earliest madonnari were icon painters from Venice and Crete.

9

Luigi del Medico. Ave Maria. Grazie di Curtatone, Italy. Luigi del Medico was the youngest artist to work in the style of the traditional madonnari.

Several of the street painters worked from memory, and their images were transformed through repetition, becoming highly individual. These men did not consider themselves naïve or folk painters, but madonnari, painters of ephemeral objects of veneration. Icons are ancient expressions of a culture’s belief in miraculous powers. The word icon comes from the Greek word for “image” (eikon). Before the Christian era, the world was full of pagan gods and demigods who were worshipped in the form of statues and paintings.

8

Christina Cottarelli. Byzantine Icon. Grazie di Curtatone, Italy. Cottarelli reproduces a famous icon for the Grazie street painting competition. She would later become one of the first women to be recognized as a Master Madonnara (female madonnaro).

Christianity inherited Hebrew monotheism, and early Christians were expected to worship their God without an image before them. Throughout its history, Christianity has been ambivalent toward the ritual worship of holy images. The early church agonized over the use of icons, fearing that they would take the place of pagan idols and become objects of worship. However, Christianity was also deeply rooted in Greek Hellenistic culture and philosophy. Although iconoclasm (the objection to the use of images) persisted in the Hebrew and Islamic traditions, and was a subject of controversy within the Catholic Church, the classical heritage in Christian culture eventually triumphed.

10Several of the street painters worked from memory, and their images were transformed through repetition, becoming highly individual. These men did not consider themselves naïve or folk painters, but madonnari, painters of ephemeral objects of veneration. Icons are ancient expressions of a culture’s belief in miraculous powers. The word icon comes from the Greek word for “image” (eikon). Before the Christian era, the world was full of pagan gods and demigods who were worshipped in the form of statues and paintings.

11

Ritzos. Virgin of the Passion. Florence, Italy. Although seemingly much older in style, these icons are painted at the same time as works by Mantegna and Botticelli.

Christianity inherited Hebrew monotheism, and early Christians were expected to worship their God without an image before them. Throughout its history, Christianity has been ambivalent toward the ritual worship of holy images. The early church agonized over the use of icons, fearing that they would take the place of pagan idols and become objects of worship. However, Christianity was also deeply rooted in Greek Hellenistic culture and philosophy. Although iconoclasm (the objection to the use of images) persisted in the Hebrew and Islamic traditions, and was a subject of controversy within the Catholic Church, the classical heritage in Christian culture eventually triumphed.

I can’t imagine the Catholic Church devoid of the countless masterpieces created over the centuries. The first Christian images were created in a spiritual atmosphere, as a sort of prayer. In a very real sense, street painting incorporates this idea. The artist is bent over in the form of a supplicant; his concentration is on the process of creating the work. The street painting is created within the span of several hours and the image comes from within the painter.

12During the ninth century, icons were fully embraced by Eastern Orthodox dogma, and their use and diffusion has continued to the present day. An icon painting is required to show the characteristics of a holy person, yet remain discernibly separate from the living figure. Early icons emphasized the disparity between a saint and the saint’s image by rendering the image with unnatural flat, artificial, and stylized proportions and colors. An icon only becomes a living force through devout prayer, which brings forth the Divine Spirit from within. When Wenner arrived in Italy, the sanctuaries were full of the devout, and individuals frequently undertook pilgrimages to a healing icon in order to pray for a cure. A childless couple might approach an icon of the Madonna and Child believed to grant miracles. The attributes of such works arose out of common popular consensus, rather than official church doctrine. The debate over the use of icons still continues in some branches of Christianity, but for the Catholic Church the phenomenon of miracle-working images is well established. The acceptance of religious imagery has enabled street painters to survive in Italy. Money given on the street (la mancha) is not necessarily in appreciation of the skill of the painter. Donations can also be charitable (l’elemosina), or in recognition of the image itself (l’obolo).

13

Wenner After Domenikos Theotokopoulos. Christ Carrying the Cross. El Greco was a trained icon painter before traveling to Italy and becoming a famous late-Renaissance (mannerist) artist. While his work is masterful in every way, the tone of the images is often similar to the madonnari.

The sacred portraits of the madonnari are reminiscent of the ancient tradition of the voto (Latin for “by reason of a vow”), an object offered up to the gods to lend extra strength to a prayer. The creation of a sacred image on the pavement was not only a way to earn a bit of bread and oil, plus a coin or two; it was also a spiritual exercise in itself. A donation was a means by which the public could share in the offering.

Italian street painting is believed to have evolved from the icon painters who traveled from Venice and Crete between the twelfth and the fifteenth centuries. These artists painted permanent images of saints in niches over front doors, along pilgrimage routes, in shrines throughout the countryside, and at city entrances. These small devotional images were used as sources of divine protection. Street tabernacles can still be found today throughout Italy. Domenikos Theotokopoulos, the most famous artist who began in this tradition, became known as the painter El Greco (literally “the Greek”). He was born in Crete and was trained as an icon painter. Traveling between Venice and Rome, he trained himself in the mannerist style, eventually becoming one of its greatest protagonists. El Greco, like many other artists at the time, moved to the Serene Republic of Venice. Not all of these artists had the ability or the desire to change their styles, and icon painting flourished alongside the new, classicizing styles of the Renaissance. Some artists partially absorbed the new techniques and forms of the Renaissance and fused the styles. In the elongated and ethereal figures of El Greco, the influence of icon painting is very evident. The Renaissance fleshed out, draped, and embellished these earlier forms, but never really abandoned them These painters made small icons for private prayer and devotion in the home, which they peddled in the public squares.

14

Italian Edicola, Tabernacle. Today the term edicola most often refers to newsstands, but the Italian landscape is still dotted with these exterior altars. Paintings in these altars had a limited life span, and re-creating them was often a job for madonnari.

They also made altar paintings in humbler churches and private chapels. These painters were dubbed madonneri in the Venetian language (which evolved into the word madonnari), because they frequently depicted the Madonna. Many of the icon painters created images for street tabernacles and were nicknamed pittori di santi (painters of saints), a term that still occasionally follows them. By the sixteenth century, nearly every church and Venetian household owned a painting of the Virgin and Child. Even at the end of the twentieth century, traditional madonnari accepted commissions for small devotional pieces. Sometimes they painted images of the Madonna or St. Andrew on fishing boats, or repainted the small tabernacles that had eroded with time. Each artist had a unique temperament: Some tended to copy popular works, while others created highly original images.

15

Luigi del Medico. Tavoletta. The madonnaro Luigi del Medico reproduces an ex-voto tavoletta during the competition at Grazie.

16

Per Grazie Ricevuta. The initials PGR refer to a specific miraculous event in the donor’s life. This tavoletta (small panel) shows a rescue at sea. The painting was commissioned to hang in the church as testimony to divine intervention.

Although the art of the madonnari may be fleeting, its roots are based in permanent icon paintings and ex-votos. In ancient times, a voto was a promise or pledge in anticipation of a celestial favor, while ex-votos were gifts of gratitude presented to the gods for a grace already received. Thousands of ex-votos have been unearthed from wells beneath Greek and Roman temples. These small terra cotta sculptures depict an array of anatomical parts such as arms and eyes, and are believed to have represented the part of the worshipper’s body that had been healed.

17

Metal Ex-Voto. Some ex-votos were simple storebought items, like this metal plaque. An ex-voto could also be a large offering such as a chapel or even an entire church.

 

The Catholic Church adopted this practice in several different forms; the best known and most widespread is the use of votive candles, which are used as an offering when requesting a particular grace to be granted. Paintings were also popular ex-votos, and icon artists were commissioned to create small pictures of the Madonna, who had bestowed a miracle on the worshippers. Many of the paintings included a complete illustrated scene of the specific miraculous event, with the Madonna looking down on it. By the seventeenth century, ready-made prints and paintings of Madonnas and saints could be bought at fairs for devotional use, but an ex-voto had to be individually commissioned. While the wealthy could engage a trained artist, a common person could only afford some wine, bread, and olive oil, or a very small sum, to pay an untrained folk artist. These artists would often wait outside sanctuaries and churches in order to make small paintings for those in need of ex-votos. While waiting for a commission to come along, they would paint a portrait of a miracle-working Madonna or saint on the sacred ground so that a passerby could make an offering.

Even in the twentieth century, many of the traditional street painters had favorite sanctuaries where they enjoyed working. I remember seeing the Neapolitan street painter Gambardella outside the sanctuary of the Madonna di Pompei. He was painting a copy of the sanctuary’s miraculous icon on a small bit of pavement between the many souvenir stands. Other sanctuaries, such as Loreto’s Holy House with its famous basilica, host street painting events. Some sanctuaries are busy all year long, but most are good street painting venues only on specific holidays when their particular icon or relic is honored with a festival.

Continued on Part 3- Travel

 

 

 

 

Grounded in Tradition- part 3- Travel

Grounded in Tradition

A History of Pavement Art

3. Travel

21

Antonio Gambardella. Volto Santo with Seraphim. Gambardella was a Neapolitan madonnaro who could be found working outside the sanctuary of the Madonna di Pompei.

A madonnaro’s itinerant lifestyle is born of necessity, as he must move on in order to find the next crowd or mass gathering. In the Middle Ages, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims laboriously journeyed to sanctuaries and shrines to celebrate the icons or relics they venerated. Individuals and groups of worshippers made pilgrimages to leave votive offerings at holy sites. The annual trek of hordes of pilgrims to a site often overwhelmed the food and supplies of small towns. Country fairs soon sprang up to sell food and other goods to pilgrims on their way to and at the sanctuary sites.

22

Nicolino Picci. Four Portraits. This winning entry in the first competition at Grazie shows a typical work of a classic madonnaro.

After completing their religious devotions, pilgrims enjoyed leisure activities such as Passion plays, music, and equestrian displays. Fairs soon became attractions in their own right, attracting residents from the countryside in addition to pilgrims. Locals came to socialize and enjoy the entertainment, but mostly they came to buy goods from traveling vendors that were otherwise unavailable to them throughout the year. They also came to seek out the itinerant craftsmen who followed the fair circuitartisans sharpened knives, repaired shoes, fixed umbrellas, and caned chairs. Even executioners traveled from town to town, dispatching hapless prisoners who had been languishing in jail until they turned up.

18

Antonio Grillo. Volto della Madonna. Grillo was one of the last classic madonnari, and one of the first participants at Grazie. Here he is shown with many attributes typical of the early madonnari: a crutch, shoeboxes for coins, and a message in French and Italian inviting the public to make a donation.

During my street painting travels, I occasionally ran into Antonio Grillo, a traditional madonnaro, in Rome, Milan, and Verona. He would write a message in chalk below his large icon-like images that said, “Painter traveling without means. If my work merits it, I will use the donation to continue my travels.” He walked with a crutch, but was hardly a cripple. He was a tough old bird, and did not tolerate finding younger street painters in “his” spot. If need be, he would make sure that the artist moved on to another space. One evening I had dinner with him, after promising to vacate his painting spot the next day. He had a strong sense of his place in the world, and was extremely proud of his work. He made good money on the street, and spent his winters painting commissioned works.

19

Jacques Callot. Pilgrims. Callot pokes fun at disreputable beggars thinly disguised as religious pilgrims.

Very early madonnari traveled between city-states going to pilgrimage sites, country fairs, civic pageants, and sanctuaries on religious holidays and saints’ feast days. Each city-state had different languages and customs. Even today, dialects differ dramatically from region to region in Italy, and linguistic differences remain even between neighboring villages. Fortunately, a street painting is a visual language that is universally understood.

Using simple materials such as white chalk, a piece of charcoal, and the broken end of a red brick, a street painter was able to make a copy of a cherished icon on the pavement. There were, however, many technical difficulties to be overcome by these early street painters. The Italian word for “pavement,” pavimento, does not distinguish between the flooring material used in a building’s interior and that used to pave the streets. Beautiful marble flooring can be found flowing right out of a church in order to provide a continuous smooth walkway to the sidewalk or piazza. Ancient mosaics inspired other surfaces, where paving is composed of rocks or cut stones. In order to work on a rough surface, a street painter would push fine grout made from sand and chalk into the cracks and gaps between the stones. Even though this gave a smooth surface on which to work, fine details could not be painted, as the chalk was blended into the grout with the palms of the painter’s hands. Therefore, traditional street painters had a repertoire of faccioni, or “big faces,” that did not require much detail. These oversized portraits of Madonnas and saints generally measured four feet by eight feet.

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Two Generations of Madonnari. Kurt Wenner with Francesco Morgese.

A much easier surface to work on was terra battuta, literally “beaten earth,” which was formed by combining clay-rich earth with hay and lime. The mixture was spread out and then beaten with poles until it dried. Terra battuta was typically used in public areas that were not paved with stone, and on the ground floor of many homes. The eventual widespread use of asphalt in public areas provided a smooth, uniform surface, which contributed to the shift in the types of images that could be created. As the surfaces that painters could work on improved, so did the level of detail in their paintings.

Continued on Part 4- Rebirth

 

Grounded in Tradition- part 4- Rebirth

Grounded in Tradition

A History of Pavement Art

4. Rebirth

The hardships of World War II, industrialization, and the mass migration of the Italian population to the northern cities all took a toll on the madonnari. In the second half of the twentieth century, it seemed as if the tradition would soon be lost. In the early 1970s, a young journalist named Maria Grazia Fringuellini read that a man had been tossed into jail and heavily fined for making street paintings. Madonnari had been a common sight during Fringuellini’s childhood, and were considered part of the daily life in her community. She suddenly realized that she no longer saw them at festivals and markets painting saints, Madonnas, or characters from popular operas on the pavement. What had happened to all the street painters? When had they disappeared? And why was this lone artist being punished by the police for doing what seemingly had always been done on the streets of Italy?

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Grazie, 1972. The small group of classic madonnari brought together by Maria Grazia Fringuellini seemed to be the end of a tradition rather than the beginning of a new and vibrant art form.

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Flavio Sirio. Madonna della Seggiola. Grazie, Italy. By 1980, the imagery of the traditional madonnari had been replaced by more refined copies of known masterworks. Flavio Sirio won many competitions with his large and colorful interpretations.

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La Fiera Della Grazie. The tiny town is overwhelmed by vast crowds on the 15th of August.

Intrigued, Fringuellini went looking for street painters. After much searching, she was able to locate a small number of elderly men scattered around Italy who were still making paintings on the streets in exchange for donations. Their arduous lives were more challenging than ever, as they were being harassed by the police and treated as vagrants, while their artistry went largely unnoticed and unrewarded. What was once an integral part of Italian culture was rapidly coming to an end.

Wanting to honor the last few street painters and call attention to their dying art form, Fringuellini and her friend Gilberto Boschesi, a member of the noble Gonzaga family of Mantua, conceived the idea of a street painting manifestation and selected the piazza in front of the sanctuary in the town of Grazie di Curtatone as its venue. The sanctuary was a centuries-old pilgrimage site, and its asphalt piazza was suitable for painting. The village’s historic annual fair was also in need of a boost to attract more than just the local population.

La Fiera delle Grazie had been inaugurated on August 15, 1425, to provide food for the numerous pilgrims who had journeyed to Grazie’s sanctuary to celebrate the festival of the Assumption of the Madonna. To promote the fair and encourage vendors to sell their wares, the duke of Mantua had lifted the taxation on bread, meat, wine, and other comestibles. Taxes were eventually removed from gold, silk, linen, dry goods, animals, and grain as well, helping the fair to grow and become one of the largest in northern Italy. In order to earn income, the sanctuary rented merchant booths that lined the piazza. Displays of livestock were an especially impressive feature of the fair; even in 1945, at the close of a devastating war, vendors still brought fifteen hundred horses to exhibit there.

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Francesco Morgese. Maria Assunta. Grazie di Curtatone, Italy. Morgese had a sunny and cheerful character that was typical of street painters working in the south.

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Morgese at Work. Many first-time street painters did not realize that the competition at Grazie started at midnight. More than half the working time was spent in the near darkness to avoid the melting daytime heat.

Life was changing, though, and soon livestock was replaced by farm machinery and winemaking equipment as the fair’s primary wares. Then in 1972, an economic boom led to a better general distribution of goods and services, and it appeared that after more than nearly 550 years the fair had reached the end of its usefulness for the people of Grazie. When Fringuellini and Boschesi presented their proposal, the community leaders readily agreed to host the street painters. August 15, Assumption Day, was a fitting holiday to honor those who had traditionally painted images of the Madonna. To strengthen that connection and bestow a mantle of respectability on the artists, Fringuellini and Boschesi officially referred to the street painters by their traditional name, madonnari. The first festival, held in 1973, drew eight madonnari from as far away as Puglia and Naples. One street painter, who was in his nineties and lived in a rest home, snuck out his window and bicycled eight kilometers to Grazie. Unlike the grueling all-night competition it would later become, the first event was easygoing. The artists began working on the morning of August 15 and painted at a leisurely pace until they were finished. These men were accustomed to spending about five hours on a painting, and the festival conformed to their pace.

Street painting’s popularity surged with the advent of the festival and the resulting press coverage. The competition also brought a new level of credibility and recognition to street painters as artists and to their art form. For the first time, street painters were recognized as professionals and received awards along with letters of recommendation from the festival judges and organizers. It wasn’t long before the Italian Ministry of Culture issued a decree legalizing street painting on the national level. If anyone attempted to stop a madonnaro from working on the street, he could present these documents to the police officers who confronted them.

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Freddi from Cologne. Northern street painters arrived at Grazie, introducing new techniques and themes.

Once the street painting manifestation was established, the community took the event over from Fringuellini. Soon the last exponents of this art form were asked to choose between attending new events started by Fringuellini and continuing to participate at Grazie. This created the first of many schisms. In order for Grazie to make up for the number of lost artists, they opened the event to all artists and the local community. That changed the art form forever. The newfound respect and popularity accorded to street painting encouraged a new generation of artists to take it up. These artists eschewed the classic icon-like images that the traditional street painters had created for generations. Instead of creating original works from memory, they opted for copying famous masterpieces. In the late 1970s, many young Europeans were traveling throughout the Continent, and street painting traditions from the northern countries, especially Holland, Germany, and England, began to arrive in Italy. A few of these artists had studied art formally, but most had little art education or training and therefore chose relatively simple images to copy, such as Raphael’s Madonna della Seggiola, or small works by Caravaggio. By introducing new imagery, they were also responding to the changing tastes of the public. Street paintings of wellknown works of art earned more donations than the static, staring portraits of saints and Madonnas.

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Manfred at Grazie. Manfred Stader won the Grazie competition with this piece, showing a flair for presentation that was new to street painting.

The Grazie festival organizers needed to find a way to cope with the new skills and image repertoire of the younger artists while still continuing to honor the old guard. The organizers came up with the idea of creating two categories within the competition. They made a rule that every newcomer to the competition had to start out in the Amateur category, regardless of ability. Only one Amateur painter could win each year and move up a rank to Professional. At the same time, the elderly traditional street painters returning to the festival were automatically designated as Professionals without having to compete for the title. In addition, any street painters who did not create religious images were automatically out of the event regardless of their level. In this way, only one new artist each year could join the ranks of the elderly traditional street painters.

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Prisciandaro Disputes the Results. The grueling nature of the festival combined with fairly unpredictable jury results often resulted in tempers flaring. The townspeople loved the drama and would sometimes incite the artists.

By the time I arrived at the Grazie competition, I was competing not with the aged group of traditional street painters, but with a new generation; the traditional painters had already been relegated to receiving special prizes and their stipend. Unfortunately, the two groups of painters were at odds with each other. The older traditional painters accused the newer, younger ones of being copyists and not holding true to the spiritual element of the art form. The younger painters were unhappy, as they wanted to explore new imagery, even if it meant copying. Occasionally, a shouting match between the two would end in the destruction of the works with buckets of water.

There was much debate about how to evaluate the merits of the works when it came time to award the prizes. Street paintings had never been judged before. Did you reward virtuosity? If street painting was considered a type of folk art, was the naive quality of a painting more important? Naive painting had become popular among several younger street painters who asserted that the entire tradition was a form of naive art. The festival organizers finally left it up to the men who actually did the work to decide on the criteria for winning the competition. It became clear that the traditional madonnari considered themselves skilled artists. They felt strongly that skill and talent should be rewarded rather than some romantic notion of a rustic folk artist doing charmingly crude works.

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Archeologia Madonnara. Master street painter Andrea Bottoli demonstrates how a street painting may be done with stones and charcoal. For his picture, he collected stones from Lake Garda. Some of the red stones may be terra-cotta roof tiles from ancient Roman villas.

Madonna

Wenner. Madonna Study. Bettona, Italy. Wenner created many works in a traditional Italian style. Because of the refined technique and knowledge of classical form, most of the public could not distinguish his original work from copies of masterpieces.

In reality, street painting had no choice but to change with the tastes of the public. Although the festivals are a great venue for giving the art form recognition, its survival ultimately depended on an artist’s ability to make money with it. The public supported the artists one coin or bill at a time., and therefore had the greatest say in how the art form would evolve. Street painting is a living form of popular art, so no matter what critics or judges might say, it will continue to evolve according to the response and encouragement of the public.

End of “Grounded in Tradition”

Die Strassenmaler (The Pavement Artists)

Die Strassenmaler is a Swiss-German (German language) documentary done a couple of years after the National Geographic. It shows some of the development of pavement art in those years. I created the work below, entitled “Reflections” was done for the documentary, and the artistic process is shown in the video.

Reflections

The documentary also shows the lifestyle of the pavement artists while the art form was just starting to become popular and more respected. It was still very much a folk art in Italy. The costumed figures were a group of young people specialized in reconstructing the costumes of the great Gonzaga family that ruled Mantua as dukes for several centuries. The video also shows pastel making and other techniques that I was introducing to pavement art.

 

 

 

The History and Technique of Pavement Art

  Reawakening the Renaissance- An Evening with Kurt Wenner

Pavement art has a rich, colorful and varied history that is often “simplified to the point of being wrong” by writers who have little personal experience with the various traditions or the protagonists. Wenner will describe the cultural roots and methods of the Italian madonnari, the German strassenmaler, and the British screevers. All of these cultural traditions have been used as a foundation for the current emergence of pavement art as a global artistic phenomenon, which still provides opportunities for artists and students. Rare photos and engravings of historical pavement artists will accompany the lecture/slideshow.

This talk will also provide an overview of the various techniques used in pavement art.