I met Kurt Wenner in 1982. The scenario was that of a torrid mid-August spent in the heart of an ancient Po Valley festival: the Fiera delle Grazie, the summer fair of the Mantuan people, where on the festival devoted to the Assumption of May the devotion attracts thousands of faithful to the Gothic Sanctuary of the “Madonna delle Grazie.” Since 1973, the Madonnari (pavement artists) who create sacred subject paintings on the asphalt with colored chalk, have gathered in the Sanctuary’s churchyard. It is a festival of colors for the public, but also serious competition that lights up the passions of many competitors. The Festival of Grazie is also a traditional, historical expression of popular culture for the inhabitants of this corner of the Padan plain. As a participant, you arrive at the small village by bike (or better still on foot) in the early hours of the day. You participate in a Mass invoking the protection of the Virgin and, while having breakfast with a cotechino sandwich (the traditional pork products of this region must be “honored” and consumed despite the brutal heat, often surpassing thirty degrees celsius…). You then walk in the churchyard to observe the work of the Madonnari, who draw bent over the hot asphalt after a sleepless night.
Wenner after Pontormo. The Deposition. Pontormo’s great masterpiece was a particular inspiration to Wenner because of its abstract and otherworldly forms.
I remember that the arrival of Kurt and his German collaborator Manfred Stader had all the appearance of a Martian landing. Even if today the gathering boasts artists from all over the world, foreign artists were unheard of twenty years ago and aroused much surprise from the public in the rural village. Apart from their Nordic appearance, which intrigued passers-by, what truly stunned the public was the gamble in choosing their pictorial subject: no longer the oversize faces of Madonnas with the Child but, instead, an extraordinary copy of Pontormo’s Deposition, with imposing dimensions and perfect proportions.
The most significant distinction, however, lay in his technique. No longer was there the layering of chalk powder to fill the holes in the asphalt, nor the use of hands to spread the color until they bleed from the grating surface of the asphalt (a gesture that catalyzed popular attention and aroused admiration for those first masters of chalk art). (At the time, if the public disliked the painting, the theatricality of the rite required erasure by a vigorous bucket of water). Instead of the wholesale spreading of color for shading, the artists used a hatching technique that made delicate tone changes. The asphalt’s graininess gave the illusion that it was ideal for pastels, created especially for artistic purposes. In this way, a new perception of ephemeral painting was born. The previous generation witnessed the change with amazement, admiration, and some feelings of envy.
Head of Moses
After their obvious victory, we finally solved the riddle: Kurt “the Martian” had landed in Italy directly from NASA. American, born in California in 1958, had been somewhat of a child prodigy in art. However, there was a “trauma” in his memories: in 1979, during his first year at the Rhode Island School of Design, he was assured by two professors that he had a total lack of talent in drawing the human figure. Perhaps that was the springboard that pushed him even further towards studying drawing. This interest was assisted by his meeting a highly talented professor at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Harry Carmean was a very particular teacher who, while drawing with great skill from the life model, was simultaneously able to explain every part of the creative process. Kurt’s love for classical art and Italian master Artists was born on those drawing benches, along with the airbrush paints used to develop scenographies and reconstructions of NASA’s space expeditions (where he worked when he was just 22 years old).
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
But Kurt didn’t dream of space travel; his horizon would take him overseas. His desire to leave the United States for a study itinerary in Italy grew more and more. His arrival in the peninsula began with a frantic search to see the works of classical antiquity, the Renaissance, and Mannerism. He was an incessant museum marathoner in Rome, absorbing images of sculptures, paintings, and architecture until he fell ill with the Stendhal syndrome. A very high fever stopped him for a few days, but then he escaped again to Villa Borghese to draw the works from “life” and was gradually “adopted” by Roman museums’ guards. He filled his travel notebook with tonal drawings of Roman busts, architectural drawings, and sanguine drawings of extraordinary detail, and refined elegance.
Michelangelo’s Moses. Rome, Italy. This drawing from the famous Michelangelo statue was used by Wenner to create his first street painting.
One day, walking near the Trevi Fountain, the first encounter with the Madonnari takes place. These are the Germans Manfred Stader, and Eberhard Munch. Kurt walks over and starts talking, making friends. Soon they ask him to try painting with them. Thus begins, as a joke, the first approach to this type of painting. Kurt begins his first solo work (an extraordinary Michelangelo’s Moses) in the square of Termini Station. The audience looks silently at such skill and comments in a low voice so as not to disturb. It is the first time that Kurt experiences the particular sensation of communicating directly to an audience with his artistic process. This sensation will continue to accompany him whenever he bends over the asphalt to paint.
The Award. Every festival ends in an award ceremony. Awards are also given toworks outside of the competition.
The arrival in Grazie is from that period of time. Kurt is not yet 25, he has only made three drawings on asphalt (in Rome and Berlin), but Manfred is certain that there are good hopes for a victory. Kurt remembers that evening of August 15th. After fifteen hours of grueling work, their success comes. He and Manfred receive a gold medal, though, in reality, they had counted on earning enough money to return to Rome. After this disappointment (and the futile attempt to exchange the medal for a fee), they return to Mantua, but there no hotel is willing to welcome them as dirty as they are with dust. They fall asleep on the shores of the Mantuan lake, where they are then almost arrested. They are saved by showing the medal they won. The next morning they take the first train to Rome with a promise: never to set foot again at the festival of Grazie. But you know, life is full of irony, and ironically, after a couple of years, Kurt decides to move right into the small village, adopted by the old women of the place as a gracious nephew.
In the meantime, he begins to study anamorphosis, which is a perspective technique used in the golden era of Baroque painting to create illusions. From a single position in space, the viewer perceives moving figures and broken or concave surfaces, whereas the surface is actually planar. Kurt studies mathematical formulas and architectural solutions of a forgotten past while elaborating and refining his original research, succeeding once again in giving life to a mostly ignored tradition. Thus were born the projects for the paintings depicting open chasms in which the damned fall on the day of Judgment, fountains reflecting Renaissance characters, and ponds from which divinities arise. In 1991, he conceived of and designed an immense painting project to be carried out in front of the Sanctuary of Grazie on the occasion of Pope John Paul II’s visit. This gigantic work depicted the Last Judgment and was created in chalk by an international team of Madonnari. The pope expressed his deep admiration, thanking the artists, and asks for a white chalk. Bending over the asphalt, he signs the work with his monogram of the Virgin and a star.
The Last Judgment, a work that changed the history of street painting
This moment is the culmination of Wenner’s career as a madonnaro. At the same time, it is the conclusion of this path. At this time, Kurt settles with his family in the ancient Rocca di Montanara nearby. For the Mantuan people, he continues to be “the American madonnaro”, a sometimes heavy label that does not do justice to him either as a person or as an artist of international caliber. Over the years, his critical acclaim has come above all (but not only) from US clients: from the National Gallery of Art in Washington to the Disney and Warner Bros studios, from Toyota to General Motors. Commissions that have allowed the artist to express himself through paintings, drawings have also seen him develop as an architect, sculptor, and ceramist. Like a new Giulio Romano (who so fascinated him on his first trip to Mantua) in Kurt, we find a global formation allowing him to create an organic system of classically inspired residential design that still has great possibilities in the United States. His themes return to classical myth and drama and opera, evoking Parnassus’s muses along with Mozart’s Magic Flute.
3D Interactive Art for Greenpeace
Wherever he is on the international scene, the American artist becomes one of the best ambassadors of Italian art globally, the banner of that classicism never dormant in painting as in architecture. Firmly convinced that this “new way” can still speak to the soul of the Third Millennium man, Wenner enchants with his extraordinarily beautiful faces, the enamel embodiments, and the sinuous shapes of the figures. Like a storyteller from another time, he wants to tell us stories of a beauty that Europeans have denied for too long, of a perfection unjustly forgotten, confirming once again how difficult it is to grasp the profound value of what is next to us.