In Sicilia: Imagination Unbound

Museo Regionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea Belmonte-Riso, internal courtyard

Imagination encircles the world.
Albert Einstein

On our return trip from Siracusa to Palermo, we could see, off in the distance, a great flat-topped mountain, covered with snow. When, later, we consulted our map, we realized it must have been Mt. Etna.

We saw quite a bit of snow on the ground en route; in Palermo the weather was chilly and threatened rain. I wasn’t about to be stopped, as I had to fit in at least one more art museum before we left Sicily.

Museo Regionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea Belmonte-Riso is housed in an 18th century palazzo. The building suffered severe bomb damage in WWII and was in a state of neglect until the Sicilian Region purchased it in 1986. Restoration took many years, and the museum opened its doors in 2005.

The collection has been laid out so that the whole building can be admired; works are placed both inside and outside the museum, taking visitors through old courtyards and hidden corners. [Sicily Eyewitness Travel Guide p. 69]

That paragraph, though apt, only begins to capture this museum’s wide-open invitation to acts of imagination. Here are a few:

Canzoneri, Konvolut Antonello 2015/16

Michele Canzoneri

Canzoneri has contributed stage design for several operas, including an Oper Stuttgart production of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. He’s also known—or perhaps notorious is a better word—for dozens of modern, abstract stained glass windows installed in the Cathedral-Basilica of Cefalù, a World Heritage Site. While works in glass were on display at the museum, they’re not what captivated me most. Instead, it was his assemblages of mixed media and old papers.

As always with collage, assemblage, and similar arts, there’s the mere fact of collecting the materials to contemplate. Then, as with any work of art, it’s intriguing to ruminate on the artist’s sources of inspiration. For some of his works, Canzoneri took inspiration from a book by Salvatore Settis, Artemidoro. Un papiro dal I secolo al XXI. A further search revealed that the Papyrus of Artemidorus was reused as a sketch book.

This papyrus, of debated authenticity, was allegedly found in Egypt in the cartonnage of a funerary mask (canFora, 2007). Initially, it was intended to be a deluxe edition of the Geographoumena of Artemidorus of Ephesos (I century B.C.). An error in one of the maps in the text evidently caused the copying to be suspended. The papyrus produced until then was reused as a sketchbook for anatomical parts (copied from statues) on the front and for animals, real or imaginary, on the reverse, the latter accompanied by labels in Greek. [citation]

Canzoneri, Konvolut (1994/2010) (detail)

Many of the Canzoneri works inspired by the Settis book bear the title “Konvolut,” which, through the veil of Google Translate, comes from “cum volvo,” or “wrap together”:

Konvolut . . . is a term that defines a cluster of old paper glued between them, a bundle that contains tramontati texts, destined to a very different use than the initial reading. . . .

And this idea Canzoneri has dedicated his most recent artistic thoughts. He thought, indeed rethought, all his art in terms of texts stratification. [citation]

The trail to and from the “Konvolut” works grows yet richer with this knowledge, though none of this information is essential in order to stand before them, transfixed.

Medhat Shafik and Jannis Kounellis

Medhat Shafik, La Bottega dell’armeno (2015)

Medhat Shafik’s “La Bottega dell’armeno” (The Armenian Shop), took up a small room of its own. Shafik (1956- ) won Egypt’s first Venice Biennale award in 1995. He is part of what the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art calls Egypt’s “Youth Generation.”

Artists working outside the mainstream, exploring controversial subjects or using unconventional techniques, found themselves isolated, and many emigrated to the West, returning to Egypt almost annually to participate in exhibitions. These artists continue to have a significant impact on local trends . . . . In an effort to revitalize the visual arts, long burdened by government bureaucracy, the Youth Salon was established in the late 1980s to support emerging artists whose work in installation, video, and photography could not survive without institutional support. . . . Still, this support was insufficient and many artists sought international patronage that led to an unprecedented number of exhibitions for Egyptian artists internationally and particularly in Europe. [citation]

Kounellis, Senza titolo (1993-2008)

Around a corner, in another, much larger, room, two rows of wardrobes hung from the ceiling. They were the work of Greece-born artist Jannis Kounellis (1936-2017). Kounellis, who died not long after our visit to Sicily,

emerged in the late 1960s as a leader of Arte Povera (“Poor Art”), a mostly Italian movement that, responding to the political turbulence of the time, embraced a defiantly anticapitalist, anti-hierarchical philosophy of art making. The term alluded to the Polish director Jerzy Grotowski’s concept of “poor theater,” stripped of sets and props to encourage direct engagement. [citation]

Here’s an excerpt from a 2007 interview with Kounellis:

AB: In terms of your personal research, what was your most important gesture?

JK: It was going out of the canvas, of the frame, during the ’60s. I went out of the canvas to have an open dialectic space. It meant for me going towards thousands of discoveries. In terms of freedom, this gesture opened a world for me. . . .

AB: Which of your works do you consider particularly significant or important?

JK: I’d rather talk about moments. The word ‘work’ for me is something that goes from ‘nail to nail.’ There have been flashes of inspiration in my life, in which I felt true wonder in front of objects. As when, in 1966, I put a quintal of carbon in the corner of a room. I had this huge surprise of seeing a moment of freedom realized. I’m not talking about being liberal, but about freedom in a very ample sense. Through this gallery intervention, a space that, in truth, is public, I understood and felt the dramaturgic idea of art, the unique act of the gesture. Also in this case drama is never forgotten. Caravaggio is never behind us, he is our future. . . .

AB: What is an artist?

JK: He is an intellectual that is born and dies inside imagery; he doesn’t have novels to write; he doesn’t have anything except for the gift of the original illumination of the image.

Communal Bread and Orlando Furioso

Bet_Leham o della Rinascita (detail)

I left the museum’s interior, thinking my visit was too-soon finished, when I came upon a table holding squares of baked bread. Entitled “Bet_Leham o della Rinascita,”

[t]he installation was realized after several workshops in which immigrants and palermitans met and shared the experience of making bread together. The tiles made of bread contain posts, signs, symbols and metaphors collected with a storytelling process. The Aramaic “Bet Lehem” means “house of bread,” consequently the installation manifests the archetype of the house, the home in which people find nourishment and shelter. The concept of rebirth is an invitation by the artist to the community, to reflect on the sense of welcoming. [citation]

Tania Giordano, I Furiosinnamorati, gallery view

Then, up a staircase that I almost passed by, another, entirely separate, imaginative world unveiled itself before my eyes. This turned out to be Tania Giordano’s “I Furiosinnamorati,” a phantasmagoria of collages based on Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. Over to Google Translate, once again:

“I am furious and love, are the plot of the text and dall’ordito theater, reborn in a paper nest and take shape parings that make them – says Tania Giordano – one for paper, one image, one for a thought or intuition, if they are two horse and rider together and … one for the personal account (my) shaped by the theater everyday living, marked by the wait time behind the backgrounds of the theater, where every baby is born-character when he comes into the picture and you … wait … wait with him, her, them. ” Riders and horses, ladies and giant snakes and mages, paladins and warriors, each has its own special design, winds its way through pieces of paper, leaves, bark, watercolor. [citation]

Giordano, detail

As I had with Canzoneri, I marveled at Giordano’s collage materials. The paper was often glossy, so I thought perhaps magazines—but they had to be Italian magazines. Nothing else could have produced the same effect.

I was loath to leave the Museo. The more I stood and looked, the more there was to see.

Postscript: In introducing his work, Wilderness of Woe, at a Contemporaneous concert, composer Shawn Jaeger offered a quotation by way of explaining his approach: “To be slow is to be disobedient to the world as it is.” The quotation comes from a thought-provoking article by Anya Ventura, Slow Criticism: Art in the Age of Post-Judgement. The article begins:

I once went to the Met with a painter friend. The painter would visit the museum often in dutiful apprenticeship to the old masters. As we passed slowly through the dim galleries, we walked at a pace foreign to my usual clip. It reminded me of a story I once heard about Baudelaire taking his pet turtle out for a stroll among the frenzy of the Parisian arcades, the animal’s plodding steps creating a kind of subversion to the regular urban rhythms of the city, the manic tempo of modernity. Rather than cruising past the paintings, trying to consume as much as possible, we would stop and linger over individual works. “What do you see?” my friend would ask. At one point, while standing in front of a portrait by El Greco, we fell into silence. “Our eyes just haven’t adjusted yet,” he announced finally, and we waited some more.

Next time I visit an art museum, I must remember to bring my turtle. To be slow is to see more.

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Listening List

 Luciano Berio, Sinfonia (1968-1969)


II – O King
III – In ruhig fliessender Bewegung


Piccolo, 3 flutes, 2 oboes, cor anglais, clarinet in E♭, 3 soprano clarinets in B♭, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets in C, 3 trombones, bass tuba, 3 percussionists, harp, electric harpsichord, piano, electric organ, 24 violins in three groups, 8 violas, 8 celli, 8 double basses

Composer’s note:

The title Sinfonia bears no relationship to the classical form – rather it must be understood in its etymological sense of “sounding together” of eight voices and instruments or, in a larger sense, of “sounding together” of different things, situations and meanings. The musical development of Sinfonia is always conditioned by the research for a continuity and an identity between voices and instruments, between spoken and sung words on one side and the whole harmonic structure of the work on the other. This is why perception and understanding of the text are never taken for granted, but are integral parts of the work: the different degrees of understanding, even the experience of “not quite hearing”, are to be regarded as essential to the nature of the musical process.

I. The text of the first part consists of a series of short fragments from Le cru et le cuit by Claude Lévi-Strauss, in particular from those sections of the book where the author analyses the structure and symbology of Brazilian myths concerning the origins of water, and related myths characterized by similar structure.

II. The second part of Sinfonia is a tribute to the memory of Martin Luther King. The eight voices exchange among them the sounds constituting the name of the black martyr until the point when his name is clearly enunciated: “O Martin Luther King”.

III. The main text for the third section consists of fragments from Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable, which, in turn, generate a large number of “daily life” references and quotations.

IV. The text of the fourth part, after a brief reference to the opening words of the fourth movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony, mimics, rather than enunciate, verbal fragments taken from the preceding parts.

V. The text of the fifth part recapitulates, develops and completes the texts of the preceding parts, giving narrative substance and continuity to those fragments (from Le cru et le cuit) that in the first part had been enunciated as snatches of imaginary stories.

The third section of Sinfonia requires a more detailed comment because it is perhaps the most “experimental” music I have ever written. It is a tribute to Gustav Mahler (whose work seems to bear the weight of the entire history of music of the last two centuries) and in particular to the third movement – the Scherzo – of his Second Symphony (Resurrection). Mahler is to the totality of the music of the third part of my Sinfonia as Beckett is to the totality of the text. The result is a kind of voyage to Cythera made on board the Scherzo of Mahler’s Second Symphony. The Mahler movement is treated like a generator – and also as a container – within whose framework a large number of musical characters and references is proliferated; they go from Bach to Schoenberg, from Brahms to Strauss, from Beethoven to Stravinsky, from Berg to Webern, to Boulez, to Pousseur, to myself and others. The different musical characters are always integrated into the flowing harmonic structure of Mahler’s Scherzo. They interact and transform themselves – as it happens with those familiar objects or faces that, placed in a different light or in a new context, suddenly acquire a different meaning. The combining and the unifying of different and often unrelated musical characters may be the main motivation for the third part of Sinfonia, for this meditation on a Mahlerian objet trouvé.

If I were to describe the presence of Mahler’s Scherzo in Sinfonia, the image which comes most spontaneously to my mind is that of a river flowing through a constantly changing landscape, sometimes going underground and emerging in another altogether different place, sometimes very evident in its journey, sometimes disappearing completely, present either as a fully recognizable form or as small details lost in the surrounding host of musical events.

The five parts of Sinfonia are apparently very different one from the other. However, it is the role of the fifth part to annul those differences, bringing to light and developing the latent unity of the preceding parts. In the fifth part, in fact, the discourse begun in the first part finds its conclusion: all other parts flow together into it, either as fragments (third and fourth parts) or in its complete form (second part). The fifth part can thus be considered as a true analysis of Sinfonia conducted with the “language” of the composition itself.

Sinfonia, composed for the 125th Anniversary of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, is dedicated to Leonard Bernstein.

Bonus: Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection (1888-1894), performed by the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, conducted by Claudio Abbado (1933-2014)

Program notes for Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 may be found here.


Credits: The sources for quotations may be found at the links in the text. The photographs, as always on the blog unless indicated otherwise, are mine.


2 thoughts on “In Sicilia: Imagination Unbound

  1. Mark Kerstetter

    What a tease. That museum looks amazing–would love to see it someday.

    I think your painter friend had it right–go slow enough for something to capture you and then let it soak in. Other times I’ve gone to the Met and made a bee line straight to one painting and just spent my time there.

    Coincidentally I recently heard the Florida Orchestra play Mahler’s 2nd–tremendous music.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: Great to “see” you here! Learning from my artist friends, I’ve worked hard on trying to “let go” of seeing everything there is to see (though of course, in the case of this museum trip, knowing the likelihood of getting there again is small, I did try to see everything, but at least not race through). I’ve been more successful with the Met Museum, as I’m in NYC and can go there more frequently. Most recently, I simply wandered, not seeking out anything in particular, but stopping before whatever caught my eye and spending time with that. A much more fulfilling experience of art, to say the least. Terrific that you had the chance to hear Mahler 2 live. I do hope it will come my way at some point, too. There is nothing like live performance.

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