Italian renaissance painting collides with technology in the bold art of Alessandro Bavari

pubblicato su Computer Arts Special - UK edition - Issue 20 / 2001

"Bringing the traditional and digital together multiplies all the creative possibilities..." The haunting, beautifully intricate pieces created by Italian Alessandro Bavari are an art critic's dream. Infused with drama, and frequently exploring religious and mythological themes, they inspired one effusive critic to proclaim that Bavari belongs "to a group of artists in constant technical and critical ferment, who are able to feel the importance of the tragic and happy events of human existence with a sensitivity that appears almost divinely inspired". Clearly Bavari is no jobbing graphic designer.

His 'divine works' have grown out of a passion for photomontage, first explored at the age of 15 (he is now 38). First attending art school and then the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome, he studied scenography and history, gaining a solid grounding in classic disciplines: oil, watercolours, and engraving. Yet even at the Academy, Bavari was stretching his artistic muscles, using mixed media such as tar, glue, industrial paint and chemical photographic etching, and also making use of natural objects including bones, fossils and plants.

"One of the most interesting theories I learnt while studying scenography at the Academy was how to convey precise feelings, describing ambience through lighting and other subtle signs", says Bavari. "It follows the work of the metaphysical Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico who, reproducing the shadow of a man cast on to a wall, was able to transmit deep emotional tensions with the greatest simplicity."

The works of Giotto, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and Piero della Francesca and other artists of the 14th and 15th centuries have also made their mark. "Having studied the history of the art for several years, and also bearing in mind that Italy was the cradle of the art from 300AD to the Renaissance, it's easy to understand why my work is strongly influenced by the art of that period Elements such as the distorted perspectives of Giotto's pictures, or the plasticity of Michelangelo's suspended bodies have all had an impact. Even the Gothic and Flemish paintings of Northern Europe have been a reference point, from the surrealistic landscapes of Bosch to the solemn portraits of Van Eyck."
The classic architecture of nearby Rome, and the verdant italian countryside also play a part in shaping Bavari's grandiose work. He also cites contemporary cultural influences such as the filmmakers Peter Greenaway and Shinya Tsukamoto (who made the disturbing mechanical body horror film Tetsuo).

The way these disparate elements are brought together is undoubtedly what gives his work such impact. "The only identifiable elements in my images are decadent blends of industrial, gothic and romantic architectures, broken by the improbable vegetable sculptures, and Renaissance-like still-lifes," explains Bavari. "The setting doesn't refer to any historical period, but is an integral part of the composition, and so, while fictitious, appears to be in perfect harmony with its 'inhabitants'."

New potentials
Following his time at Rome's Academy Of Fine Arts, Bavari worked as a painter in the galleries of Italy and France, before deciding to set up his own studio. Here he continued to work with mixed media, until 1993 when he began to experiment with the possibilities offered by computers.

"The first time I saw Photoshop it was running on a Mac LC lll in a friend's office," he recalls. "l was hugely impressed by the creative potentialities it offered, and so a few days later a brand new Mac LC III was sitting on my desk. It had a whole 4MB RAM and an 80MB hard disk. To try to make it more powerful, I even added the famous maths co-processor Mathematical. The monitor was 15 - inches at 256 colours and the software was Photosbop 2.5. At that time, it only had one level of background!"

Now his set-up is based around a G3, principally running Adobe Photoshop, though also equipped with Painter, lllustrator, Extreme, After Effects and Premier. Imagery is obtained using a Kodak digital camera plus a Nikon F3, with scanning handled using a generic Umax unit and a Minolta Quickscan 35.

"l also occasionally use Softimage 3D on a Digital Alpha 500, to generate some elements that it wouldn't be possible to source elsewhere. I think l'll be using 3D objects more frequently in future, partly because of the themes I want to explore, and also because of the high degree of photo-realism now offered by the rendering engines of recent 3D packages."

The adoption of digital imaging hes undoubtedly been successful, with his works appearing in exhibitions, competitions and galleries around the world. He also produces art for several agencies, catering for such prestigious clients as Adobe and McCann Erickson.

He also finds time to work as an associate at Direct2Brain. "It's a company dealing in animation, multimedia and desktop publishing. "I fulfil the role of an art director, but I do sometimes also deal personally with the animation, video and illustration."

There is no set routine when creating an image. Instead he places the emphasis on experimenting, trying out unusual and irrational ideas, to make the process as exciting and creative as possible.

"I remember one time I wanted to obtain a kind of weaving effect, but had no idea how to realise it. Then, suddenly it came to me: I put the scratched bottom of a frying pan onto the scanner, and it gave me exactly the right effect."
More commonly used materials include inks and oil colours, zinc plates with carving, and non-emulsified films, and chemically altered photographic negatives. Once scanned and loaded into Photoshop, Bavari frequently finds himself working with more than 100 Layers, "It's because of the large quantity of detail and retouches I add to each part of the image," he says.

Primarily working in greyscale, to avoid 'the distraction or influence of colour', he switches to duotone once general construction has been completed, applying a number of presets to emulate the behaviour of chemical baths using materials such as selenium. "The light levels are then further manipulated to reduce the harshness of the pure white, and to diminish the violence of the contrast."

The next stage involves converting the file to RGB, and applying light shades to the various elements, multiplying layers with each other, and further modifying the shades, then adding dirt, scratches, and blurring effects to 'mess' the image up. "Finally I operate on the whole image to amalgamate the composition, and print out on to semi-matt Kodak colour paper, using the Durst Lambda 130 digital printing system. All my images are in large format, from 35x50 cm to lOOx70 cm, all at 300 dpi."

"I don't think my style has been subsumed by the digital technologies, he concludes. "Instead it has improved and evolved, benefiting from the fact that it would take several months to create images this complex using conventional methods. Moreover, it also means that I retain total control of the image during the working process, enabling me to try out experimental methods and ideas without any risk."

Analogue and Digital
"I don't feel like I belong to either the traditional or the computer art worlds, "explains Alessandro Bavari. "I want to be free from all etiquettes. When I was at the Academy, I became acquainted with the classical techniques, with physical or 'analogue' disciplines, and all their inherent limits. At the other end of the scale, working in the digital sphere is like creating a gravity-free ambience, where everything hangs suspended, waiting for a shape. It's too antiseptic, harsh and 'perfect'. "The secret, he believes, lies in using both without compromising either. "Bringing the traditional and digital together multiplies all the creative possibilities, with astonishing results. The problem is that many artists insist on using digital technology to emulate traditional techniques."

Photo shopping
While Photoshop's ever-expanding feature set can only make it ever more desirable for artists and designers of all disciplines, Alessandro believes that there's room for a more streamlined version of the program, one that re-positions it as a tool dedicated to the manipulation of the snapped or scanned image.

"The current versions are overloaded with functions that are quite practical for the Web and multimedia, but superfluous for us. I'd like Adobe to develop one especially for professionals dealing with photography."

He proposes streaming the program into two strands, one for the multimedia users, and another exclusively for photography. He'd also like future editions: "to address the way that it isn't possible to work in lower resolutions, unrelated to the final image resolution."

Mark Ramshaw

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