In New York, Vanni’s creative journey developed on parallel researches that sometimes merged, while other times resulted in contrasts. The next two decades will produce the work of his artistic maturity: his systematic eclecticism.
The New York cultural atmosphere was a fertile ground to develop this conceptual step for two basic reasons: a historical tabula rasa and a cultural melting pot as a point of departure for all research. A tabula rasa because choices made in this context never have to offer justification in terms of previous experiences; a melting pot because any contribution can be co-opted without being analyzed on the basis of codified cultural hierarchies.
Here is where all the contradictions of the contemporary world coincide, creating a constant urban metamorphism in the simultaneity of opposite realities, also underlined by the eighty or so different languages that are spoken. In fact, painting in New York, Vanni found an ideal situation for importing and assembling any number of elements, historical or cultural, without this being interpreted in terms of his relationship to a single predominant culture. In other words, there wasn’t a unilateral key for gaining access to his works, but numerous possible readings, where each had the same value and the same legitimacy.
This situation provided him with the presuppositions to develop contradictions in formal and iconological terms, which he would elaborate in his canvases, and which would manifest themselves in an eclecticism that found new conceptual foundations. This is further enriched by the fact that as a counterpoint to New York’s fluid and mutable reality, Vanni interposed long periods traveling around the world and in his studio in Greece, where he could compare the city stimuli with the essential elements of nature and sea, in the light of Mediterranean culture.
Two more elements contributed to the achievements of this period: Vanni’s teachings at Cooper Union and the worldwide travels to countries that were culturally different from his own.
Teaching gave him the opportunity to re-explore all aspects of art. The Color Perception course revived his attention to the subtle play of color ambiguities that had been a constant in his Parisian works. The Old Master’s Techniques course arose the interest in transposing his imagery onto fresco or egg tempera, with the result of transforming the imagery itself.
Perhaps the class that contributed the most with new stimuli was Art Survey. It was a Cooper Union tradition to assign an artist from the art faculty, not an art historian, to teach Art Survey, so the first exposure to the art of the past would come from the point of an insider. Vanni took this as an opportunity to re-examine what art history meant to him. In his yearlong course he would encourage his students to compare artworks created by different cultures separated by space and time. His lectures were accompanied by slide shows of photographs he took himself during his travels, to visually demonstrate his ideas.
He spent two months every year travelling and exploring different cultures. At first the travels were concentrated in Europe and the Mediterranean. Then he extended his interest to the Middle East, India, the Indochinese Peninsula, Indonesia, China, Japan, and Central America. From every trip he would bring back thousands of photographs on sculpture, painting and architecture, to show his students how wide the world of imagination could be.
The same images began to influence his own iconological choices, leading him to consider the art from the past in relationship to his own painting, and entering the multicultural eclecticism of his creations.
Another contributing factor to the expansion of his imagery was that a graduate student from the University of Siena in Italy, Valentina Puccioni, decided to write her master’s thesis on his work. Up until then Vanni had only looked creatively in front of himself. When a painting was finished, he looked eagerly at the next one he was conceiving. The long conversations with Ms. Puccioni forced him to look back, and analyze his past work.
Up until then, any reference to previous works had never been conscious. From now on, previous styles and visual solutions came to the fore, as any other element of his imagery like the ones he was acquiring in his travels, to be integrated in his figurative universe.
Is the beginning of a systematic eclecticism that will characterize Vanni’s work for the rest of his life. From then on it will no longer be possible to partition his work in specific phases where one spatial solution is then followed by the next one in an orderly logic. Eclecticism will become the driving methodology, where the only constant is a continuous mixing of cultural, figurative, and stylistic references.
Throughout this period, he kept creating new powerful works of a unique imagery paired with an ever- inquisitive experimentation of new mediums and techniques. References to literature, nature or mythology are there, surfacing through the abstraction, yet hardly ever crystallized in a figurative clarity.
These works are the outcome of this multitude of influences, yet the external references are there only to be elaborated in a constant metamorphosis. The viewers, at times, will be able to recognize fragments of underwater worlds (Vanni was a fantastic free diver), statues of Indian gods, Aztec pyramids or Cambodian rice fields, nonetheless only merely perceiving it, as a landscape viewed through the window of a moving train. The formal building blocks of these creations are lush colors and ever-changing textures - from oil pigment to watercolor, from mosaic to paper, from wood to sand - as well as the juxtaposition of organic explosions with calibrated geometries. Stains of vibrant color fields dancing freely to subsequently be embanked by elegant sharp lines. Geomorphic growths coexisting with rectangular shapes surrounding them.
The goal is to “guide the viewers” through a path of colors and shapes, triggering multiple readings of the canvas that are never dictated but only suggested, and finally determined by the viewer’s own cultural background and mood. Vanni called these visual paths “landscapes of the mind”, where his own memories and the viewer’s memory steer the interpretation of the painting not just through the emotions but the intellect as well: a multisystemic world where the only logic is imparted by the viewer’s personal interpretation.
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This text and the related pages' texts are adapted from the Masters Thesis written by Valentina Puccioni, “Gian Berto Vanni - Painting Itineraries - Catalogue Raisonné” @Valentina Puccioni (June 2002).