In the late 80s the Art Survey class that Vanni was teaching at the Cooper Union University was replaced by a course in methods and techniques of the ancient masters. This gave him an opportunity to resume his experimentation with classical techniques on panels and walls, delving into painting methods such as egg tempera and fresco. He began reviving the use of egg tempera in small panel pieces, unburdened by the demands of larger scale work.
Up until this point Vanni had found it difficult to work on small-scale pieces, as he believed they could not accommodate the contrasts and relationships that most interested him. However, he now understood that by changing the nature of the painting itself, he might be able to achieve the same values as in the larger paintings. He replaced broad applications of paint with background made up of extremely minute brushstrokes, characteristics of tempera technique, in a sort of writing of the painted surface. He found himself in the same position as a painter of miniatures, particularly in terms of the intimist relationship with painted work and a consequent loss of awareness of the surrounding world. Reviving this traditional technique, he succeeded in eliminating any trace of the real scale of the material in the finished work.
The contradictions that were inherent in the multiple meanings of his larger compositions are now explored through episodes of contrasting pairs. The various themes are dealt with in a sequence where the solution expressed by the first tempera provokes new problems that are explored in the second, the third, and so on, resulting in groups of works developed in parallel to each other.
A first group of small tempera works emerged from Vanni’s observations on the gold grounds of the Trecento Sienese painting, where the gold, here and there eroded, reveals the underlying red earth ground. This series evokes–the idea of the archeological find, where decay and preciosity coexist. The red base, evolved into a vivid vermilion that is scraped and ruined, enters into competition with the gold for its chromatic intensity. The relationship creates an interesting color interaction, taking advantage of the reflective qualities of the metal, depending on the incidence of light. This effect is broadly used in Byzantine icons, where the portion covered with gold is the first form that one sees in the darkness of a church, to then recede into the background in relationship to the painted figures, when the angle of the light changes.
Another group of tempera works includes a series of small, refined landscapes, where in the foreground agglomerations of rectangular forms are quite similar to the figurations Klee uses to represent Tunisian buildings. Indeed Klee’s creative process seems particularly relevant to Vanni’s tempera pieces. There is the intimist relationship with the work and a working process whereby many pieces are produced simultaneously, often one derived from the other.
Sometimes the sequences form polyptychs, where individual panels have been assembled on a larger panel. The theme of discontinuity is introduced, as the interruption of a structure where the observer intuits and then reconstitutes an underlying order. This idea comes from Vanni’s experiences in Turkey, in the city of Termessos, where he saw a Hellenistic façade that had been violently shaken by an earthquake, and where his eye read the continuity of the design, despite the dislocation of the stones.
Vanni spent a full year almost exclusively working on these small-scale pieces, creating quite a number of them. From now on and throughout the rest of his creative years, Vanni will always alternate the creation of large-scale pieces with small intimate works.
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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).