Up until October 31st 2015 the visitors at the Universal Exposition (EXPO) in Milan will turn their attention towards a large structure halfway through the building, an installation and sculpture
It’s The Tree of Life in the Italian pavilion. 37 meters tall, the imposing creation in wood and steel is set right in front of Palazzo Italia, where the State and government is represented, and it’s reflected in the waters of Lake Arena. Animated by suggestive lights, projections, fountains, special effects and music that will make it, especially on dark evenings, not too unlike a fair attraction, the Tree of Life created by Orgoglio Brescia, a group of local businesses, based on the concept thought up by the artistic director of the Italian Pavilion Marco Balich, in collaboration with Gioforma, has its roots in Italian Renaissance. The project that inspired him is the one that Michelangelo Buonarotti thought of for the new flooring in Piazza del Campidoglio, upon a commission by the pope. And so The Tree of Life in Milan is three things in one: a reference to an illustrious artistic past, a reference to ancient symbols that see the tree as a sign of regeneration and life and lastly a message of jumping into the future and towards technological innovations (it’s not by chance that it’s interactive and built to be “connected” to the other pavilions). Even if the person to make it famous for the public was Klimt, the Tree of life, as an artistic subject, has interested almost all artistic civilizations since ancient times. Generally tied to concepts of vital energy, of birth and rebirth, of regeneration, we find it in Mesopotamia, in Egypt, in Greece, in Rome, and again in christian holy texts and in secular legends, and consequently pictured in many paintings and mosaics throughout the centuries. In the case of christianity what usually prevails is a positive meaning of the Tree of life, often put in relation with the Paradise where, according to the Bible, it originally grew. But the arbor vitae is often represented by miniaturists during the Middle Ages, associated with the cross of the martyrs of Christ. In oriental culture the tree is often intended as an axis mundi, the axis of the world. It then often alludes to rebirth or resurrection of the soul. Even in contemporary times some artists have reinterpreted this ancient artistic subject. Let’s see the five most interesting cases here.
The Tree of life by Chagall ( 1976 )
Marc Chagall is famous for his vivaciously colored paintings, with a predominance of blue, for the fairy-tale, playful or romantic atmosphere of his creations. But in the Chapel of Penitents in Sarrebourg, a small town in Lorraine (France), there are some unexpected windows created by him and capable of enchanting visitors. The motif of one of these, 12 meters tall, is the Tree of life. We’re used to associating the religious chapel to ancient art and windows to gothic art. In this case two “traditions” are dispelled and you find yourself inside an isolated chapel from the XIII century, decorated with contemporary stained glass windows by an artist famous for other kinds of art. Today the chapel is not only a place of prayer but also a real homage to Chagall. And if you think about it it’s not too hard to understand how the Russian artist (naturalized French), author of strongly bi-dimensional paintings and often filled with religious symbolism, found an ideal support in the window. Through a centuries old technique Chagall transmitted his message of life and love that appears revolutionary also thanks to the sense of contrast that the artwork, in such a context, gives to the observer. In a blue ocean (the blue the artist has accustomed us to) the bright reds and greens of the Tree of life’s foliage emerge, and the tree seems to de-materialize and become only blotches of color. In the top part of the tree, as if immersed in the foliage, are two nude figures touching each other: Adam and Eve. Instead of reminding us of the original sin, the ancestors seem to symbolize the prototype, for humanity, of the couple united by love and creation of life. Around the Tree of life are other recurring figures in religious art. There’s a Virgin with Child and the traditional Christ on a crucifix, triumphant on death and therefore called triumphant. Far from naturalism this wonderful and suggestive artwork brings religion closer to the realm of dreams. The Tree of life here seems to be a collection of all the meanings it’s had in history: divine and religious symbol, primal force of regeneration, harmony and universal love, spirituality and vital energy. And connected to it, central and imposing, there’s all the religious “scenes” that are most typical of art from the past, but based on fable-like tones here, typical for the artist, and not less emotional because of this.
The Tree of life by Keith Haring ( 1986 )
Born in 1958 and victim of a premature death in 1990, the American Keith Haring became famous worldwide for his extremely recognizable and always coherent style but also for his will to launch important social messages. Haring fully incarnated New York in the ‘80s, bringing his art to whatever support was available (from metropolitan walls to commercial gadgets, from external walls of a church to those of a hospital, from subway walls to furniture), freeing it from the constrictions of a dedicated exhibition space. A first look at his work could trick you. Behind the apparently playful childishness of the shapes, his artworks are often dramatic or polemic and want to talk to us, bring us to reflect. And it’s not by chance that to launch clear and direct messages, directed at everyone, even at a distracted passerby, his graphic mark is revealed as primitive and simple and his “pop” colors, bright and flat. His figures, his stylized little men that have become iconic, seem to laugh with subtle irony at the western righteousness of large cities, often only masks behind which there are deep contradictions and strong social discomforts. It’s around 1986 that Keith Haring creates his Tree of life. Even in this case, as with many other works of his, he uses pictograms that recall those of the Maya and Aztecs, of Australian aboriginals, and African tribes. The vivacity of colors and the presence of those small marks that in comics indicate movement, come together to create a general impression of dynamism. The tree is green, the color of hope, and the leaves, which have a human shape, are of the same color, probably letting on that there is a new generation full of vitality and hope. A healthy generation that is very far from the previous one, marked by a synthetic but evocative X. Dead leaf-figures, sick ones, marked with red dots. It’s possible that Haring, always mindful of the reality around him, denounces the spread of AIDS, that cruel disease that brought death with it but also lots of prejudice. Haring himself will find out he’s a victim just two years afterward. The tree of life is therefore a symbol of regeneration and hope and becomes the perfect iconographic subject for an artist whose art is always characterized by the absolute identification between art and life.
The Tree of life by Henri Matisse ( 1949–1951 )
It was 1942, when Henri Matisse met Monique Bourgeois, his night nurse during a long recovery in the hospital following an operation on his intestine. Once he was sent home, Matisse asked her to pose for him as a model and this collaboration was possible until 1944 when Bourgeois, who was also a gifted drawer, became Sister Jacques-Marie. The two always stayed in contact, however, as their dense and intense correspondence testifies. They would meet later on in the small provincial town of Vence, where she lived in a Dominican convent. It was there that Monique told her friend, who was almost paralyzed, that she and her sisters wanted to build a new chapel. Unexpectedly Matisse offered to take care of the entire project (even from an architectural point of view) and with incredible perseverance dedicated himself for four years, from 1949 to 1951. An unusual and surprising choice (his friend Picasso was worried about it) on behalf of an already established artist who had always declared himself as agnostic. Considering his illness and age, the project was rather ambitious: Matisse would create the structural drawings of the building, the paintings inside, the windows, the altar and all the holy furniture, including the clothes of the priests. The result will be the coming together of a lifetime of artistic research, in which light becomes color through the windows. In fact the window allowed the main Fauves spokesperson, famous for his use of color, to go beyond it and find something even more powerful: the concentration of light. And so the Saint Mary of the Rosary chapel was born, characterized on the outside by the cleanliness and essentialness of forms, the candor of simplicity, decorated inside with beautiful floral themed windows where green, blue and yellow dominate. The subject of one of these windows is the Tree of life and contributes to transforming the interiors of the chapel into a place rich with splendor. The tree’s design is elementary, far from any will to create volume or naturalism. The leaf motif with wavy sides is repeated with consistency creating a general effect of harmony and intense and positive vital energy. There’s a search for essence, of simplification of the image in the exuberance of color or form. Matisse had chosen that tree lost by Adam and Eve after the original Sin, that tree that stayed there to the end of the apocalypse when, with the disappearance of sin, there was room only for life continuously given and renovated by God. However, more than the mark of a religious conversation, the choice of working with effort on this project seems to connect to a return of the artist to the will to live, also stimulated by the wonderful encounter between Matisse and Monique, which came during his hardest days, and by the interesting relationship of respect and friendship with Sister Agnes de Jesus, prioress of the provincial Dominican congregation. And what Matisse wants to give these two women is a complete and total gift, without leaving any details behind and even taking care of the calicoes and pix. In 2011 the Matisse Hall was inaugurated in the Vatican Museum, set in the heart of the section that houses artworks from the XX century. In it you can see the planning materials prepared for the creation of the Vence Chapel, including the full scale designs for the multicolored windows. Henri Matisse died a few years after completing this artwork that, notwithstanding the imperfections he recognized, he considered his masterpiece.
The series of Trees of life by Mario Schifano
The artist Mario Schifano (1934–1988) is considered one of the main exponents of Italian Pop art. His artistic path has however shown all his versatility, his constant attention to new style trends and the love for experimentation. Also known for his image of damned artist (especially for his use of drugs) Schifano knew how to charm the public who watched the creation of his enormous paintings, almost as if they were exhibitions. An artist of many talents he was also a director and photographer. If he is remembered especially for his series of paintings dedicated to big commercial brands such as Coca-Cola and Esso, in full pop spirit, it’s also good to remember Schifano’s constant interest for nature and its re-elaboration. Just think of the painting cycles like Paesaggi anemic, Vedute inter rote, Estinti, Campi di grano. But here we’re interested in taking into consideration the series entitled Alberi della vita, made up of a collection of artworks that are different from one another in style, color and even support and technique. What unites them is obviously the subject: trees that pop up from more or less neutral backgrounds, which don’t seem to belong to any specific or recognizable landscape. Strongly material trees that sometimes seem almost to be created by the simple paint drips, with pure color stains that dirty the support. The final effect expresses a sense of instinctive immediacy that is far from the reasoned planning of the artworks spoken of previously. In fact, compared to works by Matisse, Klimt, Chagall and Haring, there is a true rupture here. There’s no story, a clear evocation of symbols, there’s no aura of magic of windows in a chapel thought of for meditation and contemplation. Schifano’s trees appear as instinctual creations that — not by chance — can be born even on a piece of packaging paper. No attempt to loyally reproduce nature, to photograph it. The trunks don’t look like wood and the colors, even when they’re “realistic” maintain something “artificial” that reminds us of the nature of advertising billboards. They’re fully contemporary trees and the choice of subject seems to be an indifferent choice, neutral, almost a excuse to play with color and painting technique. The potential symbolic meaning is as if dulled but it could be related to the artist’s interior life. And the relationship he has with nature is deep, mental, abstract, even though it conserves the will to not kill the recognizable shape of the plant.
The Tree of life by Gustav Klimt ( 1905–1909 )
The most famous Tree of life in contemporary art bears Gustav Klimt’s signature and was created between 1905 and 1909. The architect Joseph Hoffmann, member of the artistic association that took the name Viennese Secession, was commissioned by the business man and financial expert Adolphe Stoclet to plan an imposing villa in Bruxelles, without any restriction from an aesthetic point of view nor from an economic one. Hoffmann involved other Viennese artists with the objective of creating what was then defined as a “total work of art” (Gesamtkunstwerk), in which various artistic forms and techniques were fused together, in full relationship with the space to be lived. Klimt was called upon to create the designs for the decorations in the dining room that would then become a mosaic thanks to the intervention of Wiener Werkstatte, and applied to the two long walls in the room, in a nearly specular way. The tile of the decoration is the main theme by extension and centrality: the Tree of life. Very wide, its branches “hug” the two side portions of the decoration with the female personification of Awaiting (or Dancer), on the left, and the couple embracing that symbolizes Reconciliation (or the Embrace), on the right. The plant, intricate and organized, homogenous and harmonious, seems to end in the archaic splendor of its spirals the Klimt hybridism between representation and abstraction and between organic and inorganic. The foliage, far from any naturalism, appears as a pure and flat decoration and is scattered here and there with fruits similar to jewels and geometric leaves reduced to small triangles. There are clear references to Egyptian and Byzantine art, especially for the strong lines (the tree is fundamentally a fairy-tale play of lines) and for the total bi-dimension of the image, but there are also echoes of Japanese art. The volume is annulled and the sense of preciousness dominates. In fact we are in the middle of the so-called “golden period” in Klimt’s path. The artist never explained in detail the precise meaning of the decoration. However it’s clear that through this artwork he was able to group together in one work many of his themes and his most recurrent iconographic motifs: the female figure, the couple of lovers, the motif of vegetation and the idea of regeneration and vital energy, and the passing of time. On one of the tree’s branches is a dark bird that perhaps is there to symbolize the menace of death, certainly minimized by the blooming abundance of golden branches of the tree. The stubborn geometry and stylized motifs bring out the symbolic and at the same time decorative value of the decoration. It can only be but a tree with all positive values, which has two lovers under its branches that finally reunite embracing in a hug.