Schifano’s bicycles

Mario Schifano is probably the artist who best interpreted Italy’s soul in the last part of the past century. Born in Italian Libya, he was an original and free voice of pop art, and lived his personal artistic adventure like a great race – not striving towards a finish line, but seizing all the stimuli that the reality of a wonderful country like Italy could spontaneously offer at his every step. Schifano never claimed to have something to say about Italy: he simply made it his country, for better or for worse. He took it in and transformed it into his art.

As an artist, Schifano was in perpetual motion, unable to put down the brush; yet his mood is always light, free of cumbersome reflections. His art has a fluid quality, and at one point started swirling around a singular iconic object: the bicycle. Schifano was not an athlete: raised in Rome, he did not understand why one should ever break a sweat for no reason (and indeed his works showcase every aspect of life, except for the strain of hard work). Thus he was not a cyclist at all, but he considered himself – or rather, his art – like a bicycle: fluid, light, agile, simple, and obviously in constant motion, always “on the road”. Schifano painted his first bicycles in 1982, starting immediately with a large, horizontal canvas, like the scene from a race seen from the roadside.

That first painting, now part of a private collection in Milan, is a surprising commotion of frames and wheels, which outnumber handlebars and seats, conveying the will to run faster and faster, and the euphoria in gliding away thanks to those perfect circles, propelled towards endless journeys. Wheels stand out in this glowing improvisation for the precise, perfect stroke they were painted in and for their roundness, which immediately evokes a sense of joy.

Schifano painted another wonderful canvas, entitled “Solo” (literally, “alone”), in 1984: another landscape view (4 by 2 meters), but this time – for the first and last time – he put someone on the bike. Slouched over the handlebar, with a yellow jersey as bright as the cornfield he is crossing, the cyclist pushes on the pedals, with such voracity that he can imagine having not only two wheels, but all the wheels of a racing team. Yet, Schifano tells us he is alone: the wheels animating the painting represent his desire to be faster, to run more and more, to grasp all the beauty that there is in the world. Around him, the blue air awaits, embraces him, gives him room to breathe yet swallows him up at the same time. Like the air that Schifano always felt on his own skin in Italy.

The yellow jersey in the painting anticipated a great adventure the artist would have in the world of bicycle racing: in 1989, the organizers of the Tour de France asked him to design all of the race’s jerseys, starting of course with the most prestigious yellow one. Schifano was able to maintain his idea of bicycle as a metaphor of freedom perfectly intact, even while working for a client. In fact, he was invigorated by the experience and started to paint bicycles again. He depicted bicycles alone, like horses awaiting their rider, with brush strokes traced on the canvas at breathtaking speed, painted for collectors who wanted a canvas that could make them dream of riding towards wonderful endeavors, in the blue air of a country of incomparable beauty.

Schifano’s most extraordinary talent was indeed his ability to turn the infinite restlessness the felt inside into images imbued with pure happiness. In his paintings, he was able to run fast and fly high.

Giuseppe Frangi

December 14, 2013