'Santorini #6' by William Congdon via Wikimedia Commons

Light in the adventure of a Stormy Sea

Two years after the death of the great American artist. The initiatives of the foundation that, established in 1980 at Congdon's behest, now bears his name.We talked about it with Vice President Paolo Mangini, the artist's friend since 1960.
Rodolfo Balzarotti

Two years have now passed since Bill Congdon's death, and already two large anthological exhibitions have been devoted to his work in Madrid, Spain, and in Bassano del Grappa, Italy while a third is being planned for the summer of 2001 in his birthplace, Providence, Rhode Island. But other, more circumscribed shows are also about to open. In September the artist will be commemorated in Buccinasco, Italy, the city in the Milanese hinterland where Congdon lived the last twenty years of his life and where he is now buried. On that occasion, a monument will be inaugurated, sculpted by the artist Marie Michele Poncet.

We talked about this and other things with Paolo Mangini, Vice President of the Foundation and Congdon's friend since 1960.

What is the Foundation's aim with these initiatives?
I answer by referring first to the initiative that will be held in Buccinasco next September, on the feast day of the cityís patron saint. An exhibition will be installed in the Cascina Robbiolo of Congdon's works as well as of documents, mainly photographic, testifying to the intense relationship Congdon had with this land where he now rests. Not many people know that Congdon lived here for twenty years of his life, from October 1979 to April 1998, in many ways the most intense season of his life as a painter. As a painter, but also as a monk, since his house and studio adjoined the Benedictine monastery of Gudo Gambaredo, known as the 'Cascinazza.' And Congdon was always in essence a monk, even though he was a layman, because he always obeyed. His was an adventurous life, full of travel, departures, breaks, and sensational changes of direction. But substantially, I reiterate, he always and very simply obeyed, obeyed for reasons of faith when faced with the circumstances and the persons whom circumstances set on his path. Therefore, I believe, in the last analysis he obeyed Christ. And so, in the Buccinasco show, the places will be represented on almost all the continents through which he passed in the course of his nomadic life and finally the place where he came to rest, in particular the field he liked to contemplate from the window of his studio in the Cascinazza. But between these two phases will be inserted some images of the crucifixes he painted in very great numbers after his conversion, during the 1960s and 1970s. Among these, I am especially moved by Crocefisso 24 of 1966, a spare, stripped-down image which helps us to comprehend the profound affection Congdon felt for Jesus. I am struck here by Christ's filial surrender to the Father: his head hangs down in an extreme gesture of obedience, but at the same time even if anatomically improbable he seems to be looking up as though ecstatically looking at the Person of the Father.

An American painter who goes to live out his life and be buried in Buccinasco: it seems paradoxical.
Congdon's life was an evident sign that our destiny is in the hands of an Other who takes us where we would never have chosen to go. It is no coincidence that the Foundation, for the September celebrations, has decided to make a special gift to the city: at a short distance from Congdon's tomb one of his early works, a bronze sculpture of 1940, will be placed. The subject and title are extremely significant: it represents a kneeling woman with clasped hands (a sort of Mater Dolorosa) in front of the lifeless body of her little child; the title is Year of Our Lord. The reference to the war that was then raging across Europe is clear. But it is also a prophecy: two years later Congdon would leave for the battlefront as a volunteer ambulance driver; he would come to know Italy and its suffering, an experience that would mark the rest of his life. After the war he found his calling as a painter, but for him painting would always be an encounter with the Other who calls him and takes him out of himself. It first began with an incredible series of trips, and led, in 1959 in Assisi, to his conversion to Christ in the Church.

And all of this has a relationship with his settling here in Buccinasco?
Certainly. Rather, it may be that here lies the most extraordinary aspect of his life. His first steps in the Church were not easy ones. A certain moralistic view of Christianity threatened to suffocate the very gift of art that had led him to conversion. That was when I met him and realized the greatness of his vocation but also the risks he ran if this did not find the right context. Congdon needed a place and a friendship through which, every day, he could be embraced by the dizzying mercy of Christ, just as he was, with all the dark sides and contradictions of his personality, which was so intimately connected with his art. He found this place when he met Father Giussani in 1961. Since then, Congdon never abandoned the discreet, magnanimous companionship which was for him GS first and then CL. Rather it was just this need to create a proper place for his calling that contributed in good measure to the birth of some of the first adult initiatives of the Movement. Among these was the Memores Domini house at Gudo Gambaredo....

And thus it was that he came to Buccinasco.
Yes, but first came the foundation of the monastic community at the Cascinazza in 1971. In a certain sense this reality was born out of the experience of Subiaco when, in 1962, we discovered the Benedictine hermitage of the Blessed Lorenzo and had the idea of a community of artists, and then of a place for retreats and vacations for the numerous groups of the Movement. And it was some young novices from the monastery of Santa Scolastica at Subiaco who, together with a few older monks, gave life to the monastic foundation which now lives at the Cascinazza. Here Congdon, by this point approaching old age, accepted the proposal to settle there after having lived in Assisi for 17 years. This too was an act of obedience: this like the Memores house in Gudo was his reality, above and beyond his 'aesthetic' preferences, and right here, in this austere obedience, his painting flourished as never before.

What does the Foundation have to do with all this?
The Foundation which, just as Bill chose to remain always an American citizen, is American as well, even though recognized under Italian law wants to be for Congdon's work what Gudo and the Cascinazza were for him as a person: a context, a home to harbor what he used to call his 'Gift.' Congdon's art participates in the grandeur and misery of all the art of our time; it is a fragile, exiled art, which no longer finds space and a reason for being on the walls of cathedrals or of churches, and that, if it is not taken up by the ambiguous and ephemeral celebration of museums and art galleries, is condemned to obscurity, invisibility. The Foundation is the 'home' that allows Congdon's art to be seen and encountered, and permits it to speak to the largest number of people, even the simplest, those who know nothing about matters of art. This is the reason for these shows and for all the work that has gone into publishing his writings and also the distribution of the video in which we can still hear his live testimony. But I would like to add one last thing. The Foundation is above all the instrument through which Congdon's work can be given to Christ's Church, to which it completely belongs. One of our initiatives in this sense was, for example, the volume, The Sabbath of History, in which Congdon's images were placed alongside the beautiful meditations of Cardinal Ratzinger. What Bill has left behind that is, a truly impressive corpus of works, writings, and documents has by now been offered to the Church and the world as material for study and research on art, but also on faith in our time. And currently three students are working on their theses at the Foundation.