Giorgio Kienerk's Silence as a response to endure the hardships of reality

Silence is one of Giorgio Kienerk's most significant works and transports us to the early twentieth century, when artists explored the inscrutable in an attempt to better endure the hardships of reality.

“In ancient times religions and philosophies did not live except by silence: they knew and observed the necessity of silence. Those that shunned that necessity, those were always misunderstood deformed profaned disheartened.” In his Secret Book, Gabriele D’Annunzio emphasized the role that silence played in ancient societies. It will suffice just to recall what Aulus Gellius wrote about the school of Pythagoras: it has become proverbial the silence that, according to what the Roman writer reports, the disciples of the great mathematician were required to observe for at least a couple of years before they could approach his teachings. And even for those who approach a work of art, silence is often a requirement, which paradoxically, André Chastel recalled in one of his memorable essays on the Signum harpocraticum, disavows the age-old stereotype about works deemed particularly successful: that such masterpieces of perfection, especially if we are talking about sculpture, lack only the word. The essence of a work of art is in the silence. And then there is a silence that refers to a dimension of expectation, of anxiety, of unfathomable mystery, of pain, of death.

The souls of silence are all contained in a disturbing image that Giorgio Kienerk painted in 1900, at the beginning of the new century. It is a woman, wearing a dark robe, lowered to reveal her torso, resting her elbows on her knees, covering her breasts with her forearms and bringing her hands to her mouth to close it. No signum harpocraticum, then, but a much more brutal and violent gesture, evoking decidedly threatening scenery. So much so that the gaze is distressed, almost frightened. Around her is the mystic circle, at her feet a skull. The Florentine artist had titled Il Silenzio (Silence ) this work of his, and he presented it at the 1901 Venice Biennale: it was so successful that the artist was prompted to exhibit the painting in various international contexts. In his intentions, The Silence was to be part of a triptych, along with Pleasure and Sorrow. But as long as Kienerk was alive, he never managed to exhibit all three works together: only from 1913 did he begin to take The Sorrow on tour, while The Pleasure always remained in his studio. Today the three works are exhibited together at the Civic Museums of Pavia, but it is Il Silenzio that most captures the relative. It is a magical painting, a painting that arouses conflicting feelings, that attracts and repels, captures and alienates, fascinates and disquiets. It is a painting not even without accents of eroticism.Eros lives in silence, and silence has its own erotic dimension. Joséphin Péladan, the eccentric founder of theOrdre kabbalistique de la Rose-Croix, in his À coeur perdu had managed to summarize the erotic charge of silence in a few lines that immediately leap to mind when one observes Kienerk’s The Silence : “Silence des lèvres, sans paroles et sans baisers, silence des mains sans caresses, silence des nerfs détendus, silence de la peau desélectrisée et froide; et tout ce silence glaçant une vierge enflammée par la douleur de l’amplexion et qui attend le plaisir enfin.” (“silence of the lips, without words and without kisses, silence of hands without caresses, silence of relaxed nerves, silence of skin devoid of electricity and cold; and all this silence that freezes a virgin inflamed by the pain of intercourse and that awaits pleasure at last.”)

Giorgio Kienerk, Il silenzio (1900; olio su tela, 170,5 x 94 cm; Pavia, Musei Civici)
Giorgio Kienerk, The Silence (1900; oil on canvas, 170.5 x 94 cm; Pavia, Musei Civici)

Yet there is also a sense of oppression, of trepid anguish: Il Silenzio is a cold, gloomy, bleak painting set in a bleak and desolate night, and the presence of that skull at the feet of the woman who plugs her mouth makes the viewer even more uneasy. Kienerk travels through one of the themes dearest to symbolism, the opposition between eros and thanatos: the sensuality of the woman thus appears to us distant, inaccessible, denied by the memento mori that introduces her to the beholder, as if she came from a world that is not that of human beings, a creature of the afterlife, a vision that appears on a frosty night.

Moreover, Giorgio Kienerk’s esoteric interests are well known, his passion for occultism and theosophy, all openly stated in a letter the artist sent in May 1901 to Mario Novaro, founder of the magazine La Riviera Ligure. Kienerk had stayed in Liguria on several occasions since 1891, and Genoa was one of the driving centers of occultism and theosophical doctrine in Italy: the city, which had seen its face change during the industrial revolution, like all the great European centers that had experienced rapid urban growth and sudden industrial and economic development in the late nineteenth century, manifested its disquiet with the achievements of science and ’industry by immersing himself in the intangible, probing the inscrutable, questioning positivist thought through the continual exploration of a reality beyond that which can be perceived with the senses. Silence is one of the ripest and most significant fruits of this cultural temperament. Thus, the image of silence to which Kienerk gives form ends up constituting, Piero Pacini has written, “the immediate response of states of mind and subterranean impulses that accompany daily experience.”

One realizes, however, that this Silence by Kienerk moves on the aesthetic boundary between the verism of his training, evident in the girl’s face, in her arms so well turned, in that look so real, and a sense ofvery pervasive abstraction, to be found, to use the words of scholar Elena Querci, “in the idea of the circle” that isolates the young girl, “in the unusual, acid, almost unpleasant color of the background, finally in the idea of floating the figure while leaving the support on which it rests undefined.” it is here that “the abstract components of the painting are encapsulated.” This opposition seems almost the aesthetic translation of the disagreement of an artist who nevertheless, even in his esoteric turmoil, seems agitated more by an existential unease than by an eagerness to explore the unexplored. And so it is interesting to return to the title Kienerk had conceived for the triptych of which The Silence was to be the central panel, and which has been handed down to us from the artist’s autograph notes: The Human Enigma.

Pain, silence, pleasure: three moments in the life of every human being at the center of a meditated and thoughtful triptych, far from an impulsive and reckless elaboration of the mystery of life. To read The Silence , therefore, it is necessary to return to the readings that accompanied Kienerk’s days in that early part of the century, which directed him toward philosophy and, in particular, Indian esoteric philosophy and occultism: we know, for example, that among his books was Jagadish Chandra Chatterji’s The Esoteric Philosophy of India , a nimble synthesis of Indian esoteric disciplines specifically designed for a Western audience. For Kienerk, these continual journeys into esotericism had a purpose: they were for him, and the artist himself declared this to Novaro, “all things that lift the soul and tend to make us calmly endure the adversities that by law of cause we create for ourselves in every existence.” And probably, Querci suggests, Kienerk must also have been familiar with the thought of the Rose-Croix, for whom silence fulfilled a mediating function between pain and pleasure, making one overcome the former to arrive at the latter: this is the dimension evoked by Péladan’s own words about theeros of silence. For Kienerk, diving into the depths of the occult meant finding answers for the most dramatic and profound problems of the real.

Warning: the translation into English of the original Italian article was created using automatic tools. We undertake to review all articles, but we do not guarantee the total absence of inaccuracies in the translation due to the program. You can find the original by clicking on the ITA button. If you find any mistake,please contact us.