Luca Beatrice  

Jan Knap. Or the pictorial elegy of daily life 

Although the Eighties are usually identified as the age of great upheaval in relationships with history and tradition, the previous decade actually inaugurated a different approach to the "past", offering another possible alternative to the evolutionary trend of art, briefly summed up in words such as "modernity" and avantgarde". Even before the visual arts, in the mid Seventies architecture, cinema and literature had already abolished the prohibition on looking backwards, inaugurating what would become one of the theoretical musts of the late 20th century, Post-modernism. By this approach, as most people know by now, history is no longer a weight, a burden to be thrown off, but is transformed into a reservoir of suggestions and ideas, which can constitute an infinite archive to delve into. Re-examination led to quotation, remakes and to details taken out of context, and one place that came prominently back into fashion in the Eighties was the Museum (at the start of the century, the Futurists considered museums as the first obstacle to be knocked down in order to achieve a culture of progress). As a result, several artists "discovered" infinite resources right in classical painting, which was re-examined, re-interpreted and used again through a suitable conceptual filter. In Italy, well ahead of the trend, two artists emerged with their eyes focused intelligently on the past, but whose belief in the avant-garde was never in doubt. After having exhausted the cycle of photographic self portraits and "substitutions", in 1973-74 Salvo inaugurated a style of painting that contained references to the Mannerist painters of Italy and Northern Europe, returning to typical sacred subjects (such as St. George and the dragon), but coloured with acid tones that express the synthetic modernity of the new fashion. Luigi Ontani, whose first works appeared at more or less the same time, in the context of performance and body art, actually became the key characters in his super-aesthetic ideal of religiosity (St. Sebastian pierced by arrows during his martyrdom), and assumed artificial poses recreating famous paintings, like Guercino's St. Luke, halfway between a photo-painting and a "tableau vivant".
     It is important to note that this "trend" (not a small group but rather a new type of fashion), was expressed by the exhibition Different repetition, undoubtedly premonitory, which Renato Barilli organised at the Studio Macroni in Milan in 1974, dealing with experiences, all treated as historical re-interpretation, that extend from the conceptual to the minimal, from pop art to figurative art, including hyper-realism. But this backward glance was not only typical of Italy. German art was also embarking on a sort of internal "review" which was probably necessary, and there were equally significant experiences such as that of the Normal  group made up of Peter Angermann, Jan Knap and Milan Kunc in 1979 (we should point out that three artists each worked in his native town, Nuremberg, New York and Cologne), which "has been of enormous importance for the influence they have had on pseudo-naif graphics... From the start the trio strove towards figurative art, because they wanted to be a reflection of "normal" life. The narrative work of the Normal group radiated naiveté with reminiscences of illustrated books and since they regarded something that was popular with the masses, they brought the contemporary conception of art into question. The Normal group attracted people's attention with paintings resembling advertising positioned in public places, in Bonn, Dusseldorf, Paris and even New York during the Times Square Show. In most of these paintings the group showed how it would have preferred to depict the world: a calm, sunny landscape, a church and a mother and child. They wanted to remind the inhabitants of large cities of values that they might have forgotten." (1)
     Why did an artist like Jan Knap, who had established himself in a climate of renewed interest in traditional painting, immediately focus his work or the representation of sacred subject?
      The answer that springs to mind is the title of a work by Gianmarco Montesano, because "the heart of art is Catholic': "The Sacred Heart, Catholic iconography, and pictures c saints represent the only true therapy capable of saving the soul of Europe from the banality of mass ecstasy. Great Repressed, trivialised meaning, rejection and risk, ontological separation and a state of war, factious truth, tension, the Passion and the Cross: this is the Catholic Heart of Art. An Art which has finally found its capital A again." (2) And to underline this, an intelligent, provocative comment by Marco Cingolani: "sometimes while I am giving a lecture, if I see that the audience is half asleep, I say with granite-like certainty that painting is a Catholic matter. That wakes them up, they stop yawning and start to argue, even to insult me. Everyone, and I mean everyone praises primitive graffiti, Eastern attention to detail, or unknown Greek painting. A painter I respect actually wrote me a furious letter, saying he could not understand how an artist could rehabilitate the Inquisition. I find these discussions entertaining, because in our artistic world there are few things that annoy people like Catholicism, bringing out an obtuse ness and cultural blinkers that are truly embarrassing." (3)
     In addition to being a painter, Jan Knap is an art historian. And as such he is perfectly well aware that for centuries art relied on its relations with religious commissions. Before the development of middle class art, which began in the l8th century, before the ideological break with religious themes, it was impossible to imagine an aesthetic development not linked to the need to narrate in images topics with a moral, or edifying message. The great periods of the history of art were all distinguished by stylistic reflection within very clear cut limits, passed down from one generation to another. What is more, the painter, free from the problem of the subject or the theme, was able to experiment and perfect the formal solutions which, in the end, created the distinction between great painting and more anonymous work. While artists in Italy were expected to provide a convincing, narrative pseudo-propagandist vision (something which certainly did not prevent the emergence of numerous masterpieces), in other parts of Europe, particularly Northern and Mittel European countries, there was a much more secular approach to religiosity, based on scenes of everyday life, full of a common, popular morality, fable rather than parable, prosaic rather than heroic.
     Most critics have rightly noticed the links between Jan Knap's painting and this elegiac, simple idea of religion (4). Yet, as Achille Bonito Oliva wrote, "For Knap, the deliberate, Franciscan simplicity of the image is born from the need to remain within the sign of the visible at all times, within the possibility of continuously verifying the stages in the creative process and sustaining it with the confidence acquired from the technique." (5) Knap's immediately recognisable, hyper-figurative painting, which revolves around familiar topics and subjects, has been progressing decisively toward the conceptual acceptance of painting for over twenty years. His repertory, an inventory of familiar images, allows the artist to take the question elsewhere, to "go beyond it" as they say, immersing himself directly in the language. So analysis that is not focused excessively on content reveals syntactic affectation, extraordinary talent bordering on virtuosity inside a very simple, effective compositive structure; by seducing us with pictures and stories, Knap really invites us to reflect on the formal dimension of the work of art.
     If we observe the paintings produced by Knap in the last decades chronologically, we get the impression that he belongs to that category of artists who like to mo small distances, who do not need to make continuous Copernican revolutions and on the other hand, base much of their work on daily repetition, the manic exe painting, the achievement of a crystal clear synthesis in the composition.
     Lowering the tone in this way was very important when the emphasis was on visual content and the rediscovery of expressionist thought that had accompanied n the contemporary return to painting (the Transavantgarde in Italy, the Neve Wilden in Germany, and New Abstract Expressionism in the United States). But since the 1990s, Knap's work has paradoxically become more precise and up-to-date because after the binges and excesses of the 1980s, all art and culture are striving towards the everyday, towards an ideal that is within man's reach, subtle, refined and finally cut through by a slight unease. Jan Knap's recent paintings depict a sort of Family Life in the open air,  positioning themselves in that educated current of painting that began in France in the l8th century, and evolved through Impressionism, finally reaching the concept. His imagery continues to be fresh and stimulating but it cannot represent the only coordinate for interpretation, because the transmission of edifying, elegiac values protects him from any risk of moralistic simplicity. In this sense, Knap must be seen as a minimal painter, who is linked to a tradition that is already foreign to the West, yet perfected to our gaze, now a long way from the naif elements that distinguished his work in  the days of the Normal group. His is a rare example of intellectual painting, loved by a vast, competent public that appreciates its delicacy and gradual refinement, but without being faced with a dramatic choice.

Martijn van Nieuwenhuyzen, Jan van Adrichen, Milan Kunc, in Flash Art r it. ed. May - June 1987.
Gianmarco Montesano, Confessioni di un reazionario, Paris, November 1979.
Alessandro Romanini, Marco Cingolani, "Conversazioni", in Marco Cingolani Little Help from my Friends, catalogue, Palazzo Ducale, Massa 2003.
I refer in particular to the excellent texts by Elena Pontiggia for the catalogue Toselli Gallery in Milan, published in 1993 and 2001.
Achille Bonito Oliva, "L'arte sacra di Jan Knap" in Jan Knap, Via Eugippo gallery former church of S. Anna, San Marino, ed. Skira, 2000.

2004 © Galerie CAESAR