THE PAINTED CITY
Giovanni Battista Bedolo was born in Milan on 18th February 1962. He gave up
his studies of Philosophy when he was twenty-one and went to live in France,
firstly in Agen and then on l'Ile d'Oléron, where he created his first
temporary compositions with materials washed up by the tides. Since then he
has changed his place of residence very often, following a deliberately
nomadic way of life, and achieving a refined integration between land art
and painting. Since 1984 he has developed studies on the morphology of
plants which result in pictorial cycles exhibited in various personal and
collective exhibitions, and has designed and cared for various gardens.
We interview Giovanni Battista Bedolo starting with a brief introduction to
I propose themes such as plants and gardens using a contemporary language.
It's like arousing a collective ghost: Eden, a primary state, a harmonious
state that is not longer transmitted.
Tell me about particular experiences in your childhood, how did you become
acquainted with plants and gardens?
I spent my childhood and the following years in gardens. My father was the
gardener of a historical park, kept as in the 1700. I received a vegetable
imprinting: you experience the sense of human solitude in gardening and at
the same time the relationship with the plants, this drives you to have
Why do gardens cultivate imagination as well as plants?
Because of the relationship with so many different forms. Plants, if you
observe them closely, differ morphologically both amongst themselves and in
time through metamorphosis, the various forms stimulate fantasy. In a garden
you have time to think about other things and thoughts flow harmoniously, a
wiser thought ensues.
If you had to say, as a consequence of your experience, what language plants
speak, what would you say?
Plants speak the proportional language from which I draw elements that are
useful in pictorial composition. Shape in a plant is the fundamental aspect
of its language.
How have you organised your life in the metropolis?
After numerous journeys I landed in the city, changing both studio and house
frequently. From '85 to '88 I represented animals, especially cats, composed
of seven pieces of metal plate, nailed into painted panels: they were split,
lacerated, lacking in unity, dissociated in a metropolitan situation.
Symbols of contemporary living, a "split ego" unable to be re-composed,
postmodernist. I chose seven pieces as a contradiction since seven is a
traditional number of harmonious composition.
Is an artist touched by the world?
People value and appreciate a form of expression that discloses what they
live, that gives an image to something you feel in the air, in the world.
Even if fundamentally the artist is looking for something new, he is looking
for something that doesn't exist.
Is the crisis of painting as a form of expression a crisis related to the
painted image and not to painting as a genre?
It is determined by the difficulty of presenting images that remain, that
please, that are emblematic and representative. Nowadays there isn't one
symbol that is valid for a culture, therefore it is only possible to give an
individual vision. In restoring the symbol to nature I take an archetype of
natural origin such as a calyx, which is no longer codified, and I give it
back an ultimate sense by reproducing it in a vegetable environment, as a
flower. Illustrated pictorially I restore it, now free of a series of
cultural superimpositions, to its natural environment where it continues and
where (genetic engineering permitting) it can continue to remain a symbol.
My task is to restore symbols to nature, as a reality beyond our will and
interpretations, take them back because they are superfluous in civilisation.
How do you operate?
My work starts from shapes in the vegetable kingdom that take my eye. I then
take an interest in the relationship there is between these forms and their
function in the plant, in the vegetable system, in the wood system,
proceeding from micro to macro. Painting a plant, a palm tree, or a cypress,
a seed, a mangrove fruit is a way of pantheistically carrying inside
ourselves a part of nature which no longer belongs to us, to which we no
What relationship does shamanism have with your artistic work?
There are no longer common or general points of view in culture, the
shamanist method of the individual who places himself in relation to the
world remains perhaps the most appropriate. There are many cases in
contemporary art, because the individual finds himself alone and has to
initiate himself to art, consequently every artist has his own method with
its merits and secrets.
Can you illustrate the shamanist experience which produced the pictorial
cycle "The morphology of plants"?
It was a series of works where the warm yellow of the sun, falling on the
blue of the cold waters, created green areas that gradually defined leaves:
the photosynthesis factories that generate the vegetable world, moreover
Goethe with the original plant, the Urpflanze, points out that the start of
plant evolution coincides with the origin of shape.
I'd like you to describe how you operated.
I worked horizontally, placing all the canvases on a level surface, mixed
the paints, prepared water in watering cans and gathered bamboo leaves
during the day. I wet the canvases with the watering cans, arranged the
colours, placed the leaves on the canvas, doing all this moving around on an
area of about a hundred square metres. I worked at thirty paintings
simultaneously, considering each one as part of an ecosystem, as part of a
wood, a plant, as if it was a leaf of a tree. Once the leaves were arranged
on the fresh paint, the sun did its part: it fixed the shape on the
background of cold water, I intervened where I wanted the shapes to be more
evident. As far as the large canvases are concerned I mix the paint and make
it dynamic, the canvas is placed horizontally on natural surfaces: grass,
stones, mud, sand. I walk over these extremely large canvases, I use
elements that are round about for painting: branches and leafy branches. I
pour the water with the watering can. I prepare myself beforehand working on
the shape, by means of studies, observations, drawings and painting. Sand
got into my work on the dunes in Kenya mixing itself into the paints.
To go back to a previous subject Iíd like some explanations about the
Urpflanze and its relation to your painting.
Reading Goetheís Metamorphosis of plants I became acquainted with the
Urpflanze. Goethe imagined an original plant that represented the organic
vegetable matter, formed in the simplest and most direct way, from which by
differentiation numerous other vegetable forms originate. I have tried to
paint the original plant showing its frugality, the situation in which by a
minimum effort the plant reaches the maximum of its essence concentrating in
itself the fruit, the seed, the flower, the leaf and the stem: elevation. I
had thought of serigraphs: I started printing them, but each print was
differentiated by painting. This was because the vegetable kingdom
originates by differentiation from the original plant.
How do you paint and where?
For about 8 years I painted almost exclusively in a studio. Nomadism marks
the present way of life and we can not escape from that even if we wish.
Nowadays I paint in the most varied and natural situations possible. From
open air exhibitions in the early 90s Iíve moved on to performances, in one
night in an open air discotheque I painted a large picture which was then
exhibited on walls in Milan. With my case of paints and my canvas on my back
Iíve painted in Kenya too; on the dunes of Lamu, on the island of Manda Toto
I couldnít have worked with a laser or computer with the same immediacy.
Are there recurrent subjects and strong themes in your painting?
The bamboo and palm trees are significant plants. The bamboo is a siliceous
plant, it has elongated leaves, an alternation of nodes and internodes which
recalls musical symphonies, it reveals the secrets of the composition in
nature from which we can draw inspiration. I defined the palm tree a green
sun because it rises from the earth and climbs up to the sky, the trunk is
the road that this sphere follows. Gardens are a fundamental theme in my
painting, the garden with the palm tree, the bamboo garden, the island
garden, the garden where seeds germinate, the garden as a world or the world
as a garden. Man considers the garden an evanescent thing, he lives it as a
lost garden, something that can no longer be realized.
Why do you propose these paintings that are all gardens?
Because they are the input of a plan for a garden, of a place. In our
imagination we give great importance to the exotic garden because it is the
place where we manage to relax, unwind, feel the ghost of contemplation, the
surrogate of meditation that we can only experience by travelling thousands
of kilometres, by reaching an island. In our countries gardens can no longer
give us this kind of sensation. The four paintings "Blood and Lymph" are the
four seasons that occur in the garden, the relationship between the
vegetable and animal world in the primeval garden, seeds germinate in the
garden, the calyx is drawn from the vegetable motif, the Minotaur, the happy
island, the watering can, pumpkins.
Iíd like to know if there are key works in your production.
Cats in the metropolis are a key theme. From cats I moved on to watering
cans, the first watering can I painted: The object that guides. I started by
evaluating the objects that surrounded me and by considering quantity a form
of pollution, physical and mental. I eliminated all those that didnít have a
sense. From the cat saturated in objects I moved on to the watering can as
an object that guides, that clearly leads me into the garden. The watering
can represents the possibility that the garden exists, it is so important in
my painting because it is the instrument of the gardening ritual. After
plant morphology and bamboo, I came to represent Alcinooís garden: the
garden always in bloom. I thought of the essence of the flower, the
sensuality of the flower, sex organ of the plant, of the most logotype and
elementary representation possible, I wanted to represent this simplicity in
considering the flower. In Africa I studied the palm tree in its natural
habitat grasping the sense of this plant better and I became acquainted with
the baobab in its structure. Roaming around islands I realised how seeds
travel over the water, move from one island to another. I discovered that
plants too have a nomadic aspect, they are not as static as we have always
considered and represented them. The seed that flies, that floats, is the
plantís message, it is the genetic information enclosed therein that can
travel, visit new places, new worlds. Nomadism is the message.
Why do you talk of plant intelligence?
Intelligence exists in the garden as relationships between the plants, an
intelligence and harmony in proportion, in the way the plant is structured.
I have identified an intelligence also in the seed, the flower, the root, in
all parts of the plant. If we think of intelligence as the ability to
reproduce, to exist, we cannot deny the surprising ability of vegetables.
The question I ask myself and which determines my work is: Where the plantís
feeling is located and what it is like.
One of the latest artistic, cultural initiatives youíve proposed were the
large paintings exhibited in Milan, would you like to tell me what theyíre
About two years ago I was invited to Kenya to create some large dimensioned
works on canvas. These works have been exhibited in Italy where some friends
asked me to prepare large sized works to display on the façades of buildings
being renovated. This is how the initiative called =The painted city= came
into being and saw the creation of large paintings: pieces of about eighty
square metres of painting on canvas. Opening up new spaces for works of art
means stimulating city re-planning, because at each operation of renovation,
there is the possibility to transform for the better.
Why these large dimensions?
A tribal chief from a Polynesian island describes in amazement, the habits,
customs and uses of civilised peoples, when he talks of the city he says
that white men never go out of the house, comparing the city to a large
house. In effect we move around the city as in a large house, just as in
every house we have posters and a television set, in cities too we have
adverts, maxi-screens, lighting. This is the real sense of urban furniture:
considering the city as an enormous dwelling, we are all inhabitants of this
house. The large pictures are subsequently divided up, exhibited again and
taken inside the houses, creating continuity between the small dwelling and
Therefore you are personally a bridge between the city and extremely natural
environments. Consequently you bring these natural environments into cities,
what do your works propose?
Palm trees in Africa, a bend in a river, an alpine meadow in bloom and a
ridge of cypress trees at Lake Garda. These are the places where the city
dweller arrives, places for re-charging, where for one moment we touch
contemplation, where we go to =break off= from the pace of metropolitan
life. It isnít the natural place that I bring into the city, it is the
representation of the logotype that the city dweller has of the natural
place, he finds it there in front of him, presented in a metropolitan key,
change the environment where we live in a positive way, by bringing a
fragment, an idea, a conception of nature into the city to bridge that
division that exists between man and nature, between the city and the
natural environment, in view of a possible reconciliation of the dichotomy
that has characterised the history of man for so many centuries.