The Italian art of making wine and painting

by Lucy Birmingham

Imagine the colors of a vast Tuscan vineyard drenched in a September sun — emerald green leaves, gnarled brown vines, deep purple grapes, shale earth, azure sky — an artist’s inspiration for both palette and palate. For renowned Italian artist Sandro Chia, 63, these Tuscan colors, soaked into the ancient stories of the land, feed the roots of his life and work.

In 1985, Chia bought the Castello Romitorio winery, a crumbling castle and estate in the Siena hills of Tuscany, and has since transformed it into one of the top producers of Tuscany’s most famous wines, Brunello di Montalcino. Restoring the castle and winery is one of his life works, and the aromatic Brunello wines seem to parallel the man himself — transformed through aging and now at their peak. Like his wine, Chia’s works are ready to be savored.

The Italian Cultural Institute is now offering an opportunity to do just that. Until Dec. 17, as part of the “Italy in Japan” celebration, Chia is showing “Campestre Romantico” (“Romantic Bucolic”), an exhibition including 50 new drawings (some on Japanese paper), an oil canvas (2002) and a video installation.

The collection of small, framed drawings are an unusual divergence from his large oil paintings. Created with this Japan show in mind, they include past sketches and works on paper accumulated over his four-decade career. “It’s like traveling through the ages, but it’s also my work here and now — what I think now,” explained Chia in a telephone conversation with The Japan Times. “It’s like a short circuit between two kinds of time, the past considered as the present, and the present. I’m quite excited about the work. It was almost an existential experience for me.”

The tactile, rough frames are an integral part of the works, handmade with aged wood gathered from lumberyards and dismantled houses all over Italy. “The frames are very much related to the concept of wine,” said Chia. “Being old, being aged, at the same time being drunk and consumed now.”

“Painting is like wine. It’s transformation. With painting, you change raw materials like oil paint, linseed oil and pigments, and you turn them into a value, into a spiritual creation, into art,” said Chia. “It’s the same thing with wine. You start from the soil, from the most simple, basic elements. Then you bring what nature has given us into the (wine) cellar. It’s nature to culture. I call it the art of painting and the art of making wine. I think the processes are very similar and that’s why I can work on both almost simultaneously.”

Known largely as a figurative painter, Chia’s protagonists often reference Roman and Greek heroes and gods in humbled, human form. A mix of Modernism and Neoclassical themes, his style has been compared with Giorgio de Chirico.

He is himself an imposing 183 cm tall. At first glance he emanates a serious, philosopher’s demeanor, so the autobiographical allusions to his figures are clear — large and often muscular men who endure a hero’s challenges and tragic solitude. But in person, Chia radiates the warmth of his Tuscan colors, brushed with robust energy.

Born in Florence, Chia was steeped in art history as a boy, when he would wander into cathedrals, captivated by the magnificent paintings and frescoes, and visit the Uffizi Gallery with his family on Sunday afternoons. He entered the Istituto d’Arte in Florence in 1962 and then the Accademia di Belle Arti in 1967, graduating in 1969. After traveling abroad, he settled in Rome in 1971 where he launched his artistic career.

He was quickly recognized as a key member of the late ’70s to ’80s Italian movement of figurative painting known as Transavanguardia (“beyond the avant garde”). In 1980 he was invited to New York City for an exhibition with Francesco Clemente and Enzo Cucci, where the three Italian Neo- Expressionists were dubbed the “three Cs.” This journey was the beginning of his 20-year expatriate life in New York City.

It was an intense, roller-coaster period for Chia. In the ’80s he gained considerable fame but was also criticized for his “light-weight” painting style. A widely publicized tug of war with the powerful art dealer Charles Saatchi in the early ’90s devalued his work at auction, a scandal that has again reared its ugly head with Saatchi’s recently published book, “My name is Charles Saatchi and I am an Artoholic.”

Recalling this, Chia admits to some self-destructive tendencies. “It was a time when I was really restless and probably damaged my image,” he admits. “There is a moment when you want to prove yourself. Everything is going fine but you want to see how much is going fine for real. . . . You test yourself. It was a very cruel moment. For me, a Dr. Jekyl moment.”

After Chia left New York in July 2001, he returned to Italy where he was welcomed home, not unlike a hero, with numerous bookings for exhibitions. Although he continued to commute between Castello Romitorio and his home in Miami, his focus turned to Europe where collectors and invitations to exhibit have remained steady.

Chia has survived the test of time, perhaps in part because of his versatility as a painter, sculptor and printmaker, but also because his work is created by his own hand, unlike many artists of his caliber who depend on assistants. His video installation in the Italian Cultural Institute is a good example. Chia has been experimenting with art videos since the late ’70s when the genre was in its infancy. “They are totally homemade,” says Chia with a laugh. “I wasn’t humble enough to go to a technician. I wish I could receive help, but I can’t. . . . I like to take full responsibility for my work. If it’s bad, then I am the only guilty one. If it’s good I can take pride in it.”

Chia is now back in the spotlight, in tandem with a painting revival worldwide. His one-man show at the Charles Cowles Gallery in New York City last year set the pace. At this year’s Venice Biennale, his work was included in the prestigious Italian Pavilion and his show at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome will open in December.

“My relationship with my work now is very enthusiastic, even though I’ve reached a certain age. Probably I’m ripe for doing my best work,” he says. “For a while I probably had a problematic relationship, but now I feel really in tune. I don’t know how long it’s going to last, but it’s a good moment now.”

“Romantic Bucoli” at Istituto Italiano di Cultura runs till Dec. 17; open 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; free admission. For more information, visit (Japanese only)