There are two things which I have always meticulously avoided: writing crocodiles and speaking in public. I dislike the type of journalism which in jargon is aptly called crocodile. You can gather the meaning. It’s a biography (generally laudable) of a person who has recently passed away and whom one intends to celebrate but usually with hypocritical regret. Just like the reptile with big jaws who apparently weeps after having swallowed it’s victim.
Fortunately, on this occasion no director has forced me to write an elegy for Nino Cordio. On the contrary, it is of my own volition that I’m here to bear testimony to the affection and esteem I feel for a person, an artist I was tied to by the bond of friendship and that I have known and appreciated for over 40 years. It is precisely these sentiments that have allowed me to overcome my aversion to speaking in public.
Even Nino Cordio was a man of few words. And – unlike many characters in the world of art and culture – it wasn’t his custom to indulge in the popular trend of self praise. Neither was he one of those artist who with a verbal smoke screen of clever words managed to hide a complete absence of value or content in their work of art.
However, at the right moment, he knew how to express his thoughts with frankness and an effective dialectic, resorting at times, like any good Sicilian, to subtle forms of humour. He never abandoned the youthful habit of being argumentative, even when experience advised a more diplomatic approach. His judgement, often cutting and crushing, had the force of conviction behind it.
I met him in Rome in 1960, at an exhibition of young artists. Cordio is a little over 20 and I a couple of years older. His business card is a generous and extrovert temperament and an enthusiastic and sweeping vitality. But above all, it’s his work that gains him everyone’s attention.. The panel of judges at the exhibition are such that they would intimidate even established artists. They are Valerio Mariani (professor of history of modern art from Naples), the sculptor Michele Guerrisi ( director of The Academy of Fine Arts in Rome), and three shrewish characters called Carlo Levi, Mario Mafai e Giulio Turcato.
There is almost a massacre amongst the over 150 contestants: less than half are chosen for the exhibition. Cordio is amongst them with three works of art: two oil paintings and an engraving. Among the exhibitors are other worthy contenders who a little later on, we will see at important exhibitions such as the Biennale of Venice and the Quadriennali of Rome: they are the Argentinean Federico Brook, sculptor Valeriano Trubbiani from Macerate, Enrico Majoli from Ravena, Andrea Volo from Palermo and a young man called Antonio Faeti from Bologna ( who later becomes a university professor and international expert of literature and illustration for children)
Looking at Nino Cordio’s works, the never satisfied Mario Mafai gruffly murmurs “This boy knows his stuff”. And Carlo Levi brings to the attention of the judges the works of this young, unknown Sicilian from Santa Ninfa. He wins a prize of 50 thousand lira (donated to the competition by the Ministry of Education) and is given flattering encouragement from the judging panel.
In a public debate, the refined Valerio Mariani expresses an incisive and I would like to say prophetic judgement about Cordio. After having praised the pictorial qualities, his sensitive use of colour and his skilled composition, he affirms: “When this man paints he remains that which he essentially is in reality: an engraver. In Cordio’s brush stroke one can note his native disposition towards the mark.”
Some months later, Cordio (who in the meantime has had two works of art included in the Quadriennale) establishes himself in his first “personal…in a small but acknowledged gallery in Via del Vantaggio. Carlo Levi agrees to write the preface for the catalogue: “I first saw Cordio’s painting exhibited and awarded at the University Exhibition and they seemed to me to be the most interesting and vital amongst the works of art of the young artists there. The Quadriennale confirmed my impression: Even Cordio tends to express himself (a common phenomena in the youth of today) in forms that are clearly influenced by expressionism, that is to say that they explore reality through a vision which is inflamed, violent, critical, personal and deformed according to judgement and intuition. I believe that this approach, that reacts to the various modes of denial, of evasion and absence is – even for Cordio -positive. The same spirit is revealed in his recent engravings: where an authentic and rich personality appears full of expressive possibilities. “
At 23 years of age Cordio is a perfectly formed artist who has almost nothing left to learn in terms of invention and execution, having mastered the various techniques of painting, sculpture and engraving. Many years later, looking over together some pieces from the beginning of the sixties, we both agree that they were already indicative of his art, no less inferior to the more praised works of maturity.
This brings to mind – and the comparison doesn’t seem irreverent- another epoch where a youth named Michelangelo created, at the age of 24, his perhaps greatest masterpiece: the Pietà which even today leaves us marvelling at the miracle of it. But Cordio is a modest and self-critical young man. Having finished the Academy of Fine Arts he goes, in 1962, to Paris to train diligently under a very renown and today considered exclusive atelier, Friedlander.
That year he wins first prize in an exhibition for his engravings and is awarded an important gold medallion from the Presidency of the Senate. He gives me the task of accepting it in his name and sending him it’s equivalent worth in francs. Those years of training and sacrifices are the difficult years from which international acclaim is to emerge in the years to follow.
Not even his friends refrain from giving him warnings and criticism. A certain Guiseppe Sicari in an article published in the daily “La Giustizia”, throws him the gauntlet and sustains that: ” …Cordio’s excessive exuberance, his passionate and dramatic nature could be harmful to his art in the sense that they induce in the artist a tendency towards a social and political commitment which diminishes his earlier authentic poetic verve.
In fact, in this period, the risks of politicising are not theoretical. Many artists remain trapped in conformist and propagandistic modules. They end up being simple illustrators or replicates whose personalities, inventive spirit and freedom have been destroyed. An innate sense of control saves Cordio from certain slides into politics that could be fatal and guides him towards a higher purpose.
1963 marks the year of his teaching appointment at an high-school specialised in arts. A secure income – he tells me – to help cover the costs of the studio. And so begins an intensely creative period marked by 15 personal exhibitions, always with new works of art, given in the space of three years.
In 1965 we find ourselves in Capo D’Orlando, Sicily for the occasion of an extemporaneous art exhibition. One afternoon I accompany him to Villa Piccolo to visit Lucio Piccolo, the poet of “Canti Barocchi”. Cordio is impressed by both this character and the environment in which he lives. Piccolo dies in 1968. And when , in 1975, we return on a pilgrimage to the places inhabited by the poet in his solitary life, Cordio, as if in a trance, begins taking notes, making sketches and taking photographs. In 1978, after three years of intense work, we have one of Cordio’s major works: a portfolio of 10 colour engravings entitled “The Poet’s Villa” presented by Leonardo Sciascia.
There is an image in those engravings of a swaying Mediterranean palm. It is a palm which has almost become an icon of his art. It is not the fruit of an act of skill, but the re-proposal of a symbol of vitality and natural beauty. And only just recently have I been able to see the palm of Villa Piccolo again in a stupendous and sunny poster designed by Cordio for an edition of “Premio Italia”, which took place in Palermo at the beginning of the 1990’s. Our artist has, in the meantime , become important and established: a thick monograph; exhibitions in prestigious locations such as the ex State Chalcography; reviews that will remain a part of history by the likes of Renato Guttuso, Enzo Siciliano, Franco Russoli, Giorgio Petrocchi, Ferruccio Ulivi, Guido Giuffrè and Andrea Camilleri…
His extraordinary relationship with Sicily, where he returned frequently and not just to visit his mother and family, deserves a more thorough mention. Few people know about his involvement in setting up projects of solidarity in his birth place, Santa Ninfa, after the disastrous earthquake which hit Belice in 1968. They are circumstances that we shall not forget to consider in another occasion.
Of Nino, we dearly remember his simple approach devoid of haughtiness, his lack of exhibitionism, his coherence in life and his almost craftsmen-like commitment to his usual technical modes of expression both in the experimentation of new techniques and in alfresco. To conclude, I hope you will allow me to quote a brief extract from one of my articles published in “Corriere della Sera” in 1967:
We can distinguish three phases in Cordio’s works of art: in the first, decidedly naturalistic, phase the Artist sometimes succumbs to his passionate and exuberant temperament, leaning toward expressionistic type experiences that manifest themselves through violent chromatics. The works in this phase include some engravings of a landscape immersed in a vibrant lyrical atmosphere created by the emotional intentions of the Artist’s touch. There are also a series of “figures” from which transpire, through the play of light and shadow, of sinuosity and the tight network of lines, decidedly 3 dimensional forms in movement with bar relief effects that have a rare impact. These are the same forms that will continue to arise for years – in the artist – and that emerge, no longer as inserted elements in a composition but as autonomous creations, in the small bronzes exhibited this year at “Nuova Pesa”. (the year is 1967)
The engravings of the first period reveal a meditated, even if poetically felt, structure. However, the excited, nervous touch of the artist prevails in the end exploding into thousands of iridescent strokes that confer vitality to the objects, give expression to the figures and animate the landscape.
The year spent in Paris in 1962 is instrumental in the evolution of the Artist, whose expressive language becomes more controlled and at the same time distances itself from the naturalistic form. His incisive, dense, and corrosive style always unleashes a charge of emotions. But the images are rarefied. They have become more essential, more allusive and almost magical.
His first colour engravings belong to this period. They are produced by the system of superimposing plates. Having perfected the technique of colour engraving, Cordio has given us the best of himself. Naturally, this doesn’t mean that our Artist has exhausted the realm of his artistic potential and not just because he is very young either. Cordio, with his charge of vitality and enthusiasm that sets him apart, will not miss the opportunity in the years to come to present us with a re-elaboration of his new and more coherent poetic and stylistic search.
At this point I believe I’ve said everything (or almost) that I wanted to say, and therefore conclude my contribution. Nino Cordio is no longer with us, but the results of his great art and the memory of his extraordinary qualities as a man, are always with us in our hearts and in our minds. These are treasures that have enriched us like few others in a narrow-minded age bereft of enthusiasm. Goodbye Nino.
Todi, December 3rd 2000