On November 19, 2014, Fulvio Testa spoke with The Hopkins Review’s David Yezzi about “The Freedom of the Artist,” before an audience at The New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture in New York City. Since 1980, Testa has devoted himself to painting in watercolor and oils and has had numerous exhibitions in the United States, Mexico, and Europe. He has written and illustrated several children’s books. In 2012, The New York Review of Books published Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio with Testa’s illustrations. He has studied architecture in Florence and Venice, and he divides his time between Verona, Italy, and New York.
I want to talk about the freedom of the artist.
I immediately think of John Berryman’s book Freedom of the Poet. Berryman’s hundredth anniversary is this year, and just shortly before he died he signed a contract with Farrar, Straus, and Giroux for a book of essays called Freedom of the Poet. Sadly, he never wrote an essay called “Freedom of the Poet,” so one wonders what Berryman would have had to say on that topic.
Berryman’s own work—which ranged from “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet” and went on to the crazy, jazzy Dream Songs to the wonderful essays on Shakespeare—here was someone who constantly found freedom in his work. So, freedom and the artist. In what sense?
I realize it might sound rather ambitious. Freedom is a strange word. In my language, Italian, there is just liberta. It appears very often, but it’s less defined in some ways. In English you have “freedom” and you [End Page 59] have “liberty.” In English, you can say “I take the liberty” of doing something.
The word “freedom” is very abstract. But it’s also contradictory. I was in London recently, and I saw an exhibition of photographs taken by Dennis Hopper at the Royal Academy. For me, the movie Easy Rider is about freedom and the responsibility of being free. You have a combination of freedom and responsibility. It’s a complete contradiction—you have two opposites. It’s got this duality.
For example, think about Gauguin. He was a successful broker, he had money, he had a nice house, a wife, a child, a collection of important paintings, and he gave up everything little by little. He was really drawn by something else, which was the desire to create. And he sacrificed everything. He lost the work, the house. He became quite poor. You know, we could easily condemn him.
Isn’t he giving up liberty? Now he can’t go to the opera, he can’t have a family, he can’t own a house.
No, but in Paris, in the second half of the nineteenth century, there was a kind of call to values, because art had become a commodity. Van Gogh was the same. He was an art dealer, a young art dealer. In the family of Van Gogh, you had four different art dealers. And little by little they became what they became. I think Van Gogh and Gauguin are two examples of artists who sacrificed everything for what they believed in, to be free from obligations. But free from obligations doesn’t mean that you are free from responsibility. So I’m very much fascinated by this aspect. I don’t have answers. I’m puzzled by this.
First of all, it may be worth making some distinction. Tell me if you agree with this. From what you’re describing, it seems to put life in a kind of antagonism: life versus the art.
It’s a fight. [End Page 60]
I think we all feel that in different ways, so how do we make ourselves free enough to produce work. At the same time we need to eat, we need to survive. Here are Gauguin and Van Gogh who are making real sacrifices in their life, I think in terms of conventional life, in terms of their families, leaving that behind in order to adopt more freedom.
For their work.