THIS MONTH our theme is Kin, and we are celebrating the bonds that connect us — and asking what it really means to be related. One way to answer that question is through the work of renowned Italian artist Francesco Clemente, whose dreamy canvases impart a haunting sense of intimacy and often feel like they’re tapping into the subconscious. Clemente, who has been a formidable force in the art world for over forty years, has worked across a range of media, from oil painting to installation. His oeuvre, which often deals with themes of spirituality, psychology, and sexuality, reflects a controlled ferocity. And those pieces that deal with love and family are some of his most arresting.
Looking at Clemente’s portraits, I am most struck by his subjects’ eyes, the way that he telegraphs family ties even through their irises. Clemente’s portrait of Kimora Lee Simmons and her daughters, Ming and Aoki, for example, is a representation of three distinct individuals, but their resemblance is powerful. And it isn’t just shown through similarity. Something uncanny emerges from the painting, a resemblance of spirit — something you might not think possible in a two-dimensional art object.
His portrait of Nicole and Olympia Nagel elicits the same discomfiting sensation. The two women appear almost as copies — the blue eyes, the gaze, the flat affect — but also as utterly and only themselves. The way we often do with our family members. It’s a perfect, poignant illustration of the sum being more than its parts.
Settling into this contemplative season, and hunkering down for even more time than usual with those we call kin, I find myself particularly drawn in by these images. They show the weight and the solidity of our connections. They invite a certain slowness.
As with an old family photograph, I get lost in Clemente’s work, in its colors and its provocations. And especially in the gaze of the people he paints.
Header image: Francesco Clemente, "Portrait of Christos and Dimi Joannou" (2000). Oil on canvas.
Nina Renata Aron Writer
Nina Renata Aron is a senior editor of Departures based in Oakland, California. She is the author of “Good Morning, Destroyer of Men's Souls.” Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the New Republic, Elle, Eater, and Jezebel.
Francesco Clemente Artist
Francesco Clemente's oeuvre spans four decades and has achieved international acclaim. Throughout the 1970s he exhibited works that reflected his interest in the contemplative traditions of India, where he lived for several years. In 1981 Clemente moved to New York with his wife and four children. His paintings, drawings, prints, and illustrated books have been the subjects of numerous traveling exhibitions. Clemente has illuminated poetry by Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, and Rene Ricard, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.