Raimondo Puccinelli, had he lived, would have been 110 years old on 5 May 2014. As a small child he actually lived through the destruction of the historic San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. We can easily imagine “little Raimondo” amongst the debris of the California city, (carelessly built on the San Andreas Fault, one of the worst seismic areas in the world). This situation provides us with a symbol of his life both as a man and an artist, in that he had a firey temperament, destined to live through a series of incandescent circumstances and meetings with people.
The studio in which he lived and worked in Piazzale Donatello in Florence, still exudes a romantic atmosphere. He was born in California of a Tuscan father and a mother of Swedish origin. He never actually publicised his Swedish side, as his daughter Rodi says, “As an artist it was better to be just Italian. But he did have nordic traits, pervaded as he was by a feeling of tragedy and underlying melancholy”.
He admired Donatello, Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci and Rodin, explaining the following, “I do not search only for the narcisism of ideal beauty, but rather for intellectual and spiritual qualities; a revelation. For me the nude of the human figure is not only the traditional nude of the human body, but the nude of body and soul, the interpretation of the spirit which the artist reveals by means of the body.”
It is said that excellent actors are able to move an audience by simply reading a telephone directory. But, even before seeing Puccinelli’s beautiful works of art, we become enchanted by the names of the friends he had and by his experiences. For example, it was Henri Matisse who, in the Thirties, sensed Puccinelli was destined to be a sculptor and encouraged him to follow this path. He also pointed out the right galleries that he should approach in New York. The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, with his impressive long beard, had a strong influence on his youth; he met him in California when he was nineteen. He was also acquainted with the Indian dancer and choreographer, Uday Shankar, elder brother of Ravi; dancers such as Martha Graham and Mary Wigman who “led him through the dance”. About the French composer Edgard Varèse, with whom he had a long friendship, he said, “He taught me to listen to music”.
In San Francisco he shared studio space with Diego Rivera. He met Léger and Kokoschka. He teamed up with Orson Welles against the Spanish Civil War. He travelled amongst the Native Americans when it was not yet fashionable to do so. He went to Machu Picchu when it was still not commercialised. And he came to Italy to see the perfect marble used by Michelangelo. In 1955-‘56 he was cultural ambassador of the United States to South America, and visited nearly all the countries there (all but one). He was professor of sculpture at the University of California, Berkeley, at the University of North Carolina, at Queens College in New York, and Rinehart School of Sculpture in Baltimore. But he himself was far from being accademic or competitive.
His daughter Rodi says, “He actually spoke Spanish better than Italian and had a masterful use of the English language. Growing up in California in the first half of the twentieth century, meant growing up in a melting pot of the East and West. This endowed him with a very open-minded and international view of things. He was very inward and introspective, and had a deep feeling for Nature and spirituality. However he could also explode into terrible bouts of anger”.
He was handsome, even though he was often distressed by bad health. He had light coloured eyes and an ancient, artistic thick mop of hair. He recited Calderon de la Barca, sang Di quella pira (from Aida by Verdi). Women were crazy about him, but he loved his wife Esther, with whom he fell madly in love when he saw her dance. In 1956-1957 he moved (slowly and sporadically) to Florence with his daughter Rodi. Esther, who had studied dance with a pupil of Rudolph Van Laban, also worked in the studio of the famous weaver and cloth designer Dorothy Liebes; first in San Francisco and then in New York. Amongst others, she collaborated with people like Frank Lloyd Wright. She finally joined Raimondo permanently in the early sixties.
Puccinelli had already lived in Italy during fascist times, but he realised that the regime did not agree with him, so he went back to his native city, San Francisco. His father had actually gone to California to get away from the looming figure of his own father. In fact Raimondo’s grandfather was the architect and engineer Giuseppe Puccinelli, who was a close friend of the composer Giacomo Puccini and designer of some of the latter’s most famous villas. He was also a collector of fine first editions of Giacomo Leopardi and others, and was definitely a prominent celebrity, and difficult to deal with as a parent. Raimondo became fond of him at once, at first sight.
His daughter Rodi claims that “sculptors don’t keep much company amongst each other.” In fact in Florence he became close to poets such as Mario Luzi, Carlo Betocchi, Piero Bigongiari. Puccinelli was capable of working in any medium - bronze, wood, marble, stone, clay, terracotta, pink granite, and has left us his bewitching figures of women who become fish or ocean waves; male and female dancers; faces with their hair blowing in the wind, and drawings which have a nearly plastic quality about them. He made famous depictions of Martha Graham, Mary Wigman, Edgard Varèse. There is a photo of a smiling Rodi who, as a child, is lovingly embracing the large, pink granite portrait of Varèse which now stands at Columbia University in New York.
Now she is a precious witness of this artist’s incessant search to find the soul beneath the mere surface of things. As Rodi says, “There appears to be a unfathomable difference between the artistic style of the early Puccinelli works, (after all, in the beginning he had studied abstract art) and what was to evolve during the years to come. The difference might grow out of the use of different materials; from the geometric simplicity of granite, diorite and porphyry, to the rougher, more tormented surfaces of the sculptures in bronze; first made in plaster, and then worked upon, carefully reworked, painstakingly chiseled, built up with more plaster, hammered down, filed, either with sculptors’ tools or anything else handy, from kitchen knives to hatchets. He added plaster and then cut into it, carving and etching, adding and removing. After the plaster came the founding into bronze, using the lost wax process, not from clay, as many might have used, because it is easier. Vacations were considered inconceivable and meaningless”.
An important collection of his works is conserved in the Tanzarchiv of Cologne, Germany. In Fresno, in California, there is a Mother and Child, which is rather unusual, as his grandson the composer and tenor Giovanni Biswas explains, “This is one of the few sculptures in which my grandfather seems to narrate suffering as a historical fact as well as a universal one. I think that the first thing that I would perceive, even if I didn’t know that the sculpture was done around 1940 (just think about how many and what kind of tragedies were raging and ruling the world at that time and what wars and what violence!), would be the sense of tragedy. Please note that I emphasise “sense of tragedy” not a “feeling of sorrow”.
In recent months his daughter Rodi has been receiving quite a few emails regarding her father, with questions about him, proposals, and compliments, like a true celebration of the hundred and tenth anniversary of the artist’s birth. Germany recently dedicated a retrospective exhibition to him at Cappenberg. The Germans have always given great value to Puccinelli’s art, ever since Hans-Joerg Modlmayr and his wife Hildegaard bought some of his works in 1974 and began to promote and disseminate it. Until then his daughter Rodi had been as a kind of “agent” for her father.
“I find that art is humanism, knowledge, balance. It is the breath of life itself. We must respect life. The artist must work with faith and not search for that which is easy, but prefer that which is lasting”. Many years ago he wrote, “Today we really very much need to renew our aspirations and human ideals.” So do we.
Translation by Rodi Puccinelli Biswas and Baret Magarian