Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, L'hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, 1992 (détail)[ * ]

Interview with Attilio Taverna / Intervista ad Attilio Taverna

Suzanne Foisy
Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières

Suzanne Foisy:

I'm interested in the philosophical dimension of your art and I would like to talk about the aesthetic experience that is involved in this dimension as well as the language and the metaphysics of light. The other point I would like to discuss is the psychology of perception. What do you think of the beauty in contemporary art and of aesthetic order ? the relation between art and science in your works and finally of the notion of form ?

I would like to know why in one of the previous lectures which took place at The Museum of Modern Art in Udine [Museo dell'Arte Moderna di Udine] (Italy) in 1994, you stated that the aesthetic experience, at a certain level of philosophical analysis, can be considered the mother of Ethics.

Attilio Taverna:

Title : Eccelso Kuwarizmi
Matter : oil on canvas
Dimensions : m 1, 50 x 1,50
Date of production : 1992

If we take the affirmation of Dostoevskij found in his novel The Idiot, the protagonist, Ippolit said : "Beauty will come and save the world". From this radical affirmation, we have to ask ourselves the reason why Beauty will ever have the possibility to save the world. And save it from what ? In my opinion, the clearest interpretation of this thought is the following: Beauty has the possibility of reconverting man's outlook on the world, i.e. from a dominating view to a marvelling one. And this possibility of reconversion, carried out by Beauty, is the same reconversion from which the interrogation of Philosophy originates. In fact, Philosophy was born from marvel (i.e. thauma in old Greek) - only marvel, can bring to light Philosophy. So, if Beauty reconverts men's outlook on the world, an outlook that starts with a dominating opinion and then reconverts it to a marvelling outlook, for the same reason man will relate himself to the world with amazement and thankfulness. He will then be grateful for what has been donated to him: the world. It is from this point onwards that both his ethical and interrogative dimension of Philosophy will initiate. So, in this sense Aesthetics which asks what Art's nature is and Art then asks what Beauty is, the latter reconverts man's outlook as explained previously, so Aesthetics can only be considered the origin of the ethical dimension. Concluding, Aesthetics is considered as the mother of Ethics.

S. F. :

I have another question regarding Beauty. I would like to know what Beauty is for you.

A. T. :

Let's not re-hatch to the Platonic past in the sense of the latest Idea of the Supreme Good as the apex of the hierarchy of Ideas, including Beauty, but let's leave it to act in the distant background and so we aren't saying anything completely innovative but not even the same thing. So, we could say: Beauty is something, which belongs to a non-bypassable chiasmus with Truth and Freedom. So as to say, Truth, Beauty and Freedom are one thing only from which we see different reflections in various moments of existence.

Considering everything, in my opinion, there isn't a great difference between these three constitutive terms. These three words are linked by an indissoluble unity of ontological order. Perhaps, the aesthetic experience is the most direct way in order to identify the three above-mentioned non-bypassable chiasmus in their specificity.

S. F. :

Your answer leads me to ask you another question : is Beauty the general sense of life ? And how is it brought out in your work ?

A. T. :

Title : Fantasma quantico
Matter : Oil on canvas
Dimensions : m 1,50 x 1,50
Date of production : 1992
Beauty is the general sense of life in the same way that Freedom and Truth are. With respect to what we said earlier, Truth, Beauty and Freedom are united in the same chiasmus i.e. in an indissoluble ontological link. Now, while you search for one, with a specific procedure, the others equally spring out in us in a symmetrical fashion, just like the riders of the Absolute know well that are the lover, the philosopher and the artist (in this face the lover finds Love, in this sentence the philosopher finds Truth, and in this work of art the artist finds Beauty). As if to say: wherever one searches for the reflection of the Absolute, that is where something of Beauty, Truth and Freedom exists, independent from the one you have searched for.

S. F. :

At this point, I think the question I would like to ask you is: what is the relation between what you said in that lecture on the metaphysics of light [Udine, 1994] and perceptive transparency?

A. T. :

Well, if I literally take what I said at the lecture, I held that : "[...] what is the ancient conception of Plotinus that transcended the platonic theory of Beauty with the postulate - one does not give a theory of Beauty without light being taken into consideration - it has to be transformed, now, in the present, in research on the effects of light in so far it is light which is the revealer of the quantum nature of reality". Here it seems to me that one has still to say something that, in that lecture was left unsaid. Here : the profound meaning of Plotinus' thoughts in his famous lines on light and on Beauty, is very vast, but let's try it, if not perfectly to shed at least some light or to understand the essential co-ordinates of this immense ontological domain.

Plotinus believes that Plato's famous theory on Beauty is incomplete in that it is founded on proportions, on symmetry, on golden section, on continuum of many ways of being, that continue, and progressively refine themselves arriving to the summit of Beauty in itself, like Idea. This theory of Beauty seems incomplete to Plotinus, not because he didn't share the platonic ontology but because in this stupendous transit of gradual rareness that allows the soul (psyche in old Greek) to trespass from the sensible to the intelligible - through the Doctrine of Ideas - it ignores, neglects, does not see, in the end, the original strength of light.

This platonic theory of Beauty "does not see" that the original phenomenon is the appearance of light. It is from here that one has to begin. The phenomenal analysis is hence successive to this original appearance. Then, once light appears, and only after, can one analyse and maybe conceive a theory of Beauty; but before this, there is an event that is even more original : the blaze that illuminates the cosmos with a blinding glow. Much earlier Heraclites had said : "... the glow that governs everything...". Only this way one could understand how Plotinus could have said : "...and all of a sudden a Form gleamed". This suddenness is the original enigma, the same enigma of light without which you could not come up with a theory of Beauty, and hence, not even the platonic one; not even a Form. Whatever it may be.

From the beginning, questioning the being of Light and its abyssal mystery (questioning its Form?) is the original interrogation. This question can be formulated only by assuming the marvel (thauma in old Greek) that something has appeared. But what actually is this appearance of the appeared ?

Take note : The interrogation on the concepts which bring about appearance is not the same interrogation of which has appeared. Actually, it is the contrary : the above-mentioned interrogation is the questioning on the (formal) conditions of the possibility of appearance itself. One thing is to say what is appeared (the entity, precisely). Another thing is to say what is the appearance of the appeared. Who can ask this question? Or better: who can identify the conditions of the possibility of the appearance of the appeared? Science? Philosophy? Art?

S. F. :

Maybe then, Aesthetics introduces us to a new type of Truth?

A. T. :

I think we can say the following : throughout its history, Art has always questioned the appearance. It has always visually represented the appeared. Physics, that most of all in our lifetime, has been in perfect agreement and harmony as the science of all sciences, even it has always questioned the appeared of the entity, with its own scientific paradigm. It's true that Philosophy has also questioned the appeared but even the conditions of possibility of appearance and in its speculative interrogation, it is said to be "first philosophy" or metaphysics. Therefore, once again : who can ask such a question?

Ontologically speaking, what is the appearance of the appeared ? Who can propose such a vertiginous question? Which dimension of Truth can at this point legitimately "show" as sense to this question? What is the light? What is it that produces the appearance of the appearance? And therefore, of reality?

And this is where you notice the epistemological ridge, which divides the two domains of thought that concern our dialogue : that of science and that of art. And this is where there is polar inversion of the two statutes. The inversion of the two dimensions of truth: that truth that science demonstrates and that truth that art shows us. They are two domains, ontologically incompatible, irreconcilable, not quite enemies, but for sure, absolutely irreducible one from the other.

The truth of the scientific paradigm finds its legitimacy in identifying the formal-mathematical law which underlies the phenomenon - seeing that Nature is conformable to itself everywhere - the mathematical law which is locally found for this same reason becomes universal law. So, the dimension of scientific truth is demonstrative, exemplary in its experimental truth. Nonetheless, this scientific dimension of science is also emblematic of an hypothetical knowledge because this knowledge is submitted to continual epistemological corrections. Its own laws, previously found, are gradually abandoned at the birth of other laws, which are considered more explicit and confirmed in a more experimental manner. So, the scientific knowledge is a type of knowledge that cannot for this reason confer in no manner the sense of totality to the enigma of the original appearance. Instead, this scientific knowledge explains the appeared entity and its "reciprocal relations" and it also manages to explain it according to its latest formal and constitutive modalities. Science and Physics therefore, look for and want to demonstrate the foundation of the world. They might even find it.

Art is not like this. The dimension of truth in art is, in actual fact, completely the contrary. In contrast with science, it aesthetically experiences the world as a foundation. From this mystery of the world Art rebounds sensitively the echoes through the aesthetic experience which for this reason becomes the partial revelation of that enigma. This unveiling of a fragment of that presence i.e. the world as a foundation. In this manner, you can say that Art brings to light the world in the world. The affirmation that Aesthetics is the mother of Ethics is renewed once again, in so far the gift, only for its being it is the foundation of an ethical reflection. The world that is an appeared presence but it is also an irreducible, unexplained and inexplicable appearance in its final constitution. Of course, even Art cannot explain the original truth of the enigma of the world and the world's appearance just like science. But, contrariwise to science, it can show fragments, visions, appearances and worlds which are something like sensitive bits, that in their partial fragmentarism allows us to filter rifts of sense regarding Otherness infinitively unreachable, the original appearance and precisely the totality.

The finiteness, due to its partiality, cannot reconcile itself completely in the infinitive but it can evoke the sense of the infinitive. So Art does not demonstrate but shows. When art has the self-awareness of itself as Art i.e. knows itself as a revealing experience of the truth-in-being - the unveiling of a fragment of the original appearance - it does not represent anything but presents itself. Through its ontological statute it presents a sketch, a piece and a vision of that infinitive Otherness which is not reducible to the finiteness but it lets the evocation of the infinitive rifts of sense i.e. the Sense.

In the Platonic dialogue Cratilus it showed how the geometrical demiurge enjoyed itself playing the geometrical game just like a besotted lover of geometry. Plato affirmed : "Even the Gods are lovers of games"; Plato's demiurge played geometrically but he played with an irrational ratio or with a non-geometrical geometry. And in the Laws Plato reaffirmed "Live by playing the best of all games". And before Plato, Heraclitus's antique fragment said : "The cosmic child playing with coloured fragments creates worlds". So, the artist, just like Heraclitus's cosmic child, plays too.

Even Art is a game but of all man's games - usually the most appalling ones like those of war, reign, power, domination of man over man this game of Art is the most sublime of all. It's the game, which most explicitly shows the essence of man himself. For this reason, Art whilst playing brings to light the world in the world and itself together with the world, personally speaking, remains "the last possible dimension of Truth". Like M. Heidegger had already affirmed : Art is truth-in-being; Art is the historical becoming of the truth.

S. F. :

Now I would like to return to your aesthetic experience in order to know how you realize the perceptive transparency in your works, in so far I know that the theorisation of the perceptive transparency was first carried out by Prof. Metelli at Padova University [Università di Padova] (Italy) and also that you are the first artist to have ever applied it in painting. Finally what is the impact of the perceptive transparency notion on Art in general?

Title : Struttura monadica ? Forse. Ma noo !
Matter : Oil on canvas
Dimensions : m 1,50 x 1,50
Date of production : 1991


The idea that an object is transparent usually have two meanings :

a) if you refer to the fact that the light can filter through an object, the meaning of transparency is physical. For example, when we look out of a window or in the water.

b) if you refer to the impression of looking through but only having an opaque surface that bars the light, then the meaning applied to transparency is perceptive.

Glass is physically transparent and can, in certain circumstances of luminosity, either simultaneously be transparent distantly or the reflection of another image present in itself, and in this way producing two images, where one is the fruit of physical transparency while the other is the fruit of perception of a reflection. There are cases however, where a physically opaque surface can, once followed by some chromatic remodelling, exhibit a feeling of space and at the same time, the idea of another space is present on the same surface. Thus, the former space becomes perceived as transparent and the second as transparent with respect to the first; even so, physically speaking, none of all is objectively transparent, given that we are always in the presence of an opaque reality or one that is bi-dimensional. This is the visual phenomenon that is meant by the term perceptive transparency and this phenomenon is exclusively created from our nervous system.

Title : A-periodicità magica
Matter : Oil on canvas
Dimensions : m 1,50 x 1,50
Date of production : 1992

Retinal stimulation, that is the ensemble of stimuli of light that reaches the retina, contains no specific information about the transparency of chromatic mosaic when it analyses and scans the painted surface. With respect to the characteristics of the coloured mosaic-like pieces one next to the other they do not allow light to filter superpositionally amongst themselves and thus, do not transmit information about their physical transparency. Therefore, perceptive transparency is a new fact that originates in the nervous system as an effect of the distribution of stimuli of light that interacts with the retinal tissue. Perceptive transparency depends on spatial relations and on reflected light from a relatively spacious area, more than the light reflected from the pictorial zone that has been perceived as being transparent. In other words, physical transparency cannot in any way explain perceptive transparency, which depends on things that are to be found in nature from visual stimulus, in the structure of processes from the nervous system linked to spatial-chromatic relations of a geometric order.

It is true that in reality the problem of perceptive transparency, taken by itself, would remain a problem within the dimension of the psychology of perception and thus confined to a discipline that is not really central in the development of problems in Art. However, all of Art, has always been nourished by problems inherent to perception because Painting, before anything else, is survey on the nature of space and yet space is the object of visual perception.

Thus the problem with perceptive transparency introduces, in my point of view, an enormous revolution with respect to the nature of space. In fact, whatever idea of space we have, this idea is logically derived from a body of geometry, which can be Euclidean or non-Euclidean. The fact alone that for only one hundred years we have had a non-Euclidean system of geometry, a system that is perfectly coherent, axiomatic, non-contradictory, along with the one we have had for two thousand years that is Euclidean, and coherent, axiomatic, non-contradictory too, shows at least one thing: that the truth about the nature of space is not univocal. In fact, with the birth of non-Euclidean geometry, it was discovered that there existed an infinite number of other possible types of geometry, all perfectly rational, all perfectly axiomatic, all perfectly non-contradictory. Just as there is only one real world, and there are at least two axiomatic geometrical systems, the illusion that each axiomatic system is in a biunivocal correspondence with the truth of real space, it is destined to fail. All of this happened even in the foundations of mathematics, in fact even for this, as an axiomatic formalised system, it was conceived as in biunivocal correspondence with reality. In other words, the illusion existed even for mathematics that is that it was the perfect "adaequatio" between mathematical formalism and reality. But even this illusion was destined to fail. This fact leads us to an idea concerning the nature of the truth that is quite complex, at least with respect to the dimension of scientific truth appeared in this century, that already has its foundation in mathematics with almost insoluble paradoxes. One just has to think of the paradox of falsehood from the beginning of the century in Mathematical Logic by Bertrand Russell and in 1931 the theorems of Kurt Gödel on indecisiveness and incompleteness for every axiomatic formal system. In the final analyses, the concept of truth derived from these formal systems whether in mathematics or in geometry, like those used in the foundations of science, also become non-univocal.

The perceptive transparency in art, due to its great visual possibility to multiply the spatial dimensions; the spatial relations and due to its implacable optic truth by its visual examples which permit therefore, the same passage between the two geometric systems; the Euclidean and the non-Euclidean. If you may, what is realized visually in Art then allows every possibility of overlapping of geometries. In the final analyses, it allows me to visually combine that which axiomatically can not be combined, or else, Euclidean geometry and non-Euclidean geometry. Only perceptive transparency can allow us to see these visual solutions. From this point of view, for every eventual future notion of space, perceptive transparency is a revolutionary element. In a more tangible manner, that which touches on the form of paintings, allows us to find new ideas on the nature of space, that beforehand were not possible: neither visually nor pictorially and thus artistically. That is to say, then, in conclusion, if an idea of the infinite is possible, it is because there is an aesthetic experience that through perceptive transparency renders it possible.

Suzanne Foisy

The artist's website :

And email :

Title : Dove si distinguono qui, logica ed esperienza
Matter : Oil on canvas
Dimensions : m 1,50 x 1,50
Date of production : 1992

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