This text is a summary of conversations that occurred via Skype in August 2014.
Elio Cappuccio: In your work the traditional figures of medieval bestiaries are woven together with universal themes, to attain a depiction that deals with the theme of the relationship between man and the animal.
Rafael Megall: The animal is marked by behaviors that are determined by the survival instinct, man is always faced with choices in which the instinctive dimension represents a constant, which, however, must be subjected to the analysis of reason. A rational mediation is present in man that is unknown to the animal.
Elio Cappuccio: We always have an ambivalent relationship to the animal. The animal can be seen as something completely other with respect to man: on the one hand there is reason, on the other there is raw instinct. In another way, however, from a naturalistic and Darwinian perspective, the animal is a reference to our origin. Just think about how from this Darwinian perspective our progenitors are apes. Do you feel closer to this naturalist, Darwinian perspective or to a perspective that believes we are descendants of Adam?
Rafael Megall: I am not far from the idea that the existence of an evolutionary perspective guided by a divine principle is possible.
Elio Cappuccio: This means that you do not see a clear opposition between nature and culture.
Rafael Megall: That’s right, because culture is born from predispositions that are already present in nature.
Elio Cappuccio: In your paintings you stress the fact that in building relationships with the world, man needs to mask his more irrational impulses. When I saw you’re the I cicli degli stati psicologici [Cycles of Psychological States] Adriano Tilgher came to mind; he is a little-known Italian philosopher who carefully studied Pirandello’s works. Tilgher wrote that in Pirandellian dramas there is a dialectic between life and form: life in its flow, overcomes all obstacles, but precisely because of this, society imposes limits on this flow, which would otherwise risk calling into question hierarchies and social roles. Do you think that choices exist that allow us to radically free ourselves from the mask? Can man do without the mask, or is it a social necessity, something that we cannot live without?
Rafael Megall: When man identifies with the mask that he has chosen to make his own, or that has been imposed on him, he loses all freedom to act. In my paintings the mask is a metaphor for the roles that are at the base of every social organization.
Elio Cappuccio: What you are saying makes me think of Tilgher’s thesis about Pirandello that I spoke to you about earlier.
Rafael Meghall: I don’t know Tilgher, but I obviously know Pirandello and I knew about this thesis about his works. There is a painting of mine, Sei volti sei maschere [Six Faces Six Masks], from 2012, that, while not explicitly referencing Six Characters in Search of an Author, certainly brings it to mind. Now you are making me think, among other things, that I read a Russian translation of Pirandello’s Six Characters. The interesting thing is that Pirandello makes meta-theater, the actors of his characters do not have to trick the spectator. The spectator must understand that he finds himself before actors that are reciting: the scenic fiction must be clear. In my paintings something similar happens, in the sense that I don’t want to trick the spectators on an emotional level, I want them to be aware of a situation they all face.
Elio Cappuccio: But do you think that we can free ourselves from the mask? Is the answer to freeing ourselves from it using it lightly, and being aware of the possibility of occasionally escaping the confines of a character that recites a part?
Rafael Megall: Freeing oneself from the mask means putting on another one. I ask myself if the soul accepts having a mask. From the point of view of a religious person, everyone must know how to express the best part of himself. But it is unthinkable that showing the best part of yourself is the same as not having a mask. Even when an individual is spontaneous, disinterested, or helpful to his neighbor, he is in some way wearing a mask. But no one can wear just one mask through the course of his entire life.
Elio Cappuccio: Aside from Pirandello there is another author that we can reference when speaking of your work: the German sociologist Georg Simmel. He maintained that life feeds culture and that the institutionalized forms of knowledge – systems of art, theories on style, artistic or literary trends, etc. – risk freezing up the energies that generate the culture itself.
Rafael Megall: This risk is always around the corner, especially when culture becomes academia or pure formalism. This is about the natural order of things. Psychoanalysis taught us that even the most elevated aspects of our existence can be the sublimation of drives that are anything but noble, that there is an instinctive part of us that recalls our animal side. This consideration leads to the dual role of the presence of the animal in our paintings: on the one hand it refers to the medieval bestiaries, on the other hand it references the ambivalence of human nature. I adore animals; I have two cane corso dogs, one of which I got in Italy. When I am home alone with my family I let them run about in the garden. I chose them because they are beautiful and courageous, and for their physical appearance. When, though, people come visit me I lock them up because I don’t know what kind of reaction the people that don’t know them will have. It all seems so banal, but to me it points to man’s frequently unconscious distrust of the animal. These two dogs are often the subjects of my paintings. When I paint at night they come into my studio and watch me in silence; it’s as if they understand what I am doing. I would like to be more extreme in my affirmation: at times their peacefulness as they watch me paint encourages me to keep going, because in them I find a dimension that is complimentary to my person. In this relationship with animals and nature I feel close to the Romantics.
Elio Cappuccio: The relationship with nature is an essential element in the literature and philosophy of German Romanticism. Think of Shelling, who saw the absolute in nature and maintained that art was the key instrument for understanding the dialectic tension at the base of nature itself. Or think of Schuman in music, who, in Waldszenen gives voice to the nature of the woods, or think of Turner’s fading of the marine landscape or the mountains. If I reference Armenia I must absolutely recall the name Ivan Aivazian, and think of his sea storms. In all these authors the contrast between culture and life seems nonexistent.
Rafael Megall: Your vision is suggestive and undoubtedly correct. Yes, it is true, on the conceptual level in my work man and nature are two sides of the same coin. This could be a common trait of Romanticism. But to be honest, I feel light years away from Romanticism, from Turner and from Aivazian. To be clear, I recognize the greatness of these artists. But it is one thing to recognize the greatness of an artist, it is another thing to share formal solutions with them, and their thought which is tied to the time in which they lived. My painting is more stamp-like, I use spot colors. I am quite far, as you may understand, from the Sturm und Drang from which German Romanticism was born. The fact that in speaking of my work you felt the need to bring Romanticism up makes me curious.
Elio Cappuccio: I spoke of Romanticism because you maintain that the dual condition and ambivalence of man constitutes the principal dynamic of existence. In everything that you say the dialectic tension between passion and reason, instinct and thought, the drive and moral principles emerges. The romantic understanding of nature, in Schelling in particular, can be identified in the polarity between nature and spirit, or between the conscious and unconscious. Art, again, according to Schelling, was the only human activity capable of expressing this dialectic. You can’t negate that these elements are present both in your work and declarations.
Rafael Megall: I do not disagree, theoretically speaking, with anything you are saying. But I am a painter, I express myself through images. On the level of style I do not see myself in Romanticism, but it is also true that I am drawn to research the traces of Romanticism that are present in Symbolism. That’s why I feel closer to Vardges Surenyants than I do to Ivan Aivazian, if we stay within the bounds of the Armenian art you referenced. It is also true, however, that at times I feel the need to paint in a way that is different than the style that characterizes my spot color paintings. Sometimes I use a more expressionist hand, which, in some ways evokes a climate that belongs to the Parisian abstraction of the fifties because of the softness of color, or to the postmodern painting of the eighties. Every time I change my style to make one of these paintings I feel reinvigorated, ready to return to what I consider “my painting”. I am referring to my paintings with the stamped style and layers of solid color.
Elio Cappuccio: Your reflection on the solid, non-expressionist color makes me think of the two-dimensionality of icons.
Rafael Megall: I construct my image differently; my works are always developed on different perspective planes.
Elio Cappuccio: That’s true, but it is also true that you don’t perceive a sculptural plasticity in your figures. And it is likewise true that you have painted icons and sacred images even if you covered them in textures reminiscent of ancient Armenian adornments.
Rafael Megall: What have you understood of these works?
Elio Cappuccio: I try. (laughs). For iconographers painting was like praying, and icons can be considered a visual prayer. They refuted the plasticity of the figures, precisely because it emphasized their physicality, while the body had to be transfigured in spiritual terms. It is clear to me that you have not painted your religiously themed paintings with this intention. The duality that you deal with in these works between the corporeal and the spiritual is not positioned in theological terms.
Rafael Megall: My intention is linguistic not theological.
Elio Cappuccio: Exactly. But it is also true that you repeat the image as if it were a module, and this happens with sacred icons as well.
Rafael Megall: That is a suggestive thesis. I know quite well that interpretations can contain aspects of the works that are unknown to the author. But it is also true that my work has a secular essence, even if it draws from the Christian iconographic tradition.
Elio Cappuccio: I agree, but it stands to reason that the choices of an artist are never only of a formal nature.
Rafael Megall: You give more importance to concepts, to what the work implies instead of its formal aspect.
Elio Cappuccio: I recognize that this is my own personal limit that stems from my philosophical upbringing, but it also comes from the fact that, in dealing with contemporary works in which the conceptual element is increasingly more relevant, I maintain that the contents are no less important than the form. Sometimes, to the contrary, they seem to take center stage with respect to the forms themselves. In 1994 I interviewed Arthur C. Danto, who, at the time was collaborating with Tema Celeste, the magazine managed by Demetrio Paparoni of which I was the deputy editor for some time. Danto was constantly present within the pages of the magazine, he never missed an opportunity to reaffirm that, from Duchamp on, artists had brought about the Hegelian prophecy of the death of art.
Rafael Megall: Content is fundamental for me. But continue with the death of art…
Elio Cappuccio: Hegel maintained that in art, gradually the spiritual content, and therefore the concept, would prevail over the perceivable form. Consequently art, understood as the form interpreted by the eye would be substituted by concepts that are understood through thought. Thus they would shift from the perceivable to the intelligible. The death of art does not mean, therefore that art would no longer have a reason to exist, but that it would pass, as Duchamp would say, from the retinal dimension to the conceptual one.
Rafael Megall: Of course. It’s undeniable that people who use the paintbrush must deal with the conceptual change that the historic avant-garde brought about in art. But it is also undeniable that art is free by nature and affirms, in one way or another, the plurality of styles. This plurality belongs to the stylistic choices of each artist as well; they can simultaneously be abstractist, figurative, conceptual or anything the artist wants. Do you think that the artist is asked to be coherent?
Elio Cappuccio: In the late modern era, asking an artist to be coherent on a formal level does not make sense. Even on the conceptual plane something similar is happening today, because of the end of the ideologies that contrasted one another throughout the 1900s. Ulrich Beck wrote that we are in the age of the “and”, meant as a conjunction as opposed to the “or” which indicates an opposition. For him the age of the “either, or” has surrendered to the age of the “and, and”. An example of this dynamic comes from the fact that today communist states base their economy on the same market laws that capitalist societies do. In art something similar happened, you admitted it yourself a little while ago when you affirmed that you can be abstractist, figurative and conceptual all at once. Going back to icons, it is living in the age of the “and, and” that allows you to use the icon without adhering to its theological aesthetic.
Rafael Megall: You know what… I see myself in what you said.