The embodied dimension in Emilio Scanavino’s work

The artist opens up his body and projects his soul outside

The study of Emilio Scanavino’s (1922-1986) works and poetics could only lead me to a reflection on the latest openings of aesthetics in the context of the neurophysiological experience of the brain. The act of looking and observing implies a kind of vision that is not exclusively about sight. Rather, the synesthetic activation of all the senses engages the emotional sphere too, and that of intentional connections.

Cognitive neuroscience shows how human intelligence is closely linked to the corporeity of individuals and to experience. An artistic research where the tactile dimension of the materials, the signification of sign and gesture, the semantic amplification of the footprint, of the gap, of the imprint, the repetition of forms as archetypes, such as Scanavino’s, could only nourish and foment reflections on the complexity of the brain-body and mind system, on the processes of cognition, perception and action in expressive action. This heuristic perspective can help develop dialogue and a convergence of view-points on the processes of artistic production and interpretation.

Embodied simulation and creative act

The identification of mirror neurons and the first reflections on neuronal bases are able to determine simulative reactions such as human responses to art, go back to the 1990s. By now, it’s clear that the mirror neuron system (MNS) is located in the ventral premotor cortex and in the posterior parietal cortex, and that mirroring systems react to observed or imagined actions, especially if oriented toward an objective, engaging the same areas as when carrying out that action directly in the first person. The same was found for emotions. For example, seeing a disgusted face activates the cerebral areas that specialize in disgust.

The resulting implications lead us to reflect in a new way on the empathic relationships between art and viewer in terms of embodied simulation.  The somatic states described and implicitly deducted from paintings and sculptures thus involve the observer on a profound level, viscerally activating empathic and sensory responses.

For example, the observation of smooth rather than rough surfaces activate the somatosensory cortex, as if the body were being solicited by tactile sensory stimulation.  Then there is the phenomenon of affordance, according to which an object contains intrinsic manipulative properties suggested by its shape. The motor programme at the basis of the creative act is thus evoked in the brain of the observe who, like a new demiurge, traces the process of the origin of the piece by simulating the action. Speaking of Scanavino, Renzo Guasco, as far back as 1987, wrote: «Standing before a painting, there is always a dilemma: observe it from outside, in a detached way, judging objectively according to a method? Or put oneself in the place of the painter (forcing oneself, convincing oneself to substitute the painter, which is always a purely imaginative substitution) to try to repeat the creative process? Look at Scanavino’s marks as one might look at photographs of petroglyphs, cave paintings, and Eastern characters, which fascinate us even if we do not know their meanings» (R. Guasco, in C.M. Accame, Evocazione e presenza, 1987, p. 150).

Untitled, vintage black and white print, 1970s
Mark and latency

Scanavino’s painterly hand unfurls a tangle, inextricable ball of yarn, arranges segments next to one another, generates fragments of forms and eruptions of blood until, bit by bit, the structure takes shape and the image, in its appearance, reveals the deep meaning of existence.  
Scanavino’s image reveals latency through a signifier gesture: the imprint is the result of the ancestral, instinctive act of pressing, subtracting, opening and eviscerating. In his works, a lack may be configured as a hole, trace, shroud, penetration, fecundation, womb, refuge, but also a prison, tomb, void or closure. There are ancestral themes, such a footprint or imprint left by a wheel, which recall rites of ancient memory.

The search of symbols in the world around is, for Scanavino, a necessary condition in order for signification to take place: «wrap up some twine and the result of the action is a ball. Unwind it and you get twine once again», but the thread may also envelop and shape a knot, a tangle. Twine and the act of tying, the object and the action: it is not just a question of relationships between meaning and signifier. The artist seems to be seeking essence, the mimetic gesture that leaves its trace, that cuts the line, shape and grapheme.

Emilio Scanavino (1922-1986), Reminder, 1974, oil con canvas
The sign is a dialectical image

The mark contains, in and of itself, the arrival of this intentional action, spread out over time. Standing before the work of Scanavino, the brain is lead to retrace the mark he leaves to seek out the twine in its fluidity and ensnares, closed and envelops. But what remains at the case of the tangle, the hole, in the heart of the knot, beyond a threshold? What holds the imprint, what betrays the mark? A lack.

The traces are what remains, the materialization of latency. For this reason, the mark is always a dialectic image, therefore symptomatic. The meaning lie in the mark that is expressed through knots, tangles, nets, grilles, snares, scraps and improvised rips and breakages, in the inflamed or grey and black backgrounds, where a trace brings distant, deep evocations to the surface, so ancient that memory no longer seems able to decipher them.

The matrix, the serial repetition of the module, becomes a need of immanence, a unique weave of space and time, where life beats with magmatic fragments, twigs, twine, iron lattices, roots, clumps, bread, windows, all the residue transported by consciousness.

Emilio Scanavino (1922-1986), Untitled, black and white vintage prints 1960s
The creative process

Scanavino himself speaks of artistic production in terms of embodiment: «For me, a panting is a sort of reversal… open your body and project your soul outward. This always led me to be too much on the canvas. I couldn’t get away from it. I experienced the canvas in bodily manner» (in G.M. Accame, 1990, Scanavino. Scritti e disegni. Lubrina Editore, Bergamo, p. 173).

He describes the creative process in terms of somesthesis, the total perception of the body within the body, splitting, ripping apart, sensual contact.  The work becomes a powerful means of contact, an osmotic threshold between inside and outside, between you and the: «I offer my hand, with the hope that it will be held by another; I offer my hand with the hope that something will be placed within it» (in G.M. Accame, 1990, p. 173).

Sara Uboldi

Sara Uboldi

PhD in Humanities, she deals with literary and artistic studies. She is author of the volume Neurobiologia della finzione. Dal Paleolitico al globale (Altravista, Pavia, 2018), and of articles and essays on literary criticism and contemporary art.