SM: Mosaic is sometimes seen as isolated from other modes of art-making, but your career has been decidedly inclusive, spanning mosaic, painting, drawing, sculpture. How do you see the interaction between your work in each medium?
NZ: When people tell me that I’m doing too many things, I sometimes reply that I feel sorry that I’m not able to compose music – but if I could, why shouldn’t I [do so]? Things differ from each other because of their form. If you ride a bicycle you have to know how to pedal, but if you drive a car it’s not necessary. Yet both are move- ment. This principle exists also in nature: what is the difference between an apple and a pear? Only the form. Don’t get me wrong: I could appear presumptuous if I just say I’m able to do different things – the point is how you do them. If I claim I can play soccer and ride a bike, but I don’t do either well, it would be absurd.
SM: When you first began working in mosaic, did you ap- proach the medium with preparatory sketches and paintings, or with an immediate gesture of the materials themselves, as championed by Gino Severini in the 1950s?
NZ: I enrolled in the Mosaic School of Spilimbergo in 1947, when the mosaic profession was taught as a craft without any sort of deeper examination of its cultural aspects. My family was not well off, and it was painful for me to see that other people had the pos- sibility of investing in their studies. My instincts led me to be a pro- tester. When I was attending my second year, I rebelled against my teacher (who is still alive and 102 years old now). He had given me a piece of marble and I had to cut it into many tesserae; after that, I was to polish them with a knife grinder and place them one next to the other. In my opinion, the main principle of mosaic art – i.e., the presence of the interstices, the spaces between the tesserae that allow us better to see them – was not observed in this way. If this fundamental element is missing, we are not talking anymore about mosaic but about inlay work that has nothing to do with the principle of the tessera. It is like soccer players when they stand in a line to be photographed while singing their national anthem; it is just a brief moment of perfect order, after which they run onto the pitch and everyone has his own role. The tessera must do the same, tak- ing into account the position of those around them. I was regarded as a pest, but the only thing I could do was rebel, bringing once and for all this principle inside the school. I hated mosaic during those years: it was something gloomy, full of obsolete images and religious themes. I wanted to eliminate them from mosaic or not do it at all. I can say that it is thanks to me that we now create mosaics again using a direct mortar set- ting, rather than always affixing the tesserae upside-down on a temporary paper surface. Another limit that I overcame was the use of a preparatory painting. What is the point of making a copy of a painting? When painting, an artist doesn’t make a copy of another picture: he creates something new in that moment, starting from the white canvas. It should be the same with mosaic. Of course, in the case of large-scale projects with the help of assistants, it is necessary to prepare sketches, but we must never forget the main principle. Severini’s teaching was something natural, spontaneous for me. In fact, when does the decline of mosaic art begin? With the introduction of «easel mosaics,» small works made on panel to be easily moved, much like a painting on its canvas. The preoccupations of painting – chiaroscuro, the gradations of its color – have nothing to do with the principle of mosaic. On the contrary, the principle is this: if I put a tessera in a certain place, this place is just for this tessera; it is not like in painting where colors can be superimposed. Therefore mosaic has to be taken back to the essential, avoiding pictorial effects. But for years, this approach wasn’t taught and mosaics just reproduced paintings.
SM: You’ve used traditional mosaic smalti and marble, but also natural stones, wood, and manufactured materials such as aluminum. Do the particular properties of each material lead you to different types of artistic questions?
NZ: When I created the first rosette in 1965, I had a realization. Like other teachers, I used to bring my students to the shore of the river Tagliamento to collect pebbles, then we went back to the school and broke them to create tesserae. We kept saying that our work was made with stones, but in reality, I didn’t see the stones anymore – we could just as well have been using marble, limestone or another material. I asked the students to consider the stones in a new way, responding directly to their nature; we went back to the river and collected pebbles in differing dimensions of the same color – white, in that case. We cut only the bigger ones in two pieces and left the others whole. And at that point, we had to face a problem: what were we going to create? Because if I draw a flower, an animal or a house using pebbles, I force them to depend on the chosen form. We had to create another primary form. I didn’t invent either the pebbles or the circle; they exist in nature and I just had to put them on the same level. One of them is primary, the other is secondary, but you can put them together. If you have a look at my rosette, you’ll notice first the circle and then the pebbles, or instead the contrary; in both cases, the two elements are based on principles that exist in nature, not on ordinary inventions.
In my work, I have used all sorts of material. «Poor» materials do not exist; they can only be used poorly. My latest works have their own geometry and then they start to change and to adapt to their environment. The most important thing is to be aware of the material you are going to use and know how to transform it. A precious fabric is nothing if given to someone who doesn’t know how to use it, but a jute bag can become something beautiful if employed by a great designer such as Valentino or Versace. What counts is the skill of the person involved.
SM: As a professor, you inherited the position of great artist Dino Basaldella at Udine – can you tell us about your experience teaching art?
NZ: During the 1960s, you could accede to a teaching posi- tion on artistic credit alone, and that’s how I became a professor at the Art Institute of Udine. In 1969, Basaldella went to teach at the Fine Art Academy of Brera, Milan, and I took his role as teacher of plastic arts. In my opinion, a school should not be based just on manual skill; art is a consequence of brain activity. That’s why we dedicated 90% of our time to theory. We did a lot of planning before beginning our projects and many of my classes graduated with excellent results. I gave students a greater sense of responsibility than is normal at that level, but I also dictated specific rules in order to obtain results. I told them that what we were doing was exactly the opposite of what hap- pens during marriage: «At the beginning, married life is rather sweet, but becomes more problematic with time; here, we are doing the opposite: first the problems and difficulties, and then maybe we find out that there is also something sweet.» Some of my ex-students, who are fifty years old by now, are still organizing art exhibitions together. They often tell me that they are grateful because my lessons were useful also in daily life and stimulated their passion and interest towards the world around them, even towards banal things. I also taught children at primary school, as well as their teachers. With children you can get great results if you manage to catch their interest.
SM: With the ever-expanding role of technology in today’s society and in art – digital photography, interactive art – is there space for the slowness of painting and drawing, of mosaic? What advice would you give a young artist?
Each form, each innovation, each technology is useful. We don’t have to renounce anything. I don’t use the computer but I’m not against it, even if it is important not to completely depend on it. My advice would be to work, work and work. Luciano Pavarotti, while speaking about his education, said that his teacher, a very important tenor, gave him this advice: «There is only one thing you have to do: work, work and work». Of course, you also have to pay attention to what is happening around you. During the 1970s, when I was in Paris exhibiting with Vasarely, I had the chance to visit the annual showroom of computer innovations. A friend of mine asked me: «Why don’t you use these computers to create your works?» I thought it was possible, but I didn’t want to fall into the trap of too much technology. Young people must pay attention, they must be informed and discover what others have done before them. When I gave some lectures at the Faculty of Architecture in Venice, I discovered that many students still didn’t know the great architects of the past, and were not accustomed to thinking and researching on their own. It is important to understand certain fundamental and primary concepts at the heart of a given project. There are seven musical notes, but I don’t know how to use them, while a composer can make great things with them. True colors are those of the iris, but at school, teachers don’t explain that white and black are not colors. So what is the white? It is light, and if light is missing there is nothing left. Black is the maximum chromatic intensity we know, and total black is a complete lack of light. My works are created following these principles.
SM: Is the creative act something that calms you or encourages you to work even more?
NZ: It definitely encourages me to work more: my head is full of projects and sometimes I think that, because of my age, I will never manage to carry them all out. Age and experience help you to bring maturity to the way you work; the desire to continue working remains high because it is mixed together with the consciousness.
Nane Zavagno Born in 1932. A painter, sculptor and mosaic artist. His works have been exhibited in twenty-six solo exhibitions and over one hundred group exhibitions throughout the world, from the national Italian Biennale to the International Biennale in Venice, from Switzerland, Austria, Croatia and Peru to the Grand Palais in Paris. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, Zavagno operated at the very heart of the artistic avant-garde: from his Informal painting of the 1950s to his use of anodic aluminum in the ‘60s and its role in the development of optical and kinetic art. In the ‘70s and early ‘80s, his modular structures were exhibited in Paris alongside Victor Vasarely, Jesus Rafael Soto and Hugo Demarco. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, he turned his attention towards conceptual art, employing wire mesh in the creation of non- representational, monumental work that explores two of the most fundamental problems of sculpture: its insertion into space and the reconciliation of the principles of monumentality and lightness, often considered antithetical. The artist’s mosaic production has distributed over time in correspondence to his diverse creative periods.