Hubert Burda Media

Ordinary Extraordinaire

Renowned for his sculpture of the late Pope John Paul II, Jolie Goh discovers there is more to OLIVIERO RAINALDI than his controversial work of art

Just another painter or sculptor? Or the one who created a statue of John Paul II that many thought resembled Benito Mussolini more than the pope?
Whatever judgmental epithets you have for Oliviero Rainaldi — ditch it. This fervent artist is one of great merit, after being officially titled an academic of the Pontifical Academy of Fine Arts and Letters of the Virtuosi at the Pantheon (an honorific title awarded to erudite architects, painters, sculptors, musicians, poets, authors and film-makers) by Pope John Paul II himself.
In town recently for his solo exhibition debut in Asia at the Partners & Mucciaccia Gallery at Gillman Barracks, Rainaldi set foot on our shores for the first time. The ongoing showcase, titled Works 2003-2013, is an anthology of his creations over the past decade and ends February 16, 2014.
Despite being in a foreign country, this man does not fail to keep his eyes peeled for interesting things, as he is so accustomed to his aesthetic roots. He shares: “The architecture here is amazing. I took a walk (around Gillman Barracks) yesterday and there was this relation, this connection, between man and space where people walk.”
One would not doubt Rainaldi’s observation; after all, the 57-year-old Italian has been experimenting with the theme of metaphysics for about 37 years now. Abstract compositions of a hidden nature are his niche, allowing sculptures of human figures to exist through subtle archaic connections.
As witnessed at his exhibition here, his modus operandi has been consistent and fairly distinctive. “I don’t choose my style. It’s an instinctive feeling. Still life and humans are the main subjects of my art. I don’t know exactly why I sculpt them, but they are beautiful,” he justifies.
Through this, he hopes for viewers of his art to admire and reflect upon his pieces. It doesn’t matter what they conclude, for he’ll be pleased as long as they feel a sense of personal connection or “take something away” from his works.
While some may comprehend Rainaldi’s unusual penchant for the human form, others may question it as well. On whether he thinks locals here will perceive his art differently, he exclaims: “Sì!” in his mother tongue before elaborating: “I heard many [opinions] during the opening of the exhibition. The people here are intellectual and freer. They don’t just say: ‘Oh. This artwork is good.’ They consider a lot of elements. They think deep…and approach the piece of art with their soul.”
Says Rainaldi: “Singaporeans are free from cultural and economical influences. [On the other hand,] people in Europe have more background knowledge on the history of my artwork. Their perceptions will be slightly affected because they arrive at their own ideas and conceptions.”
Materials used in his artwork are also sources of enlightenment to him. Rainaldi refrains from deciding on a material prior to ideation because he believes they are not “starting points” but rather, complementary elements in the development of a composition. The individualistic genius explains his preference for such an artistic process: “I don’t choose materials just because I like them; I choose them with functionality in mind. If that material is the one thing that will bring out the beauty in what I’m trying to bring across, I’ll pick it.”
Of course, an assertive sculptor like himself would have his own way of appreciating art. “If I’m looking at a sculpture of your face, I’ll look at your details, your material, your quality and then your overall structure — but I don’t have to stop there. Your sculpture has to communicate with me. It has to let my imagination run wild. It has to provoke my emotions and give me food for thought,” he relates, on what constituents catch his eye.
Seniority definitely has not obstructed his drive for fulfilling the implausible. The widely criticised sculpture of late head of the Catholic Church is an example of his zeal for continued improvement. The artwork was previously scorned by members of the public and Vatican after its unveiling in 2011 and likened to Benito Mussolini.
Rainaldi sought feedback from passers-by at the Roma Termini Train Station — where the figure was erected — without revealing his identity as the man behind the bronze oeuvre.
“I heard different qualities of expressions. Some understood the meaning behind the sculpture, while some had strong opinions on how it should look. People expect a typical statue. There’s no point in creating something perfect. That would come off as fake. I’m not working towards that,” he conveys.
“I included the spiritual sense of the pope’s openness and voluntarily avoided any form of Catholicism in reality — no crosses or religious representations — even though people were expecting that. It’s not a work just for the Catholics, it’s intended for everyone.”
As of now, the statue is gradually gaining approval from the masses after a voted facelift (by an expert committee of art critics, culture officials and scholars) one year past its first revelation. The sculptor still lives by his notion about contemporary art — that it takes time to admire and appreciate.
Three years have passed since this controversy first brewed and now, Rainaldi has the luxury of time to reflect: “Where the sculpture is going, we don’t know. Even Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel was criticised. It (the commotion) was necessary. It was a process I had to go through.”
PHOTOGRAPHER / Claudio Abate