Salvatore Zofrea

What makes Salvatore Zofrea’s paintings? Three current Zofrea exhibitions show that music, poetry, and belief have provided a way for the artist to develop complex visual experiences into paintings that stay with the viewer.

Zofrea understood quite early in his development that music could nourish his creativity. He is as inspired by composers and performers as he is by painters from the early Renaissance to the modern. The language of symphonies and operas — not notes on a page, but the intensity of the engagement of multiple sounds and gestures conveying at once particular and ambiguous meanings and emotions — moulded his painting’s language. The more he listens and watches, the more his own creativity evolves. 

Zofrea’s paintings, drawings and prints have matured from his “Psalms” paintings into the “nature and light” works which have dominated his last eight years. During these years, he reached a turning point in his compositional methods. He is enticing us to experience the merging of music and poetry as a kind of esoteric sensation. For instance, he uses the four movements of a symphony as a device for his monumental Day Cycle, 2012–ongoing. These paintings will present the day in four parts – morning, midday, afternoon and night. He uses recurring motifs by applying short and long brush strokes that are like thousands of rhythmic musical notes to harmonise his Day Cycle. The layers-upon-layers of brush strokes create dimensions in time and space. In his composition of the Day Cycle Zofrea has embodied the symphony score Le Poème de l’extase (The Poem of Ecstasy), 1905–08, by Scriabin. 

When the Day Cycle is completed, the one hundred canvas panels will form a 400 foot (122 metre) circle, which will provide the physical immersion of Zofrea’s vision of nature and light in the form of a day. COVID-19 closures delayed the exhibition of the second Day Cycle, the twenty-five panel Midday Light, 2021, at the Australian Galleries exhibition until May this year. The exhibition will also present an additional forty-two new paintings on the theme of nature and light.

The 2022 presentation of Midday Light marks eight years since the artist’s first cycle, Morning Light, was shown in an uncompromising display in 2014. Australian Galleries, Sydney, created a total environment for Morning Light. The paintings’ immersive qualities were emotionally transforming. The energy from the colours stirred by the day’s morning light and the hidden harmonies of Scriabin’s musical composition appeared to be tracking time; the revelation was that they were pausing time, again provoking thoughts and feelings of unworldliness. We can expect a similar experience with Midday Light. 

Zofrea came to live in Seaforth in Sydney with his family in 1956, from rural Borgia, Italy, at the age of nine. Before arriving in Sydney he grew up in the legacy of World War II, and with the intense sensual experience of rural sounds, smells, and scenes. He heard Catholic choirs and bands playing popular Italian folksongs and music from Verdi during the harvest festivals. Until the family had settled in Sydney, there was no radio or record player in the home. He recalls the Sydney Italian news broadcast beginning their program excerpts from Verdi. While the family’s record collection was mainly Italian folk music, and some pop singers like Elvis Presley and Frankie Laine, there was no mention of books. A familiar post-war migrant story. 

Although at primary School Zofrea describes himself as “absolutely hopeless at schoolwork,” his teachers encouraged him to draw and paint out in the playground, “while the others studied science and mathematics.” By fourteen he had left to work as a labourer. But his attention now was solely on art. After showing his drawings to staff at his local gallery, the Manly Art Gallery & Museum, he was encouraged to enrol at the North Sydney Technical College. The College’s new art teacher, microbiologist and artist Henry Justelius, then in his seventies, saved Zofrea from the boredom of “drawing pumpkins and plaster casts.” Justelius became an early mentor for Zofrea, showing him the importance of composition, drawing from nature and the classics in music, literature and painting. From his childhood, Zofrea had been a lover and student of nature, and of Leonardo da Vinci. This inspiration can be seen in the 1961 small pencil drawing My Mother’s hands, depicting his mother’s hands resting on her lap, which he drew at fifteen. The drawing is alive in all aspects of the composition and the expression of undying love of a son for his mother; showing the young Zofrea’s resolve to achieve knowledge and emotive expression. 

In da Vinci’s famous Notebooks, there are several passages comparing painting, music and poetry. Such comparisons have clearly influenced Zofrea, especially da Vinci’s ideas on “proportions” in paintings, music’s “harmony” and “moral philosophy” from the poet. Everywhere in Zofrea’s work is his brilliant exposition of poets: Louise Glück, Dylan Thomas, Dorothea Mackellar, the King James Bible translations of the first fifty Psalms; composers including Beethoven, Boulez, Scriabin and Messiaen; or painters such as Picasso, Gentileschi, Caravaggio or Frankenthaler through his imagination and vision. He studies everything about them: theirs lives, their methods. Their influences come to his work both knowingly and innocently.  As Zofrea explains, “I come back to the source, but I don’t get bogged down in the source, I use that as the springboard, then evolve and transcend . . .” 

Always looking to improve his knowledge, Zofrea left the College in North Sydney to enrol at the Julian Ashton Art School, which he says, “taught him little,” and at the East Sydney Technical College (now the National Art School) where he found the teachers “directionless” and left after a few months. Looking back to those days in the 1960s he is still perplexed by fellow students’ and teachers’ “rejection” of Cézanne’s nonfigurative subjects. He relied on his acute intuition and hard work to find his own voice and to block out those that disrupted his vision.  

In 1966, at the age of twenty, he showed his paintings to Treania Smith and Mary Turner, directors of Macquarie Galleries, Sydney, who invited him to have his first solo show early the next year. The exhibition was received with mixed reviews, but the show was a sell-out, and Zofrea never went back to labouring. He was possessed by painting and with every new exhibition and commission he would build his painting’s relationship to music and poetry.  

This March, Luminosity, curated by Rhonda Davis at Macquarie University Art Gallery, Sydney, shows both Zofrea’s thinking and his instinctive processes. Davis writes, “Zofrea references poetry, film, literature, myth, theatre and music in an erudite fashion that spurs his production within the studio.” Poetry, music and paintings stand as three gods that are judging the mood of his day. 

The seventy-plus paintings, drawings and prints that Davis has gathered for Luminosity represent more than sixty years of practice. Across the entire collection of works, one observes Zofrea’s attention to compositional harmony. He conveys the changes in landscape, of light and colour, and the moods, such as the heat and dryness, in the earliest painting Hills outside Borgia, Calabria, c.1960s, the melancholy of the 1962 Self-portrait, the alluring warmness of the 1978 Girls at Clontarf (Sunday afternoon), the frivolous night energy of Psalm 74, 2000, and the sensory heat in the 2019 Firewheel Tree. In later works Zofrea appears to be more interested in an abstract space, particularly in the 2018 painting Noon in Spring.

Throughout Luminosity we see the absorption of music and poetry into Zofrea’s paintings, from the metaphorical, to the allegorical and the esoteric. The 1974 painting Male nude (after Cavafy), is one of first inclusions of poetry in his paintings. This painting is full of metaphors; Zofrea is exploring Cavafy’s ideas of sensuality, and the naked male figure is without modesty, idyllic and masculine. The painting successfully avoids contrived references to Cavafy’s poem, by evoking ambiguous images. It also tells us about the artist’s key influences in that early period. In this instance, the painting creates an arc from the early Greeks to the moderns. Zofrea is also referring to the prevalence of the female reclining nude in Western art, and the relative absence of male nudes.  

When Zofrea was twenty-nine (in 1975), a life-threatening illness changed the direction of his metaphorical paintings and led him to make a singular promise: to create his version of the Psalms, just as composers from Bach to Stravinsky and Bernstein have approached them. Zofrea intends eventually to respond to all one hundred and fifty Psalms. Around 1988, a further related illness led to a partial hearing loss: Zofrea says, “My other senses became more acute; especially my eyes.” This increased visual acuity can be seen in the “nature and light” works; in Luminosity through paintings such as the 2017 Kurrajong Landscape, or in the monumental Midday Light at Australian Galleries. Interestingly in the context of abstraction, with forty-five Psalms paintings to be completed, Zofrea predicts, “When I come back to complete my cycle of that journey, I will be going beyond the actual physical image of . . . someone playing the flute or the lute, it’ll be the actual sensation of that psalm.” 

The Psalms paintings in Luminosity show that Zofrea time and again is led by his intuition in pursuit of meaning. The Psalms paintings push towards metaphysical ideas of who we are in time and space. Zofrea did not follow the biblical numerical order: Davis introduces them with the 1976 Psalm 7. Psalm 7 suggests that Zofrea is narrating a scene of recovery through a reaffirmation to God.  There are two figures to right of the picture. One figure dressed in a white friar’s robe, holding the right arm of a young man in a bed, and with the other arm gesturing to the heavens. In other Psalms paintings, the representation of musical instruments expresses love, virtue, and the five senses with the brilliance of Fellini-esque fantasy; another important influence on Zofrea. In 1996’s Psalm 64, a variety of instruments are played by men in a decadent carnivale frolic. Whereas Psalm 20 (The Visitors), 1987, is a circus scene with animals and humans performing in a domestic setting alongside a single trumpet player with an expression of bliss.  These and other non-contrived expressions of the Psalms show that Zofrea as an artist is staunchly committed to his own artistic path who, as he says, “used the Psalms as the vehicle of my journey of life.”

In Salvatore Zofrea – The Drawn Line, curated by Katherine Roberts and Lucy Stranger as a collaboration between Manly Art Gallery & Museum and Orange Regional Gallery – the curators  examine Zofrea’s drawing through his works on paper: studies, prints, drawings, and woodcuts.  This show, like the Luminosity exhibition, spans a sixty-year period. In The Drawn Line’s catalogue, Stranger writes that “as an artist with a commanding painting oeuvre, Zofrea’s drawing is the other half of his practice and integral to a proper understanding of his work.” Stranger is right to note the importance of drawing to Zofrea’s painting. Though Zofrea has a strong response to artworks that respect drawing, for him the main event is painting.  Roberts and Stranger have curated with attentiveness. A buffet of rare inclusions show the curators’ research and understanding of the artist. 2002’s Study for Psalm 73, The Pearl (after Tiepolo), and Hydro Electric Scheme, (undated) present a masterclass in preparing a painting for compositional harmony. Self portrait aged 14 years, 1960, parallels the drawings of a young Picasso, with the same attention and certainty about the human structure and form. 

Zofrea’s drive to create is intoxicating. It can also come across as impatience; he doesn’t mind the inference, but it’s more than impulsiveness, it is about a belief of being gifted, a responsibility to create, as his master da Vinci says, “endowed by nature,” which Zofrea takes to mean “to paint his truth for the world.” Yet there is a paradox to his push to create: the more Zofrea makes work, the longer we spend responding to, and absorbing, his images. 

I think Zofrea achieves the power of his paintings to stay with the viewer by remaining true to his child-self. This is, as he says, “not to be confined to any formula,” to see “that magic of colour and creation,” so as to experience the world for the first time. 

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 58, 2022. 
Images courtesy the artist, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australian Galleries, Sydney, Macquarie University Art Gallery, Sydney, Mosman Art Gallery & Museum, Sydney, Orange Regional Gallery, New South Wales.

Midday Light 
24 May – 12 June 2022
Australian Galleries, Sydney  

The Drawn Line
2 September –  16 October 2022
Manly Art Gallery & Museum, Sydney

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