Salvatore Zofrea

Salvatore Zofrea’s monumental ‘Day Cycle’ is a 122-metre long series depicting the energy of the day in four parts. Together the works express the artist’s enduring vision of love, honesty and divinity.


‘When the birds heard this story, at last they understood their connection to the Great Simorgh and comprehended its ancient mysteries. Now they were eager to commence the journey,’ wrote the Persian poet Attar, in the twelfth century.

I found this magical phrase from Attar’s ‘The Conference of the Birds’ while browsing Salvatore Zofrea’s collection of poetry, music and art books in his home at Kurrajong, about two hours north-west of Sydney. I was surprised; I wasn’t expecting the Sufi mystic poet to resonate with Zofrea’s Italian Catholic heritage.

Zofrea’s artistic influences apparently hover within the Western aesthetic, the sphere of the great European painters, musicians and poets, from the Renaissance to the moderns. Yet Attar’s parable of the journey of the birds has quietly influenced Zofrea’s life and work. The allegorical tale of destroying the ego, moving with honesty and love, is at the core of Zofrea’s ‘Day Cycle’ series.

The youngest of eight surviving children, Zofrea arrived in Sydney in 1956 from the Calabrian village of Borgia, a few months before his tenth birthday. Navigating the flows of two cultures has assisted in making him the ‘immensely distinctive’ artist that Edmund Capon introduces in Ted Snell’s book Salvatore Zofrea: Images from the Psalms (1992), which deals with the first fifty Psalms.

Zofrea bought land in Kurrajong in 1972 and moved there in 1981 after completing a monumental Fairfax commission. The rolling hills and native bush that surround his new home, designed by Harold Johnston in 2005, have been the subject of much of his work. The garden he has created, of Indigenous and exotic plants, attracts local and migrating birds. The dense plantings and open spaces mirror the changing moods of the sun and the moon. Here the artist reflects on the opportunities he made in Australia. There is no doubt about the energy one gets from Zofrea’s ten-acre garden. It is as if one is at the centre of a golden mean.

He is well known for more than thirty years of paintings, drawings and prints on the King James version of the Biblical Psalms. Zofrea began these works after a near-death experience in his late twenties. His long, slow recovery was complicated by the death of his beloved mother, and of his mentor, artist Henry Justelius, in 1976. At the suggestion of a friend, Zofrea read the Psalms, gaining strength to bear his pain from the Psalms’ celebration of love. Reading the Psalms ‘saved his life’, and Zofrea resolved to paint all 150. The artist’s suffering, and his spirt of sacrifice and generosity, are deeply reflected in the allegorical and material world of interior and exterior spaces, all of which honour the Psalms’ healing powers.

In his essay for the 2008 book Salvatore Zofrea: The Psalms of Life, written when 100 Psalms were completed, Andrew Sayers argued ‘There is no parallel in the history of Australian art for Zofrea’s Psalms paintings … no body of work in the art of this country that has carried through a program of visual expression on a single text with such sustained singularity over three decades.’ Having completed 105 Psalm paintings, Zofrea suspended the Psalms project to paint ‘Day Cycle’.

Zofrea began ‘Day Cycle’ in 2012. He paints ‘Day Cycle’ to create what he calls ‘the purest notion of love’. To bring this energy of love to physical form he is slowly creating a 400 foot (122 metres) long painting depicting the cycle of the day in four parts; morning, midday, afternoon and night. The first part of ‘Day Cycle’, Morning Light (2013), was presented at the Australian Galleries Sydney, in 2014, the pictures abutting each other around the entire gallery. This immersive notion is not new for Zofrea. The Psalms series has many paintings beyond human scale. Zofrea has masterful control of the formal elements of colour, line and mass, but his profound sense of space and scale combined with these formal elements makes him unusual. Where other artists might be intimidated, he thrives on this challenge. He seems intuitively to float in the scale of his canvases, as if he is imagining nature’s spatial movements in the palm of his hand.

A suite of paintings dealing with energy in spring, ‘Days of Spring’ is showing at Melbourne’s Australian Galleries in August and September. More than forty large works – paintings, sugarlift and plate etchings, woodcuts and a handmade cotton-paper sketch book – occupy the entire Gallery and Archive Room. This Melbourne exhibition has been a long time coming. Zofrea’s last Melbourne exhibition was at Toorak Galleries in 1972, just after his first return to Europe, in 1971. An interesting aspect to this European journey (to which Snell alluded) was, when faced with the choice of ignoring critical reviews from Daniel Thomas and Elwyn Lynn, Zofrea chose to listen to them and to seek out the works of the artists their reviews mentioned; including van Gogh, Soutine, Kokoschka and Nolde.

Since then, Zofrea has shown in more than 100 solo and group exhibitions. A finalist in the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes on thirty-eight occasions, he has won the Sulman Prize three times. Seven monographs on his life and work, including four documentaries, have been produced, the most recent being Richard Mordaunt’s Salvatore Zofrea – Master of Light in 2016.

His paintings and prints are in public and private collections that include the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; the Vatican Collection, Rome, the Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney and the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. These collections of achievements all mark important moments in the artist’s life.

With the exception of study in Europe in 1971, a studio residency at the Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris in 1982, and in 1986 to study fresco painting in Italy, he has worked in Kurrajong and in Seaforth, where he has a studio in the house he now owns and where his parents lived from the time they arrived in Sydney.

Those who have spent a lot of time with Zofrea know the abundant, furious energy he puts into his research. In ‘Day Cycle’ he has drawn on the many experiences of others to examine how they express the energy of love. The rhythm of Mozart’s notations becomes a structural device Zofrea uses in these paintings. On other occasions, Zofrea shifts from Attar to his student Rumi or to more recent poet devotees of love such as Rilke, Dylan Thomas and Adonis, or he sometimes recalls Zen and Buddhist energies.
Zofrea needs to be immersed in energy to ‘overcome death’. There is no need for any human-built structures or representations of the figure in ‘Day Cycle’. His Kurrajong garden is drawn and painted in an allegorical recomposition seeking the power of love’s energy and its connection to all the senses so as to wonder at, and not be contained by, its physicality. Zofrea uses the senses, the emotion, to paint. He asks us to hear the humming midday sound of nature, feel the sweating leaves, capture the perfume of flowers, and to taste the dry heat as one all-seeing experience to announce the midday of ‘Day Cycle’.

The painting Noon in spring (2018) is an overwhelming experience of this energy. It is a haze of shimmering pearl and lapis white saturating the colours that are caught in their explosion of harsh noon light. The subject is broken into four sections on the painting plane. From the top to almost three-quarters down, broad swirling movements have the appearance of spirit figures dancing. Zofrea wants to convey energy, not to catch the light.

Lower down, red flowers burst from the white, floating within the heat of the midday sun. Zofrea has created a place on Earth without perspective, a reflective pool of enormous energy. His lyrical brush strokes whirl on the surface of the canvas, comfortable in their broad, bold movements. Each brush of primary and secondary colours melds to create new hues adding to the depth of the painting. Unexpectedly, at the top of the canvas the brush’s vertical trails suggest an earthly ground.

When the journey of ‘Day Cycle’ ends with night, Zofrea will have achieved a powerful object of love. As he has avoided dogmas of religion, gender and ethnicity in the paintings, the artist declares honesty and love is always evolving.

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 44, 2018


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