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Peter D'Alessandri: A Journey from Catharsis to Social Commentary

Today, we delve into the artist's unique creative process, the driving forces behind their powerful commentaries, and how their art continues to engage audiences, initiating meaningful conversations about the complex world we inhabit.

2023-08-01

Joana Alarcão

Peter D'Alessandri, an artist with a background in Fine art who pursued studies at the prestigious Norwich School of Art, graces us with his presence today. D'Alessandri's creative path has flourished from a deeply personal and therapeutic process following a major life event to a thought-provoking exploration of current social and political issues.

 

Through the interview, Peter shares how his creative expression served as a pathway for healing and introspection, reflecting his own life experiences and interpersonal connections. However, amidst the backdrop of turbulent times, it shifted to a more critical analysis of current political and social atmospheres, taking on a new role as a conduit for addressing and shedding light on specific societal and political matters.

 

Throughout his career, D'Alessandri has showcased artworks in various exhibitions and competitions, garnering widespread acclaim in the art world. Notably, he achieved finalist status in esteemed events like the Art Gemini Prize, Cork Street Open, ING Discerning Eye, and Liberté d’Expression, and also secured recognition with the Frank Todman Award for portraiture and top accolades in the Braintree Open.


Could you lead us through your artistic journey? What steps did you take to become the artist you are today? 

I went to art school straight from school - Art Foundation then BA in Fine Art. Art was my life. I didn’t have a great time though, and it turned out to be a mistake. I went there so full of confidence but left thoroughly disenchanted with the art establishment, and somewhat broken. I spent the next twenty years doing a proper job, getting a girlfriend, then a house, then a dog. Life was good and I didn’t miss art, to be honest. But then my partner became terminally ill and I had to give up work to be her carer. Experiences like that make you reassess your priorities in life. The things that I had been working so hard for over twenty years suddenly seemed unimportant. The thing I most valued was now gone. 


In a burst of activity, I set about trying to capture my late partner and our relationship in a series of paintings. I was trying to fix my memory of her before it faded. I then slipped into a depression and it took me a long while to fully appreciate the value of art in my life. It was stimulating. It gave my life meaning at a time when it had none. I loved painting again, just as I had when I first went to art school. 


Friends and family have been puzzled by the decisions I have made since, but everything has been focused on me furthering my artistic development. I have made many mistakes, and am materially far worse off, but I don’t regret any of it. That is why I am painting today. 


Your artistic practice has evolved from a cathartic process to observations and commentaries on social and political issues. Could you share more about the transformation of your artistic process? 

We’re living in “interesting” times. We got through Covid and I was happy to continue to paint portraits and still-lifes. But since then I feel that there have been some even greater challenges: society is becoming ever more polarised; social inequality is greater than it has ever been in my lifetime; the corruption and hypocrisy of the ruling elite have been gut-churning; there is a major war in Europe and world governments are actively preparing for a much wider conflict. So with all this happening, it was no longer enough for me to just paint my little portraits. 


Another thing happened some years ago that changed the way I start painting. It was a small thing that had a big impact on me. I hired a life model to help work on some poses for an ambitious new painting. She happened to be a fiercely intelligent art history graduate and gave me quite a hard time quizzing me about the ideas behind my poorly planned project. Towards the end, she said “I don’t get it. What’s the point?” I was probably quite defensive at the time and ignored her question. But months later, as I abandoned that ill-defined project, I kept thinking about her words. They still haunt me today. 


From that moment I have attempted to justify each new project before I invest too much time in it. I ask “what is the point? What am I trying to say?” In the past, I might have had an idea for a composition and then tried to fit a story around it. Now I do the opposite. I start with the story, asking if it is valid, relevant and worth saying. Then I try to work a composition around it. 


The gleaners by Peter D’Alessandri. Image courtesy of Peter D’Alessandri.

How do you navigate the balance between personal experiences and broader social and political issues in your oil paintings? What role does storytelling play in conveying your messages to viewers? 

I’m not sure that you can make such a distinction between personal experience and broader issues. It is easy to live your life feeling detached from and unaffected by events on the news. But they do affect us. People should care about these things. It’s a small world, and decisions are constantly being made that directly impact our lives, and the majority are indifferent to it.

The story is king. Humans have been telling each other stories, instructing and informing, since they first learned to speak. I feel that my paintings are just part of that very long tradition. 


One of your submitted paintings is entitled Men Wrestling. What can you tell us about the creative process and concepts behind this work? 

I have had some awkward conversations about this painting. Although I am horrified by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and I have a huge admiration for Ukrainians fighting to expel the invader, that is not what this painting is about. 


Clearly, I am mocking Putin, painted like Velazquez’s Pope, but naked on his golden throne with rickety wooden legs. And having Macron with Boris Johnson wearing theatrical costumes (borrowed from Cezanne) is obviously questioning their motivation for their actions on the world stage. 


However, this is not a noble painting about Ukrainian heroism. Instead, it is a grubby little story about us all: it’s about everyone cheering their chosen sides from the safety of their living room; it is about how a primal conflict to the death by two warring races has become an exciting spectacle for the rest of the world; it is about my shame in feeling any excitement at missiles raining down on Russian tanks and troops; it is about my sadness over what we have become. 


Men wrestling by Peter D’Alessandri. Image courtesy of Peter D’Alessandri.

Can you discuss the process behind creating your artwork? How do you approach the composition, color palette, and brushwork to evoke specific emotions or convey your intended narratives? 

I usually start with small sketches, trying to give form to the ideas I want to expand. I then work these sketches up onto the canvas, and usually discover that they just don’t work; so begins a process of moving people and objects around the canvas, first with charcoal, then with thin washes, until things take shape. I then proceed to paint with a limited palette, to define the figures and the background. I am constantly making adjustments and moving, removing and adding figures. This stage can take weeks, months, or even years. I can’t proceed to work in greater detail until I’m sure everyone is in the right place. 


My earlier works had dramatic lighting and a limited palette of mainly earth colours. It was easier to achieve colour harmony and consistency and gave a timeless feel. With my more recent work I have gone for a more contemporary, hard-edged look, suggestive of tv news, so have employed flatter lighting and a more expansive, brighter palette. 


Your work has been exhibited in various shows and competitions. Could you highlight a particular exhibition or competition experience that had a significant impact on your artistic development? 

The show that springs to mind was the inaugural Cluster Contemporary Art Fair last year. I had moved away from London and my professional studio space a few years before, and had been working from a home studio in Kent. So much was going on in the world outside, with the upheaval of Brexit, covid and war. I felt my work was more pertinent and relevant than it had ever been, but I felt isolated like I was working in the wilderness, which is not ideal for an artist. I was having a crisis of confidence about my recent paintings. I had invested so much time and energy in them but was clueless about how they would be received. It's not the same as sharing your work online. So I rented a space at Cluster Contemporary, just to get my work out there. I was worried about the reaction, but I am a fervent believer that art only really comes alive when it has an audience. What is the point of it otherwise? 


The show didn’t disappoint. The footfall was good, PV was busy, and a large percentage of visitors were engaging with my work, and even looking for me to ask a question. I have been involved in

better or more important shows, but this particular exhibition came along at the right time, and gave me a welcome reminder of the importance of showing your work in the real world. 


The disasters of war - after goya by Peter D’Alessandri. Image courtesy of Peter D’Alessandri.

How do you feel about the interaction between your artwork and the viewers' interpretations? Are there any specific reactions or responses that have stood out to you? 

There have been occasions when viewers have shared their interpretation of my paintings, and I’ve honestly thought they were more interesting than what I had intended. In that respect I consider the viewer’s interpretation to be as valid as my own. In the evolution of a painting, sometimes it can take on a life of its own, going in totally unpredictable directions. My finished paintings will seldom be as I imagined them. I don’t always feel I am in control of the story I am telling. In the beginning, when I work on a painting, there is the interaction between myself and the model/subject, constantly moderating my plan. In the end, when the painting is finished, there is a similar interaction between the artwork and the viewer. 


The Frank Todman Award for Portraiture highlights your skills in capturing the essence of individuals. How do you approach portraiture as a means of storytelling and exploring the complexities of human experience? 

I believe everyone has a story to tell, and I find the process of painting a portrait fascinating. When I start a commission, I endeavour to find out as much as I can about the sitter. I prefer to have an in person sitting to begin with. A 2-3 hour drawing session is important, not just for the drawings produced, but also for the conversation, which helps give me a better idea of what the sitter is like. I am often surprised at how open and frank people can be when they are sitting for a portrait - it can sound more like a counselling session. 


The challenge is agreeing with the sitter on how they are to be portrayed. There are almost endless options and possibilities to choose from, which can be quite daunting, but it is what makes portraiture so exciting. Some of the techniques I use to suggest something about the subject’s life - like props, clothing, and backgrounds - are the same visual devices that artists have used throughout the history of portraiture. 


Portrait of Peter D’Alessandri. Image courtesy of Peter D’Alessandri.

Looking ahead, what are some of the themes or subjects you hope to explore in your future artwork? 

I am interested in the “selfie” phenomenon. Although I’m a frequent user of social media, I didn’t grow up with it and only started using it as an adult. So that might explain my bemusement with how so many young people are living their life online, constantly filming themselves. Most of it is perfectly innocent, but some of it can be quite disturbing. They compete for likes, work to beat the 

algorithm, and dream about making that “viral video”. I understand that part of it. What I don’t get is their willingness to put themselves out there, using themself as the model, leaving themselves exposed. 


As a giant social experiment, these platforms have altered the behaviour of a generation. There was nothing remotely like this when I was young. It is a uniquely modern phenomenon, and I would like to explore it somehow in a painting. I just don’t know how yet. 


I don’t say all this in a negative way. If I was offered the chance to grow up now rather than in the 70s, I would choose now without hesitation. There are just so many possibilities. It might be confusing, but it is also the most exciting of times. 


Lastly, What message would you like to leave our readers? 

Please go and visit galleries, and look at real art hanging on walls. It is a completely different experience to viewing art online.


Know more about the artist here.


Cover Image:


Alleged assault on Pax by Peter D’Alessandri. Image courtesy of Peter D’Alessandri.

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My practice has developed from what had originally been a cathartic process after a major life event. Initially I focused on my own personal experiences and relationships, but in recent years, as a reaction to the tumultuous times we are in, my paintings have been observations and commentaries on specific social and political issues.

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