It was Rainer Maria Rilke who reminded us that Paul Cezanne stood up right in the middle of a meal «when he told of Frenhofer – the painter that Balzac, with incredible foresight of future developments, invented in his story Le chef-d’oeuvre inconnu […] – and, losing his voice from excitement, points his finger, repeatedly, with clarity to himself and shows himself, himself, himself, however much pain could be in this». This same episode would be recalled by Émile Bernard, who described Cézanne intent on striking his chest with his index finger, affirming that he was the protagonist of the novel and in doing this his eyes had turned red to the point that they seemed about to erupt into a river of tears. Not wrongly, Cézanne had ended up identifying himself in Frenhofer, a conviction supported by Poussin who, as in the role deuterogamist of the novel, ends up by comparing the oeuvre inconnu to a muraille de peinture (The Maestro di Aix was known to declare that he wished to redo “Poussin sulla natura”, meaning that he hoped to render Impressionism as solid and durable as the paintings of the old Masters). Cézanne has often been defined as an architect because of his irreducible volition to build image; indeed, with a few touches of colour he was able to obtain this much longed for plastic solidity. But despite the fact that his paint strokes were pregnant with structure and meaning, there are those who had unjustly demeaned him to mediocre bricklayer. Salvador Dalí, for example, taunted him by defining him as a «Neoplatonic bricklayer»2. No less lenient had been Manet’s judgement who presented his friend as a bricklayer painting with trowel, an invective recalled in the pages of L’instransigeant, where Henri Rochefort laughed at a head, by Cezanne, the cheeks of which seemed to have been “hammered with a trowel”. Despite the opinion of his detractors, Cezanne’s trowel-paintbrush could obtain that sublime wall of painting that we, today, admire and envy. The oppression of the image – this concealment that holds in itself the prophecy of an iconographic oblivion in reality hides a yearning for perfection, always neglected, always unquenchable. Incessantly accumulated, the layers of painting described by Balzac end up denying/ sacrificing the previous work. This is what happens in the works of Francesco de Prezzo, the latest in a series of new Frenhofers who in the preceding decades had moved from the Erased De Kooning by Robert Rauschenberg and the übermalung by Arnulf Rainer. Also the overpainted paintings by Joan Miró, Enrico Baj, Asger Jorn and Peter Schuyff had detracted from the pre-existing image.
Their ‘over-painted works’ are nothing but canvases bought at second hand markets on which the artists have decided to intervene with the purpose of irony. Filtering past and present art over-painting is typical example of first the avant-garde debate and then the post-modernist one. However, De Prezzo’s case is different: the artist does not use some tableaux trouvés but he himself paints the image which he will then erase with wide, white backgrounds. Playing on the lexical ambiguity of the work ‘painter’ (painter) (which identifies both the artist and the decorator), De Prezzo paints his subjects with the tip of his paintbrush and does it with a deference to the truth typical of hyper-realism. Technical speciousness that in the end is denied, let us even say ‘painted over’. Rather than defaced, the image is [dis]figured by the use of decorators’ rollers. The eloquence of the initial stroke, that modus pingendi which distinguishes a painter from another, is tarnished by coats that are impersonal, inexpressive and un-emotive. De Prezzo whitens the canvas just as one would a wall of a room. Once again we find ourselves facing a muraille de peinture that wants to erase the image, giving back to the canvas its pristine colour, that background white which had been violated by the pictorial gesture. In Frenhofer’s masterpiece a small anatomic shred still survived, the only evidence of his manic refining work. In the same way we are forced to rely on the very few details still untouched by the wheeling (pitiless, more than furious) of the roller to be able to [re] acknowledge the objects painted by Francesco De Prezzo. In a last analysis, we must agree that his meta-pictorial experience accepts Nietzsche’s philosophy, thus proving that creative tension can be explained by a hidden desire for destruction. These repainted paintings possess such ambiguity/ ambivalence that we are invited to consider the extermination of images as a way of material and conceptual regeneration.