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The Novice

Claire Romaine's picture

This weekend I had the good luck to pick the painting that simply does not exist outside of one small side-gallery full of Picassos and Manets.  In other words, “The Novice” by Afro Basaldella is incredibly obscure (it was not listed on the Barnes website or even in the artist’s own archive), so I am, unfortunately, required to describe a complex piece without even the luxury of a picture.

Let’s begin this nigh impossible task: The background is two different shades of blue-green.  Divided by a red-brown line that bends sharply in the middle of the canvas.  Below the line, there is a light greenish color, while above the line the darker blue-green dominates.  Littering the entire background are barely noticeable hints of red, like a paint brush dipped in nearly-dry paint and dragged lightly over a few patches of the canvas.  From afar, they disappear into the blue-green.  In the middle of the picture is a figure of a boy.  The figure begins at the bottom with two lines (of the same red-brown color from earlier), which taper slightly inwards to form the neck and sitting on top of this neck is an ovular face.  A trapezoidal nose sits in the middle of the face while on the left side of the nose is a black pupil-ed eye with an iris of the same color as the lines.  Even further to the left lies a pink ear jutting out from the side of the head.  Neither of these features are mirrored on the right side of the face.

Brown lines lie throughout the figure, breaking the neck up into long rectangular chunks and the face into numerous different shapes, each independently and solidly colored.  It’s done in an abstract style similar to this:

(this is another work by the same artist)

The difference between the painting above and the one that I ended up staring at for so long, is that the one I looked at was very clearly a person even though it only had its left eye and left ear

Having said all of this, the real question is why did I originally assume that this figure was a young boy.  His only distinct features are his eye, ear and trapezoidal nose, and yet I would even go so far as to describe him as a mischievous youth on the brink of puberty and constantly in trouble with his caretakers.  Lines cross the face vertically and come together above the head forming about 3 triangles that look like untamed hair sticking up from a boys’ scuffle.  On the right side of the face, where the other eye should be, there is a patch of horizontal lines, as if he was bandaged after an injury.  Even above the eye on the left, there is a small rectangle that has a pale, brownish color quite different from the darker blue of the left side of the face like a patched up cut.  However, the boy does not simply look like he has been beaten up; a circle crosses the bottom of his ovular face and gives the figure a sly smile, and the pupil of the eye overlaps a part of the iris, giving the impression of a mischievous twinkle of his eye.  Under and to the left of the eye, two brown triangles seem like freckles or the whiskers of a cat that’s up to no good.  I was left wondering what kind of trouble this young boy was getting into.

I realize I have neglected to explain what caused my initial impression of his youth.  This comes from the shape of the figure itself.  The neck is long and slender, broken up by long vertical (and a few horizontal) lines.  The right half of the face, however, consists of numerous different shapes none of which form typical, fully-established facial features.  Almost like how a real boy on the cusp of puberty looks like an unfinished version of a man, so too does this figure seem unfinished.

The colors lend themselves even more to this idea of the half-finished figure because the left side has darker, fuller blues, greens and purples, while the unfinished right side is much paler in comparison.  Large sections of the right side of the face are almost entirely white.  As for the rest of the colors, up close, the oil paints themselves look blotchy and hurriedly colored in, but looked at from far away, the colors looks solid and whole, contributing once again the impression of an unfinished youth.

After staring for half an hour at this, I was really surprised by how much I came to love the picture, and so my disappointment upon realizing its obscurity was acute.  Surrounded by hundreds of esteemed artists and paintings, I found one of the few unknowns, and I still think it is one of the best.  Staring at other works which I simply couldn’t understand, I kept coming back to this piece which conveyed so much meaning with so few lines.