The latest exhibition by Keane, 10 paintings in lacquered oil mounted back-to-back in the lobby of Palazzo Pancrazi, is an eloquent study in the suggestive complexity of simple objects. Their immediate subject is the “vanga,” the traditional spade used by Tuscan peasants since time immemorial to turn their soil.
Viewed from a variety of perspectives, Keane’s vanghe are as unprepossessing as the men and women who once used them in every Garfagnana field. They are rusted with age and use, no longer attached to the wooden bastone that served to guide and lever their downward thrust, encrusted with pits and fissures in the paintings’ lacquer.
It is in these very details that the exhibition’s larger meaning unfolds, the longer a visitor regards them. Weathered, half abandoned, the vanghe speak of age and the passage time, of the harshness of peasant life and also its intrinsic dignity. Its nobility. They are windows into the waning of traditions that reach back to the ancient past of the Serchio Valley, to farmers who wielded implements just like these several millennia before Rome was founded — you can see them in the remarkable museums of San Pellegrino in Alpe and Pontremoli — and to their direct descendants, the parents and grandparents of today’s Barghigiana. The vanga was an essential prop in their lives just a generation or two ago.
Now, like so much of the material culture that survived from prehistory to the dawn of the Internet, they are fading into what remains of our collective memory.
The vagaries of memory, the subtle dialogue of tradition and change, are chronic obsessions for Keane, and with each new sortie into their undercurrents his work has assumed its own increasingly subtle depths. I asked him about the his choice of media in the vanga portraits. In my view, initially, the glare of the exhibition’s overhead lighting, reflected in the lacquered surfaces, was troubling. To fully appreciate the heft of these implements, and the immense effort required in their use, the usual art mostra walk-by won’t do. It takes an effort of its own, a kind of dance around each vanga to sidestep and shift the glare.
“That’s precisely the point,” Keane responded. “We’re looking at a vanishing world, all but lost in the glare of what has replaced it.” But “vanishing” is not the same as “vanished.” The old world, suggestive and timeless, courses below the surface of our virtual times, speaking softly to those who are willing to listen. La vanga ha la punta d’oro, a venerable Tuscan proverb declaims. “The vanga has a golden tip.”
Article by Frank Viviano
Frank Viviano is the author or co-author of seven books, including the critically-acclaimed Blood Washes Blood, Dispatches From the Pacific Century and In the Balkans (with Magnum photographer Nikos Economopoulos).