The Nuns of Barga paintings go public

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There is considerable interest in Barga this week when it became known that there will be the first public exhibition of paintings “The Nuns of Barga”  by the artist Keane.   The paintings  will be on show as part of the opening exhibition of a new contemporary art gallery opening at 6 pm in Fornaci di Barga on Sunday the 10th January. It will be the first contemporary art gallery in this area opened and run by artists themselves.

The gallery will be called l’iNStallazione di Venti d’Arte and for their opening exhibition “Artefact” will feature the paintings of the following local artists: Keane, Sergio Fini and  Nicola Salotti. Nicola is one of the founder artists along with Lucia Morelli

What is causing the interest in finally seeing “The Nuns of Barga” paintings  in the flesh so to speak,  is probably the rumour that has been circulating the town for the last couple of days that one of the paintings that Keane has been working on over the past two years  has what is being called ” the Dorian Gray effect”

The Picture of Dorian Gray is the only published novel by Oscar Wilde, appearing as the lead story in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine on 20 June 1890. The novel tells of a young man named Dorian Gray, the subject of a painting by artist Basil Hallward. Basil is impressed by Dorian’s beauty and becomes infatuated with him, believing his beauty is responsible for a new mode in his art. Talking in Basil’s garden, Dorian meets Lord Henry Wotton, a friend of Basil’s, and becomes enthralled by Lord Henry’s world view. Espousing a new hedonism, Lord Henry suggests the only things worth pursuing in life are beauty and fulfilment of the senses. Realizing that one day his beauty will fade, Dorian cries out, expressing his desire to sell his soul to ensure the portrait Basil has painted would age rather than himself. Dorian’s wish is fulfilled, plunging him into debauched acts.  The Picture of Dorian Gray is considered a work of classic gothic horror fiction with a strong Faustian theme.

Considering the story behind Oscar Wilde’s novel where the portrait served as a reminder of the effect each  act has upon his soul, with each sin displayed as a disfigurement of his form, or through a sign of ageing,  it is easy to see why any link between the Nuns of Barga  and The Picture of Dorian Gray  would cause considerable controversy and so maybe now is the time to set the record straight.

Barganews yesterday talked to Keane in his studio about the controversy.

barganews: ” The first question really ought to be about the painting which some people claimed has the “Dorian Gray effect” …  what is going on here?

Keane: ”  first off,  just let me say that Barga is a small city –  in fact it is the smallest city in Italy –  once rumours start,  it’s very difficult  to know where they originated from  but this has to be one of the most bizarre of recent times.  So to facts –  yes I do have a painting that I have been working on for the last two years.  It has been a work in progress right up until it was taken to the framers last week.  It shows two nuns, seen from behind with the one on the right turning slightly towards the nun on the left  in what could be a conversation.  For most people outside of Barga it is simply two nuns  but for many people in the city,  the figure on the left is unmistakable one of the nuns who left Barga two years ago.  It is a work in progress because over the last two years I have been gradually painting that nun out of focus.  The nun on the right is sharply defined and in focus –  as time goes on,  the one on the left has becoming less distinct and out of focus.  It is meant to a pictorical rendition of the passing of time and the effect of memory. No magic –   no “Dorian Gray effect”,  just a simple painterly device.”

barganews: “well thanks for clearing that one up.  Maybe we can all rest peacefully in her beds once again.   You say you have been working over two years on this project,  how many paintings are there actually going to be in the exhibition?”

Keane: ” actually not all that many considering how much time has been devoted to this project. After thousands of photographs,  and hundreds of drawings and sketches, I really only have about a dozen finished paintings.

The exhibition “Artefact”  in Fornaci is a group exhibition along with my good friend Sergio Fini,  with whom I have wanted to have an exhibition together for many years,  finally it looks as though it’s going to happen and Nicola Salotti,  whose work I have admired from a distance for ages –   now I get to see it close up.  The space in the new gallery in Fornaci is slightly limited as both Sergio and I tend to work on large-scale paintings and so at the moment it’s a little difficult to say just how many of the Nuns of Barga paintings will actually be hung.  Before Christmas I took five large paintings to be framed.  I expect only two or three will finally be put up on the walls but with a break from a long tradition of making large paintings,  I also took five small paintings, again part of the the Nuns of Barga series but these are of a much more personal scale and nature and generally work that I would not exhibit publicly.  There is a good chance that two or three of these will end up on the gallery walls as there seems to be some interest in just how these paintings are constructed.

barganews: ”  they do say there is no such thing as bad publicity just publicity,  so maybe the controversy around these paintings  could be seen as a good thing? “

Keane: ” hmm,  maybe.  I find myself in a difficult position with the subject of these paintings as the nuns do occupy a particular place and role in this community. As the community changes so too does their position and relevance to Barga and its citizens.  I wanted to explore and document that fragile moment of change.  These are not Disneyesque characters but real women in a changing world.  The furthest thing from my mind would be to simply make caricatures of them.  Hopefully on 10th January we can see whether I succeeded or not.


“Artefact” vuole essere il primo contenitore, sottoforma di mostra collettiva che l’iNStallazione di Venti d’arte propone al pubblico .
“Artefact” o Artefatto come si deduce dalla parola stessa fa riferimento al suo doppio senso, in un gioco di significati che interagiscono tra loro e che propongono una doppia sensibilità di espressione , questa collettiva infatti non è altro che un connubio tra codici espressivi dei diversi artisti partecipanti che con le loro volontà singolari intraprendono un viaggio tra colori e forme del tutto soggettivo ma legato ad una comunione di intenti che tendono a produrre manufatti d’arte, o artefatti.


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ohh to have been a fly on the wall during that interview……


Are you going to have the whole winter off then old bean?…………..What with no Orto and no Nuns to tend to! Are you just going to stay in your adobe hacienda and grow the old crumb catcher? Idle hands make idle minds my old fruit. Ergo. Would you consider some invisible priests or perhaps a furrow full of winter sprouting broccoli to keep you “and subsequenrly we the reader” occupied for the rest of the winter?
Yours sincerely,
Capt. Binky Boiledbeef-Carrot
C/O The Thrashings
Whipminster by the Sea
Say no to VAT on gimp masks!


Oh the sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone.
They were waiting for me when I thought that I just can’t go on.
And they brought me their comfort and later they brought me this song.
Oh I hope you run into them, you who’ve been travelling so long


It was wonderful to see these paintings, from the diminutive to the those in larger scale, they each had a poignant impact. There is an added dimension in rich rendering and texture. I’ve always loved the two nuns in what could be a conversation, the tilt of the head speaks volumes.