Painter, illustrator, scholar of theosophy and esoteric doctrines, Luigi Pericle (1916-2001) was a leading figure in the story of art in the second half of the twentieth century and he actively participated in contemporary cultural debates, embraced the approaches of informal European painting. He was admired by major international figures such as Sir Herbert Read, trustee of the Tate Gallery, the collector Peter G. Staechelin, and Martin Summer, director of Arthur Tooth & Sons, a London gallery which was fashionable during the swinging 60s. Pericle’s works were exhibited alongside those of masters such as Pablo Picasso, Karel Appel, Antoni Tàpies and Jean Dubuffet.
A tireless scholar of classical and oriental philosophies who was devoted to alternative spirituality, Pericle constantly strived to attain an absolute truth beyond contingency and materiality.
Luigi Pericle Giovannetti was born in Basel on 22 June 1916. His father, Pietro Giovannetti, was from Monterubbiano in the Italian region of Marche, while his mother, Eugénie Rosé, was of French origins. Pericle took up painting at a very young age, receiving his first commission when he was only twelve and, at the age of sixteen, he began art school studies, which he soon left disenchanted by the disciplines studied and in disagreement with the teaching methods. During his formative years, he was drawn to ancient and oriental philosophy, becoming well versed in Zen, Chinese and Japanese thinking, as well as those of ancient Egypt and Greece. These influences, different and at the same time united by a strive towards the pursuit of transcendence and inner meaning, created an artistic, spiritual and literary touchstone that guided him throughout his existential journey.
In 1947, he married Orsolina Klainguti, affectionately nicknamed Nini, a painter from the Canton of Grigioni who was to remain his inseparable companion in life. In the 1950s, the couple moved to Ascona, the small town that, since the 1920s, had hosted internationally recognized artists and had been known as a vibrant cultural center. The artist chose to live in Ascona to experience the mystical environment associated with the site of Monte Verità (literally, Mount Truth) and immerse himself in nature and tranquility. As a multifaceted man with a multitude of interests, Pericle is difficult to categorize: he was as much a professional artist as a gifted illustrator.
In 1951, he created Max, the marmot protagonist of a textless homonymous comic strip, which became very successful, not only in Europe but also in the United States and Japan. Pericle gained international fame from his work as an illustrator, which was published by Macmillan in New York and in newspapers including the Washington Post and the Herald Tribune, and appeared in the British satirical magazine Punch. In order to keep his two professions separate, the artist signed his illustrations under the surname Giovannetti. In 1958, he reached an artistic turning point, signaling a new phase in his creative production by destroying all but one of the figurative paintings works from his early years. He moved on to informal abstractionism and specialized in working techniques that characterized his works, the product of tireless research and experimentation.
In 1959, his paintings attracted the interest of Peter G. Staechelin, a well-known Basel-based collector, who regarde Pericle as a “virtuoso of seeing”. Staechelin acquired Pericle’s works and, in exchange, the collector gave the artist a small villa in Ascona, named by the painter Casa San Tomaso, which Pericle and Orsolina made their home for the rest of their lives. To make this purchase, Staechelin sold some Schiele and Klimt drawings to the Leopold Museum in Vienna, where they remained to this day. Pericle qualified the period from 1958 to 1965 as one of “radical change”: a time of unrelenting creative energy and enthusiasm, during which he created his most significant exhibitions.
In 1962, he met Martin Summers of the Arthur Tooth & Sons Gallery in London, where Pericle held two solo shows and two group shows, exhibiting with, among others, Karel Appel, Sam Francis, Asger Jorn, Antoni Tàpies, Jean Dubuffet, Jean-Paul Riopelle e Pablo Picasso. His paintings were bought by many famous collectors, including Brigitte Helm, Bennet Korn, Helmut Kindler, Lady Tate and Member of Parliament Sir Basil de Ferranti.
A solo exhibition was held in 1963 at the Castelnuovo Gallery in Ascona, owned by Trudi Neuburg-Coray, daughter of Han Coray, owner of the Dada Gallery in Zurich. Sir Herbert Read – art critic, co-founder of the Institute of Contemporary Art in London and artistic consultant to Peggy Guggenheim – visited Pericle’s studio in January 1965 and was profoundly impressed by his work. According to Read, Pericle was engaged in a “long pursuit of an absolute beauty” through abstract expression, a pure and metaphysical form, able to give back and communicating, thanks to the harmonies of line and color, an “inner essence” of things and their spiritual condition.
Hans Hess, museologist and curator at the York Art Gallery, organized a solo Pericle touring exhibition in 1965, which visited several British museums including York, Newcastle, Hull, Bristol, Cardiff and Leicester. After this successful period, Pericle chose to withdraw from the world of art sistem to absorb himself in his own research and the quietude of Ascona.
From the 1960s to the 1980s, Pericle produced an extensive series of paintings on canvas and masonite, Indian ink and drawings, in a creative and mystical state of inspiration that never abandoned him. This marked a period of isolation but also of rich productivity in the fields of literature, astrology, philosophy, anthroposophy and theosophy.
He archived horoscopes, ufology writings, notebooks full of Japanese quotations and ideograms, astronomical symbols and homeopathic recipes. He developed an urge to rid himself of material goods, which become so strong as to even compel him to sell his cherished Ferrari (which had previously belonged to Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman).
The artist and director Hans Richter visited Pericle in March 1970 and in a letter recounted: “I have heard quite a lot about an artist living near by in complete seclusion and have finally visited him. What I found was a very remarkable graphic and painting work, unlike anything I have seen before”. During this period, the creation of a monograph catalogue devoted to Pericle began; it would be published in 1979 by De Agostini. Meanwhile, the Max comic strip was still a best seller in New York and Japan. Beginning in 1980, Pericle’s curiosity and creative voracity then turned towards an in-depth study of the disciplines most dear to him and to the writing of Bis ans Ende der Zeiten (Until the End of Time), a subtly autobiographical and visionary novel, completed in 1996.
In it, he narrated the previous lives of his alter ego Odysseus and of his artistic and spiritual training; however, only a single chapter of the book would be published, under the title Amduat, in 1995. Pericle’s beloved wife Orsolina died in 1997, followed in 2001 by the artist himself, leaving no heirs. Their home then lay abandoned until December 2016, when it was purchased by hoteliers Andrea and Greta Biasca-Caroni, the neighbours, fascinated by the house’s glorious past which today reveals Pericle’s meticulous and systematic work of expressive research, an immense trove of his paintings and graphic works, fruit of the artist’s boundless culture and thirst for knowledge, a summa of universal thought catalogued by Pericle with monastic rigor.
After being rescued from oblivion, Luigi Pericle is now the focus of a large critical and philological reclamation. The extensive project to study, restore, conserve and catalogue his artistic heritage is being managed by the non-profit association Archivio Luigi Pericle, located in Ascona, as part of a coordinated process of re-evaluation and appreciation of Pericle’s legacy.
Works by Luigi Pericle are today kept in the collections of some important Swiss and British museums.