The stigmata

The project


Monograph 1970


Preview Showings



Thematic affinities between Hess and Guttuso

(dma) - I cannot conclude these notes without looking at some specific similarities between the work of Christian Hess (Bolzano 1895 – Schwaz 1944) and that of Renato Guttuso (Bagheria 1912 – Rome 1987). These similarities were considered during the preparation of the Rediscovery project and elucidated in the preface to the 1974 catalogue by Leonardo Sciascia, who noted:
"It is not without significance that the artist from central Europe, who gained artistic maturity through a complex variety of experiences, found himself observing and painting the same subjects which only a few years later the young Guttuso was to observe and to paint during his happy and fortunate period which takes its name from Scylla. Not in the same way, but the same things."

Sciascia's observations led me to seek out Guttuso at his studio in Piazza del Grillo in Rome. I left him a copy of the catalogue for the Rediscovery Exhibition and a few weeks later he was kind enough to write me a letter (reproduced here) in which he recalled he had seen Hess at work, painting at the Aspra marina in Bagheria near Palermo.


Marina di Aspra - Bagheria - (photo La Rosa)



Christian Hess


Renato Guttuso







To have an idea of the thematic similarities shared by the two painters we can take as an example "Red and Black Houses" by Hess (Sicily 1930) and "Landscape at Bagheria" which Guttuso painted in 1951. There are many other paintings where similar subjects and Sicilian themes are treated by both artists. It is clear that although Hess was working twenty years before Guttuso, their thematic development is almost identical. Not only the roofs, but also the cactus trees surrounding the houses in the Sicilian countryside are central elements in both canvasses.
When the artists turned to the theme of the mafia the similarities are even more marked. In 1933 Hess produced a water-colour capturing the decisive instant of a deadly rural shotgun ambush. In 1953 Guttuso painted what could be the same victim in "Farmworker murdered among cactuses".
There is another drawing in which Hess seems to return to the same shadowy and lugubrious subject. Two figures are carrying away a corpse as a man on horseback passes calmly by: a clear metaphor denouncing "l'omertà" the code of silence which traditionally protects mafia crimes.
There are subjects, themes and impressions which are repeatedly to be found in both artists' work and are as vivid today as they were then. It is easy to imagine that both painters shared similar artistic ideas - and that Hess acted as pathfinder for Guttuso who would in turn take a similar artistic journey.

It is by no means irrelevant then that in 1974 - the same year in which Sicily paid homage to Christian Hess with the Exhibition of the Rediscovery - Guttuso completed his most famous Palermo painting "La Vucciria", a masterpiece which can be seen as a continuation of themes depicted by Hess 40 years before in "The Fortune-teller" - the painting which became the symbol of the exhibition which travelled from Palermo to Munich. Guttuso's "La Vucciria" thus became part of the movement which saw the rediscovery of Hess' art and paid tribute to his love of the island which welcomed him during his exile.


“Sicilian Expressionism”

With good reason Louis Christian Hess may be considered the forefather of a movement that with justification could be called “Sicilian Expressionism”. In the second half of the 20th century a long line of high-profile and talented Sicilian painters distinguished themselves, frequently grouped under the title “Mediterranean Expressionism”. Not just Guttuso, but also other established artists such as Migneco, Gianbecchina, Lia Pasqualino Noto, Saro Mirabella, Sebastiano Milluzzo, Giuseppe Consoli, Renzo Collura, Santi Marino, Pippo Bonanno, Bruno Caruso, Michele Spadaro, Ernesto Lombardo, Giuseppe Gambino, Togo, Tano Santoro, Giuseppe Burgio - to name just a few - assimilated German expressionism and produced their own brilliant interpretations following in the manner of Hess. 
An analogy comes readily to mind: in the 15th Century Antonello da Messina sparked a breakthrough in European art when he combined the chromatic techniques of early Flemish painting with Italian linear perspective. Similarly, in the 1930’s Christian Hess illuminated German expressionism with the brilliant light of the Mediterranean. Would this 20th Century turning-point in modern art - which came about in the homeland of Antonello - not be worthy of recognition and a major exhibition dedicated to Sicilian Expressionism.