On the wall of her Palermo studio, sculptor Norma D’Ippolito reserves an intimate space for a major source of inspiration.
Aged family photographs are nestled among drawings, degrees and awards. “It’s a kind of homage to my grandparents, because I feel great admiration for all the effort involved in immigration,” she says. Peasants from Calabria and Abruzzo, her paternal grandparents arrived at the end of the 19th century to work as tenant farmers in the province of Buenos Aires. “They made an enormous effort to better themselves so their children could study. It was an extremely tough life, but at a time when Argentine economic conditions were conducive to growth and social mobility.”
While she works, the window stays open into her light, airy studio on calle Honduras. It is a long way from those humble, rural origins, but D’Ippolito’s links to the spirit of her forefathers are as strong and enduring as the Italian marble she grapples with day in, day out.
Born in 1943, D’Ippolito married after completing her secondary studies. After a ten-year hiatus, she carried on with her art education when she was 29 and a mother of three. Unlike her ancestors, who didn’t have time for the arts, D’Ippolito knew they were her destiny. “I think I had the vocation as a very young girl, because when my cousins and friends were going off to dance or play, I just stayed behind, drawing.” She still does life drawing every week for two or three hours, looking for lines, tensions, spaces and shapes to serve her essential purpose: sculpture. It was with this same motive in mind that she had gained entry to the Escuela Superior de Bellas Artes de la Nación in the early 1970s. There, she obtained undergraduate degrees in Sculpture and Engraving before adding a postgraduate qualification in Sculpture.
In 1981, D’Ippolito began sculpting exclusively in stone from a Palermo workshop, and three years later held her first exhibition at Manzana de las Luces in Montserrat. She has since exhibited in New York, Miami and Barcelona and declares herself a passionate traveller, albeit one motivated by her art, visiting galleries and museums. She is also an avid reader, currently taking a course in classical literature. “I always love the classical,” she enthuses.
As if to prove the point, three of the recent works she shows me contain a nod to the classics. Her current favourite, ‘Centaur’, depicts a couple making love, their upper torsos twisting into each other from a shared mid-section. Another is ‘Heavy Breeze’, a pair of female figures where the buttocks of one are the breasts of the other. One of the faces looks down lovingly, recalling Narcissus’ contemplation of his own reflection. The third is entitled ‘Sabina’ after the ancient Roman episode, The Rape of the Sabine Women. The tale recounts how, seeking to start families in their newly-founded city, the Romans abducted women from a local tribe. D’Ippolito’s rendering depicts a male figure fusing with – or perhaps overcoming – a female.
As with all her work, it conforms to a classical notion of beauty. Contemporary art may dismiss this concept as obsolete, but it is something D’Ippolito openly strives for. The idea is to marry formal beauty with more intimate concerns, a fusion of the physical and spiritual. At the moment she is drawn towards the non-acceptance of reality, while duality is also a key theme. “The works conform to a duality, but perhaps with a tendency towards the anecdotal, less to do with concepts and more about real situations,” she says. “Because I work with very noble and long-lasting materials, it’s about making concrete a moment of my thought or feeling.”
This sense of duality is everywhere; in the eternal moments she fashions from chunks of rock, the play of light and shadow, the sharp lines and soft contours. Contradictions even appear in titles such as ‘Silent Cries’, the name of her most recent creation. Six months in the making, its gleaming stone heaves with emotion; hand over mouth, it speaks volumes.
As I watch her hulk a drill to a marble block, it occurs to me that duality is ever-present in D’Ippolito’s life as well. For while she is in her element in her solitary workshop, toiling for nine hours a day and decrying social engagements that tear her away, D’Ippolito is tied to another, most Argentine of milieux: El campo.
Up to twice a month and for four days at a time, D’Ippolito makes the long trip to two farms in La Pampa and one in San Luis. The land has been in the family for more than 80 years, and since the death of her husband in 1986, she has been the boss. Her three children are based in Buenos Aires and work in the business, while D’Ippolito says she works ‘more on the human relations side of things’. Her ancestors’ links to the Argentine soil gave her the ‘most direct apprenticeship’ in raising cattle and growing wheat, corn and sunflowers. “I think we have a very strong moral duty – a moral imperative – to look after the land, maintain it, and, if possible, grow the legacy,” she says.
But what of the difficulties of playing two such demanding roles? “More than physical tiredness, the problem is that it disconnects me mentally because they’re two very different areas. At any rate, I say that I have two great loves, and they are art and the country.” In fact, she shrugs off the suggestion it could leave her exhausted, such is the work ethic she inherited from her ancestors. “I think what is clear from this is my will to work, having chosen a discipline that demands great physical effort. This links it very much to the working mindset of the end of the 19th century, where the original idea was ‘You have to push yourself to reach your goal’. Nobody gave you anything. Now we’re in a society of rights and demands and we all ask to be given everything.”
Despite her European influences and criticism of modern society, D’Ippolito loves Argentina. Buenos Aires, she declares, is ‘marvellous and enriching’, not least for its ever-new range of cultural offerings. “Argentines have a yearning born in the most intimate, most profound part of their being, a spiritual yearning to enrich themselves, to better themselves, to express themselves practically and artistically,” she tells me. She keeps abreast of domestic art affairs, but her most important contact is with her own work, driven by something beyond curiosity, something closer to anxiety. “I’m moved by a great spiritual yearning, a non-conformism, and also the metaphor with the stone. I try to dig deeper and deeper into the stone, to put myself into its bulk, its volume. The same goes for the spirit; I try to search harder and further enrich my internal self.”
This sculptor, who reserves great admiration for the likes of Alexander Archipenko, Henry Moore and Matthew Barney, says every work is therefore autobiographical to some extent. The oeuvre she summarises as ‘re-creation of the nude’ has therefore evolved along life’s journey. “I think it’s like a projection of my subconscious that you see. What’s strange is I often begin with a fixed idea, but I don’t always follow it through because it changes; another image prevails upon me and makes me modify the original idea.”
For D’Ippolito, life without sculpture would be impossible. “I wouldn’t understand it. I just couldn’t do it,” she exclaims, horrified at the thought. It’s fortunate, then, that anything might serve to trigger a new work or suggest forms and contours. Among the endless fields of La Pampa, nature and the movement of animals could provide inspiration for this eternal seeker.
But though she is fond of the land and the gifts it yields, home is where the art is. “Sculpture has been very important in my life,” she says. “Although I’ve had to share and divide my life between workshop and country, I always knew this was where I would pour out all my spiritual needs.”
For more information on Norma D’Ippolito’s work, visit www.normadippolito.com.ar