PAINTING IS AT THE MERCY OF THE PERCEPTIVE EYE AND MUST, AS A SENSUAL STIMULUS, FIRST AND FOREMOST COME TO BEING IN FRONT OF THE EYE.
In ancient Greek there’s a word for a special experience: thaumazein (ϑαυμάζειν). It describes more than just ‘amazement’. It means ‘to be amazed, to be irritated’. Following this line of thought, I’ll ask a provocative question: How ‘beautiful’ can painting be? The question is provocative because our lips usually utter nothing else than that word when we are faced with an image we like. But the question is also provocative because we know that each of us is primarily concerned about our own needs and perceptions. I wonder if that’s always been the case. There have been periods in history of art which, at least for a certain period, are thought to have had a more general concept of beauty, valid for an entire society. Anyone who, for example, takes a closer look at Jan Eyck’s altar in Ghent, its overall form, but also the consistency of its aesthetics and effect caused by even the smallest miniature feature could be forgiven for thinking they’re experiencing not only the sense of beauty but also the spirit of the time in this work of art.
Art struggles with this claim, as do artists: to embody one’s own ideas and something of the zeitgeist in the medium of art, even when the individual relationship to art is painful, characterised by tensions, contradictions, or simply by the longing for change.
The dedication of the old masters from the 15th century to their work has been an attitude Benedetto Fellin sought himself since the beginning of his education. Born in Merano in 1956, son of artist Peter Fellin and graphic artist Herta Huber, Benedetto grew up in Graz after his parents separated, then moved to Vienna in 1972. He considers his career was shaped by the encounters and the youth movements of the time. A 7‑metre-long altarpiece for the church of the grammar school he attended is one of the 12-year-old’s painterly experiments. His decision to become a painter was initially consolidated by his electrifying fascination for surrealism. He immediately experienced the charisma of the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism, dealt with complementary colour painting and in 1975, after his admission to the masterclass lead by Professor Rudolf Hausner, was able to make a determined start on his path.
During his training, he gained far-reaching personal experiences: his long-term and incessant fascination with Tibetan philosophy, the brief marriage with a Viennese woman (travelling with her to the Middle East), another sojourn in India, where he lived together with Tibetans for several months. This is followed by an exhibition in Japan, meeting mountaineer Professor Herbert Tichy – who was travellingthrough Asia – whose reports on his experiences in Tibet greatly interest the young painter. The Tibetan holy mountain, the Kailash, becomes a recurrent painting subject throughout the 80s. In Vienna, Fellin met art collectors Margarethe and Peter Infeld, whose friendly support greatly favoured his artistic development. Meeting Reinhold Messner also provided further inspiration and confirmed he was on the right track vis a vis his artistic production.
The painter is always drawn to far-flung places, from which he then returns to work in absolute seclusion: he travelled to Bangkok, East Africa, Mexico, Burma and Cambodia. A studio on the Austrian-Hungarian border is his refuge, providing him with peace and quiet when needing to focus on his paintings, but he also lives and works in Vienna. Those who face Benedetto Fellin’s pictures unprepared fall into the state of thaumazein: they’re surprised, feel alienated at first glance. It’s a visual language that may not be unfamiliar to a connoisseur of Viennese art and its peculiarities, but it can unsettle other viewers and raise questions. An exploratory, curious, searching eye is drawn into the unbelievable depth of the room in some pictures, or it gets caught up in the foreground, swept away by the sharp, shining chromatic contrasts, and discovers even more objects within the multitude of depicted objects.
Fellin grew up – artistically speaking – as a pupil of the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism, whose first representatives included his teacher Rudolf Hausner. The specific Austrian variant of this art movement has to be analysed in the context of a complex system of influences incorporating Mannerism’s technical achievements in painting in the Netherlands as well as the thematic and creative breakthroughs in Art Nouveau (Vienna Secessionists) and especially the radical position of Surrealism. This creates absolute freedom for the dreamlike, unconscious and fantastic elements in art and opens new possibilities to convey the spiritual element in a sensual manner. The Viennese representatives pick off from, as well as uphold, the traditions of European painting.
Fellin considers himself part of the realistic painting traditions and stands by his European roots, but also r eaches beyond that. Especially his ideological attraction to Tibetan culture, his ethnological interests for ancient cultures in general allow him to walk his own path. In this respect, he has largely left his artistic starting point, the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism, behind him. But he uses the acquired knowledge of the fine painting employed by old masters and their accuracy and care in the execution for his working method. He aims to recreate a lifelike depiction. An incredible painting effort, as painting in oil and egg tempera requires slow work and won’t allow any shortcuts, nor does it have time for any spontaneity. Is it worth the effort? When considering the intent behind reproducing a realistic process, lies a special form of mental freedom, which is important to Fellin: the artist’s freedom, the imaginary, the wellspring of creativity – or, if you prefer, recreating what doesn’t exist in nature – are used to illustrate lifelike representation and thereby to transport the viewer onto a spiritual plane.