Franko B – New romantic

• Monica Trigona

Franko B arrived in London in 1979, when the ashes of Punk epic were still warm with bands that have now become myths – Sex Pistols, Clash, Damned, Stranglers, The Vibrations, The Jam, Siouxsie and the Banshees etc. – alternating on the music scenario and with inspired personalities – Malcolm McLaren and his wife Vivienne Westwood – imposing behaviour patterns and dressing rules to street guys who too quickly reached the top stages.

In October 1976 a brand new single broke into the English music scenario causing sensation at first and then becoming history, Sex Pistols’ “ANARCHY IN THE UK”, a hymn to rebellion, a cry to the system, in short a Punk piece.

At the time, young people were going through a very deep economic and moral crisis.

That time is clearly portrayed by the nihilistic and desperate lyrics and the essential music accompanied by coarse and wasted voices. Songs of anarchy, provocation, and wild and disorderly lives.

The first wave of Punk did not have a clear political orientation, it was rather a general trend, not based on philosophical assumptions, mostly inclined to challenge, with just a bunch of dimly involved followers.

The last years of the decade, corresponding to the end of the Punk style, can be identified with categorical anarchic-nihilistic attitudes, drug use and a strong tendency to rebellion.

The end of the Punk wave led into the Underground.

The ‘80s were born from the ashes of a dark, uncertain period, but, though they were years of passion and sufferance, the strong determination to a change prevailed upon a revolutionary, seemingly political, heritage.

The years of Mrs. Thatcher were also the years of the Saint Martins School of Arts’ students who met in Soho at Blitz, the music temple that launched bands like Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet.

The artistic and social scene of the time were invaded by multiple subcultures named Dark, New Romantic, Yuppies.

The extremely eclectic New Romantic “genre” perfectly settled in London where young people showed an ostentatious, even flashy personal image, with a sort of nostalgic, fairy background.

Similarly to what happened to architecture at the beginning of the 19th century, when the dispute between the nostalgics of the Gothic style and those of a more sober Greek-Roman style led to a general confusion of styles and tastes within the same urban setting, exactly the same way “New Romantics” assembled the most divergent styles from the past.

From the Medieval times to the 19th century, passing through the ‘30s Hollywood.

This referral and at caricatural style was legitimated and made official by Vivienne Westwood with a famous fashion show in March 1981.

In a generally optimistic environment and with a creative spur, icons emerged like Leigh Bowery, a usual at Taboo in Leicester Square, a very vital centre for visual arts and music at the time.

Here he started his performances, wearing home-made clothes and dressing-up creating confusion upon his sexuality.

Cultivated and refined transformist, Bowery had no fear of exposing his disproportionate, all but sculptural body.

He wanted to drag his public in a liberating impulse, and therefore he used himself as an artwork, wearing eccentric outfit and moving in his own “Punk way”.

Designing costumes for Michael Clark and performing in his tours, and shocking London with his ambiguous shows, he became a point of reference for music, style and art in the ‘80s, an outrageous icon according to Sue Tilley.

With this cultural background behind Franko B started to produce his artworks in the ‘90s, ranging from videos to photography, from performances to painting and sculpture. His spectacular actions at Tate Modern, the ICA, the South London Gallery, and Beaconsfield are very well known.

A strong attention to the body, his body, clearly emerged from the beginning. As he himself stated in an interview to Betti Marenko for Costa & Nolan publishers, “ I activate a process of purification, which implies complete self liberation, in my search for freedom. When I perform I feel free. It is an emotional process because in the end I feel I’ve totally evaded my neuroses, that I’ve completely donated myself with my gestures”.

The life of the artist and the corporal experiences that changed his balance are strongly intertwined with his art. The body is used as an object, a support, a canvas where to express the modifications which have been caused by the social institutions that control him (that control us all).

The body becomes an instrument to denounce the alteration of nature and the blood, so shocking for some spectators in its continuous flowing, which dirties the white body of the artist and the aseptic surrounding environment, is nothing else but life, departing life, spurting from inflicted wounds, metaphors of the external limits, and therefore living inside each of us.

Today, almost two decades from his debut, Franko B displays big, stately, black paintings, overelaborate in their fat mellow matter in relief on the canvas; and bas-reliefs of classical universal themes, permeated by a strong empathy towards the existential climax of nature, earth and life.

Where is now the naked, decolorated performer with blood dripping on his opalescent body?

Where is now the artist displaying the hematic “shame”, physical self-awareness and shocking metaphor of the body?

Where is now the man who tries to make the unbearable bearable transforming it into icons and sharing it?

His display of diversity has been his strength in his continuous attempt to give back dignity and beauty to the body, without appealing to any ideology.

How can he today deny us his distinctiveness “just” to give us paintings?

Just objects which will remain in time and space, and will superpose on years of touching performances, where action itself was completely redeemed, other than from its meaning, also from the performing aspect, unrepeatable and inimitable in its brutality.

Where is now Franko B?

Franko B, I thought, had chosen instant philosophy.

Time, intended as instant, is an occasion for cognitive, moral and artistic creation.

Redeeming corporality – skin, blood, fluids – and transforming the body into other entities, originates from experimental art movements of decades ago.

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, in fact, there were many artists who used their own body as an investigation instrument.

The development in the same years of the same interest for the body, its strength, and its expression is symptomatic of the existence of a dialogue between different geographical areas and of similar poetical and aesthetic urgencies in different environments.

Both artists and the public participated in the display and manipulation of the body that had been deprived of its everyday politically correct cloths; the climax was represented by the Viennese actionism (Nitsch, Brus, Muehl, Schwarzkogler), a sado-masochistic excess, which is the extreme expressive raising of a man purged from artefacts and social masks.

The artist, as well as replacing the workart with his body, used it as it was, acting on it as if it was an instrument. For the first time, the protagonist of the artwork was the body of the author who intervened on himself.

The action represented by the author was a perfect excuse to blame on social customs and on absurd and unjustified inhibitions. Some used their own body in the most various ways, like evacuating or urinating, wounding themselves, at times even masturbating.

Performing became a way-out a liberation from their distress: publicly showing their own perversities and vanities, their own “deviations”, like homosexuality, and their many fears, they exorcised a world that had been kept well hidden and was finally opened like a Pandora’s box.

Gina Pane expressed herself by cutting various body parts with razor-blades, exteriorising her interior pain; Urs Luthi dressed-up to highlight an ever-changing and ambiguous sexual identity.

Hermann Nitsch and his Vienna based Aktionismus group’s performances were something in between satanic and orgiastic. Pretending to sacrifice animals, they slaughtered them in front of the audience and dripped their bloody entrails all over the public, virtual victims of their sacrifices.

Rudolf Schwarzkogler simulated sequences of mummification, castration, and purification where the human body was dismembered by subjects of unprecedented cruelty and perversion, totally contrasting with the formal care and the aesthetic quality of the shootings.

Franko B, well aware of these experiences, has become an icon of contemporary Body Art, although from a totally personal perspective.

The theme of love is the engine of everything and is already present in the titles of his performances: I MISS YOU, OH LOVER BOY, DON’T LEAVE ME THIS WAY.

Love is the object of a “romantic” meditation, which he investigates in its multiple nuances: separation, solitude, fear of abandonment, submission.

The rituality of his actions emotionally involves the spectators who identify themselves in a body which has been reshaped upon its own fears and its own desires, a body that represents the social body.

Today, as had happened to Mark Rothko when the impetuous Action Painting was raging, the language of Franko B calms down on monochromatic canvases.

Is there more emphasis in total abstraction than in autoreferentiality?

Is a blow in air more extreme than a stroke hurled to a specific target?

The artist has made his journey around a performing world, pivoting around his own corporality, but the body transfiguration has sent him back to his very body.

Franko B has gone forward.

Going beyond will now inevitably imply a change of support, directing himself towards a painting that bears all the previous experiences, but with a precise characterisation, with universal values and with this excessiveness which originates from his other performatory experience.

He closed the circle, he went back to corporality and abandoned it again.

What’s new?

There is a variation, a gentle and sentimental side in this new, “shocking” extremisation, the conquest of a new language, an ideal experiment to change scenario.

This gentleness clearly emerges as every single gesture derives from pietas.

Here is a new way of narrating life, sentimental, uniting intimacy, private and public.

Fragrances, sufferances, emotions, an intimate diary expressed in painting.


Published in Full of Love

[Exhibition catalogue, Marena Rooms Gallery, Turin] (2007)

© 2015 Franko B and the contributors