Cooperating with Chaos: Portraits of Anarchists at Studio Place Arts

by Sarah Davin

Nitya Brighenti in front of his artwork. Photo by Sarah Davin

A philosopher leans with his right elbow against a table, looking broodingly into space. His ruffled, gray beard and receding hairline, possibly encouraged to withdraw after years of pensive pulling, contrasts his formal suit. Though still, the painting feels active as a flurry of colorful brushstrokes swirl about him, illustrating some sort of creative ether.

“Hazen,” is just one of the  24 pieces of art that make up Storm: Nihilists, Anarchists, Populists and Radicals, an exhibition at Studio Place Arts (SPA) in Barre. The exhibition, located on the second floor, includes oil paintings, classical drawings, and watercolors by Nitya Brighenti.

The paintings mostly focus on figures of the 19th century and feature portraits of writers and political thinkers such as Mikhail Bakunin and Fyodor Dostoevsky, as well as a few of Brighenti’s visions, such as the oil painting, “The Russian Bear.”

Brighenti also brings extensive knowledge of the figures he had chosen to paint. As he walked through the gallery, speaking about each featured philosopher as if he were talking about a friend, he finally settled in front of the mixed media piece, “Itinerary.” With lines linking over the face of German philosopher, Georg Hegel’s face, the piece resembles a spider web, connecting small, circular images of different political, literary, and philosophical figures.

For Brighenti, engaging in the literature that these political thinkers wrote was as essential part of his creative process. At the opening, he explained, “I like to paint something that I feel some passion about. I feel passionate about Bakunin, about these stories, and I want to see the faces, but I also want to risk a new interpretation. I’ve painted Bakunin many times, and I still I feel as though I didn’t really get him.”

The term “anarchy” brings a very specific set of wild images to mind. Its very definition seems to invoke chaos. The anarchist movement led to bombings and assassinations. It is a series of images that invoke fear and fire, but this is not true for Brighenti, as none of the paintings in this exhibition feature the destructive fire that sometimes came with anarchy. When asked why, Brighenti highlighted the difference between the original ideas of anarchy and what the movement later became:

“Anarchism, unlike communism, as far as I know, didn’t have many theories about the dictatorship of the proletariat. Anarchism is about cooperation among the people, owning the means of production. For example, if you work in a factory, wouldn’t it be good if all the workers owned the factory, organized the factory, and shared the profits?”

While Brighenti finds himself attracted to the idea of business shaped and owned by the workers, he is not sympathetic to the thinkers who did incite violence. For him, there seems to be two anarchisms: the philosophical side reflected in the portraits and a destructive movement that ultimately failed. This rejection is evident not only in how Brighenti speaks about these violent insurgents, but also in how he has rejected the presence of these figures in his collection.

This exhibition coincides with the Barre Heritage Festival, which is more than serendipitous. Indeed, Barre has its own history of Anarchism. Amongst the Italian community of Barre anarchists was Luigi Galleani, writer and publisher of the Anarchist newspaper, Cronaca Sovversiva. When asked about Barre’s most famous Anarchist, Brighenti said that he found Galleani to be a complicated figure. “They had this idea of connection, mutual support, and helping each other. There is a newspaper in New York that chronicles the arrest of Galleani. All of the Italian people got out on the street to protest. He was a leader, an important leader. He was the guy who was supporting their hopes.”

When asked if Brighenti saw Galleani as a positive figure, he responded, “I would see him as positive, but I disagree with the type of violence he was inciting because if I were an anarchist, and I’m not too sure I am, I would be a pacifist.”

Storm: Nihilists, Anarchists, Populists and Radicals runs until August 24 at Studio Place Arts

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