Clemente Tafuri was born in Salerno in 1903. The grandson of the genre painter Raffaele Tafuri, he began his training in the workshop of a local decorator, before completing his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Naples, where he came into contact with the now elderly Vincenzo Migliaro. Soon, animated by a youthful exuberance and an instinctive and energetic chromatic stroke, he attracted the attention of critics with scenes of daily life, landscapes and figure paintings.
A dynamic and luminous painting: between Neapolitan realism and the re-elaboration of seventeenth-century styles
Although Clemente Tafuri was born and bred in the early 20th century, the key to his artistic success lay in his reworking of the typical stylistic features of the Neapolitan School of the second half of the 19th century, from which he accepted the attention to life, the dynamic chromatism, made up of lively, rapid touches, and the handling of light, with suggestions not only from the painting of Francesco Paolo Michetti, but also from the 17th century.
Sudden flashes of grazing light illuminate chromatic details that emerge from dark backgrounds and gloomy settings, bringing to mind the painting of Caravaggio and the Caravaggisti, which he came to know during his years at the Academy, thanks also to his closeness to Vincenzo Migliaro.
Migliaro, a pupil of Domenico Morelli, but also a profound connoisseur of seventeenth-century Neapolitan painting, passed on to the young Tafuri certain chromatic values that we find again and again in his handling of reality and in his reinterpretation of Neapolitan realism through a lively, synthetic touch, rich in suggestive, almost material highlights.
In his scenes of everyday life, genre paintings and portraits, the painter from Salerno is also able to skilfully conduct an accurate observation of Antonio Mancini’s realism, which can be seen above all in the faces of fishermen, gypsy girls, peasants and fishmongers, which he brings to life with a quick, dynamic and luminous realism.
Clemente Tafuri’s critical success began in the 1930s, after his participation in the Salerno Art Exhibition in 1933, when he presented to the general public his paintings with their bright colours and intense chiaroscuro passages.
Paintings Dedicated to War and African Colonialism
His pictorial immediacy, accompanied by full-bodied chromatic mixtures, characterises all the works he produced between the 1930s and 1940s, which made Clemente Tafuri one of the last representatives of Neapolitan realism between the two wars. Among his most significant works are some war scenes, linked to the plates he produced for the “Domenica del Corriere”, which also show us his considerable work as an illustrator and advertising poster artist. Many of these illustrations are dedicated to the Spanish Civil War or the colonial conquests, which were then turned into postcards for the Boeri publishing house.
At the end of the 1930s, therefore, there were also some works aimed at underlining the Italian presence on the European imperialist scene, above all narrated through military exploits. In particular, for Italo Balbo, governor in Libya, he painted the fascinating portrait of the Libyan Zaptiè, wrapped in a bright red cloak that contrasts with the dark complexion of his haughty face, kept in the Museo Storico dell’Arma dei Carabinieri in Rome in Piazza Risorgimento. Other paintings by Tafuri are kept in the same Museum and they are dedicated to the Carabinieri, Gunu Gadu, dedicated to the battle in which Captain Bonsignore fell, and Resurrezione, from 1953, showing the sacrifice of Salvo D’Acquisto, intent on tearing off his shirt with great pathos, in order to open his chest to the Germans’ bullets, are also exhibited in the same museum.
At the slave trader
Within Clemente Tafuri’s colonialist production, particular attention should be paid to an Orientalist work from 1942 entitled At the slave trader. In this large, horizontal oil painting, the painter offers us a vision of an interior enveloped in darkness. The slave trader shows a particularly attractive one stripped of her dress, while the others surround her in brightly coloured clothes, listening to the kerar player, the typical Ethiopian lyre.
Tafuri skilfully and fluently re-proposes a classic topos of Orientalist and colonial iconography, that of the slave trade, depicting sensual and exotically fascinating female types. He uses a chromaticism enhanced by a dense and synthetic brushstroke, animated by sudden flashes of light reminiscent of Michetti’s painting. The Voto in the Galleria Nazionale, a key element in the Abruzzi painter’s production, returns in this masterpiece by Tafuri for several reasons: the choice of a monumental, horizontal format, the folkloric and popular theme, the selection of dark tones taken from 17th-century tradition and, above all, the fragmentation of form and colour. The juxtaposition of finished and deliberately unfinished parts is intended to portray a pungent, bleak realism, combining Fortuny’s range of light colours with dramatic shading.