Robin VanLear Artistic Director, Community Arts
Here we are on the verge of our 25th I Madonnari Chalk Festival and I need to spill the beans. We don’t use chalk. Our “street painters” do not paint. Very few of the some 2,000 individuals who participate reproduce images of the Madonna. Yet we are keeping alive a tradition nearly 500 years old. Strangely too, this art form, which began during the High Renaissance, seems like a surprisingly recent phenomenon.
So how did it begin and why has it become so popular?
In 16th-century Italy various beggars, primarily amputees, began looking for an advantage over the other beggars who proliferated in the plazas and market areas around cathedrals, especially on feast days. Some of them decided to create art, and charcoal from braziers became their first drawing implement. They were rewarded for their efforts with coins thrown down by pilgrims visiting the cathedrals. Ultimately the more artistic beggars began copying portraits of the Madonna, in particular those by the popular early 16th-century liturgical artist Raphael. They were dubbed Madonnari, painters of the Madonna. It took nearly three centuries for the next big artistic leap in street painting, when the advent of artist pastels in the 1800s allowed these enterprising folk artists to incorporate color.
The itinerant Madonnari could earn a reasonable livelihood by traveling from town to town throughout Italy following the schedule of holy days and local festivals. During the four centuries following the Renaissance, street painters were a common sight at religious festivals throughout Europe. In England these early performance artists were called screevers. In Germany they were strassenmalers. The practice continued until World War I when large numbers of these vagabond artists were called into service on both sides of the conflict. By the end of World War II the number of Madonnari had dwindled and the tradition had nearly died out. In Italy only a handful of older Madonnari survived until young artists in search of a way to support a bohemian lifestyle began to join them.
In 1972 the small village of Grazie di Curtatone in northern Italy decided to celebrate, honor, and hopefully revive this public art form that was once so integral to the fabric of holy day pilgrimages throughout Italy. Hundreds of artists from all over Europe were invited to travel to Grazie to compete in a 48-hour street painting marathon. The invitation generated immediate enthusiasm.
A decade later Kurt Wenner left the United States to study classical art traditions in Italy and quickly joined the ranks of the Madonnari as a way to support himself while abroad. In 1985 Wenner became the first non-European to win the coveted Gold Medal at Grazie for three consecutive years and was awarded the title Master Street Painter.
Wenner’s entry into the world of the Madonnari was influential in a number of ways. A naturally gifted artist, he was well schooled in classical techniques and admired Renaissance and Baroque traditions in both figurative and architectural subject matter. His festival debut showcased the Baroque mural technique of anamorphic perspective typically used for murals inside cathedral domes, but adapted by him for the oblique viewing angle specific to street painting.
Wenner’s victory was celebrated in his hometown of Santa Barbara, California, and in the spring of 1986 he returned home with a classically trained German strassenmaler, Manfred Stader, to introduce the technique of using artist pastels to create art on pavement to a handful of local artists and lend his newfound fame to help start the first I Madonnari festival in the United States. The brainchild of Santa Barbara artist and arts advocate Kathy Koury, the festival began as a fundraiser for the Children’s Creative Project, a countywide school arts program.
Just four years after the inauguration of the nation’s first street painting festival, the Cleveland Museum of Art’s I Madonnari Chalk Festival became the second. Santa Barbara County Schools soon added another festival in the north county to further supplement their fund-raising efforts. A few other festivals followed, including the Montgomery Museum of Fine Art’s Flimp Festival in Alabama and the Lake Worth Street Painting Festival in Florida. Through the 1990s this was the status quo.
At the beginning of the new millennium, with the increased use of the Internet to share awe-inspiring imagery, Wenner’s three-dimensional illusionistic images of buildings and people rising out of or falling into the pavement went viral. It didn’t take long for this melding of the Renaissance tradition of the Madonnari with the new technique of illusionistic 3-D perspective to make a worldwide splash. Helped along by public enthusiasm for art that simply popped up out of the sidewalk at you, I Madonnari-style chalk and street painting festivals began to spring up throughout the United States and Europe. The United States is home to the most festivals, particularly in the warm southern states and the dry southwest. More than 50 annual U.S. festivals are listed by the International Street Painting Society, with likely hundreds more smaller festivals held at schools, churches, and community centers. The token street painter or street painting team has become a popular feature of various community festivals.
This centuries-old tradition is now ubiquitous. More talented and academically trained fine artists populate the ranks of street painters. In addition to Kurt Wenner, street artists such as Manfred Stader, Eduardo Relero, and Edgar Mueller are in demand throughout the world. Even new members of the street painting ranks have their own websites and earn part of their living as featured artists on the U.S. festival circuit. Street painting festivals are low maintenance, environmentally and family friendly, and great crowd pleasers, luring visitors to downtown shopping and cultural districts. Everyone can participate.
The bar has been raised—but ironically, as teams of street painters seek to create the largest, most jaw-dropping 3-D special effects, many of the original tools and techniques are being cast aside. Artists now employ variations that allow them to work faster and that enable their work to last longer and support more dramatic effects. Madonnari working outside tourist attractions frequently underpaint their works on huge sheets of canvas cleverly concealed along the edges so it appears to be the pavement. Many street painting teams first paint their image with tempera paints. And street paintings are no longer relegated to the pavement, as artists incorporate walls and other vertical elements to create entire “walk-in” environments.
On September 13 and 14 I invite you to visit us on the museum’s south side and stroll among several hundred fleeting images of “chalk art,” the work of more than 2,000 participants—from toddlers to Cleveland’s finest Madonnari. Should you wish to join the fun, your participation is more than welcome. I hope to see you there.
Cleveland Art, September/October 2014