So, finally, Luigi Serafini's masterpiece Codex Seraphinianus has recently been re-published by Rizzoli. This masterpiece of creative imagination has never been surpassed since its latest release in 1981. There is simply no other book like it. I don't think there ever will be either.
On page after page we can study exquisite color pencil drawings of weird warps of perception made by Italian architect, artist and designer Serafini between 1976 and 1978. Figurative beauty melts away into grotesqueries, ordinary things are rearranged into extraordinary, perspectives are skewed and screwed, colors are saturated to enhance extra dimensions... Hundreds of drawings get stuck in your mind, which reacts to each single one with a flashing question mark and a soft tilt of the entire perceptive system.
Close by the literally incredible drawings are writings in a language and alphabet entirely of Serafini's own making. It's a beautiful script which makes perfect sense in its own way. Of course, one becomes curious... What does it say? What is the meaning? But those kinds of petit-bourgeois angles become redundant already on page one. There is nothing to be understood here. Or everything. You can decide for yourself (I hope).
The mysterious impressions of such an ambitious project naturally got metaphysical problem-solvers started already after the first editions of the book... Is there perhaps a code in the Codex? Is there a hidden meaning? Comparisons with the Voynich Manuscript of the 15th century have been made, and speculations have been overflowing... In comparing the two as phenomena rather than as single books, it's not unlikely that Serafini has been inspired by the Voynich Manuscript. But that in itself says nothing of coherence or meaning in either volume. Which is probably a good thing.
Serafini himself discloses some of the genesis of the project in a booklet called Decodex (included in the book). As a 27 year old artist, he was making drawings of humans with strange prostheses and realized he needed some texts and captions to go with them. To get back to the childlike fascination and amazement when flipping through encyclopedias, he simply made up his own.
The idea is of course interesting. The execution is that of a master's. But, let's not forget that he himself also ascribes many of the ideas for both drawings and letters/sentences to a stray white cat that he took in at his apartment in Rome. The symbiosis with the cat was apparently instrumental in the creation of the book. Echoes of Lovecraft and Burroughs, anyone?
Petty provocations create petty responses. But a book such as Serafini's, besides being a truly magnificent work of art, is a penetrating provocation on so many sophisticated and subtle levels that I wouldn't hesitate to call it almost "corrupting". Not in any essentially "moral" way, but simply in how it so elegantly draws you into a world overwhelmingly alluring and attractive, yet also completely coercive and persuading in its relentless energy. It's very hard to leave the Codex Seraphinianus once you're inside. And why would one want to leave this remarkable universe?
In terms of creative mania, perhaps one could compare Serafini with Henry Darger or similar more pathological artists. But the comparison stops there, in the intensity and devotion to a massive and more or less incomprehensive oeuvre. Where Darger's legacy left us/the art world with a million pathetic and slackered infantilists, regurgitating the same baby-noir mannerisms over and over, Serafini's work is like a Leonardo da Vinci's for the imminent apocalypse.
He delves through flora, fauna, technology, the human being, construction, engineering and fantasy in an inimitable way – he might as well have illustrated a "real" flora and would have done a great job at it.
This brilliant perversion of figurative skill is the very essence of the art of the 21st century that will be deemed valuable in the future. Valuable, as in carrying an "impact", and not necessarily based on monetary worth. The more upheavals of the anticipated, the greater the possibility of healthy mutations in a stagnant, entropic western culture. Serafini is a master not only on detail level (each drawing, each sentence) but also on the bigger one (the book in itself is an artwork: an encyclopedia for those who strive to know everything and nothing in new ways). This psychedelic Magnum Opus stirs and jolts the sedated minds of complacent art consumers in ways that can perhaps (hopingly) open the door to a more vital sense of humor and wit on general levels.
So, what is it? Mere mind games in the tradition of Marcel Duchamp and other pun-driven brainiacs? Trip art for armchair psychonauts? Surrealism taken to a contemporary level? A nonsensical mockery of the rational? A celebration of human ingenuity taken out of utilitarian context? The questions are basically as many as there are pages in the book. And of course they don't have to be answered at all. Perhaps they shouldn't? It's quite enough to just enjoy the book. Let the images sink in and who knows...? Perhaps you too will morph into a new kind of being stemming from the pen and genius of Luigi Serafini?
Luigi Serafini: Codex Seraphinianus, Rizzoli, 2013.
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