By Sara Radin, NYU Florence student
Blub, an emerging, anonymous street artist, has started a Florentine phenomenon. L’arte Sa Nuotare (translated as “art knows how to swim”) is a series of appropriated famous portraits where the subjects are portrayed underwater with scuba gear.
These subjects include both enduring and transient pop culture such as Michelangelo’s David, Amy Winehouse, the Mona Lisa, and more. The project has been generally well-received by native Florentines and tourists alike, and it has begun expanding to other Italian and European cities. As viewers, we are drawn in to the aesthetically pleasing contrast of blue paint against Florentine yellow facades as well as the familiarity of the icon. Upon closer look, however, we are challenged to question the significance of the work. Why underwater? Each piece has a blue background, often with a gradient, and one or two individuals painted with black ink. The most successful pieces however, such as the portrait of Dante, are not monochromatic. The inclusion of red clothing or details around the goggles bring more depth to the paintings and better capture the attention of passersby. There is a raw quality to some of the paintings because of their unfinished details at the bottom: Blub allows the blacks to fade and sometimes includes dripping.
Some interpret this series as an emphasis on the longevity of art. If the message in Blub’s project is that the specific icons that he/she appropriates will always be famous, then this is a bold claim to make in the digital age. The history of art has proven that movements (Surrealism, Reconstructivism, etc.), mediums (daguerrotype, fresco painting, etc.) and even subjects (Kony 2012, Farrah Fawcett, etc.) can fade. But with digital technologies, trends come and go more quickly than ever. Even the longevity of photography, the most prevalent artistic medium today, is being called into question by art critics and writers (for more information on this, check out After Photography, a book by ex-NYU professor Fred Ritchin). However, if Blub suggests that art in itself is infinite, then the argument is sound. Newer practices always replace the older ones to refresh the way that human beings creatively express themselves and the world around them. Others interpret L’arte Sa Nuotare as a response to the iconization of artwork through commercial use. In other words, “art knows how to swim” amongst its reproductions, appropriations, and variations throughout time while still retaining its original significance. Although Blub’s paintings themselves are appropriations, their purpose, unlike many other appropriations, is to encourage the public to revisit the untouched versions of famous artwork. The success of Blub’s series is largely due to the fact that it is presented in an urban context. Galleries and museums have a different audience and exposure than the streets, and if L’arte Sa Nuotare had been solely an exhibition, it might not have been elevated to the popularity it has today. That being said, there is irony in presenting a series about the longevity of art–in both of the aforementioned interpretations–as street art. Due to exposure to weather conditions, UV light, vandalization and more, street art usually has a very short life. Does Blub intend to be ironic with this series? Are there other subtexts to this body of work? While the artist retains anonymity, our questions will no doubt persist.