A Percy Shelly poem from Rome is one piece within a 2021 exhibition by Callan Grecia, currently being shown at SMAC Gallery, Woodstock. This exhibition is what Grecia has described as “an exploration into cubism”. This exaggerated style of painting gives reference to the era of Picasso, and the multitude of layers given to his subject matter portrayed in the way they were displayed on canvas.
It is in the piece A Percy Shelly poem from Rome however that also brings through the artist’s focus on the past and shows his ability to create blurred lines between past, present, and future. Percy Shelly, the name featured in the title of the painting, was an English romantic poet from the late 17th Century. His poem Adonais (Go thou to Rome) is closely connected to the Grecia painting. This poem speaks to the fall of greatness, specifically, the ancient city of Rome, stating “where is wrecks like shattered mountains rise”. The poem also alludes to how objects fade but history always continues, explaining “Flowers, ruins, statues, music, words, are weak. The glory they transfuse with fitting truth to speak”. The KwaZulu Natal Society of Arts states “Grecia’s current body of work is a deliberation on the history of art, the academy and time. The notion that humankind constantly buffers the past, the present, and also acts towards future presents a challenge to create images that reinforce or transcend the construct of time.”
This representation of history buffering and how we as humans stuck in this moment in distortion and limbo is communicated through Grecia’s piece of work and indeed the whole exhibition, both through the subject matter and the style of painting. A Percy Shelly poem from Rome features a bust of Caesar which seems to have either risen up from the past or is sinking into it. True to historical reference Caesar has been stabbed in the back, however, according to the artist, this was not by Brutus as we would believe but rather by both us as an audience and the artist himself. This can be read as a commentary on history and how we as a society are stabbing our history in the back, doomed to repeat it rather than learn from our mistakes. According to Keely Shinners “We cast venerated figures in stone so that they might outlast us, pry their eyes open so they might bear witness to our ceaseless rubble-making, the ongoing catastrophe we call history”. As Grecia is a South African artist it can be assumed that this call to history can be directed at South Africa today. Grecia is questioning whether we have learned from our past, or are we simply repeating it? Like this painting, are we as humans buffering between past and present never able to move forward as we keep repeating ourselves and our mistakes?
The style of A Percy Shelly poem from Rome is also something to be considered in what it communicates, as previously mentioned this piece’s style can be closely related to both cubism and pop art. The main subject’s large eyes, distorted features, both fractured and incongruous, are proof of this, along with the blocky, single-dimensional colours as the background. This distorted style of displaying the subject can be read as a communication of the distortion of facts and how history adjusts as time moves on. Grecia is possibly commenting on the invalidity of the history books and the distortion of fact. Caesar as a character has almost been lost in the painting itself and although we as an audience can recognise him the distortion of his portrait speaks to much more than the statue itself. SMAC Gallery describes Grecia’s works as “if a portrait is a representation of a person, these are portraits of the soup of representations in which the person has been lost”.
So what is Grecia trying to communicate through this painting? Is he bringing the light both the frivolousness and importance of history and the knowledge it brings, or is he warning us that we as a society are stuck in a limbo, buffering between past and present unable to move forward and progress from our communal mistakes? Grecia’s painting A Percy Shelly poem from Rome is both relevant today and a portal to the past, making it a perfect mirror reflecting what we as a society have done wrong, what needs to be seen and therefore how to move on.