Monica was for real. Now her memory lives forever, in oil, on canvas, created by Durham artist
Just as life’s struggles circle in turmoil, so too did the history of the portrait, but after chaos for four years, it has found a final resting place. Now the canvas and the artist are finally at peace.
The painting began as an intense emotional response to a partner’s breast cancer diagnosis, and her courageous voyage. The artist was her primary support. Through his painting he found release from the stress of the exhausting roller coaster ride they both endured.
There was a promise that no one would ever see the completed work.
Ironically, two weeks after it was finished, Luciani’s agent, Loch Gallery in Toronto, inquired if he had a submission for The Kingston Prize (Canada’s National Juried Portrait Competition). The portrait had to be of a Canadian citizen whom the artist knew personally, and must have been completed within the past two years.
But there was that promise.
It took Luciani several days to find the fortitude to mention the competition to Monica. She, of course, was entirely against it, and reminded him of his word to conceal the painting from everyone. Tony was okay with the refusal. It was a promise, after all.
A few days later she reversed her thoughts. Monica realized the painting wasn’t about her, but about women like her, and hopefully it would help others face their fears. She was beautiful and courageous – she was his ‘Wonder Woman.’
An image was submitted to The Kingston Prize competition in March 2009. In June, Luciani received word that it was one of 30 finalists selected from hundreds. The actual work was to be shipped to Kingston in September.
During that summer the painting sat in the studio, hidden, face-in, along a low back wall. Monica refused to look at it.
An artist needs reassurance. Would Wonder Woman be as meaningful to others as to himself? One day, a close and accomplished artist friend Barry Oretsky, his wife and another couple visited from Toronto. In confidence, Luciani had previously spoken to him about the painting, and now Oretsky requested to view it. Hesitantly, the canvas was positioned on the easel. The studio became disturbingly quiet. Moments later, Barry’s wife left the room in tears. With bated breath, Tony watched his friend stare at the painting in silence. Finally he said “Tony, it’s a masterpiece”. (Barry rarely gives out praise). “I wish my wife would express emotion like that for my work”. Luciani had the validation he was hoping for.
Monica had not wanted to see the finished portrait, yet she insisted that she would attend the gala opening in Kingston. Luciani was just as adamant that she couldn’t unless she prepared herself by viewing the painting before it left the studio. One quiet night, she sat with a friend for a private unveiling – and surprisingly, was completely at ease with it.
Before shipping the canvas to Kingston, Luciani sat alone contemplating Wonder Woman. Gradually he realized why she was so captivating. It wasn’t about the beautiful hand, which was not hiding but rather protecting the surgical cut and staples. It wasn’t about the earrings which symbolized her womanhood even though the ordeal had stripped away her right breast and locks of dark-brown hair. He kept coming back to the eyes. They were filled with both hope and despair. They were her eyes, yet they were also his. He had become so immersed in his emotional release through this painting that he failed to recognize it was in essence a self portrait. The eyes were ‘theirs’.
The opening night of the gala was at Kingston’s Grand Theatre with over 20 of the 30 artists attending. One of The Kingston Prize organizers sought out Luciani and stated she wanted to meet with him after the awards presentation. That was a good sign. The media was there (Globe & Mail, Toronto Star, CBC, etc.). One by one the honourable mentions and runners-up were called out. The prodigious Kingston Prize goes to…! Luciani’s name was not mentioned. You can imagine his disappointment.
The press got their stories, took photographs and left. As the crowd dwindled, the director finally approached Tony and Monica and said there was a nudity issue with his portrait and it would have to either be draped or removed from the exhibition. The couple was dumbfounded! It seemed the problem lay with the gallery manager, and he felt the patrons who came to the theatre would be offended.
That was unbelievable! This was a national art competition. It was a cancer painting – they wanted to remove a cancer painting! Monica was livid, claimed blatant censorship, and went to find the press – but they had already left.
The director had timed her approach perfectly. Had the judges known about this? Luciani was told they weren’t aware of the situation in advance. But, how could they award a prize for something and then have it yanked off the wall? Luciani informed her that he was scheduled to go on CBC radio that week to talk about the exhibition and his painting. The director was taken aback at that news. Would he have to mention this issue? Of course he would. Did she think having his canvas either draped or removed shouldn’t be discussed?
When they arrived back in Durham the following day there was a message on the answering machine advising there had been a late meeting with the gallery manager, and they came to an understanding and agreement. Wonder Woman would not be removed nor draped, and would remain for the duration of the exhibition.
Not wanting to sound like an artist scorned on national radio, Tony cancelled the interview with CBC.
When The Kingston Prize exhibition tour across Canada ended six months later, Wonder Woman returned and sat in her crate in the studio. Tony’s letters to public galleries offering her as a donation were turned down. Even his own art dealer wanted nothing to do with it.
In the spring of 2012 the Wellington County Museum and Archives in Fergus, Ontario arranged for a major retrospective exhibition. The staff and curator were very excited to have Wonder Woman and, for the first time ever exhibited, the charcoal study. Fifty-six of Luciani’s other works were also on display.
The show ended in June, and the canvas went back into the dark crate. That autumn, on October 14th, 2012, Monica passed away.
In the spring of 2013 Luciani pulled out all the stops to get some exposure for the painting. He found, and submitted an image of Wonder Woman, to several international on-line competitions. One by one, over time, as the results were announced, this little painting which nobody wanted to see in Canada, won an award in every contest entered (and several firsts).
An image was also submitted to a selection of art and literary magazines, and in every one, it was printed. Tony was getting what he wanted – public exposure, and hopeful acceptance of Wonder Woman.
Then it happened. He submitted the image to a competition in Barcelona, Spain. Only after entering did Luciani realize he had missed one of the requirements. Submissions were to be a minimum of 24 inches on the shortest side. Wonder Woman was only 24 x 14.
Months later a message was received from FIGURATIVAS ’13 congratulating Tony. Wonder Woman had been shortlisted from over 2400 worldwide submissions, down to 400. Next they wanted to see the actual painting for final jurying. Luciani was ecstatic, but also confused. Surely they had realized that the image was undersized. He wrote expressing his gratitude but advising that he would not be sending the canvas. He couldn’t afford to ship the painting just to have it immediately returned.
That same day, Tony received an email stating that they knew the portrait was too small to win a prize or even qualify for the exhibition, but the image was powerful and they wanted the yet-unannounced jury to see it.
Shipping is exorbitant. Spain has a 21% import tax on everything coming into the country. The shipper suggested the value be lowered to accommodate the levy. Even with that, the cost for round trip transport would be over $1200.
As the deadline approached and with no hope of sending the painting to Spain, Tony received a chance phone call from Dr. Matheson, a long time friend and collector of his work. Over lunch, Luciani related the story of the exhibition in Spain. He was encouraged to forward the canvas. With that in mind, Dr. Matheson suggested that he rent an oil from Tony which he and his wife particularly liked. And so, Silent Wind was rented for a year in exchange for the cost to send Wonder Woman to Barcelona.
Three weeks after shipping the crated painting, Tony received an email congratulating him for making the final 70 and inclusion in the exhibition FIGURATIVAS ’13 at the MEAM (Museu Europeu d’Art Moderno) in Barcelona, Spain.
This major surprise didn’t end there. While on the FIGURATIVAS ‘13 website, Tony read that the just-announced jury panel of an all-world cast of mega superstar artists included his idol, Spanish painter Antonio Lopez Garcia. The other contemporary Masters were painters Gottfried Helnwein, Odd Nerdrum, Jacob Collins, and Eduardo Naranjo, along with MEAM president Jose Manuel Infiesta, art critic Tomas Parades and gallery owner Santiago Echeberria.
Several days later while dining, another friend asked about the opening. Luciani admitted he had looked into the cost, but wasn’t able to go. A cheque book came out, and a slip slid across the table. “There, you can go. It would make me happy to know I could be a part of this”. Astounded by such a generous offer, Tony struck up a commission agreement with his friend. They both parted with excitement. Greg was getting a drawing of his two-year old daughter… and Tony was going to Barcelona!
The winners had been announced weeks earlier, and no, Wonder Woman was not eligible for a prize because of her small size. But, the fact the painting made the final 70 for this major international exhibition, even though it didn’t qualify, was a shocking award in itself.
MEAM was magnificent, and only a stone’s throw away from the Picasso Museum. While wandering through the exhibits, Luciani met his email correspondent, Maria, and other museum dignitaries. And there was Wonder Woman – all alone and bathed in light, against a plastered high wall – hung in the same gallery room as the $50,000 first prize winner. Tony sensed a calming warmth. He felt he had found a home for the painting. He needed to determine their criteria for acquisitions.
The morning after the magical opening night where 500 guests crammed the museum, he met with Maria, and relayed the story of how Wonder Woman made her way from initial conception to the walls at MEAM. He wanted to offer the portrait to the foundation for their permanent collection. Maria was touched and said it was the president of the foundation, Jose Infiesta who made all the decisions. It was also Jose who had insisted the painting be shipped over to Spain in the first place. Maria smiled, and hinted to Luciani that during the film to be shown to the artists that afternoon, he would see how Jose felt about his painting.
About a hundred artists saw the documentary of the jurying process. Everyone watched as each painting was brought up before the jury. They witnessed the body language, listened to their in depth discussions and heard the yay or nay as each work was presented. With eyes riveted on the jurors, Luciani nervously waited for Wonder Woman to be presented. Antonio Lopez Garcia without hesitation raised his arm straight up and with conviction voted “SI”. President of the foundation Jose Infiesta leapt out of his chair and yelled “SI” with arm high in the air. One by one, the rest of the jurors raised their arms with a resounding yes vote. The artist was thrilled!
After the film and audience discussions, Jose sought out Tony with a proposition for the foundation to purchase Wonder Woman. Luciani respectfully turned down the offer. He told Jose that she was not painted to sell; she had been done from the heart, with the love of a partner. All Tony Luciani wanted was a good home for Wonder Woman and he felt he had found it at the MEAM. He wanted her to be a gift to their museum. Jose was very happy to accept the beautiful painting into their collection. In the president’s words “It will be the smallest painting in the museum, but the biggest one in meaning.”
Wonder Woman is now permanently hanging at the MEAM, next to the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, Spain where thousands will view her strength and beauty.
Luciani is euphoric.
Monica would be so proud.
For more information, and to see samples of his imagery visit the website at www.tonyluciani.ca
Tony Luciani was born in Toronto, Canada, in 1956. The artist, growing up in Toronto, was able to partake in the best possible creative education. After Central Technical High School (4 year art program), Sheridan Community College (1 year art program), and the Ontario College of Art from 1975 to 1978, Tony received his degree along with post graduate study in OCA’s off-campus program in Florence, Italy.
Luciani’s work is an investigation into the impact of uneasiness and distortion inherent in the painted image: as it is received by the viewer and in his own relationship to the image.
Luciani has been working as an artist full time for thirty-five years, and his work has been described as “interpretive realism” and as “unconventionally surreal.” This may be because Tony is precise in the manipulation of the medium and many of his compositional paintings are drawn directly from life, although his painting is always a response to the subject, rather than simply its re-presentation.
In Luciani’s overarching project of experiencing and communicating the unease of the everyday, his work is in dialogue with, for example, the paintings of Christiane Pflug, Lucian Freud and Antonio Lopez Garcia.
Tony Luciani is represented by Loch Gallery in Toronto/Winnipeg/Calgary.
His work is in important private and corporate collections throughout Canada and internationally.