Painter who lost his sight 'sees' as sculptor

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The Independent Online
IN 1926, when Franco Marzotto Caotorta was 12, he underwent an eye operation which involved cutting into the retina to correct severe myopia. But at the age of 54, after a gradual deterioration in his eyesight, he went blind.

Mr Caotorta, who by then had established himself as a painter of Tuscan landscapes - exhibiting in galleries in Milan and Rome - was forced to lay down his brushes for the last time. He was, he said, one of 500 people who were to lose their sight within decades of having that operation.

But like artists from Michelangelo to Monet, who carried on working even when their eyes let them down, Mr Caotorta did not give up creating. He became a sculptor and his hands became his eyes, his memory and touch his guides.

Finally, at the age of 80, Mr Caotorta is preparing to make his British debut with three exhibitions, including such distinguished venues as Hatfield House in Hertfordshire and the Accademia Italiana in central London.

Working initially in clay, and then plasteline, a particularly malleable material, he trained himself, inspired by remembered images of Renaissance sculpture. It took some 15 years before he felt confident enough to have his sculptures cast in bronze. And still, he said, 'it takes me a long time. I have a model, just there for the proportions, to tell me how long is an arm, an elbow . . .' Striving for realism, he feels his model's features, 'and I visualise the image in my mind. Otherwise, it doesn't exist.'

His achievements are remarkable. Yet there are a staggering number of great masters who suffered such severe deterioration of their eyesight that they might today have been registered as partially-sighted.

Degas, for example, lost the use of his right eye and may have suffered from severely weakened eyesight as early as his thirties: he often wrote of his anguish over his sight. Pissarro was unable to paint out-of-doors because of his eyes' sensitivity to light and wind. And by 1537 Michelangelo could no longer carry out detailed work at close range.

A number of historians have suggested that extreme myopia was not only reflected in some artists' work, but may have affected it. It has been said that colour changes in Monet's late water lily paintings were due to his cataracts: in 1918, he wrote of no longer perceiving colours with the same intensity. Some have gone so far as to say that El Greco's elongated figures were due to an astigmatic condition that made him see a vertically distorted world.

Mr Caotorta said that he was spurred on not by the example of any artist, but by a 'necessity'. When he went blind, he said, he was not 'desperate or sad . . . I was so helped by my family. It came so naturally to be blind.'

Mr Caotorta will be exhibiting in the State Rooms of Hatfield House from May, and in London at the Quaker Gallery, in St Martin's Lane, WC2, from 21 June, and the Accademia Italiana, in Rutland Gate, SW7, from 6 July.

(Photograph omitted)

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