On an early May evening in Rome, Italy, just as the azaleas were beginning to open on the city’s famous Spanish steps, a red carpet was being rolled down another set of steps overlooking the Villa Borghese gardens in honor of the British artist Bridget Riley.
The celebrated painter was unveiling a colorful ceiling painting on the vaulted roof of the British School at Rome, one of the city’s hallowed educational institutions, and an assembly of Rome’s intelligentsia and British expatriates had dutifully gathered to take it in.
The 91-year-old Op Art painter is known for her geometric patterns, lines, and color arrangements, often appearing in wall paintings and dizzying works on canvas. But this work, titled , is Riley’s first-ever ceiling painting. I located her at the opening party, perched beneath it on a bench, her diminutive figure not immediately obvious among the circulating spritzes and cucumber sandwiches. Still, she was full of unmistakable verve herself.
Riley explained that she had initially been reluctant to take on the ceiling. The work had begun its life as a wall painting in another room but did not end up being suitable for the space, and she had been concerned about losing the “intimacy” of looking at the work face-to-face. Yet as our eyes traveled rhythmically over the steep arch of the ceiling, I felt her ribbons of color enveloping me in a hug.
As I congratulated her on the triumph of joining the table of artists from Michelangelo to Caravaggio whose work causes tourists to crane their necks at the city’s important buildings, she mentioned that she was excited to visit the Vatican the following day to see Raphael’s It clicked for me that her abstract dance with perspective finds its own origins in the Renaissance painters’ mastery of linear perspective.
Tackling the ceiling of the British School at Rome was a complex process requiring the delivery of life-sized casts of Edwin Lutyens-designed interior to Riley’s East London studio, so that she could study the imperfections of the barrel vaults and its tricky cornices, to ensure a work with clean lines and no awkward shadows. To achieve the laser-beam precision of the hand-painted lines in the finished work, three studio assistants worked on it for three weeks.
In a statement about the work, Riley acknowledged the process as “an exhilarating visual chase” and a “perceptual adventure.” In the end, she says she is delighted by the result.
The colors around us conformed to Riley’s famed “Egyptian” palette of turquoise, blue, red, yellow, green, black, and white, which she has been working with since being inspired by a visit to the Egyptian tombs in 1979. She was struck by the Ancient Egyptians’ use of this fixed palette across thousands of years. “In each and every usage these colors appeared different but at the same time they united the appearance of the entire culture,” she once said.
She made her first environmental wall painting in 1983 at the Royal Liverpool Hospital using the same palette. Now, some 40 years later, she is unafraid to explore new contexts, and take it to literal new heights.
“Looking up, the color of the skies offers a glimpse of nature in her most promising and serene mood,” she told me. As I descended the steps at the end of the evening, under a pink twilight and indigo swirls illuminated by a full, white, moon, I couldn’t help but agree.
More Trending Stories:
A British Couple Bought Two Vases for $10 at a Thrift Sale. They Turned Out to Be Art Nouveau Collectibles Worth 150 Times That
A Museum Has Renamed a Vegetable Still Life by Van Gogh After a Chef Spotted Something Was Off About the Onions
An X-Ray Scan of a 16th-Century Bronzino Painting of Duke Cosimo de’ Medici Has Revealed a Mysterious Underlying Portrait
‘He Was Hungry’: A Korean Art Student Untaped Maurizio Cattelan’s Infamous $150,000 Banana From a Museum Wall and Ate It
Art Industry News: A Rare Blue Diamond Priyanka Chopra Jonas Showed Off at the Met Gala Could Fetch $25 Million at Auction + Other Stories
A Low-Key Collector Kept 230 Classic Cars Hidden Away in a Dusty Old Church. The Astonishing Trove Could Fetch Millions at Auction
Christie’s Neglected to Reveal the Ugly History Behind Its Sensational Planned Jewelry Auction. Then a Billionaire’s Wife Complained
See the Rare Keith Haring Drawing—Measuring a Massive 125 Feet—That Is Going on View in Amsterdam for the First Time in 30 Years
How Lavinia Fontana Broke Renaissance Tradition to Become the First Woman Artist Known to Depict Female Nudes—and Earn Equal Pay as Men