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 Flora Baldini Giffuni  (1919 - 2009)

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Lived/Active: New York / Italy      Known for: figure, landscape, floral still life

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Ad Code: 4
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
REVIEW/ESSAY/INTERVIEW: Other published contributions are welcome. If you hold the copyright privilege, send to registrar@askart.com

The following is submitted by Cornelia Seckel, publisher ART TIMES

Profile: Flora Giffuni

By RAYMOND J. STEINER
ART TIMES December 1997

PASSIONATE IDEALISM IS a rare commodity in today's blasé, 'been there, done that' kind of world, an attitude toward what were once called the "finer things in life" now a much maligned stance deemed fit only for elitists who have failed to keep up with the times. The world has indeed become a bleaker place for the loss. Yet, here and there, one still comes across pockets of resistance, people who once knew what Bernard Berenson's "life enhancement" actually meant, a staunch old guard that clings to a return not only to the 'good old days,' but to a world once again ruled by good sense, good taste, and good manners. I spent a pleasant Sunday afternoon recently revisiting that world at the New York City studio of master pastelist Flora Baldini Giffuni.

Born in Naples, Italy, Flora Giffuni came to America at the age of two, destinedat least as far as her father was concernedto become a member of the medical profession. A doctor himself, Mr. Baldini harbored no doubts that his promising young daughter would follow in his footsteps. Talented, bright, already garnering awards and scholarships, America was sure to afford his daughter the opportunity of making a name for herself in medicine. What Mr. Baldini did not take into account was that his precocious daughter would march to her very own drum and follow a path far removed from his plans.

The inkling that she would become an artist came early to Flora, the enchanting allure of design and color always foremost in her thoughts. That she could call forth her own conceptions was not only the icing on the cake, but the very cement of her involvement with the enticing world of art. Like any obedient daughter, Flora attempted to follow her father's wishes; the die, however, had already been cast. After only one year in medical school, she knew that to continue would be the death of her very soul. "I used to ask a classmate," she says with a smile, "to finish my chemistry labs while I sneaked to another classroom to take drawing lessons." Then, wistfully, "One of the most difficult things I have ever had to do in my life was to tell my father that I could not go on."

Switching her major and following a BFA at New York University and an MFA at Teacher's College, Columbia University, Flora Giffuni did post-graduate studies at the Universities of Madrid and Pisa, the Intituto e'Allende and the New York School of Interior Design. With this full measure of academic groundwork now in place, she then studied with Robert Brackman at the Art Students League of New York, ready to fully explore her potential. If Flora Giffuni thought that going against her father's wishes was a difficult undertaking for a young woman, she would learn at the League that her fight for self-expression had just begun.

Brackman, never very cordial toward his women students"they're going to get married and have babies anyway, so what's the use of trying to teach them?"did his utmost to discourage her coming back for more, but Giffuni had at last discovered her true lovepastel painting.

Brackman, for all his rough social skills, was a marvelous pastelist, a good teacher, and Flora Giffuni knew where her future lay. Once, in desperation, she tried a class with Robert Philip, but, when he eyed her pastels and murmured, "Them!," she decided from then on that Brackman was a gentleman and that she would endure. Besides, she had already come up against this man's world when she was still a medical student and had to fight for the scholarship she had so clearly won by being top in her class. Giving her a rough equivalent of Brackman's argument above, the administrators of the medical school tried to talk her into bowing out in favor of the next eligible male student. If confronting her father taught her anything, at the very least it taught her that she could be a fighterand a fighter that could win!

An accomplished oil painter and watercoloristI fell under the spell of one of Giffuni's watercolors hanging on a wall of the room in which we chatted, a scene of a Connecticut fishing village that anyone might have been proud to have executed (I wish I had done it!)Giffuni settled early on the pastel medium. In a taped lecture on the "History of Pastel" delivered by Giffuni, one learns early on her reasons for choosing pastel as the best means for her distinct artistic expression. She argues first for the durability of pastel, which, if not tampered with or exposed to strong sunlight (a problem for all mediums), never diminishes or yellows in color and, perhaps more importantly, that the tiny facets of ground pigment allows for a greater play and reflection of light than either watercolor or oil.

I say "more importantly" since, although equally adept at still lifes, florals and/or landscapes, I see Giffuni's greatest strength as a figure painter and with pastels' peculiar characteristic of deflecting light, makes flesh color vitally warm and rich. The lush, unrobed female forma signature Giffuni workfairly breathes life, the naked female flesh almost palpably giving off heat. Her ability to render the skin tone of the nude is equaled by her sure grasp of human anatomy, a prerequisite of anyone attempting to be a fine art figure painter.

"Beauty," states Giffuni with particular emphasis, "is the only reason for art" and it is in this declaration that she fully reveals her patrimonya daughter of the Italian Renaissance with all its flair for disegno and an abiding faith in the perfection of humanity. How perplexed, then, when, at the end of her studies with Brackman to find that Pablo Picasso had usurped her artworld, rendering all she had learned and believed in obsolete. Desolate, she turned from an artscene gone topsy-turvy to seek a career in designing hotel lobbies. Opening her "F.G.B." enterprise, Giffuni turned her full attention and talent to making architectural structures beautiful, hiring, when she could, young artists for mural work. An interesting asideand one which certainly illuminates her storywas when she hired a young unknown to design a cartoon for her, only to discover when she considered his proposal that it was woefully inadequate. "The poor fellow," she thought. "He'll never make it as an artist." His name was James Rosenquist. This detour into the world of lobby-design, however, was short lived. Waiting over four hours for contractors to show up in a cold, concrete shell destined to become the next lobby on which she would work, she knew that she would not depend on others and resolved to dissolve her business and return to art. Giffuni, after all, was a fighter.

And fight she did in order to establish herself as a professional artist. Neither a husband who was not overly supportive of her art nor the raising of three children could deter her from the path she had now so resolutely taken. Loathe to rely on her husband to provide for her art materials, Giffuni taught art both at her home and at the parochial school in which her daughters were enrolled, making enough to support her 'habit.' Her single-minded determination eventually brought about the results for which she fought so long, and she garnered not only recognition as an artist but many awards and honors along the way.

Flora Giffuni's greatest challengeand the one for which she holds the most pride in meetinghowever, is that of gaining professional recognition for her beloved pastel medium. Already aware of the medium's beauty and versatility, she found that in addition to having to fight for her place in the artworld as a woman that she also had to contend for her place as a pastelist. Although long recognized as a medium which deserved its own status among watercolors and oilssay, for instance, by the Royal Pastel Society of Englandthe same consideration for pastels was not yet established in America. Time after time Giffuni discovered that she had to vie for exhibition space and acknowledgment for pastels, and, when included in shows, often overlooked for prizes and awards.

Given the challenge to mount a show of pastels at the National Arts Club some twenty-seven years ago, she rose to the occasion and, with the help of the president of the club, mounted a full-fledged exhibition. After a repeat performance the following yearand an almost overwhelming response from pastelists across the countryshe saw the need and founded the Pastel Society of America, an organization that in its twenty-five year history has steadily grown in membership and prestige. So successful, in fact, has her organization been that today over 30 'daughter' pastel societies have sprung up across the United States. Of all her accomplishmentsand for that little girl from Naples who dreamed of becoming an artist they have been both noteworthy and manythe founding of the Pastel Society of America has been her crowning achievement.

Robert Beverly Hale, one of the Art Students League's best-loved anatomists, once said to Flora, "Who's going to teach the young people when we're gone?"

Indeed. For those who hold to the dream that art can once again rise to its former glory as the receptacle and transmitter of the best of mankind's endeavors, Flora Baldini Giffuni ought to be counted among our most precious of endangered species.

Listed in Who's Who in the East, Women Artists in America and the Dictionary of International Biography, Flora Baldini Giffuni is a member of the American Artists Professional League, the National Arts Club, The National Art League, the Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Art Club and an honorary member of the Salmagundi Club. She was the recipient of the Gold Medal of Honor at the National Arts Club in 1988.

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