Imagine a village in the deep Veneto, on the slopes of Cansiglio, that is transformed into an open-air theatre where fire-eaters, puppeteers and acrobats entertain young and old in the still-warm light of early autumn. A village where the main activity is the cultivation of the ability to daydream. This is Sarmede.
Located in the northern part of the province of Treviso, on the border with Friuli, this place has in its DNA the characteristic of being a crossroads of human stories and experiences that have charged it with a positive energy, made up of the desires and hopes that have met here. You can feel it on your skin as you approach it, leaving the commercial suburbs of Conegliano and heading north among the old farmhouses and cultivated fields: looking slightly to the left, you can glimpse Vittorio Veneto with that panorama immortalised in so many altarpieces by Cima da Conegliano.
For the past forty years, Sarmede has been the home of the International Exhibition of Illustrations for Children, Le Immagini della Fantasia (Pictures of Fantasy), an event that over time has attracted more than 800 thousand visitors, generated more than 400 exhibitions worldwide – taking the images presented here to the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the Reina Sofia in Madrid, the Europarliament in Brussels and even the Parthenon in Athens – and has become a regular appointment for experts in the field.
It was all the brainchild of Štěpán Zavřel, a Czechoslovak who fled to the other side of the Iron Curtain in the summer of 1959. After an artistic pilgrimage through Europe, he found here, at the end of the 1960s, the perfect place in which to build his own safe haven: a house-refuge in which to return the hospitality of the many dear friends who had known and helped him over time, and in which to cultivate and share his art.
Zavřel, has always dedicated himself to the world of pure and positive fantasy, that which characterises the imagination of the youngest children and which is all too soon forgotten as they grow up. In the field of children’s publishing, he found the most suitable way to concentrate on drawing while maintaining his style with a strong imaginative and delicate vein in which watercolour is the preferred medium. He was incredibly successful.
He had started, like many others, from his experience at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair where he had met his first illustrator colleagues and had interfaced with the publishing world. However, he decided to create in Sarmede something different, unique and capable of restoring to illustration that importance and artistic dignity that was often not grasped by most people.
In Sarmede the Illustration Exhibition lasts three and a half months, is organised into thematic sections and has an artistic director and a jury that select the best artists to exhibit. There are no illustrators with books full of papers under their arms who spin like a spinning top between the stands of publishing houses in search of a contract: at most, young artists used to come here and continue to come here to present themselves to the great masters of the art of illustration and to receive opinions, advice, and, since 1988, invitations to enroll in the newly established School of Illustration.
Since 2002, the exhibition has taken place in the spaces of the Casa della Fantasia (House of Fantasy), a building in the city centre that is also equipped to host all the educational activities for children and their families: it is a space that allows a break from the duties of the outside world, in which to carve out time to read or listen to a story and discover new worlds.
This year the artistic direction was assigned to Gabriel Pacheco, a mexican artist born in 1973 who has received international recognition with the delicate and melancholic surrealism of his pastels. On display are 350 works by more than thirty illustrators from fifteen countries: the Paronama section is entitled La sostanza poetica (The Poetic Substance)and presents the typographical plates of published and unpublished projects by fifteen international artists. The section dedicated to pedagogy, Giocattoli poetici (Poetic Toys), features the work of Rufina Bazlova, a Belarusian artist who uses the pattern of the cross stitch to create a bichromatic pattern (red and white) with which to represent political and social episodes from current history. The Theme section entitled Sogni, ricordi e altre poesie (Dreams, Memories and Other Poems) pays homage to the first edition of the exhibition by re-proposing the works of the artists who took part in it: among them the name of Leonora Carrington stands out, chosen as the artist of reference for the Biennale 2022 precisely because of her work as an illustrator of fantastic worlds. This is flanked by the special exhibition Storie d’amicizia e d’Arte (Stories of Friendship and Art), which features some plates by illustrators linked to Sarmede: David McKee, Emanuele Luzzati, Květa Pacovská, Jindra Čapek and Józef Wilkoń. Looking at these images, even for older people it is impossible not to rediscover childhood memories. Part of the exhibition is naturally reserved for the artists of the Sarmede School of Illustration.
The guest of honour is the artist Johanna Concejo, an illustrator of Polish origin who has lived in France since 1994. She is also famous for her collaboration with the award-winning Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk (Nobel Prize 2018) on the book The Lost Soul. An exhibition is dedicated to her, explaining the creative process that leads to the creation of an illustrated book. Artist’s albums and the prototypes of some books with a special format are on display: Ksiaze w cukierni, Un price à la pâtisserie, is an accordion story over six metres long whose material fragility is intended to enhance the simplicity and delicacy of life’s little joys.
The purpose of illustration is to tell a story in a few unforgettable images. No matter how long the text is and what language it is written in, through images the story is told beyond all political and cultural boundaries because it springs from and feeds on the naive simplicity that is innate in each of us.
Stepan called himself a stateless person, he was in every way: he spoke several languages, continued to travel throughout his life, and succeeded in the feat of transforming the small, unknown village of Sarmede into a nerve centre of the world of fantasy, the Land of Fairy Tales, where people and stories from all over the world come every year. All this is carried out by the Stepan Zavrel Foundation, which was established after the artist’s death and continues to organise and manage the International Exhibition from year to year. Don’t miss the chance to visit this very special edition. There is time until 19 February.