Antonio Ligabue (1899-1965) was an outsider artist who lived and worked for most of his life in a primitive hut beside the Po River. He was born in Switzerland to Italian immigrant parents and had a childhood marked by abandonment, disease, death, mental/emotional health problems, and general misery. Perhaps the most traumatic episode from his youth involved the horrible death of his mother and three brothers from food poisoning. Exiled from Switzerland upon adulthood, Ligabue returned to Gualtieri, Italy, despite the fact that he did not know Italian (at least for many years). He lived as an alcoholic vagabond spending time in and out of mental institutions–including a particularly bad period when he was committed for self-mutilation. During the Second World War he worked as an interpreter for the German army but he was sent to a mental asylum (again) after beating a German soldier with a beer bottle. He was known in Italy as “Al Matt” (the fool) or “Al tedesch” (the German).
The subject of Ligabue’s artwork was usually animals–particularly animals crazed by fighting, mating, or hunting (or domestic animals suffering abuse at the hands of humans). His many self-portraits do not seem to stand outside of this thematic canon, as is poignantly made clear by the title of his most famous biography, “Beast in the mirror: the Life of Outsider Artist Antonio Ligabue” written by Karin Kavelin Jones . Ligabue’ s works are vividly expressionistic tableaus of wild conflict. In “Leopard Attacked by Snake” the two combatants are portrayed as a glorious & horrific battle of primal forces. The colors and patterns themselves are at war. Even the surrounding ferns and grasping branches seem to participate in the battle between the snake and the great screaming cat. The pink and red toothed maw of the leopard and its sinuous body are powerfully rendered. The jungle cat is a great engine of appetite literally squeezed into momentary suspension by the green and yellow jungle snake.
Ligabue’s work seems almost like a bizarro world mirror opposite to the paintings of Sir Edwin Landseer, who crafted extremely realistic and precise paintings of animals in emotional extremes. Ligabue’s life was the exact opposite as well. Whereas Landseer was rich and successful his entire life but ended by going insane, Ligabue was insane his entire life but, at the very end, became successful.