Paola Ugolini, Dressing of angel and other stories

The next era, Electa Mondadori, Milano 2018

No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist.

Oscar Wilde(1)

"Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" is the provocative title of Linda Nochlin’s essay of 1971 (2), a time when art history was made, written and told exclusively by white men, beginning in ancient Greece and ending more or less with Picasso, and in which the word ‘greatness’ – referring to either the authors or their works – was worth its weight in gold. By now we are thoroughly familiar with the reply, but every time I am in front of a woman artist’s work Nochlin’s question starts buzzing in my head, and thanks to this background sound I have learned to appraise women artists’ work with a different measuring stick and, above all, a different open-mindedness.

The body of work that Mariella Bettineschi has produced over the course of her long and fertile career is certainly not linear, by which I mean we do not see the guiding principle that art critics are so fond of; instead we see a fascinating and pyrotechnical leap from one experiment to another – a feature typical to many female artists’ production, like the importance placed on personal and intimate recollections rather than on the bombastic narrative of History. And so ‘eclectic’ might be an appropriate term for this Brescia artist’s work. Because of this peculiarity of hers, it is not easy to place her within any stylistic framework, never mind the structures of those who disparage the principle of change that we women are so attached to. ‘Solitary’ could be another key word, because Bettineschi has never identified with the movements in trend at the time – first Arte Povera and then Transavanguardia – preferring to remain in a borderline position that has proved to provide great freedom for experimentation without any kind of conceptual or formal limitations. 

Bettineschi’s practice began in the early 1980s with fragile and insubstantial works: the series of Morbidi (Soft Tales)and Piumari (Feather Boxes) made of gossamer organza padded with cotton wool or feathers, painted with words in liquid gold, or quilted with chenille, nylon and gilt metal threads and beads. As in a musical score where low-pitch tones are interrupted by high-pitch tones and vice versa, this delicate, indescribable aesthetic formed a contrast with the series of Erme (Hermae): long, narrow, black wooden boxes with painted glass lids through which may be glimpsed the finds that, like a thieving magpie, Mariella retrieved from the ground and kept, such as feathers, maps and shiny objects – little hidden treasures offering microcosms for telling fantastic tales and imagining journeys.

This work stylistically preceded and announced the next series, the Tesori(Treasures) of the mid-1980s: sheets of simple tracing paper worked on with tar, turpentine and layers of heat-gilded pigments applied in drips, resulting in textural, almost three-dimensional surfaces on which, as in an alchemical process, fire and water are transformed into precious burnished laminae with an archaic flavour that recall fragments of medieval armour. The guiding principle of the 1980s was the preciousness of gold – its presence, far from discreet, is elaborated differently in each of these four series.

On the other hand, the late 1980s and most of the 1990s were a period of more in-depth research, investigating the work’s relationship with the space around it, and thus producing more geometric and sculptural pieces with intriguing references to Duchamp, as in the series Vestizione dell’angelo (Robing the Angel), made of very diverse materials including brass, tracing paper, neoprene and Plexiglas, which in several three-dimensional and highly suggestive versions remind me of some of the mechanical details of the Large Glass. It is worth mentioning that, unlike many of her colleagues of the same generation, Bettineschi has never used either her own or any other woman’s body in her artistic practice; the physical-corporeal dimension is entirely absent from her formal research in spite of her feminist commitment as a woman artist and a mother. This has obviously been a conscious choice, in that she has been determined precisely to draw attention to the soul and mind of Woman rather than to her body. Thus she features in her work as an immaterial woman, whose presence is felt in her role as a creator, a faber, and it is interesting to note that in Robing the Angel the female body appears exclusively as its symbol – the dress. Represented either as a whole or broken up into the various parts that form it, here the dress narrates a type of conceptual epiphany that erases the body, making room only for its ephemeral and ever-changing covering. 

In 1988, Mariella Bettineschi’s presence in the XLIII Venice Biennale, at the invitation of Achille Bonito Oliva, marked a new turn in her career. That year the Aperto section presented no less than thirteen Italian artists in the spectacular space of the Corderie in the Arsenale. Describing Bettineschi’s spare and entirely monochrome series entitled Accesso sigillato (Sealed Access) in the catalogue, the art historian Giovanni Carandente wrote: ‘Mariella Bettineschi uses gesture and texture and merges them in a knowing entirety. Merely a few graphic incidences serve to invoke memories of a sign’s modulations; there is a nocturnal vibrating intensity that is vividly animated on the surface by the background colour.’(3) The following year Mariella moved to Berlin, a capital that in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the wall was undergoing an incredible vortex of freedom and creativity, and in this city that was scarred but now longed to live and forget, she discarded the geometric rigour devoid of narrative that had characterized her previous works, and began to experiment with photography in a creative process that is still going on today.

Bettineschi’s first series of photographic works dates from 1996: in the Sovraesposti (Overexposed),in which the photograph is printed directly on an acetate or Plexiglas surface, images of chandeliers are layered and duplicated as though they are dream sequences. These pieces were followed, in rapid succession, by the Incendiati (On Fire) and the Alta velocità della luce (High Speed of Light), in which the intentionally blurred images are lit with sudden brief flashes of light. This light is a three-dimensional material, alive and throbbing. In 2003 it became the main protagonist of the image with the series Costellazioni del disegno interno (Constellations of the InternalDesign) and Teoria delle sfere(Theory of the Spheres) – Plexiglas sculptures on which black-and-white geometric designs or concentric circles are printed in primary colours that are reflected on the wall beside them, creating an interplay of references between the real and the unreal, as in a contemporary Plato’s cave where true and untrue merge and split in two.

In fact this splitting became the crucial element in the series L’era successiva (The Next Era) that Bettineschi began at a very precise historic moment – 2008, when financial markets worldwide collapsed with the economic crash, a global crisis inscribed in collective memory through a series of iconic images, like the photographs of Lehman Brothers employees leaving their Wall Street offices one after another carrying boxes of their personal belongings, distress written large on their faces. This crisis marked the end of an era – of a world of uncontrolled laissez-faire and toxic assets promising easy gains – creating an in-between time of widespread uncertainty; and it was precisely at this very delicate moment that Mariella decided to shift her attention from the present to the future, to what comes next, thus naming her subsequent photographic series L’era successiva (The Next Era). All the images are entirely black-and-white, printed directly on Plexiglas and split in two; part of the photograph is in fact white, empty, a blank in technical terms, as though it were a base or an underlining of the image, a vacuum emphasizing the concept expressed. In some instances the image itself is split, as in the piece where the upper part of the photograph shows a military plane about to land that appears to be reflected in the lower part, which in fact is the blurred representation of a demonstration or a terrorist act.

Nature (Natures) – altered landscapes with blurring and strange discs of light that suggest unexpected luminescent UFOs – are images poised between real and imaginary worlds. This constantly shifting perception is a characteristic particular to all Mariella Bettineschi’s work, and it is the most distinctive feature of this series in which the artist focuses her attention on interiors of ancient libraries and on women’s faces, also ancient, that are re-observed, re-elaborated and re-proposed with astonishing visual results. Unexpectedly, at this more mature stage in her work, Mariella returned to the representation of the female subject. These are the faces of the celebrated models who in the past posed for Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, Veronese and Bronzino, whom the artist’s eye now investigates and brings up-to-date by taking them out of context. Intriguingly doubled female gazes observe us – they are famous women we have heard about in museums and art history books; their names are Simonetta, Lucrezia, Giuditta, Cecilia, Margherita, Violante; and those who portrayed them, so splendid in the flower of their youth and beauty, contributed to the History of Art and nurtured the myth of the artist as genius. We know almost everything about those who made these masterful portraits, whereas we know almost nothing about the lives of their models, lovers and muses. These girls of past centuries are so lovely that they stand out hauntingly against the dark backgrounds of the photographs, isolated like cameos, their faces at the centre of the image. There is no more action; there are no more iconographic references; nor is there history; only their incredible youth and doubled eyes, lit by a tiny glow at the centre of the pupil, creating double gazes. Absolute protagonists of the narrative, they proudly look back at us to remind us that seeing and observing are two very different and sometimes contrasting acts. Here are eyes for gazing afar – at our era and the next – and eyes for looking within, to penetrate this mysterious intimacy that is the human soul. They look with the eyes of the mind, splitting so as to find a possible unity between outside and inside.

In his Aesthetics,(4) Hegel claims that the work of art can only function through a form of self-awareness in the artist-producer, and in light of this assertion it is even more meaningful to study the iconographic choices Bettineschi has made in this series: nature, libraries and women’s faces. According to Walter Benjamin, in his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’,(5) what is missing in the era of mechanical reproduction of the work of art is its aura, but in these photographs it is precisely the aura that emanates from the fleeting human expressions, rendering them so melancholy and at the same time so incomparably hypnotic. 

In her photographic work Bettineschi employs a highly complex technical process of digital manipulation to obtain the final effect, but at the same time the images are evocatively pictorial and soft. In all the images there is a subversion of time, as though from the human time of our dimension we had magically slipped into a dimension of no time, where there are no relations between the living because everything is phenomenological and everlasting. All the photographs of libraries are animated by – or rather steeped in – the intangible presence of a gassy cloud, technically known as blurring, that suspends the image between reality and the imagination, making it intimately unknowable and perhaps for this reason so utterly fascinating. Here Mariella’s visual research is conducted in our temples of knowledge – places where Time has worked as a Mighty Sculptor,(6) layering knowledge over the centuries through books which, like mute presences, carve the spaces that preserve them: the Vatican Apostolic Library, the Abbey Library of Saint Gall, Trinity College Library in Dublin, Marciana National Library in Venice, Casanatense Library in Rome. In this grim time of moral and economic crisis in Western society, Bettineschi’s images of precious human knowledge preserved in these places represents an authentic tribute to culture and science – the only life preservers for a world in disarray. The images are solemn, devoid of human presence and immersed in thoughtful silence; the gassy cloud that occasionally invades the centre of the composition forces us to look twice to grasp the details as well as the whole. Looking and seeing, being constrained to see, to go beyond the image to enter a mental dimension that is precisely the borderline between the real and the imagined, this is where Mariella Bettineschi’s work – with its longing for a hint of infinity – wants to lead us.

Notes:

1. Oscar Wilde, ‘The Decay of Lying’, The Nineteenth Century, vol. XXV, issue 1, January1889.

2. Linda Nochlin, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists’, ARTnews, January 1971, pp.22–39 and 67–71.

3. Giovanni Carandente, ‘Aperto 88’, in La Biennale di Venezia, XLIII Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte,exhibition catalogue, Fratelli Fabbri editori, Milano 1988, p. 257.

4. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Letture di estetica, 1835, Penguin Classics, Londra 1993.

5. Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936, Penguin Books Great Ideas, London 2008.

6. Marguerite Yourcenar, That Mighty Sculptor Time, 1983, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York 1992.