The hybrid anatomies created by Nunzio Paci,born in Bologna in 1977, encountered a growing success, and they granted him prestigious exhibitions in Europe, Asia and the US.
The true miracle this artist performs on his canvas is to turn what is still usually perceived as a taboo – the inside of our bodies – into something enchanting.
But his works are complex and multilayered: in his paintings the natural elements and creatures fuse together and as they do so, all boundaries lose their meaning, there is no more an inside and an outside; each body explodes and grows branches, becoming indefinable. Even if besides the figures there still are numbers, anatomical annotations and “keys”, these unthinkable flourishes of the flesh tend to checkmate our vision, sabotage all categories and even dismantle the concept of identity.
But rather than just writing about it, I thought it best to interview Nunzio and let our chat be an introduction to his art.
You began as a street artist, in a strictly urban environment; what was your relationship with nature back then? Did it evolve over the years?
I was born and raised in a small country town in the province of Bologna and I still live in a rural area. Nature has always been a faithful companion to me. I too did go through a rebellious phase: in those years, as I recall them, everything looked like a surface I could spray paint or write on. Now I feel more like a retired warrior, seeking a quiet and dimly lit corner where I can think and rest.
In the West, man wants to think himself separated from nature: if not a proper dominator, at least an external observer or investigator. This feeling of being outside or above natural laws, however, entails a feeling of exclusion, a sort of romantic longing for this “lost” connection with the rest of the natural world. Do you think your works express this melancholy, a need for communion with other creatures? Or are you suggesting that the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms have actually always been inertwined, and all barriers between them are a cultural construct, an illusion?
I think my work is about “longing for what we constantly lose” – voices, perfumes, memories… I often have the feeling I’m inventing those fragments of memories I had forgotten: I believe this is a form of self-defense on my part, to survive the melancholy you mention. For this reason, through my work, I try to translate what cannot be preserved through time into a visual form, so that I can retrieve these memories in my most nostalgic moments.
Yours are autoptic visions: why do you feel the need to dissect, to open the bodies you draw? As the inside of the body is still a taboo in many ways, how does the public react to the anatomical details in your works?
I need to be selfish. I never think about what the audience might feel, I don’t ask myself what others would or wouldn’t want to see. I am too busy taming my thoughts and turning my traumas into images.
I can’t recall exactly when I became interested in anatomy, but I will never forget the first time I saw somebody skin a rabbit. I was a very young child, and I was disturbed and at the same time fascinated – not by the violent scene in itself, but by what was hidden inside that animal. I immediately decided I would never harm a living being but I would try and understand their “engineering”, their inner design.
Later on, the desire to produce visionary artworks took over, and I started tracing subjects that could be expressive without offending any sensibility. But in the end what we feel when we look at something is also a product of our own background; so generally speaking I don’t think it’s possible to elicit am unambiguous sensation in the public.
You stated you’re not a big fan of colors, and in fact you often prefer earthy nuances, rusty browns, etc. Your latest woks, including those shown in the Manila exhibit entitled Mimesis, might suggest a progressive opening in that regard, as some floral arrangements are enriched by a whole palette of green, purple, blue, pink. Is this a way to add chromatic intricacy or, on the contrary, to make your images “lighter” and more pleasing?
I never looked at color as a “pleasing” or “light” element. Quite the opposite really. My use of color in the Mimesis cyle, just like in nature, is deceptive. In nature, color plays a fundamental role in survival. In my work, I make use of color to describe my subjects’ feelings when they are alone or in danger. Modifying their aspect is a necessity for them, a form of self-defense to protect themselves from the shallowness, arrogance and violence of society. A society which is only concerned with its own useless endurance.
In one of your exhibits, in 2013, you explicitly referenced the theory of “signatures”, the web of alleged correspondences among the different physical forms, the symptoms of illness, celestial mutations, etc. These analogies, for instance those found to exist between a tree, deer antlers and the artery system, were connected to palmistry, physiognomy and medicine, and were quite popular from Paracelsus to Gerolamo Cardano to Giambattista della Porta. In your works there’s always a reference to the origins of natural sciences, to Renaissance wunderkammern, to 15th-16th Century botanics. Even on a formal level, you have revisited some ancient techniques, such as the encaustic technique. What’s the appeal of that period?
I believe that was the beginning of it all, and all the following periods, including the one we live in, are but an evolution of that pioneering time. Man still studies plants, observes animal behavior, tries in vain to preserve the body, studies the mechanisms of outer space… Even if he does it in a different way, I don’t think much has really changed. What is lacking today is that crazy obsession with observation, the pleasure of discovery and the want to take care of one’s own time. In learning slowly, and deeply, lies the key to fix the emotions we feel when we discover something new.
A famous quote (attributed to Banksy, and inspired by a poem by Cesar A. Cruz) says: “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”. Are your paintings meant to comfort or disturb the viewer?
My way of life, and my way of being, are reflected in my work. I never felt the urge to shock or distrub the public with my images, nor did I ever try to seek attention. Though my work I wish to reach people’s heart. I want to do it tiptoe, silently, and by asking permission if necessary. If they let me in, that’s where I will grow my roots and reside forever.
Werner Herzog, a filmmaker who often addressed in his movies the difficult relationship between man and nature, claims in Grizzly Man (2006) that “the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder”. Elsewhere, he describes the Amazon jungle as a never-ending “collective massacre”. As compared to Herzog’s pessimistic views, I have a feeling that you might see nature as a continuum, where any predator-pray relationship is eventually an act of “self-cannibalism”. Species fight and assault each other, but in the end this battle is won by life itself, who as an autopoietic system is capable of finding constant nourishment within itself. Decomposition itself is not bad, as it allows new germinations. What is death to you, and how does it relate to your work?
As far as I’m concerned, death plays a fundamental role, and I find myself constantly meditating on how all is slowly dying. A new sprout is already beginning to die, and that goes for all that’s living. One of the aspects of existence that most fascinate me is its decadence. I am drawn to it, both curious and scared, and my work is perhaps a way to exorcise all the slow dying that surrounds us.
A little boy went out to play.
When he opened his door he saw the world.
As he passed through the doorway he caused a riflection.
Evil was born!
Evil was born and followed the boy.
(D. Lynch, Inland Empire, 2006)
It was a nice late-summer afternoon, in 2013. I remember well.
A friend had invited me to the opening of his latest exhibition. He had picked an unusual place for the event: an ancient and isolated parish church that stood high up on a hill, the church of Nanto. The building had been recently renovated, and it was open to the public only on specific occasions.
Once there, one immediately feels the urge to look around. The view is beautiful, but it pays the price of the impact the construction industry (I was almost about to say “architecture”) has had on the surroundings, with many industrial buildings covering the lanscapes of Veneto region like a tattoo. Better go inside and look at the paintings.
I was early for the opening, so I had the artist, his works and the entire exhibition area all for myself. I could walk and look around without any hurry, and yet I felt something disturbing my peace, something I couldn’t quite pin down at first: it kind of wormed its way into my visual field, calling for attention. On a wall, as I was passing from one painted canvas to the next, I eventually spotted a sudden, indefinite blur of colors. A fresco. An image had been resting there well before the exhibition paintings were placed in front of it!
Despite the restoration, as it happens with many medieval and Renaissance frescoes, some elements were still confused and showed vanishing, vaporous outlines. But once in focus, an unsettling vision emerged: the fresco depicted a quite singular torture scene, the likes of which I had never encountered in any other artwork (but I wouldn’t want to pass as an expert on the subject).
Two female figures, standing on either side, were holding the arms of a blonde child (a young Christ, a child-saint, or a puer sacer, a sacred and mystical infant, I really couldn’t say). The kid was being tortured by two young men: each holding a stiletto, they were slicing the boy’s skin all over, and even his face seemed to have been especially brutalized.
Blood ran down the child’s bound feet into a receiving bowl, which had been specifically placed under the victim’s tormented limbs.
The child’s swollen face (the only one still clearly visible) had an ecstatic expression that barely managed to balance the horror of the hemorrhage and of the entire scene: in the background, a sixth male figure sporting a remarkable beard, was twisting a cloth band around the prisoner throat. The baby was being choked to death!
What is the story of this fresco? What tale does it really tell?
The five actors do not look like peasants; the instruments are not randomly chosen: these are thin, sharp, professional blades. The incisions on the victim’s body are too regular. Who perpetrated this hideous murder, who was the object of the resentment the author intended to elicit in the onlookers? Maybe the fresco was a representation — albeit dramatic and exaggerated — of a true crime. Should the choking, flaying and bleeding be seen as a metaphor for some parasitic exploitation, or do they hint at some rich and eccentric nobleman’s quirkiness? Is this a political allegory or a Sadeian chronicle?
The halo surrounding the child’s head makes him an innocent or a saved soul. Was this a homage, a flattering detail to exhalt the commissioner of this work of art? What character was meant to be celebrated here, the subjects on the sides who are carrying out a dreadful, but unavoidable task, or the boy at the center who looks so obscenely resigned to suffer their painful deeds? Are we looking at five emissaries of some brutal but rational justice as they perform their duties, or the misadventure of a helpless soul that fell in the hands of a ferocious gang of thugs?
At the bottom of the fresco, a date: «ADI ⋅ 3 ⋅ APRILE 1479».
This historical detail brought me back to the present. The church was already crowded with people.
I felt somehow crushed by the overload of arcane symbols, and the frustation of not having the adequate knowledge to interpret what I had seen. I furtively took a snapshot. I gave my host a warm farewell, and then got out, hoping the key to unlock the meaning of the fresco was not irretrievably lost in time.
As I discovered at the beginning of my research on this controversial product of popular iconography, the fresco depicts the martyrdom of Saint Simonino of Trent. Simone Unverdorben, a two-year-old toddler from Trent, disappeared on March 23, 1475. His body was found on Easter Day. It was said to have been mauled and strangled. In Northern Italy, in those years, antisemitic abuses and persecutions stemmed from the widely influential sermons of the clergy. The guilt for the heinous crime immediately fell upon the Trent Jewish community. All of its members had to endure one of the biggest trials of the time, being subjected to tortures that led to confessions and reciprocal accusations.
During the preliminary investigations of the Trent trial, a converted Jew was asked if the practice of ritual homicide of Christian toddlers existed within the Hebrew cult. […] The converted Jew, at the end of the questioning, confirmed with abundant details the practice of ritual sacrifice in the Jewish Easter liturgy.
Another testimony emerged from the interrogation of another of the alleged killers of the little Simone, the Jewish physician Tobia. He declared on the rack there was a commerce in Christian blood among Jews. A Jewish merchant called Abraam was said to have left Trent shortly before Simone’s death with the intention of selling Christian blood, headed to Feltre or Bassano, and to have asked around which of the two cities was closer to Trent. Tobia’s confession took place under the terrifying threat of being tortured and in the desperate attempt to avoid it: he therefore had to be cooperative to the point of fabrication; but it was understood that his testimony, whenever made up, should be consistent and plausible. […] Among the others, another converted man named Israele (Wolfgang, after converting) was also interrogated under torture. He declared he had heard about other cases of ritual murders […]. These instances of ritual homicides were inventions whose protagonists had names that came from the interrogee’s memory, borrowed to crowd these fictional stories in a credible way.
(M. Melchiorre, Gli ebrei a Feltre nel Quattrocento. Una storia rimossa,
in Ebrei nella Terraferma veneta del Quattrocento,
a cura di G.M. Varanini e R.C. Mueller, Firenze University Press 2005)
Many were burned at the stake. The survivors were exiled from the city, after their possessions had been confiscated.
According to the jury, the child’s collected blood had been used in the ritual celebration of the “Jewish Easter”.
The facts we accurately extracted from the offenders, as recorded in the original trials, are the following. The wicked Jews living in Trent, having maliciously planned to make their Easter solemn through the killing of a Christian child, whose blood they could mix in their unleavened bread, commisioned it to Tobia, who was deemed perfect for the infamous deed as he was familiar with the town on the account of being a professional doctor. He went out at 10 pm on Holy Thursday, March 23, as all believers were at the Mass, walked the streets and alleys of the city and having spotted the innocent Simone all alone on his father’s front door, he showed him a big silver piece, and with sweet words and smiles he took him from via del Fossato, where his parents lived, to the house of the rich Jew Samuele, who was eagerly waiting for him. There he was kept, with charms and apples, until the hour of the sacrifice arrived. At 1 am, little twenty-nine-months-old Simone was taken to the chamber adjoining the women’s synagogue; he was stripped naked and a band or belt was made from his clothes, and he was muzzled with a handkerchief, so that he wouldn’t immediately choke to death nor be heard; Moses the Elder, sitting on a stall and holding the baby in his lap, tore a piece of flesh off his cheek with a pair of iron pliers. Samuele did the same while Tobia, assisted by Moar, Bonaventura, Israele, Vitale and another Bonaventura (Samuele’s cook) collected in a basin the blood pouring from the wound. After that, Samuele and the aforementioned seven Jews vied with each other to pierce the flesh of the holy martyr, declaring in Hebrew that they were doing so to mock the crucified God of the Christians; and they added: thus shall be the fate of all our enemies. After this feral ordeal, the old Moses took a knife and pierced with it the tip of the penis, and with the pliers tore a chunk of meat from the little right leg and Samuel, who replaced him, tore a piece out of the other leg. The copious blood oozing from the puerile penis was harvested in a different vase, while the blood pouring from the legs was collected in the basin. All the while, the cloth plugging his mouth was sometimes tightened and sometimes loosened; not satisfied with the outrageous massacre, they insisted in the same torture a second time, with greater cruelty, piercing him everywhere with pins and needles; until the young boy’s blessed soul departed his body, among the rejoicing of this insane riffraff.
Very soon Simonino (“little Simone”) was acclaimed as a “blessed martyr”, and his cult spread thoughout Northern Italy. As devotion grew wider, so did the production of paintings, ex voto, sculptures, bas reliefs, altar decorations.
Despite the fact that the Pope had forbidden the cult, pilgrims kept flocking. The fame of the “saint” ‘s miracles grew, together with a wave of antisemitism. The fight against usury led to the accusation of loan-sharking, extended to all Jews. The following century, Pope Sistus V granted a formal beatification. The cult of Saint Simonino of Trent further solidified. The child’s embalmed body was exhibited in Trent until 1955, together with the alleged relics of the instruments of torture.
In reality, Simone Unverdorben (or Unferdorben) was found dead in a water canal belonging to a town merchant, near a Jewish man’s home, probably a moneylender. If he wasn’t victim of a killer, who misdirected the suspects on the easy scapegoat of the Jewish community, the child might have fallen in the canal and drowned. Rats could have been responsible for the mutilations. In the Nineteenth Century, accurate investigations proved the ritual homicide theory wrong. In 1965, five centuries after the murder, the Church abolished the worship of Saint “Martyr” Simonino for good.
A violent fury against the very portraits of the “torturers” lasted for a long time. Even the San Simonino fresco in Nanto was defaced by this rage. This is the reason why, during that art exhibition, I needed some time to recognize a painting in that indistinct blur of light and colors.
My attempt at gathering the information I needed in order to make sense of the simulacrum in the Nanto parish church, led me to discover an often overlooked incident, known only to the artists who represented it, their commissioners, their audience; but the deep discomfort I felt when I first looked at the fresco still has not vanished.
La cara Pasifae
– R. Po – Chia Hsia, Trent 1475. Stories of a Ritual Murder Trial, Yale 1992
– A. Esposito, D. Quaglioni, Processi contro gli Ebrei di Trento (1475-1478), CEDAM 1990
– A. Toaff, Pasque di sangue: ebrei d’Europa e omicidi rituali, Il Mulino 2008
At a first glance it looks like a family in a room, having breakfast.
Yet when the picture is shown to the people living in some rural parts of Africa, they see something different: a family having breakfast in the open, under a tree, while the mother balances a box on her head, maybe to amuse her children. This is not an optical illusion, it’s a cultural one.
The origins of this picture are not certain, but it is not relevant here whether it has actually been used in a psychological study, nor if it shows a prejudice on life in the Third World. The force of this illustration is to underline how culture is an inevitable filter of reality.
It reminds of a scene in Werner Herzog’s documentary film The Flying Doctors of East Africa (1969), in which the doctors find it hard to explain to the population that flies carry infections; showing big pictures of the insects and the descriptions of its dangers does not have much effect because people, who are not used to the conventions of our graphic representations, do not understand they are in scale, and think: “Sure, we will watch out, but around here flies are never THAT big“.
Even if we would not admit it, our vision is socially conditioned. Culture is like a pair of glasses with colored lenses, quite useful in many occasions to decipher the world but deleterious in many others, and it’s hard to get rid of these glasses by mere willpower.
‘Freak pride’ and disability
Let’s address the issue of “freaks”: originally a derogatory term, the word has now gained a peculiar cultural charm and ,as such, I always used it with the purpose of fighting pietism and giving diversity it its just value.
Any time I set out to talk about human marvels, I experienced first-hand how difficult it is to write about these people.
Reflecting on the most correct angle to address the topic means to try and take off culture’s colored glasses, an almost impossible task. I often wondered if I myself have sometimes succumbed to unintended generalizations, if I unwillingly fell into a self-righteous approach.
Sure enough, I have tried to tell these amazing characters’ stories through the filter of wonder: I believed that – equality being a given – the separation between the ordinary and the extra-ordinary could be turned in favor of disability.
I have always liked those “deviants” who decided to take back their exotic bodies, their distance from the Norm, in some sort of freak pride that would turn the concept of handicap inside out.
But is it really the most correct approach to diversity and, in some cases, disability? To what extent is this vision original, or is it just derivative from a long cultural tradition? What if the freak, despite all pride, actually just wanted an ordinary dimension, what if what he was looking for was the comfort of an average life? What is the most ethical narrative?
This doubt, I think, arose from a paragraph by Fredi Saal, born in 1935, a German author who spent the first part of his existence between hospitals and care homes because he was deemed “uneducable”:
No, it is not the disabled person who experiences him- or herself as abnormal — she or he is experienced as abnormal by others, because a whole section of human life is cut off. Thus this very existence acquires a threatening quality. One doesn’t start from the disabled persons themselves, but from one’s own experience. One asks oneself, how would I react, should a disability suddenly strike, and the answer is projected onto the disabled person. Thus one receives a completely distorted image. Because it is not the other fellow that one sees, but oneself.
(F. Saal, Behinderung = Selbstgelebte Normalität, 1992)
As much as the idea of a freak pride is dear to me, it may well be another subconscious projection: I may just like to think that I would react to disability that way… and yet one more time I am not addressing the different person, but rather my own romantic and unrealistic idea of diversity.
We cannot obviously look through the eyes of a disabled person, there is an insuperable barrier, but it is the same that ultimately separates all human beings. The “what would I do in that situation?” Saal talks about, the act of projecting ourselves onto others, that is something we endlessly do and not just with the disabled.
The figure of the freak has always been ambiguous – or, better, what is hard to understand is our own gaze on the freak.
I think it is therefore important to trace the origins of this gaze, to understand how it evolved: we could even discover that this thing we call disability is actually nothing more than another cultural product, an illusion we are “trained” to recognize in much the same way we see the family having breakfast inside a living room rather than out in the open.
In my defense, I will say this: if it is possible for me to imagine a freak pride, it is because the very concept of freak does not come out of the blue, and does not even entail disability. Many people working in freakshows were also disabled, others were not. That was not the point. The real characteristics that brought those people on stage was the sense of wonder they could evoke: some bodies were admired, others caused scandal (as they were seen as unbearably obscene), but the public bought the ticket to be shocked, amazed and shaken in their own certainties.
In ancient times, the monstrum was a divine sign (it shares its etymological root with the Italian verb mostrare, “to show”), which had to be interpreted – and very often feared, as a warning of doom. If the monstruous sign was usually seen as bearer of misfortune, some disabilities were not (for instance blindness and lunacy, which were considered forms of clairvoyance, see V. Amendolagine, Da castigo degli dei a diversamente abili: l’identità sociale del disabile nel corso del tempo, 2014).
During the Middle Ages the problem of deformity becomes much more complex: on one hand physiognomy suggested a correlation between ugliness and a corrupted soul, and literature shows many examples of enemies being libeled through the description of their physical defects; on the other, theologians and philosophers (Saint Augustine above all) considered deformity as just another example of Man’s penal condition on this earth, so much so that in the Resurrection all signs of it would be erased (J.Ziegler in Deformità fisica e identità della persona tra medioevo ed età moderna, 2015); some Christian female saints even went to the extreme of invoking deformity as a penance (see my Ecstatic Bodies: Hagiography and Eroticism).
Being deformed also precluded the access to priesthood (ordo clericalis) on the basis of a famous passage from the Leviticus, in which offering sacrifice on the altar is forbidden to those who have imperfect bodies (P. Ostinelli, Deformità fisica…, 2015).
The monstrum becoming mirabile, worthy of admiration, is a more modern idea, but that was around well before traveling circuses, before Tod Browning’s “One of us!“, and before hippie counterculture seized it: this concept is opposed to the other great modern invention in regard to disability, which is commiseration.
The whole history of our relationship with disability fluctuates between these two poles: admiration and pity.
The right kind of eyes
In the German exhibition Der (im)perfekte Mensch (“The (im)perfect Human Being”), held in 2001 in the Deutsches Hygiene Museum in Dresden, the social gaze at people with disabilities was divided into six main categories:
– The astonished and medical gaze
– The annihilating gaze
– The pitying gaze
– The admiring gaze
– The instrumentalizing gaze
– The excluding gaze
While this list can certainly be discussed, it has the merit of tracing some possible distinctions.
Among all the kinds of gaze listed here, the most bothering might be the pitying gaze. Because it implies the observer’s superiority, and a definitive judgment on a condition which, to the eyes of the “normal” person, cannot seem but tragic: it expresses a self-righteous, intimate certainty that the other is a poor cripple who is to be pitied. The underlying thought is that there can be no luck, no happiness in being different.
The concept of poor cripple, which (although hidden behind more politically correct words) is at the core of all fund-raising marathons, is still deeply rooted in our culture, and conveys a distorted vision of charity – often more focused on our own “pious deed” than on people with disabilities.
As for the pitying gaze, the most ancient historical example we know of is this 1620 print, kept at the Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum in Innsbruck, which shows a disabled carpenter called Wolffgang Gschaiter lying in his bed. The text explains how this man, after suffering unbearable pain to his left arm and back for three days, found himself completely paralyzed. For fifteen years, the print tells us, he was only able to move his eyes and tongue. The purpose of this paper is to collect donations and charity money, and the readers are invited to pray for him in the nearby church of the Three Saints in Dreiheiligen.
This pamphlet is interesting for several reasons: in the text, disability is explicitly described as a “mirror” of the observer’s own misery, therefore establishing the idea that one must think of himself as he is watching it; a distinction is made between body and soul to reinforce drama (the carpenter’s soul can be saved, his body cannot); the expression “poor cripple” is recorded for the first time.
But most of all this little piece of paper is one of the very first examples of mass communication in which disability is associated with the idea of donations, of fund raising. Basically what we see here is a proto-telethon, focusing on charity and church prayers to cleanse public conscience, and at the same time an instrument in line with the Counter-Reformation ideological propaganda (see V. Schönwiese, The Social Gaze at People with Disabilities, 2007).
During the previous century, another kind of gaze already developed: the clinical-anatomical gaze. This 1538 engraving by Albrecht Dürer shows a woman lying on a table, while an artist meticulously draws the contour of her body. Between the two figures stands a framework, on which some stretched-out strings divide the painter’s vision in small squares so that he can accurately transpose it on a piece of paper equipped with the same grid. Each curve, each detail is broke down and replicated thanks to this device: vision becomes the leading sense, and is organized in an aseptic, geometric, purely formal frame. This was the phase in which a real cartography of the human body was developed, and in this context deformity was studied in much the same manner. This is the “astonished and medical gaze“, which shows no sign of ethical or pitying judgment, but whose ideology is actually one of mapping, dividing, categorizing and ultimately dominating every possible variable of the cosmos.
In the wunderkammer of Ferdinand II, Archduke of Austria (1529-1595), inside Ambras Castle near Innsbruck, there is a truly exceptional portrait. A portion of the painting was originally covered by a red paper curtain: those visiting the collection in the Sixteenth Century might have seen something close to this reconstruction.
Those willing and brave enough could pull the paper aside to admire the whole picture: thus the subject’s limp and deformed body appeared, portrayed in raw detail and with coarse realism.
What Fifteen-Century observers saw in this painting, we cannot know for sure. To understand how views are relative, it suffices to remind that at the time “human marvels” included for instance foreigners from exotic countries, and a sub-category of foreigners were cretins who were said to inhabit certain geographic regions.
In books like Giovan Battista de’ Cavalieri’s Opera ne la quale vi è molti Mostri de tute le parti del mondo antichi et moderni (1585), people with disabilities can be found alongside monstruous apparitions, legless persons are depicted next to mythological Chimeras, etc.
But the red paper curtain in the Ambras portrait is an important signal, because it means that such a body was on one hand considered obscene, capable of upsetting the spectator’s senibility. On the other hand, the bravest or most curious onlookers could face the whole image. This leads us to believe that monstrosity in the Sixteenth Century had at least partially been released from the idea of prodigy, and freed from the previous centuries superstitions.
This painting is therefore a perfect example of “astonished and medical” gaze; from deformity as mirabilia to proper admiration, it’s a short step.
The Middle Path?
The admiring gaze is the one I have often opted for in my articles. My writing and thinking practice coincides with John Waters’ approach, when he claims he feels some kind of admiration for the weird characters in his movies: “All the characters in my movies, I look up to them. I don’t think about them the way people think about reality TV – that we are better and you should laugh at them.“
And yet, here we run the risk of falling into the opposite trap, an excessive idealization. It may well be because of my peculiar allergy to the concept of “heroes”, but I am not interested in giving hagiographic versions of the life of human marvels.
All these thoughts which I have shared with you, lead me to believe there is no easy balance. One cannot talk about freaks without running into some kind of mistake, some generalization, without falling victim to the deception of colored glasses.
Every communication between us and those with different/disabled bodies happens in a sort of limbo, where our gaze meets theirs. And in this space, there cannot ever be a really authentic confrontation, because from a physical perspective we are separated by experiences too far apart.
I will never be able to understand other people’s body, and neither will they.
But maybe this distance is exactly what draws us together.
“Everyone stands alone at the heart of the world…”
Let’s consider the only reference we have – our own body – and try to break the habit.
I will borrow the opening words from the introduction I wrote for Nueva Carne by Claudio Romo:
Our bodies are unknowable territories.
We can dismantle them, cut them up into ever smaller parts, study their obsessive geometries, meticulously map every anatomical detail, rummage in their entrails… and their secret will continue to escape us.
We stare at our hands. We explore our teeth with our tongues. We touch our hair.
Is this what we are?
Here is the ultimate mind exercise, my personal solution to the freaks’ riddle: the only sincere and honest way I can find to relate diversity is to make it universal.
Johnny Eck woke up in this world without the lower limbs; his brother, on the contrary, emerged from the confusion of shapes with two legs.
I too am equipped with feet, including toes I can observe, down there, as they move whenever I want them to. Are those toes still me? I ignore the reach of my own identity, and if there is an exact point where its extension begins.
On closer view, my experience and Johnny’s are different yet equally mysterious.
We are all brothers in the enigma of the flesh.
I would like to ideally sit with him — with the freak, with the “monster” — out on the porch of memories, before the sunset of our lives.
‘So, what did you think of this strange trip? Of this strange place we wound up in?’, I would ask him.
And I am sure that his smile would be like mine.
In 1964 the Gallerie Christinae in Göteborg, Sweden, held an exhibition of young avantgarde painters.
Among the works of these promising artists from Italy, Austria, Denmark, England and Sweden, were also four abstract paintings by the french Pierre Brassau. His name was completely unknown to the art scene, but his talents looked undisputable: this young man, although still a beginner, really seemed qualified to become the next Jackson Pollock — so much so that since the opening, his paintings stole the attention from all other featured works.
Journalists and art critics were almost unanimous in considering Pierre Brassau the true revelation of Gallerie Christinae’s exhibit. Rolf Anderberg, a critic for the Posten, was particularly impressed and penned an article, published the next day, in which he affirmed: “Brassau paints with powerful strokes, but also with clear determination. His brush strokes twist with furious fastidiousness. Pierre is an artist who performs with the delicacy of a ballet dancer“.
As should be expected, in spite of the general enthusiasm, there was also the usual skeptic. One critic, making a stand, defiantly declared: “only an ape could have done this“.
There will always be somebody who must go against the mainstream. And, even if it’s hard to admit, in doing so he sometimes can be right.
Pierre Brassau, in reality, was actually a monkey. More precisely a four-year-old African chimpanzee living in the Borås Zoo.
Showing primate’s works in a modern art exhibition was Åke “Dacke” Axelsso’s idea, as he was at the time a journalist for the daily paper Göteborgs-Tidningen. The concept was not actually new: some years before, Congo the chimp had become a celebrity because of his paintings, which fascinated Picasso, Miro and Dali (in 2005 Congo’s works were auctioned for 14.400 punds, while in the same sale a Warhol painting and a Renoir sculpture were withdrawn).
Thus Åke decided to challenge critics in this provocative way: behind the humor of the prank was not (just) the will to ridicule the art establishment, but rather the intention of raising a question that would become more and more urgent in the following years: how can we judge an abstract art piece, if it does not contain any figurative element — or if it even denies that any specific competence is needed to produce art?
Åke had convinced the zoo keeper, who was then 17 years old, to provide a chimp named Peter with brushes and canvas. In the beginning Peter had smeared the paint everywhere, except on the canvas, and even ate it: he had a particularly sweet tooth, it is said, for cobalt blue — a color which will indeed be prominently featured in his later work. Encouraged by the journalist, the primate started to really paint, and to enjoy this creative activity. Åke then selected his four best paintings to be shown at the exhibit.
Even when the true identity of mysterious Pierre Brassau was revealed, many critics stuck by their assessment, claiming the monkey’s paintings were better than all the others at the gallery. What else could they say?
The happiest person, in this little scandal, was probably Bertil Eklöt, a private collector who had bought a painting by the chimpanzee for $90 (about $7-800 today). Perhaps he just wanted to own a curious piece: but now that painting could be worth a fortune, as Pierre Brassau’s story has become a classic anecdote in art history. And one that still raises the question on whether works of art are, as Rilke put it, “of an infinite solitude, and no means of approach is so useless as criticism“.
The first international press article on Brassau appeared on Time magazine. Other info taken from this post by Museum of Hoaxes.
Among all the artists adressing the liminal zones of obscenity and taboo, few have explored the Unheimliche in all its variations with Toshio Saeki’s precision.
Born in 1945 in Miyazaki prefecture, he moved to Osaka when he was 4 years old and then landed in Tokyo at 24, right when the sex industry was booming. After a few months in a publicity agency, Saeki decided to focus exclusively on adult illustration. His drawings were published on Heibon Punch and other magazines, and slowly gained international interest. Today, after 40 years of activity, Toshio Saeki is among the most praised japanese erotic artists, with solo exhibitions even outside Japan — in Paris, London, Tel Aviv, New York, San Francisco and Toronto.
For Saeki, art — like fantasy — cannot and should not know any limit.
In spite of the sulfurous nature of his drawings, he had surprisingly little trouble with censorship: apart from some “warning” notified by the police to the magazines featuring his plates, Saeki never experienced true pressions because of his work. And this is understandable if we take into account the cultural context, because his work, although modern, is deeply rooted in tradition.
As the critic Erick Gilbert put it, “if you look at Saeki’s art outside of its cultural sphere, you may be troubled by its violence. But once you go inside that cultural sphere, you know that this violence is well-understood, that ‘it’s only lines on paper,’ to quote cartoonist Robert Crumb. This extreme imagery of Japanese artists, and their characteristic need to go as far as possible, can be traced several centuries back to the so-called bloody ukiyo-e of the 19th century“.
To fully understand Toshio Saeki, it’s essential to look back to the muzan-e, a bloody subgenre of prints (ukiyo) which appeared around the half of ‘800, drawn by masters such as Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. This latter created the Twenty-eight famous murders with verse, in which he depicted all sorts of atrocities and violent deaths, taken from the news or from the stories of Kabuki theater. Here are some examples of Yoshitoshi’s extreme production.
Other muzan-e, often particularly cruel, were drawn by Utagawa Yoshiiku, Kawanabe Kyōsai, and more marginally Hokusai; this current would then influence the more recent generation of artists and mangaka interested in developing the themes of ero guro – eroticism contaminated by surreal, bizarre, grotesque and crooked elements. Among the contemporary most prominent figures, Shintaro Kago and the great (and hyper-violent) Suehiro Maruo stand out.
So our Toshio Saeki is in good company, as he mixes the solid tradition of muzan-e with classical figures of japanese demons, bringing to the surface the erotic tension already hidden in ancient plates, making it both explicit and obsessive.
His work is a visionary maelstrom in which sex and torture are inseparable, where erotic pulsion is intertwined with frenzy and psychopatology. The manic intensity of his illustrations, however, is coupled with a formal and stylish elegance, which cools down and crystallizes the nightmare: his prints are not created on the spot, because this precise refinement points to a deep study of the image.
“Often they are connected with nightmares I had as a child, or extreme fantasies of my youth. These images made an impression on me, and I exaggerate them until they become those works that seem to have such a stong impact on the viewer“, declared the artist. These visions are carefully considered by Saeki, before he puts them on paper. For this reason his work looks like some sort of cartography of the further limits of erotic fantasy, those fringes where desire ultimately transforms into cupio dissolvi and cupio dissolvere (the desire to be annihilated, and to annihilate).
But, for all their shocking power, Saeki’s paitings are always just dreams. “Leave other people to draw seemingly beautiful flowers that bloom within a nice, pleasant-looking scenery. I try instead to capture the vivid flowers that sometimes hide and sometimes grow within a shameless, immoral and horrifying dream. […] Let’s not forget that the images I draw are fictional“.
And, again: “The important thing, to me, is awakening the viewer’s sensitiviy. I don’t care if he is a bigot or not. I want to give him the sensation that in his life — basically a secure and ordinary existence — there might be “something wrong”. Then hopefully the observer could discover a part of himself he did not know was there”.
Quotes appearing in this post are taken from: here, here and here.
For a deeper treatise on muzan-e, here’s an article (in Italian) on the wonderful website Kainowska.
I martiri costituiscono uno dei temi prediletti dall’arte cristiana fin dagli albori. Eppure inizialmente le rappresentazioni dei supplizi subìti dai santi in testimonianza della loro fede mostravano comunque dei toni abbastanza neutri. Come scrive Umberto Eco nella sua Storia della bruttezza:
Raramente nell’arte medievale il martire è rappresentato imbruttito dai tormenti come si era osato fare col Cristo. Nel caso di Cristo si sottolineava l’immensità inimitabile del sacrificio compiuto, mentre nel caso dei martiri (per esortare a imitarli) si mostra la serenità serafica con cui essi sono andati incontro alla propria sorte. Ed ecco che una sequenza di decapitazioni, tormenti sulla graticola, asportazione dei seni, può dar luogo a composizioni aggraziate, quasi in forma di balletto. Il compiacimento per la crudeltà del tormento sarà caso mai reperibile più tardi […], nella pittura seicentesca.
In realtà già nel Tardo Manierismo, vale a dire verso la fine del ‘500, la Controriforma aveva riportato una rigorosa ortodossia nell’arte sacra; nel 1582 il Cardinale Gabriele Paleotti pubblica il suo fondamentale Discorso intorno alle immagini sacre e profane, in cui vengono dettate le direttive iconografiche ecclesiastiche da seguire. Da questo momento gli artisti dovranno concentrarsi su scene bibliche educative, di immediata lettura, allontanandosi dai temi classici e attenendosi scrupolosamente a quanto riportato nelle Scritture; nel caso dei martiri, si dovrà cercare di rendere il più possibile concreta la descrizione della sofferenza, in modo da favorire l’immedesimazione del fedele. In questo clima di propaganda, nacquero quindi affreschi e dipinti di una violenza senza precedenti.
A Roma soprattutto si trovano alcune chiese particolarmente ricche di simili raffigurazioni. La più significativa è quella di Santo Stefano Rotondo al Celio; poco distante si trova la Chiesa dei Santi Nereo e Achilleo; in via Nazionale, invece, sorge la Basilica di San Vitale. Innumerevoli altri esempi sono sparsi un po’ ovunque nella capitale, ma queste tre chiese da sole costituiscono una sorta di enciclopedia illustrata della tortura.
In particolare le prime due ospitano gli affreschi di Niccolò Circignani detto il Pomarancio (ma attenzione, perché il nomignolo venne dato anche a suo figlio Antonio e al pittore Cristoforo Roncalli). Autore manierista ma lontano dagli eccessi bizzarri del periodo, Niccolò Circignani mostrava una spiccata teatralità compositiva, e un’esecuzione semplice ma efficace, dai colori vivaci e incisivi.
Il ciclo del martiriologio a Santo Stefano Rotondo è impressionante ancora oggi per il realismo cruento e a tratti rivoltante delle scene: dal supplizio di Sant’Agata, a cui le tenaglie dilaniano il petto, alla lapidazione del primo martire della storia (Santo Stefano, appunto), fino alla “pena forte e dura“, le pareti della chiesa sono un susseguirsi di santi bolliti vivi o soffocati dal piombo fuso, lingue strappate, occhi e budella sparse, corpi fatti a pezzi, mazzolati, bruciati, straziati in ogni possibile variante.
Sempre al Pomarancio sono attribuite altre opere situate nella Chiesa dei Santi Nereo e Achilleo. Qui San Simone viene segato a metà a partire dal cranio, San Giacomo Maggiore decapitato, San Bartolomeo scorticato vivo, e via dicendo.
Nella Basilica di San Vitale possiamo ammirare il santo omonimo che viene prima torturato sulla ruota, e poi sepolto vivo – anche se in questo caso i dipinti sono ad opera di Agostino Ciampelli. La chiesa contiene anche decapitazioni e teste mozzate.
Certo, nelle intenzioni queste scene dovevano essere educative, e spingere all’imitazione di questi esempi di fede incrollabile. Ma che dire dell’evidente compiacimento nel mostrare le varie torture e i supplizi? Il nostro sadismo non è forse stuzzicato da queste rappresentazioni?
È questo fascino oscuro che spinge Eco a parlare di “erotica del dolore“; e d’altronde Bataille termina il suo excursus nell’arte erotica (Le lacrime di Eros) sulla fotografia di un condannato alla pena cinese del lingchi, la morte dai mille tagli, “inevitabile conclusione di una storia dell’erotismo” e simbolo dell’ “erotismo religioso, l’identità dell’orrore e del religioso“.
Fotografia talmente insostenibile che il filosofo confessa: “a partire da questa violenza – ancora oggi io non riesco a propormene un’altra più folle, più orribile – io fui così sconvolto che accedetti all’estasi“. Rapimento mistico, orgasmo e orrore sono, per Bataille, inscindibili.
Questa seduzione ambigua delle immagini violente, però, è intrinseca in ogni crudeltà. Il concetto trova infatti origine in due ceppi etimologici diversi – da una parte cruor, la carne sanguinosa, il sangue sparso, e dall’altra crudus, il crudo, tutto ciò che è animalesco, primordiale e non ancora conquistato dalla cultura umana (conoscere il fuoco e utilizzarlo per cuocere il cibo è, sostiene Lévi-Strauss ne Il crudo e il cotto, uno dei momenti fondanti dell’umanità, rispetto alla vita bestiale).
In questo senso la crudeltà oscilla fra due opposti perturbanti: l’orrore e l’oscenità della violenza, e il segreto giubilo di vedere riaffiorare l’istinto represso, che minaccia l’ordine costituito.
Starebbe in questo nucleo di sentimenti contrapposti la calamita che attira il nostro sguardo verso simili immagini, eccitandoci e repellendoci al tempo stesso, e forse facendoci in questo modo accedere alla parte più nascosta del nostro essere.
L’opera di Xia Xiaowan, pittore pechinese nato nel 1959, ha sempre sfidato le convenzioni artistiche. Autore eclettico, i suoi quadri spaziano dal surrealismo al simbolismo, spesso descrivendo corpi grotteschi, deformi e fluidi; ma il filone più interessante della sua carriera è quello che si interroga sulla portata filosofica della prospettiva: come cambia il mondo a seconda del punto di vista che scegliamo per osservarlo? Quali segreti inaspettati possiamo scoprire nella realtà, e in noi stessi, modificando (simbolicamente) l’angolazione del nostro sguardo?
Così Xiaowan nella sua serie Looking Up ha scelto di ritrarre situazioni più o meno comuni (un incontro di boxe, una partita a dama cinese, una ragazza che accompagna per strada un anziano, e così via) riprese però da una prospettiva inusuale: il punto di vista è infatti quello, “impossibile” e irrealistico, di un osservatore posto un paio di metri sotto alla scena, che guardi il tutto attraverso un “terreno” trasparente.
Poi, all’inizio del millennio, riflettendo sull’avvento delle nuove tecnologie e sulla contaminazione dei linguaggi artistici, Xiaowan ha cominciato a domandarsi se la pittura non stesse diventando vecchia rispetto agli altri mezzi espressivi. Rimasta uguale a se stessa da secoli, la tela di colpo è sembrata troppo piatta e univoca all’artista cinese. Xiaowan ha deciso quindi, ancora una volta, di cercare una nuova prospettiva, un modo inedito di guardare alla sua opera.
Dipingendo su lastre di vetro multiple e assemblandole l’una di fronte all’altra, Xiaowan è capace di donare ai suoi dipinti una dimensione e una profondità uniche. A metà strada fra la pittura, l’ologramma e la scultura, il quadro che abbiamo di fronte agli occhi sembra respirare e modificarsi a seconda di come ci muoviamo.
Certo, è di moda oggi parlare di “3D”: ma le opere di Xiaowan non utilizzano la profondità un maniera tutto sommato banale, per creare facili effetti prospettici come quelli dei quadri in rilievo che si trovano ormai in ogni mercatino (originariamente inventati dal britannico Patrick Hughes, vedi questo video). Al contrario, i suoi dipinti sono fumosi, eterei, la carne dei suoi personaggi si dissolve in vaghi riflessi irreali, senza più contorni. Si tratta di vorticose figure di sogno – o di incubo – sospese in uno spazio senza tempo, in movimenti apparenti e ingannevoli. È la nostra stessa coscienza spaziale ad essere messa alla prova, mentre la corteccia visiva cerca di donare profondità a questi corpi che altro non sono se non echi congelati.
Nonostante il successo e la curiosità internazionale suscitata da queste opere, Xiaowan è tornato oggi a dipingere ad olio su tela, evidentemente soddisfatto dell’esperimento.
Dino Valls è uno dei rappresentanti di spicco dell’avanguardia figurativa spagnola. È nato a Saragozza nel 1959, e si è laureato in Medicina e Chirurgia nel 1982. Eppure la professione di medico non lo attira: stabilitosi a Madrid, decide di dedicarsi alla pittura a tempo pieno.
La sua formazione chirurgica però non lo abbandonerà mai del tutto, visto che nei suoi dipinti la fascinazione per gli strumenti di misurazione e dissezione è quasi costante. A partire dagli anni ’90 Valls comincia a studiare e ad ispirarsi ai grandi maestri fiamminghi e italiani del ‘400, ‘500 e ‘600, in particolare sviluppando una sua tecnica di tempera ad uovo (utilizzando cioè come legante il tuorlo, misto ad acqua e ad altre sostanze). In questo modo conferisce un sapore classico ai suoi dipinti, che contrasta ma anche sublima il surrealismo dei soggetti.
I dipinti di Dino Valls sono crudeli paesaggi della psiche. Creano un ponte diretto fra la tradizione pittorica occidentale, la scienza medica e l’inconscio più nero. Tutti i suoi soggetti colpiscono innanzitutto per il loro sguardo: sempre sull’orlo delle lacrime, colmi di una disperazione senza fondo, e sempre fissi sull’osservatore, su di noi, come ad interrogarci o, ancora peggio, incolparci.
Questi ragazzi e ragazze sono vittime sacrificali di un progresso scientifico che non comprendono, e di cui ci chiedono il motivo; di volta in volta violati, esaminati, misurati, mutilati, denudati, i loro corpi sembrano essere messi incessantemente alla prova. Da chi? Per quale scopo?
I soggetti di Valls sono cavie di un universo simbolico, protagonisti loro malgrado di un enorme e misterioso esperimento. Le sevizie a cui sono sottoposti hanno il sapore della scienza ma l’ambiguità dell’esoterismo; e il loro doloroso sguardo fa nascere il sospetto che dietro a tutta questa perversa “ricerca” non ci sia forse nessun senso.