The exhibition Giulio Paolini Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu offers an original journey covering sixty years of artistic work. Developed in close contact with Giulio Paolini (Genoa, 1940), the exhibition includes rare works from the artist’s private collection and new ones especially created for the occasion.
Ever since his début, Paolini has focused on the ideal and material foundations of art, and on the space of the atelier and on the occasion of the exhibition as settings in which art is produced and displayed. His work often includes quotations: the artist makes use of fragments drawn from the great catalog of the history of art, just as he reformulates his own works in new contexts. In his analysis, the act of seeing constitutes a crucial moment of knowledge-acquisition, whose truth is nevertheless always relative and subject to constant evaluation. At every new display, works can provide ideas for subsequent works, in an endless cycle.
One of the pioneers of Arte Povera, with whom he shares the use of everyday materials and an interest in the relationship between artworks, exhibition space and visitors, Paolini foreshadowed the developments of conceptual art at an international level. Through a conscious search for neutral and objective means of expression, Paolini has formulated a language of his own, acquiring an original and independent position.
The title of the exhibition, Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu (The Unknown Masterpiece), refers to a short story written by Honoré de Balzac, first published in 1831. The protagonist, the esteemed painter Frenhofer, is obsessed with the idea of attaining perfection and painting an absolute masterpiece, to the point of devoting himself to the same work for years. Once unveiled, the alleged masterpiece reveals the impossible nature of the painter’s quest. According to Paolini’s method, the tribute to the short story reflects some of the crucial questions which his works raise.
Through each of the works featured, the exhibition points to the elusive relationship between reality and representation, between an artwork and its image, between vision and artistic intentions, based on an investigation of the very essence of art.
Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu is also the title of the installation that greets visitors in the first room of the exhibition (Room 18). A historic work by Paolini, Disegno geometrico (Geometrical Drawing), 1960, here acquires an environmental dimension and a three-dimensional physical quality, turning into a place one can pass through. The exhibition continues in the next room (Room 33), which the artist has called Vertigo, to highlight the presence of works in space and time, like the protagonists of an unreleased film. “Fine” senza fine (“The End” Without an End) is the theme which brings together the works exhibited in the third and last room of the exhibition (Room 32). Here Paolini explores the concept of becoming and the unfathomable secret of artworks, which, even when they consist of apparently legible images, never betray their origin and cannot know their own fate.
The exhibition celebrates the artist’s eightieth birthday.
Quoting the famous short story by Honoré de Balzac, the title of Giulio Paolini’s solo exhibition Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu is also the title of the large-size installation that greets visitors in the room that marks the beginning of the exhibit itinerary. The installation is based on Disegno geometrico (Geometrical Drawing), 1960, one of the works which have defined the development of contemporary art.
Described by the artist as his “first (and last painting)”, Disegno geometrico is a rectangular canvas painted white, on which Paolini has “chosen to copy, according to the right proportions, the preliminary sketch for any drawing, namely the geometrical squaring of the surface.” The diagonal lines which mark out the center are traced in red ink. Using a compass, the artist has outlined the medians in black ink. In its apparent simplicity, this work explores profound ontological questions pertaining to the status of art, including the possibility of freeing each painting from its eternal condition of subordination to a given image, by acknowledging it as a self-standing entity. “The geometrical squaring of the surface – the artist states – is a fact, a pre-existent, anonymous and neutral image.” According to Paolini, this squaring “did not represent the subject of the medium on which I had traced it, but was rather a way to qualify the medium on which I was operating: to qualify it as an absolute and undefined presence, as opposed to a way of conveying an image established once and for all.”
Paolini structures the whole setting in which the work is exhibited around the outline of Disegno geometrico. Room 18 of the museum, which houses Disegno geometrico, becomes a sort of three-dimensional version of the work itself, which is made tangible and amplified to suit the environment. The floor, the walls, and the aerial space house the elements that make up the compositional scheme of Disegno geometrico, from the rectangular structure to the red diagonals and the squaring points originally marked with a compass.
In the room, the long lines traced on the floor match the outline of the diagonals on the painting, whereas each of the eight squaring points is marked by the presence of an easel with a transparent display case. Inside each case are paper fragments of sketches and cuttings from Paolini’s studio in Turin, where the artist collects the material that inspires his work by arranging it according to subjects and provenances. In addition to Disegno geometrico itself, the four walls of the room feature as many variations on this work, offering different possible ways of squaring a rectangular surface. Hanging from the ceiling at the center of the room, corresponding to a ninth empty easel, is another display case. Open in such a way as to reveal its lid, background and paper passe-partout, the case is also empty. Like Disegno geometrico, a work which presents no images yet potentially includes them all, the open display case fluctuates in space like an undefined idea which is not bound to be expressed in just one particular way. Its presence raises the number of display cases present in “Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu” to nine. Nine is also the number of letters that make up the name of Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory and the mother of the nine Muses, the deities she conceived with Zeus and who, in Greek mythology, are the guardians of knowledge and the arts.
Executed between the 1990s and the present day, the works in this room have been brought together by the artist under the title Vertigo. They all share the concept of “occurrence”, and are consciously set on the brink between visions of sidereal macrocosms and situations that can be associated with the microcosm of everyday life.
On the right, A occhio nudo (To the Naked Eye), 1998, is a negative photography of the blaze of a star, which the artist printed by choosing one out of the many astronomical images in his collections. In proximity of this reference to an extremely remote time and space, the artist places the new work Omega (1948-2018), 2020: the work features a blue velvet jewelry case resting on photographs printed on tracing paper of Paolini himself, including one taken on the day of his First Communion. The case contains a watch and other pictures, including some that are rolled up in such a way as to conceal their subject, while serving as a support for the watch itself. “This Omega wristwatch – Paolini states – was given to me for my First Communion in 1948 and it shared my existence for seventy years, up until the year 2018. That dial has witnessed the whole succession of events that have shaped my life; today that it has been laid to rest, it remains the most authoritative witness to this stretch of time.”
Vertigo, 2020, the work which gives its name to the whole room, consists of a photographic image of the sky printed on a piece of fabric, pallets, frames, canvases, empty stretchers, and two photographs with details of the work itself. The various elements seem to be dynamically flowing out of the old fireplace into the room, like entities whose existence predates the author’s intervention.
Paolini’s art often features images of, and references to, the place where the works have been installed, thereby doubling reality with its double depiction. Promemoria (Reminder) consists of nine plates with scenes set in the halls of Castello di Rivoli. The plates turn the Castle into an imaginary museum-cum-theater which, instead of artworks, houses leading figures in art and literature. The first figure in the top left corner, stooped over a typewriter, is Luigi Pirandello. The next plates feature other distinguished guests, including Raymond Roussel, Marcel Duchamp (with Paolini himself), Lucio Fontana, Fausto Melotti, Giorgio de Chirico, Italo Calvino, Salvador Dalí, and Fernando Pessoa, figures whose works have long been inspiring the artist.
This imaginary museum towers above Dall’Aurora al Tramonto (From Sunset to Sunrise), 2020, a new work which also evokes the Castello’s. The works refers to the Padiglione dell’Aurora (Pavilion of Dawn) that Paolini brought to the stage of the Castello’s theater in 1999. Much like the original composition, this work is a structure enclosing fragments and reproductions of artworks. In this case, the whole structure has been transposed into table-sized format, condensing the pavilion into a sort of microcosm, dense with ideas and projects: “an echo of the past – the artist states – which today formulates a reflection on the idea of measure, of fullness and emptiness, everything and nothing, displaying its countless possible combinations.”
At the center of the room stands Senza più titolo (No Longer Titled), 2010, a platform surmounted by Plexiglas cubes which, in turn, enclose a plaster colonnade. The columns – some missing, other fragmentary – mark out a sort of transparent cell at the center, watched over by four miniatures of Carabinieri in full uniform. This central area is filled with transparent sheets with some drawings. A full-scale hand seems to be grasping some of them, in a gesture that expresses – despite the lightness of the drawings – a constant attempt to fix and define the work, which, tautologically, is No longer titled.
With No comment, 1991, the external macrocosm is once again brought into relation with the detail of the interior. The work is an overhead projector featuring a plan of the room in which it is on display, with the position of the overhead projector itself marked out. Juxtaposed with this is a color image of a portion of sky. Like an unquestionable yet only ideally visible double visual statement, the work explores its own role and setting, projecting the image it bears towards the actual sky.
In the third and last gallery the artist developed the concept of an “end” without end, almost as if to postpone the possibility of a conclusive reasoning.
On the right, we find the work I would prefer not to (2020). The title cites the infectious phrase that connotes the eponymous character in Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street” (1853), who persists in answering his boss’s requests “I would prefer not to”. Bartleby is evoked by Paolini in an installation comprising a photographic reproduction, a music stand with copies of handwritten notes and a piece of paper on the floor bearing the phrase “I would prefer not to”, written in the artist’s hand. The photograph was taken from a self-portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds (datable 1747-49), in which the painter portrayed himself shielding his eyes with the right hand. The latter detail is the one reproduced by Paolini, to emphasise that, among the artist’s tools, the eye has the most importance.
The work Il modello in persona (The Model Itself, 2020) is an installation combining a photograph and sculpture. The photograph, which has been placed on an artist’s easel, offers a view of the artist’s studio in Turin. In it, we see everyday furnishings and reproductions of works of art, including a self-portrait (1758-64) by William Hogarth. In front of the easel, the artist has placed a plaster cast reproduction of a bronze by the Neapolitan sculptor Vincenzo Gemito, who made multiple copies of a Hellenistic statue of Narcissus that was found in Pompeii in 1862. Furtively alluding to these relationships, which string together a series of copies, Paolini defines the sculpture in his work as “the model”, referencing the possibility that each work of art descends from a previous one, in a succession with no discernible beginning.
“Just as we cannot ascertain the origin of the image we are looking at, nor can we see what will happen later,” the artist observes, adding: “The continuous becoming of the history of art takes place through successive mutations of the secret and absolute code of the work.” The mystery of art and its inclination for self-contemplation is the theme of “Fine” senza fine (Vis-à-vis) (“The End” Without an End – Vis-à-vis, 2020), the artwork that gives its name to this gallery, composed of two photographs and, in the middle, some fragments of a plaster casts of an ancient female bust. The fixity of the scene calls to mind a silent conversation, or better, a dialogue for which the artist himself is first and foremost a spectator.
L’immagine di un’immagine (Plotino) (The Image of an Image – Plotinus) and L’immagine di un’immagine (Narciso) (The Image of an Image – Narcissus), both 2020, offer two different interpretations of the concept of the image through references to the ancient Greek philosopher Plotinus and the myth of Narcissus, cited in photographic reproductions produced by the artist. The chief exponent of Neoplatonism, Plotinus always refused to have his portrait made, holding that the body was already an image and one should not seek out another one, even if it would be longer lasting. Whereas Narcissus, a figure from Greek mythology, was a beautiful young man who fell in love with his own reflection and, in one version of the myth, submitted to his image and let himself die.
Installed in front of the windows of the gallery, Il catalogo è questo (“This is the catalog”, 2020) is a casket set atop a transparent tabletop resting on trestles and containing a quantity of sheets of drawings. The title of the work refers to an aria from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni (1787). In place of the list of romantic conquests, the work presents drawings on a subject dear to Paolini: the relationship between depicted space and the surface upon which the depiction has been made. As the artist explains, “It is like the inventory of the empty pages of a catalog. On each page, I have noted in pencil the possible multiplications that this volume of paper could have.”
In the middle of the room, we find the Deposizione (Deposition, 2018-20), a title that references the art historical iconography of the body of Christ being taken down from the Cross. Developing the concept of falling, the work comprises a suitcase that lets fall, from above, a man’s tailcoat, the flower that was in its buttonhole, a dress shirt and white gloves. The clothing references the presence of the wearer, an absent body, the identity of whom we cannot know. Like a hypothesized event before it happens, the work can be interpreted as a plan for a “stage exit”.
Texts by Marcella Beccaria from the soon to be published catalog Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Torino, 2020