Alberto Martini, The “Maudit” of Italian Art

Those who live in dream are superior beings;
those who live in reality are unhappy slaves.
Alberto Martini, 1940

Alberto Giacomo Spiridione Martini (1876-1954) was one of the most extraordinary Italian artists of the first half of the twentieth century.
He was the author of a vast graphic production which includes engravings, lithographs, ex libris, watercolors, business cards, postcards, illustrations for books and novels of various kinds (from Dante to D’Annunzio, from Shakespeare to Victor Hugo, from Tassoni to Nerval).

Born in Oderzo, he studied drawing and painting under the guidance of his father Giorgio, a professor of design at the Technical Institute of Treviso. Initially influenced by the German sixteenth-century mannerism of Dürer and Baldung, he then moved towards an increasingly personal and refined symbolism, supported by his exceptional knowledge of iconography. At only 21 he exhibited for the first time at the Venice Biennale; from then on, his works will be featured there for 14 consecutive years.
The following year, 1898, while he was in Munich to collaborate with some magazines, he met the famous Neapolitan art critic Vittorio Pica who, impressed by his style, will forever be his most convinced supporter. Pica remembers him like this:

This man, barely past twenty, […] immediately came across as likable in his distinguished, albeit a bit cold, discretion […], in the subtle elegance of his person, in the paleness of his face, where the sensual freshness of his red lips contrasted with that strange look, both piercing and abstract, mocking and disdainful.

(in Alberto Martini: la vita e le opere 1876-1906, Oderzo Cultura)

After drawing 22 plates for the historical edition of the Divine Comedy printed in 1902 by the Alinari brothers in Florence, starting from 1905 he devoted himself to the cycle of Indian ink illustrations for Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories, which remains one of the peaks of his art.
In this series, Martini shows a strong visionary talent, moving away from the meticulous realistic observation of his first works, and at the same time developing a cruel and aesthetic vein reminiscent of Rops, Beardsley and Redon.

During the First World War he published five series of postcards entitled Danza Macabra Europea: these consist of 54 lithographs meant as satirical propaganda against the Austro-Hungarian empire, and were distributed among the allies. Once again Martini proves to possess a grotesque boundless fantasy, and it is also by virtue of these works that he is today considered a precursor of Surrealism.

Disheartened by how little consideration he was ebjoying in Italy, he moved to Paris in 1928. “They swore — he wrote in his autobiography — to remove me as a painter from the memory of Italians, preventing me from attending exhibitions and entering the Italian market […] I know very well that my original way of painting can annoy the myopic little draftsman and paltry critics“.
In Paris he met the Surrealist group and developed a series of “black” paintings, before moving on to a more intense use of color (what he called his “clear” manner) to grasp the ecstatic visions that possessed him.

The large window of my studio is open onto the night. In that black rectangle, I see my ghosts pass and with them I love to converse. They incite me to be strong, indomitable, heroic, and they tell me secrets and mysteries that I shall perhaps reveal you. Many will not believe and I am sorry for them, because those who have no imagination vegetate in their slippers: comfortable life, but not an artist’s life. Once upon a starless night, I saw myself in that black rectangle as in a mirror. I saw myself pale, impassive. It is my soul, I thought, that is now mirroring my face in the infinite and that once mirrored who knows what other appearance, because if the soul is eternal it has neither beginning nor end, and what we are now is nothing but one of its several episodes. And this revealing thought troubled me […]. As I was absorbed in these intricate thoughts, I started to feel a strange caress on the hand I had laid on a book open under a lamp. […] I turned my head and saw a large nocturnal butterfly sitting next to my hand, looking at me, flapping its wings. You too, I thought, are dreaming; and the spell of your dull eyes of dust sees me as a ghost. Yes, nocturnal and beautiful visitor, I am a dreamer who believes in immortality, or perhaps a phantom of the eternal dream that we call life.

(A. Martini, Vita d’artista, manoscritto, 1939-1940)

In economic hardship, Martini returned to Milan in 1934. He continued his incessant and multiform artistic work during the last twenty years of his life, without ever obtaining the desired success. He died on November 8, 1954. Today his remains lie together with those of his wife Maria Petringa in the cemetery of Oderzo.

The fact that Martini never gained the recognition he deserved within Italian early-twentieth-century art can be perhaps attributed to his preference for grotesque themes and gloomy atmospheres (in our country, fantasy always had a bad reputation). The eclectic nature of his production, which wilfully avoided labels or easy categorization, did not help him either: his originality, which he rightly considered an asset, was paradoxically what forced him to remain “a peripheral and occult artist, doomed to roam, like a damned soul, the unexplored areas of art history” (Barbara Meletto, Alberto Martini: L’anima nera dell’arte).

Yet his figure is strongly emblematic of the cultural transition between nineteenth-century romantic decadentism and the new, darker urgencies which erupted with the First World War. Like his contemporary Alfred Kubin, with whom he shared the unreal imagery and the macabre trait, Martini gave voice to those existential tensions that would then lead to surrealism and metaphysical art.

An interpretation of some of the satirical allegories in the European Macabre Dance can be found here and here.
The Civic Art Gallery of Oderzo is dedicated to Alberto Martini and promotes the study of his work.

Bizzarro Bazar Contest 2

Today Bizzarro Bazar enters its 10th year of activity!
Last year, my somewhat reckless idea of celebrating the blog’s birthday with a contest ended up having overwhelming results: you guys submerged me with wonderful creations — short stories, photographs, drawings, sculptures, paintings, music and every kind of weird stuff. During the following months, I often went back and skimmed through your works whenever I was in need of a little shot of confidence.

So, if  by any chance you’re tired of doing crosswords on the beach, what about going at it once more?

The rules are the same as last time:

  1. Create an original work explicitly referring to Bizzarro Bazar;
  2. Post your work on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter using the hashtag #bizzarrobazarcontest — alternatively, you can send it by email;
  3. Deadline is September 10, 2018;
  4. Remember that the idea is to allow free rein to your weirdest creativity, to celebrate and above all to have fun among friends!

Point 1 created a bit of confusion last time, so let me specify the concept: “explicitly referring” to the blog means that Bizzarro Bazar (the website, logo, one of my books, even my beard if it comes to that) must be depicted/mentioned/included in the entry. Keep in mind that, while promoting your creations, I also want to promote this blog. Win-win.
My advise is to skim through the beautiful contributions which got published at the end of the first edition.

Here’s the prizes that will be awarded:

1st prize: Signed copy of one of my books (your choice) + T-shirt + surprise gift
2nd prize: Signed copy of one of my books (your choice) + T-shirt
3rd prize: Signed copy of one of my books (your choice)

Best unclassified entries will be published on Bizzarro Bazar with links to the authors websites/profiles, and shared on social networks.

Ready?
Then, let the most extravagant game of the year begin!

Bizzarro Bazar Contest!

Today is Bizzarro Bazar’s birthday, the blog is 8 years old!
(My cats’ health book informs me that 8 feline years roughly correspond to 48 human years; I wonder if there’s a similar calculation for blogs, whose life expectancy is far less than a cat’s.)

To celebrate together, I thought I’d involve you all in a little game: let’s launch our first Bizzarro Bazar Contest!

Free your most “strange, macabre & wonderful” fantasies, and create something that has to do with Bizzarro Bazar.
I am not going to tell you what that something should be: drawings, comics, paintings, fanart, caricatures, photographs, selfies, but also videos, poems, songs… well, any odd stuff your creativity might suggest.

To enter the contest you must:

  1. Create an original work explicitly referring to Bizzarro Bazar: what I mean is that Bizzarro Bazar (the website, the logo, a publication, even my own beard if nothing else!) should be pictured/mentioned within the work;
  2. Post your work on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter using the hashtag #bizzarrobazarcontest — alternatively, you can submit it by email;
  3. Be confident and wait until September 10;
  4. Remember that I’m calling it contest, but it’s not about competition — the idea is to allow free rein to your morbid creativity, celebrate these first 8 years of weirdness, and have fun among friends.

3 prizes will be awarded:

1st prize: Signed book from Bizzarro Bazar Collection (of your choice) + BB shopping bag + surprise gift pack
2nd prize: Signed book from Bizzarro Bazar Collection (of your choice) + BB shopping bag
3rd prize: Signed book from Bizzarro Bazar Collection (of your choice)

Best unclassified entries will be published on Bizzarro Bazar with links to the authors websites/profiles.

Alright, let your imagination run wild and remember the deadline is September 10.
Keep The World Weird!

Dreams of Stone

Stone appears to be still, unchangeable, untouched by the tribulations of living beings.
Being outside of time, it always pointed back to the concept fo Creation.
Nestled, inaccessible, closed inside the natural chest of rock, those anomalies we called treasures lie waiting to be discovered: minerals of the strangest shape, unexpected colors, otherworldly transparency.
Upon breaking a stone, some designs may be uncovered which seem to be a work of intellect. One could recognize panoramas, human figures, cities, plants, cliffs, ocean waves.

Who is the artist that hides these fantasies inside the rock? Are they created by God’s hand? Or were these visions and landscapes dreamed by the stone itself, and engraved in its heart?

If during the Middle Ages these stone motifs were probably seen as an evidence of the anima mundi, at the beginning of the modern period they had already been relegated to the status of simple curiosities.
XVI and XVII Century naturalists, in their wunderkammern and in books devoted to the wonders of the world, classified the pictures discovered in stone as “jokes of Nature” (lusus naturæ). In fact, Roger Caillois writes (La scrittura delle pietre, Marietti, 1986):

The erudite scholars, Aldrovandi and Kircher among others, divided these wonders into genres and species according to the image they saw in them: Moors, bishops, shrimps or water streams, faces, plants, dogs or even fish, tortoises, dragons, skulls, crucifixes, anything a fervid imagination could recognize and identify. In reality there is no being, monster, monument, event or spectacle of nature, of history, of fairy tales or dreams, nothing that an enchanted gaze couldn’t see inside the spots, designs and profiles of these stones.

It is curious to note, incidentally, that these “caprices” were brought up many times during the long debate regarding the mystery of fossils. Leonardo Da Vinci had already guessed that sea creatures found petrified on mountain tops could be remnants of living organisms, but in the following centuries fossils came to be thought of as mere whims of Nature: if stone was able to reproduce a city skyline, it could well create imitations of seashells or living things. Only by the half of XVIII Century fossils were no longer considered lusus naturæ.

Among all kinds of pierre à images (“image stones”), there was one in which the miracle most often recurred. A specific kind of marble, found near Florence, was called pietra paesina (“landscape stone”, or “ruin marble”) because its veinings looked like landscapes and silhouettes of ruined cities. Maybe the fact that quarries of this particular marble were located in Tuscany was the reason why the first school of stone painting was established at the court of Medici Family; other workshops specializing in this minor genre arose in Rome, in France and the Netherlands.

 

Aside from the pietra paesina, which was perfect for conjuring marine landscapes or rugged desolation, other kinds of stone were used, such as alabaster (for celestial and angelic suggestions) and basanite, used to depict night views or to represent a burning city.

Perhaps it all started with Sebastiano del Piombo‘s experiments with oil on stone, which had the intent of creating paintings that would last as long as sculptures; but actually the colors did not pass the test of time on polished slates, and this technique proved to be far from eternal. Sebastiano del Piombo, who was interested in a refined and formally strict research, abandoned the practice, but the method had an unexpected success within the field of painted oddities — thanks to a “taste for rarities, for bizarre artifices, for the ambiguous, playful interchange of art and nature that was highly appreciated both during XVI Century Mannerism and the baroque period” (A. Pinelli on Repubblica, January 22, 2001).

Therefore many renowned painters (Jacques Stella, Stefano della Bella, Alessandro Turchi also known as l’Orbetto, Cornelis van Poelemburgh), began to use the veinings of the stone to produce painted curios, in tension between naturalia e artificialia.

Following the inspiration offered by the marble scenery, they added human figures, ships, trees and other details to the picture. Sometimes little was needed: it was enough to paint a small balcony, the outline of a door or a window, and the shape of a city immediately gained an outstanding realism.

Johann König, Matieu Dubus, Antonio Carracci and others used in this way the ribbon-like ornaments and profound brightness of the agate, the coils and curves of alabaster. In pious subjects, the painter drew the mystery of a milky supernatural flare from the deep, translucent hues; or, if he wanted to depict a Red Sea scene, he just had to crowd the vortex of waves, already suggested by the veinings of the stone, with frightened victims.

Especially well-versed in this eccentric genre, which between the XVI and XVIII Century was the object of extended trade, was Filippo Napoletano.
In 1619 the painter offered to Cosimo II de’ Medici seven stories of Saints painted on “polished stoned called alberese“, and some of his works still retain a powerful quality, on the account of their innovative composition and a vivid expressive intensity.
His extraordinary depiction of the Temptations of Saint Anthony, for instance, is a “little masterpiece [where] the artist’s intervention is minimal, and the Saint’s entire spiritual drama finds its echo in the melancholy of a landscape of Dantesque tone” (P. Gaglianò on ExibArt, December 11, 2000).

The charm of a stone that “mimicks” reality, giving the illusion of a secret theater, is unaltered still today, as Cailliois elegantly explains:

Such simulacra, hidden on the inside for a long time, appear when the stones are broken and polished. To an eager imagination, they evoke immortal miniature models of beings and things. Surely, chance alone is at the origin of the prodigy. All similarities are after all vague, uncertain, sometimes far from truth, decidedly gratuitous. But as soon as they are perceived, they become tyrannical and they offer more than they promised. Anyone who knows how to observe them, relentlessly discovers new details completing the alleged analogy. These kinds of images can miniaturize for the benefit of the person involved every object in the world, they always provide him with a copy which he can hold in his hand, position as he wishes, or stash inside a cabinet. […] He who possesses such a wonder, produced, extracted and fallen into his hands by an extraordinary series of coincidences, happily imagines that it could not have come to him without a special intervention of Fate.

Still, unchangeable, untouched by the tribulations of living beings: it is perhaps appropriate that when stones dream, they give birth to these abstract, metaphysical landscapes, endowed with a beauty as alien as the beauty of rock itself.

Several artworks from the Medici collections are visible in a wonderful and little-known museum in Florence, the Opificio delle Pietre Dure.
The best photographic book on the subject is the catalogue
Bizzarrie di pietre dipinte (2000), curate by M. Chiarini and C. Acidini Luchinat.

Hidden Eros

Our virtues are most frequently but vices in disguise.

(La Rochefoucauld, Reflections, 1665)

We advocate freedom, against any kind of censorship.
And yet today, sex being everywhere, legitimized, we feel we are missing something. There is in fact a strange paradox about eroticism: the need to have a prohibition, in order to transgress it.
Is sex dirty? Only when it’s being done right“, Woody Allen joked, summarizing how much the orthodox or religious restrictions have actually fostered and given a richer flavor to sexual congresses.

An enlightening example might come from the terrible best-selling books of the past few years: we might wonder why nowadays erotic literature seems to be produced by people who can’t write, for people who can’t read.
The great masterpieces of erotica appeared when it was forbidden to write about sex. Both the author (often a well-known and otherwise respectable writer) and the editor were forced to act in anonimity and, if exposed, could be subjected to a harsh sentence. Dangerous, outlaw literature: it wasn’t written with the purpose of seeling hundreds of thousands of copies, but rather to be sold under the counter to the few who could understand it.
Thus, paradoxically, such a strict censorship granted that the publishing of an erotic work corresponded to a poetic, authorial urgency. Risqué literature, in many cases, represented a necessary and unsuppressible artistic expression. The crossing of a boundary, of a barrier.

Given the current flat landscape, we inevitably look with curiosity (if not a bit of nostalgia) at those times when eroticism had to be carefully concealed from prying eyes.
An original variation of this “sunken” collective imagination are those erotic objects which in France (where they were paricularly popular) are called à système, “with a device”.
They consisted in obscene representations hidden behind a harmless appearance, and could only be seen by those who knew the mechanism, the secret move, the trick to uncover them.

1

Some twenty years ago in Chinese restaurants in Italy, liquor at the end of the meal was served in peculiar little cups that had a convex glass base: when the cup was full, the optic distorsion was corrected by the liquid and it was possible to admire, on the bottom, the picture of a half-undressed lady, who became invisible once again as the cup was emptied.
The concept behind the ancient objets à système was the same: simple objects, sometimes common home furnishings, disguising the owners’ unmentionable fantasies from potential guests coming to the house.

The most basic kind of objects à système had false bottoms and secret compartments. Indecent images could be hidden in all sorts of accessories, from snuffboxes to walking canes, from fake cheese cartons to double paintings.

Ivory box, the lid shows a double scene. XIX Century.

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 Gioco del domino, in avorio intarsiato alla maniera dei marinai, con tavole erotiche.

Inlaid domino game, in the manner of sailors decorations, with erotic plates.

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Walking stick knob handle.

Paintings with hidden pictures.

A young woman reads a book: if the painting is opened, her improper fantasies are visualized.

Other, slightly more elaborate objects presented a double face: a change of perspective was needed in order to discover their indecent side. A classic example from the beginning of the XX Century are ceramic sculptures or ashtrays which, when turned upside down, held some surprises.

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The monk, a classic erotic figure, is hiding a secret inside the wicker basket on his shoulders.

Double-faced pendant: the woman’s legs can be closed, and on the back a romantic flowered heart takes shape.

Then there were objects featuring a hinge, a device that had to be activated, or removable parts. Some statuettes, such as the beautiful bronzes created by Bergman‘s famous Austrian forgery, were perfect art nouveau decorations, but still concealed a spicy little secret.

 

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The top half of this polichrome ceramic figurine is actually a lid which, once removed, shows the Marquise crouching in the position called de la pisseuse, popularized by an infamous Rembrandt etching.

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Snuffbox, sailor’s sculpture. Here the mechanism causes the soldier’s hat to “fall down”, revealing the true nature of the gallant scene.

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Meerschaum pipe. Upon inserting a pipe cleaner into the chamber, a small lever is activated.

29b

In time, the artisans came up with ever more creative ideas.
For instance there were decorations composed of two separate figurines, showing a beautiful and chaste young girl in the company of a gallant faun. But it was enough to alter the charachters’ position in order to see the continuation of their affair, and to verify how successful the satyr’s seduction had been.

 

Even more elaborate ruses were devised to disguise these images. The following picture shows a fake book (end of XVIII Century) hiding a secret chest. The spring keys on the bottom allow for the unrolling of a strip which contained seven small risqué scenes, appearing through the oval frame.

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The following figures were a real classic, and with many variations ended up printed on pillboxes, dishes, matchstick boxes, and several other utensiles. At first glance, they don’t look obscene at all; their secret becomes only clear when they are turned uspide down, and the bottom part of the drawing is covered with one hand (you can try it yourself below).

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43b

The medals in the picture below were particularly ingenious. Once again, the images on both sides showed nothing suspicious if examied by the non-initiated. But flipping the medal on its axis caused them to “combine” like the frames of a movie, and to appear together. The results can be easily imagined.

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In closing, here are some surprising Chinese fans.
In his book La magia dei libri (presented in NYC in 2015), Mariano Tomatis reports several historical examples of “hacked books”, which were specifically modified to achieve a conjuring effect. These magic fans work in similar fashion: they sport innocent pictures on both sides, provided that the fan is opened as usual from left to right. But if the fan is opened from right to left, the show gets kinky.

45 46

A feature of these artisan creations, as opposed to classic erotic art, was a constant element of irony. The very concept of these objects appears to be mocking and sardonic.
Think about it: anyone could keep some pornographic works locked up in a safe. But to exhibit them in the living room, before unsuspecting relatives and acquaintances? To put them in plain view, under the nose of your mother-in-law or the visiting reverend?

That was evidently the ultimate pleasure, a real triumph of dissimulation.

Playing card with nude watermark, made visible by placing it in front of a candle.

Such objects have suffered the same loss of meaning afflicting libertine literature; as there is no real reason to produce them anymore, they have become little more than a collector’s curiosity.
And nonetheless they can still help us to better understand the paradox we talked about in the beginning: the objets à système manage to give us a thrill only in the presence of a taboo, only as long as they are supposed to remain under cover, just like the sexual ghosts which according to Freud lie behind the innocuous images we see in our dreams.
Should we interpret these objects as symbols of bourgeois duplicity, of the urge to maintain at all cost an honorable facade? Were they instead an attempt to rebel against the established rules?
And furthermore, are we sure that sexual transgression is so revolutionary as it appears, or does it actually play a conservative social role in regard to the Norm?

Eventually, making sex acceptable and bringing it to light – depriving it of its part of darkness – will not cause our desire to vanish, as desire can always find its way. It probably won’t even impoverish art or literature, which will (hopefully) build new symbolic imagery suitable for a “public domain” eroticism.
The only aspect which is on the brink of extinction is precisely that good old idea of transgression, which also animated these naughty knick-knacks. Taking a look at contemporary conventions on alternative sexuality, it would seem that the fall of taboos has already occurred. In the absence of prohibitions, with no more rules to break, sex is losing its venomous and dangerous character; and yet it is conquering unprecedented serenity and new possibilities of exploration.

So what about us?
We would like to have our cake and eat it too: we advocate freedom, against any kind of censorship, but secretely keep longing for that exquisite frisson of danger and sin.

Untitled-2

The images in this article are for the most part taken from Jean-Pierre Bourgeron, Les Masques d’Eros – Les objets érotiques de collection à système (1985, Editions de l’amateur, Paris).
The extraordinary collection of erotic objects assembled by André Pieyre de Mandiargues (French poet and writer close to the Surrealist movement) was the focus of a short film by Walerian Borowczyk:
Une collection particulière (1973) can be seen on YouTube.

Special: Claudio Romo

claudio1

On April the 4th, inside the Modo Infoshop bookshop in Bologna I have had the pleasure to meet Chilean artist Claudio Andrés Salvador Francisco Romo Torres, to help him present his latest illustrated book A Journey in the Phantasmagorical Garden of Apparitio Albinus in front of a crowd of his fans.

I don’t want to go into much detail about his work, because he himself will talk about it in the next paragraphs. I would only like to add one small personal note. In my life I’ve been lucky enough to know, to various degrees of intimacy, several writers, filmmakers, actors, illustrators: some of them were my personal heroes. And while it’s true that the creator is always a bit poorer than his creation (no one is flawless), I noticed the most visionary and original artists often show unexpected kindness, reserve, gentleness. Claudio is the kind of person who is almost embarassed when he’s the center of attention, and his immense imagination can only be guessed behind his electric, enthusiast, childlike glance. He is the kind of person who, after the presentation of his book, asks the audience permission to take a selfie with them, because “none of my friends or students back home will ever believe all this has really happened“.
I think men like him are more precious than yet another maudit.

What follows is the transcription of our chat.

alebrijido

We’re here today with Claudio Romo (I can never remember his impossibly long full name), to talk about his latest work A Journey in the Phantasmagorical Garden of Apparitio Albinus, a book I particularly love because it offers a kind of mixture of very different worlds: ingredients like time travel, giant jellyfish, flashes of alchemy, flying telepathic cities and countless creatures and monsters with all-too-human characteristics. And rather like Calvino’s Invisible Cities, this garden is a kind of place within the mind, within the soul… and just like the soul, the mind is a mysterious and complicated place, not infrequently with perverse overtones. A place where literary and artistic references intermix and intertwine.
From an artistic viewpoint, this work certainly brings to mind Roland Topor’s film Fantastic Planet, although filtered by a Latin American sensibility steeped in pre-Columbian iconography. On the other hand, certain illustrations vividly evoke Hieronymus Bosch, with their swarming jumble of tiny physically and anatomically deformed mutant creatures. Then there are the literary references: impossible not to think of Borges and his Book Of Imaginary Beings, but also the end of his Library of Babel; and certain encounters and copulations between mutant bodies evoke the Burroughs of Naked Lunch, whereas this work’s finale evokes ‘real’ alchemical procedures, with the Emerald Tablet of Hermes and its famous phrase “That which is below is like that which is above & that which is above is like that which is below to do the miracles of one only thing”. At the end of the book it is revealed that the garden is as infinite as the cosmos, but also that it is connected to an infinite number of other infinities, not only his personal garden but also mine and yours. In a sense, the universe which emerges is an interpenetration of marvels in which it is highly difficult to grasp where reality finishes and imagination begins, because fantasy too can be extremely concrete. It’s as though Claudio was acting as a kind of map-maker of his mental ecosystem, doing so with the zest of a biologist, an ethnologist and an entomologist, studying and describing all the details and behaviour of the fauna inhabiting it. From this point of view, the first question I’d like to ask concerns precisely reality and imagination. How do they interact, for you? For many artists this dichotomy is important, and the way they deal with it helps us to understand more about their art.

First of all, I’d like to thank Ivan, because he has presented a good reading of my book.
I have always thought that no author is autonomous, we all depend on someone, come from someone, we have an inheritance transmitted not through a bloodline but through a spiritual or conceptual bond, an inheritance received from birth through culture. Borges is my point of departure, the alchemical inscription, the science fiction, fantastical literature, popular literature… all these elements contribute to my work. When I construct these stories I am assembling a collage, a structure, in order to create parallel realities.
So, to answer Ivan’s question, I think that reality is something constructed by language, and so the dichotomy between reality and imagination doesn’t exist, because human beings inhabit language and language is a permanent and delirious construction.
I detest it when people talk about the reality of nature, or static nature. For me, reality is a permanent construction and language is the instrument which generates this construction.
This is why I take as models people like Borges, Bioy Casares, Athanasius Kircher (a Jesuit alchemist named as maestro of a hundred arts who created the first anatomical theatre and built a wunderkammer)… people who from very different backgrounds have constructed different realities.

ginoide

hornos
In this sense, the interesting thing is that the drawings and stories of Apparitio Albinus remind us of – or have a layer, we might say, that makes them resemble – the travel journals of explorers of long ago. Albinus could almost be a Marco Polo visiting a faraway land, where the image he paints is similar to a mediaeval bestiary, in which animals were not described in a realistic way, but according to their symbolic function… for example the lion was represented as an honest animal who never slept, because he was supposed to echo the figure of Christ… actually, Claudio’s animals frequently assume poses exactly like those seen in mediaeval bestiaries. There is also a gaze, a way of observing, that has something childish about it, a gaze always eager to marvel, to look for magic in the interconnection between different things, and I’d like to ask you if this child exists inside you, and how much freedom you allow him in your creative process.

When I first began creating books, I concentrated solely on the engravings, and technically engraving was extremely powerful for me. I was orthodox in my practice, but the great thing about the graphic novel is that its public is adult but also infantile, and the thing that interests me above all is showing and helping children understand that reality is soft.
The first book I made on this subject is called The Album Of Imprudent Flora, a kind of bestiary conceived and created to attract children and lead them towards science, botany, the marvel of nature… not as something static, but as something mobile. For example I described trees which held Portuguese populations that had got lost searching for the Antarctic: then they had become tiny through having eaten Lilliputian strawberries, and when they died they returned to a special place called Portugal… and then there were also plants which fed on fear and which induced the spirits on Saturn to commit suicide and the spirits on Mars to kill… and then die. I created a series of characters and plants whose purpose was to fascinate children. There was a flower that had a piece of ectoplasm inside its pistil, and if you put a mouse in front of that flower the pistil turned into a piece of cheese, and when the mouse ate the cheese the plant ate the mouse… after which, if a cat came by, the pistil turned into a mouse, and so on. The idea was to create a kaleidoscope of plants and flowers.
There was another plant which I named after an aunt of mine, extremely ugly, and in honour of her I gave this plant the ability to transform itself constantly: by day it was transfigured, and in certain moments it had a colloidal materiality, while in others it had a geometric structure… an absolutely mutant flower. This is all rather monstrous, but also fascinating, which is why I called the book “the imprudent flora”, because it went beyond the bounds of nature. Basically I think that when I draw I do it for children, in order to build up a way of interpreting reality in a broad and rich kind of way.

maquina_crononautica

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This corporal fluidity is also visible in this latest book, but there’s another aspect that I also find interesting, and this is the inversions that Claudio likes to create. For example, Lazarus is not resurrected, he ends up transformed into ghost by the phantasmagorical machine; we get warrior automatons which reject violence and turn into pacifists and deserters, and then again, in one of my favourite chapters, there is a time machine, built to transport us into the future, which actually does the opposite, because it transports the future into our present – a future we’d never have wanted to see, because what appears in the present is the corpses we will become. It seems that irony is clearly important in your universe, and I’d like to you tell us about that.

That’s a good question. I’m glad you asked me, there are two wonderful themes involved.
One is the theme of the ghost, because for the phantasmagorical machine I based the idea on an Argentinian author called Bioy Casares and his The Invention of Morel. In that story, Morel is a scientist who falls in love with Faustina, and since she doesn’t love him, he invents a machine which will absorb her spirit, record it, and later, in a phantasmagorical island, reproduce it eternally… but the machine turns out to kill the people it has filmed, and so Morel commits suicide by filming himself together with Faustine, thus ending up on this island where every day the same scene is repeated, featuring these two ghosts. But the story really begins when another man arrives on the island, falls in love with the ghost of Faustine, learns to work the machine and then films himself while Faustine is gazing at the sea. So he too commits suicide in order to remain in the paradise of Faustine’s consciousness.
This is a hallucinatory theme, and I was fascinated by the desire of a man who kills himself in order to inhabit the consciousness of the woman he loves, even though the woman in question is actually a ghost!
And the other question… on irony. Most of the machines I construct in the book are fatuous failures and mistakes: those who want to change time end up meeting themselves as corpses, those who want to invent a machine for becoming immortal drop dead instantly and end up in an eternal limbo… I like talking about ghosts but also about failed adventures, as metaphors for life, because in real life every adventure is a failure… except for this journey to Italy, which has turned out to absolutely wonderful!

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A few days ago, on Facebook, I saw a fragment of a conversation in which you, Claudio, argued that the drawing and the word are not really so different, that the apparent distance between logos and image is fictional, which is why you use both things to express your meaning. You use them like two parallel rail tracks, in the same way, and this is also evident through the way that in your books the texts too have a painterly visual shape, and if it weren’t for the pristine paper of this edition, we might think we were looking at a fantastical encyclopedia from two or three centuries ago.
So, I wanted to ask a last question on this subject, perhaps the most banal question, which resembles the one always asked of songwriter-singers (which comes first, the words or the music?)… but do your visions emerge firstly from the drawing paper and only later do you form a kind of explicative text? Or do they emerge as stories from the beginning?

If I had to define myself, I’d say I was a drawing animal. All the books I have created were planned and drawn firstly, and the conceptual idea was generated by the image. Because I’m not really a writer, I never have been. I didn’t want to write this book either, only to draw it, but Lina [the editor] forced me to write it! I said to her, Lina, I have a friend who is fantastic with words, and she replied in a dictatorial tone: I’m not interested. I want you to write it. And today I’m grateful to her for that.
I always start from the drawing, always, always…

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The English version of Claudio Romo’s new book can be purchased here.

Bizarro Fiction: la narrativa più weird del mondo

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Immaginate che John Waters suggerisca delle battute a Franz Kafka per il suo nuovo romanzo. Immaginate che Lewis Carroll si dedichi di punto in bianco alle droghe e alla pornografia. Immaginate i Monty Python che sceneggiano un film di David Lynch.

Forse non avete mai sentito parlare di Bizarro Fiction, ma in poche parole si può riassumere così: prendete la narrativa più assurda, folle, surreale che vi venga in mente, ed elevatela al cubo. Il Bizarro è stato anche definito “l’equivalente letterario della sezione film cult del videonoleggio”. I testi appartenenti a questo genere sono fantasiosi, spesso piuttosto pulp nei toni e negli intenti, talvolta avant-garde, talaltra sciocchi e infantili, ma comunque sempre divertenti.

Ma cosa ci sarà mai di tanto weird in questi racconti e romanzi? Basta scorrere qualche trama per rendersene conto.

Shatnerquake, di Jeff Burk: tutti i personaggi interpretati dall’attore William Shatner (celebre nei panni del Capitano Kirk) nella sua lunga carriera, riescono ad entrare nella nostra realtà con il solo intento di uccidere il vero William Shatner.
The Haunted Vagina, di Carlton Mellick III: un uomo scopre che la vagina della sua fidanzata non solo è infestata da strane voci, ma è in realtà un vero e proprio portale verso un mondo popolato di scheletri ed altre stane creature.
The Emerald Burrito of Oz di John Skipp e Marc Levinthal: il magico mondo di Oz e il nostro vengono in contatto; la Strega Buona diventa Presidente e i munchkin finiscono a lavorare come camerieri nei fastfood.
Sex and Death in Television Town di Carlton Mellick III: una banda di pistoleri ermafroditi (“inclusa una donna samurai ninfomane modificata per sembrare uno stegosauro bipede, recita la sinossi) sopravvive a un deserto infestato da demoni per arrivare in una città i cui abitanti hanno televisori al posto della testa.

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Quando dicevamo di elevare al cubo la storia più folle che conoscete non stavamo usando un eufemismo: una delle “regole” che gli autori di Bizarro Fiction si sono autoimposti è che non basta un solo elemento weird nella trama, ce ne vogliono almeno tre per qualificare l’opera come Bizarro. E non soltanto: date le premesse surreali, la trama deve comunque avere un senso compiuto. Le stranezze, cioè, non possono essere fine a se stesse ma devono risultare integrali ed essenziali alla storia raccontata – eventi assurdi, sì, ma che alla fine della lettura “tornino” almeno un po’.

Questo genere fa leva sul gusto per il weird e il pulp, e si propone di confezionare dei testi il più possibile sorprendenti e demenziali, pervasi da un giocoso rigore. Si tratta di letteratura che rifugge dai toni alti; eppure vive di questa strana ambivalenza, l’essere cioè un genere di consumo e allo stesso tempo votato alla meraviglia più radicale e “scorretta”. Ma, almeno a sentire Carlton Mellick III, figura di spicco del movimento, lo scopo principale è sempre quello di farsi qualche sana risata.

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Marco Carrara, il “Duca di Baionette”, è il curatore del sito Baionette Librarie ed ha avuto la coraggiosa idea di portare in Italia la Bizarro Fiction all’interno della collana Vaporteppa (Antonio Tombolini Editore). Il suo lavoro di direttore editoriale, come quello dei suoi collaboratori, è puro frutto della passione – tanto che perfino i traduttori sono retribuiti in percentuale sulle vendite. Vaporteppa ha già pubblicato quattro opere in versione eBook, e diverse altre sono in lavorazione; ma l’idea del Duca è quella di riuscire a coltivare una nuova generazione di autori interessati a creare opere originali italiane nello spirito della Bizarro Fiction e del New Weird. “Siamo i primi in Italia a portare seriamente la Bizarro Fiction… e siamo convinti che ci sia pubblico (e le vendite di questi mesi ci incoraggiano a pensarlo) e che abbia solo bisogno di sapere che la Bizarro Fiction esiste.”

Riguardo questa misconosciuta corrente letteraria, abbiamo avuto una lunga e approfondita discussione con il Duca; un po’ troppo lunga, a dir la verità, per il format di questo blog. Essendo però a nostro avviso una conversazione di estremo interesse (e non solo per chi abbia voglia di approfondire questo nuovo genere di narrativa, viste le molte digressioni di teoria narratologica), la riportiamo integralmente in PDF a questo link:

BIZARRO FICTION – Intervista a Marco Carrara

L’introduzione alla Bizarro Fiction di Chiara Gamberetta, citata più volte all’interno dell’intervista, è consultabile a questo indirizzo.
Sul sito di Vaporteppa potete trovare le prime opere tradotte e pubblicate.

Speciale: Krokodyle

Da bambini, tutti sognano di fare l’astronauta. Ma qualcuno sognava di diventare un becchino.

Se c’è un regista italiano che, per temi, dimostra una vera e propria “affinità elettiva” con il nostro blog, è Stefano Bessoni. Fin dai primi corti, le sue immagini pullulano di esemplari tassidermici, wunderkammer, bambole e preparati anatomici, scienze anomale, fotografie post-mortem, e tutto quell’universo macabro e straniante che caratterizza in buona parte anche Bizzarro Bazar. Ma la lente attraverso cui Bessoni affronta questi argomenti è pesantemente influenzata dalle fiabe, Alice e Pinocchio sopra a tutte, filtrate dalla sua vena di visionario illustratore.

Dopo il suo esordio al lungometraggio con Imago Mortis nel 2009, segnato da mille traversie produttive (ma qualcuno ricorderà anche il precedente Frammenti di Scienze Inesatte, mai distribuito), Bessoni ritorna quest’anno a una dimensione indie che gli è forse più congeniale. Se infatti Imago Mortis, pur contando su un notevole dispiego di mezzi, aveva sofferto di alcuni compromessi, il suo nuovo Krokodyle si propone come visione “pura” e totalmente svincolata da pressioni commerciali.

Gli elementi più apprezzati del film precedente, vale a dire la cura per i dettagli fotografici e scenografici, le atmosfere gotiche e macabre, la riflessione metacinematografica, si ritrovano anche in Krokodyle, nonostante la decisione di operare in low-budget e assoluta indipendenza artistica. Bessoni costruisce qui una specie di scrigno di “appunti di lavoro” che testimonia della varietà e profondità dei temi a cui attinge la sua fantasia. Se in Imago Mortis trovavamo la fascinazione per lo sguardo, i teatri anatomici, le favole nere, in Krokodyle il protagonista Kaspar Toporski (alter ego del regista, interpretato da Lorenzo Pedrotti) si trova a “raccogliere” in una collezione virtuale tutte le sue più grandi passioni: l’amore per le stanze delle meraviglie, l’animazione  in stop-motion, la fotografia (ancora), l’esoterismo più grottesco e fumettistico, le creature magiche medievali (mandragole e homunculi), la frenologia, l’archeologia industriale, la letteratura… e, infine, il cinema. Il cinema visto come necessità ed estasi, libertà assoluta di inquadrare “con il cuore e con la mente”, vero e proprio processo alchemico capace di infondere vita a un mondo immaginario.

In esclusiva per Bizzarro Bazar, ecco un’intervista a Stefano Bessoni.

Con Krokodyle ritorni a una dimensione più indipendente – meno soldi e più libertà espressiva. In quale dimensione ti senti più a tuo agio? Cosa trovi di positivo e negativo nelle due differenti esperienze produttive?

L’ideale sarebbe avere tanti soldi e la completa libertà espressiva, ma questa è un’ovvietà. Mi trovo sicuramente molto più a mio agio nella dimensione indipendente, anche se non è possibile farlo senza trovare un minimo di finanziamento e un rientro economico che permetta almeno di coprire i costi del film. Lavorare per il cinema commerciale è invece massacrante, per non dire avvilente, ti annullano le idee e tutta la creatività costringendoti a lavorare come se fossi comunque un indipendente, limitandoti brutalmente il budget destinato all’aspetto visivo ed espressivo, per poi gettarti in pasto al pubblico senza farsi troppi scrupoli. Certo mi auguro che non sia sempre così e che magari, trovando i produttori giusti, si possa anche lavorare in sintonia su un prodotto che possa sposare esigenze commerciali ed espressive. Comunque mi piacerebbe molto continuare a lavorare da indipendente, assieme ai miei amici fidati di Interzone Visions (produttori di Krokodyle), sognatori e visionari come me, cercando però di mettere in piedi budget soddisfacenti per produrre film particolari, di ricerca visiva, ma allo stesso tempo accattivanti per il grosso pubblico.

È inevitabile che qualsiasi cosa tu faccia venga rapportata al cinema italiano. All’uscita di Imago Mortis erano stati citati Bava, Margheriti, e (forse a sproposito) Argento. In Krokodyle “rispondi” dichiarando il tuo amore per Wenders e Greenaway. Dove sta la verità?

La verità è che io ho iniziato a fare cinema guardando autori come Greenaway, Wenders, Jarman, Russell, poi ho scoperto il cinema espressionista tedesco e quello surrealista, l’universo fantastico di Svankmajer e dei fratelli Quay, insieme al grottesco di Terry Gilliam e di Jean Pierre Jeunet, infine mi sono lasciato contaminare da una buona dose di cinema di genere, avvicinandomi in questi ultimi anni a figure come Guillermo del Toro. Gli autori ai quali mi accomunano non li conosco nemmeno bene, li ho visti di sfuggita quando ero bambino e non credo che mi abbiano mai influenzato più di tanto.

Krokodyle si presenta fin da subito come un oggetto particolare, un “contenitore di appunti”. In questo senso sembra un film estremamente personale, quasi pensato per riorganizzare e fissare alcune tue idee in modo permanente. Ma un film deve anche saper incuriosire ed emozionare il pubblico, non può essere ad esclusivo “uso e consumo” di chi lo fa. Come hai mediato questi due aspetti? Come si concilia l’onestà di una visione con i compromessi commerciali?

Krokodyle è indubbiamente un film molto personale. Un film per me necessario per permettermi di fare il punto della situazione sulle mie idee e sulla mia condizione di filmmaker diviso tra indipendenza e cinema commerciale. Penso comunque che anche qualcosa di estremamente personale, se raccontato con fantasia e vivacità, possa destare l’interesse del pubblico. In fondo si dice che si dovrebbe raccontare solamente quello che si conosce molto bene, ed io ho fatto esattamente questo.

Hai spesso parlato del cinema come wunderkammer. Al giorno d’oggi, cos’è che ti provoca meraviglia?

Tante cose mi meravigliano, cose che magari altri non degnerebbero neanche di attenzione. Un animaletto rinsecchito, un insetto, una macchia d’umidità su un muro, un ferro arrugginito, un tratto di matita che lascio su un foglio quasi casualmente. Mi meravigliano le immagini e tutti gli espedienti e le tecniche per catturarle o crearle. Mi meraviglia il cinema, che considero la mia personale camera delle meraviglie, e trovo peculiare che la macchina da presa venga spesso chiamata camera.

Il film è stato in parte realizzato a Torino. Come è stato girare al Nautilus?

Il Nautilus è un posto che adoro. Ogni volta che vado a Torino non posso fare a meno di andarci e di intrattenermi per ore con il mio amico Alessandro Molinengo, perdendomi tra le mille curiosità e stranezze di quella bottega meravigliosa. Lì dentro si respirano le ossessioni degli antichi costruttori di wunderkammer, si percepiscono le perversioni di strambi sperimentatori scientifici e riaffiorano nella mente le descrizioni delle Botteghe color cannella di Bruno Schulz. In parte l’idea iniziale di Krokodyle è partita proprio dentro a quella bottega tanto macabra quanto bizzarra. Girarci è stato come girare a casa… a parte il terrore di rompere qualche reperto dal valore inestimabile!

Krokodyle, come altri tuoi lavori, è mosso da passione enciclopedica, e stupisce per quantità e ricchezza di riferimenti “alti” – letterari, cinematografici, scientifici, magico-esoterici. Eppure il tutto è filtrato da una leggerezza e un sorriso quasi infantili. Quanto è importante l’umorismo per te?

L’umorismo per me è fondamentale, soprattutto se parliamo di un ironia tendente al grottesco e al mondo dell’infanzia. Sono pervaso da una forte dose di umorismo nero che inevitabilmente riverso in ogni lavoro che faccio, che sia un film, un’illustrazione o uno scritto. È un temperamento molto più nordico, anglosassone e lontano dal modo di fare tipicamente italiano. Infatti vengo normalmente visto come un folle o un degenerato, come uno che rema controcorrente, uno da biasimare e allontanare, che mai riuscirà a comprendere le gioie e le delizie della commedia italiana più mainstream, dove calcio, doppi sensi, peti, tette e culi sono ingredienti prelibati per “palati raffinati”.

Gli attori nel film sembrano ben integrati e assolutamente a proprio agio nel tuo mondo. Eppure, recitare in Krokodyle dev’essere stato un po’ come entrare nella tua testa, e far finta di esserci sempre stati. Ok, mi dirai, sono attori… come li hai introdotti in questa realtà macabra e straniante? Che domande ti hanno fatto? Quali difficoltà hanno incontrato?

Non è stato facile, ma sono tutti attori che mi conoscono molto bene e che avevano già lavorato su Imago Mortis. Hanno accettato con entusiasmo di lavorare su Krokodyle proprio per aiutarmi a raffigurare personaggi estremamente intimi. Abbiamo lavorato molto, affrontato lunghe discussioni, e ho pensato a loro fin dalla fase di scrittura, proprio per avere il totale controllo dell’operazione. Somigliano anche ai miei disegni e non fatico a riconoscerli come qualcosa di estremamente familiare, di “mio”. Sono molto soddisfatto del risultato ottenuto.

In Italia l’idea diffusa è che il cinema debba riflettere la realtà, la condizione sociale, parlare insomma di problemi concreti. In una delle immagini più poetiche di Krokodyle, il protagonista fa partire una macchina da presa tenendola vicino all’orecchio, finché il ronzìo del trascinamento della pellicola non copre e annulla il rumore del traffico e dei clacson fuori dalla finestra. Il cinema è per te una fuga dalla realtà? Ti senti in colpa per le tue fantasticherie o le rivendichi orgogliosamente? Insomma, l’esotismo è una vigliaccheria o un diritto?

In colpa? Assolutamente no! Ne sono consapevole ed orgoglioso. L’esotismo, come lo definisci tu, è un privilegio, un dono, un’illuminazione. Io mi sento un fortunato. E poi, sembra strano dirlo, ma per me Krokodyle è un film sulla realtà, sulla realtà che io vivo tutti i giorni. La realtà è fatta di mille sfaccettature e quella che un certo cinema si ostina a propinare è solamente una piccola parte, forse quella più evidente. Basta saper osservare, ascoltare, per scovare un infinità di livelli di realtà che non ci sognavamo minimamente che potessero esistere. Anche gli specchi in fondo non sempre riflettono la realtà, basta pensare a quello che è successo ad Alice. Per concludere vorrei citare una frase di Jean Cocteau proprio a proposito di questo: “gli specchi farebbero bene a riflettere prima di rimandarci la nostra immagine…”

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Ricordiamo che il film è in uscita nelle edicole in DVD a partire da metà giugno, in allegato con la rivista Dark Movie, contenente uno special di 16 pagine interamente dedicato al film.

Ecco il blog di Stefano Bessoni, e il sito ufficiale di Krokodyle.