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.

Inanimus, Monsters & Chimeras of the Present

I look above me, towards the movable hooks once used to hang the meat, and I visualize the blood and pain that these walls had to contain – sustain – for many long years. Death and pain are the instruments life has to proceed, I tell myself.

I’m standing inside Padua’s former slaughterhouse: a space specifically devised for massacre, where now animals are living a second, bizarre life thanks to Alberto Michelon’s artworks.
When I meet him, he immediately infects me with the feverish enthusiasm of someone who is lucky (and brave) enough to be following his own vocation. What comes out of his mouth must clearly be a fifth of what goes through his mind. As John Waters put it, “without obsession, life is nothing“.
Animals and taxidermy are Alberto’s obsession.

Taxidermy is traditionally employed in two main fields: hunting trophies, and didactical museum installations.
In both context, the demand for taxidermic preparations is declining. On one hand we are witnessing a drop in hunting activities, which find less and less space in European culture as opposed to ecological preoccupations and the evolution of the ethical sensitiviy towards animals. On the other hand, even great Natural History Museums already have their well-established collections and seldom acquire new specimens: often a taxidermist is only called when restoration is required on already prepared animals.

This is why – Alberto explains – I mainly work for private customers who want to preserve their domestic pets. It is more difficult, because you have to faithfully recreate the cat or dog’s expressiveness based on their photographs; preparing a much-loved and familiar pet requires the greatest care. But I get a huge satisfaction when the job turns out well. Customers often burst into tears, they talk to the animal – when I present them with the finished work, I always step aside and leave them a bit of intimacy. It’s something that helps them coming to terms with their loss.”

What he says doesn’t surprise me: in a post on wunderkammern I associated taxidermy’s second youth (after a time in which it looked like this art had become obsolete) to the social need of reconfiguring our relationship with death.
But the reason I came here is Alberto is not just an ordinary taxidermist: he is Italy’s only real exponent of artistic taxiermy.

Until November 5, here at the ex-slaughterhouse, you can visit his exhibition Inanimus – A Contemporary Bestiary, a collection of his main works.
To a casual observer, artistic non-naturalist taxidermy could seem not fully respectful towards the animal. In realuty, most artists who use animal organic material as a medium do so just to reflect on our own relationship with other species, creating their works from ethical sources (animals who died of natural causes, collected in the wild, etc.).

Alberto too follows such professional ethics, as he began his experiment using leftovers from his workshop. “I was sorry to have to throw away pieces of skin, or specimens that wouldn’t find an arrangement“, he tells me. “It began almost like a diversion, in a very impulsive way, following a deep urge“.
He candidly confesses that he doesn’t know much about the American Rogue Taxidermy scene, nor about modern art galleries. And it’s clear that Alberto is somewhat alien to the contemporary art universe, so often haughty and pretentious: he keeps talking about instinct, about playing, but must of all – oh, the horror! – he takes the liberty of doing what no “serious” artist would ever dream of doing: he explains the message of his own works, one by one.

His installations really have much to say: rather than carrying messages, though, they are food for thought, a continuous and many-sided elaboration of the modernity, an attempt to use these animal remains as a mirror to investigate our own face.
Some of his works immediately strike me for the openness with which they take on current events: from the tragedy of migrants to GMOs, from euthanasia to the present-day fear of terrorist attacks.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen any other artist using taxidermy to confront the present in such a direct way.
A roe deer head covered in snake skin, wearing an orange uniform reminiscent of Islamic extremists’ prisoners, is chained to the wall. The reference is obvious: the heads of decapitated infidels are assimilated to hunting trophies.
To be honest, I find this explicit allusion to current events imagery (which, like it or not, has gained a “pop” quality) pretty unsettling, and I’m not even sure that I like it – but if something pulls the rug out from under my feet, I bless it anyways. This is what the best art is supposed to do.

Other installations are meant to illustrate Western contradictions, halfway through satire and open criticism to a capitalistic system ever harder to sustain.
A tortoise, represented as an old bejeweled lady with saggy breasts, is the emblem of a conservative society based on economic privilege: a “prehistoric” concept that, just like the reptile, has refused to evolve in any way.

A conqueror horse, fierce and rampant, exhibits a luxurious checked fur composed from several equines.
A social climber horse: to be where he stands, he must have done away with many other horses“, Alberto tells me with a smile.

An installation shows the internal organs of a tiger, preserved in jars that are arranged following the animal’s anatomy: the eyes, tomgue and brain are placed at the extremity where the head should be, and so on. Some chimeras seem to be in the middle of a bondage session: an allusion to poaching for aphrodisiac elixirs such as the rhino horn, and to the fil rouge linking us to those massacres.

A boar, sitting on a toilet, is busy reading a magazine and searching for a pair of glass eyes to fill his empty eye sockets.
The importance of freedom of choice regarding the end of life is incarnated by two minks who hanged themselves – rather than ending up in a fur coat.
The skulls of three livestock animals are hanged like trophies, and plastic flowers come out of the hole bored by the slaughterhouse firearm (“I picked up the flowers from the graves at the cemetery, replacing them with new flowers“, Michelon tells me).

As you might have understood by now, the most interesting aspect of the Inanimus works is the neverending formal experimentation.
Every installation is extremely different from the other, and Alberto Michelon always finds new and surprising ways of using the animal matter: there are abstract paintings whose canvas is made of snake or fish skin; entomological compositions; anthropomorphic taxidermies; a crucifix entirely built by patiently gluing together bone fragments; tribal masks, phallic snakes mocking branded underwear, skeletal chandeliers, Braille texts etracted from lizard skin.

Ma gli altri tassidermisti, diciamo i “puristi”, non storcono il naso?
Certamente alcuni non la ritengono vera tassidermia, forse pensano che io mi sia montato la testa. Non mi importa. Cosa vuoi farci? Questo progetto sta prendendo sempre più importanza, mi diverte e mi entusiasma.

On closer inspection, there’s not a huge difference between classic and artistic taxidermy. The stuffed animals we find in natural science museums, as well as Alberto’s, are but representations, interpretations, simulachra.
Every taxidermist uses the skin, and shape, of the animal to convey a specific vision of the world; and the museum narrative (although so conventional as to be “invisible” to our eyes) is maybe no more legit than a personal perspective.

Although Alberto keeps repeating that he feels he’s a novice, still unripe artist, the Inanimus works show a very precise artistic direction. As I approach the exit, I feel I have witnessed something unique, at least in the Italian panorama. I cannot therefore back away from the ritual prosaic last question: future projects?
I want to keep on getting better, learning, experimenting new things“, Alberto replies as his gaze wanders all around, lost in the crowd of his transfigured animals.

Inanimus – un bestiario contemporaneo
Padova, Cattedrale Ex-macello, Via Cornaro 1
Until October 17, 2017 [Extended to November 5, 2017]
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Adam and Eve Raised Cain

We all know how hard it is for talent to emerge in the art field. That is why from time to time, in my own small way, I have tried  to give voice to young promising artists; some of them went on with their careers with excellent results, as did Fulvio Risuleo whose work I wrote about and who then won the first prize of the “Semaine de la Critique” at Cannes Film Festival.
I say this not to brag about my farsightedness, but in the secret hope that Bizzarro Bazar might turn out to be bringing good luck also in the future: today I would like to present you with a curious Italian stop-motion short film which in my view is a true little gem.

Entitled Adam and Eve Raised Cain, it was written, directed, animated and edited by Francesco Erba, born in 1986, from Bergamo.
Before discussing the short with his author, I advise you to take some 20 minutes off and let yourself drift into the fark, disturbing atmosphere of this little film.

The short film starts off with a declaration of love to Sci-Fi B-movies from the Fifties (Jack Arnold, Roger Corman, Bert I. Gordon  and their giant radioactive monsters), and goes on to pay homage even to the father of fantasy in motion pictures, Georges Méliès.
But the true references here are to horror and science fiction film directors from the Eighties, Carpenter, Hooper or Cronenberg. These nods are perfectly inserted in their context (an all too rare occurrence these days): the main character’s passion for monster movies, for instance, becomes a pivotal dramatic element in a scene where the child’s toys are sold, a psychologically scarring moment for little Albert.
Any citationism, even when done with a purpose, entails the risk of breaking the spectator’s identification, projecting the public “outside” of the film, and lessening its emotional impact. It could be because of the visceral and painful nature of the themes addressed in this short, but Francesco Erba succeeds in the task of creating an even stronger connection with his character: it’s as if, when observed through the filter of the American movies the 80’s generation grew up with, Albert’s trauma became more recognizable, more humane – despite his rough stop-motion puppet appearance.

Since he was a child, Francesco has been living and breathing cinema. How could he tell a tale of fear and love, if not by going back to those films which frightened him or made him fall in love?
This, in my opinion, is the admirable subtlety of Adam and Eve Raised Cain, a sensitivity which many narratives of nostalgia lack.
Behind the animated film facade, behind the entertainment, Erba is depicting a world of solitude and mental cages. And whenever he relies on some vintage stylistic elements, he’s not throwing them to his audience like peanuts just to stimulate some cinephile pavlovian response: he is using them because, to him, they still represent the best (maybe the only) way to really tell us about the wounds and anguish tormenting his character, both a victim and a perpetrator.

I asked Francesco Erba a few questions about his work.

How was this project born, and how did you manage to make it happen?

The concept for Adam and Eve was one of many sitting in my “Ideas” folder, on my laptop. After spending much time working with and for others, I decided it was time to shoot something new for myself. Sifting through the folder (and discarding all million-budget ideas!), the one that was left was a live-action version of Adam and Eve.
I started working on it, inserting new elements and focusing on the structure until I realized what I was really trying to tell: my film was about imprisonment, in all its possible meanings.

Once the script was completed, it started to dawn on me that this film could – should – be realized in stop motion: enclosing some puppets in a 1.5x1m box would cartainly take this idea of “imprisonment” to the extreme.

I knew all too well that to shoot this film in stop motion, as I had it layed out and with the resources at hand, it would take at least 2 years of work. I had to prepare a complete storyboard, character studies and preliminary drawings, set and prop construction, sculpting and mold making, motion tests, all leading up to several weeks of shooting in a dark room. And then the digital effects, and compositing the live actors’ eyes on the latex puppets, a process that had to be done frame by frame…

I mustered up all my masochism, started filming, and in the end I discovered I was even too optimistic. It took nearly three and a half years to complete the short movie!

Was the choice of stop motion limiting or did it give you more freedom? Which challenges were the most tough in producing the film?

Stop motion, which I do not consider just an animation technique, but THE animation technique, has an unquestionable charm which transcends time and technological innovations. But it can also be a real bitch!
If on one hand it allows full artistic freedom even on a tight budget, on the other it is certainly demanding in shooting time, shooting process, scenic design (sometimes down to miniaturization). Every aspect needs to be considered in advance, carefully calculated and measured, and you very often have to use your ingenuity to bypass problems: if I cannot move my camera, then I need to build a slider rig, and so on.

All these limitations, I think, really disappear when looking at the final result, at what you can create with this incredible technique. Take for example the movies produced by Laika today: they teach us that stop motion, although very old and almost the same age of cinema itself, has no limits other than those dictated by budget or creativity.

Adam and Eve seems to tap into the current vein of nostalgia for the 80’s (Super 8, Stranger Things, the San Junipero episode from Black Mirror, etc.). Did any film in particular inspire you? Is there some director’s work you had in mind while writing the script?

The short was filmed back in 2011, before this new wave of nostalgia for the cinema of the 80’s and 90’s (at least I chose to put it online at the right time!). Inevitably, it ended up containing many elements from the films I grew up with, which are now part of my DNA; these are references I cannot leave out of consideration.

Actually when you think about it, even those cinematic references coming from my imprinting are enclosed, like the rest of the story, in a chinese box system. Besides the cinema from the 80’s and 90’s, I chose to include some references to the films those very directors took inspiration from and sometimes plagiarised, namely monster movies from the 50’s. Taking it to the extreme, as I did with every aspect of the short, I went even further, paying homage to Méliès himself.

Sometimes directors get asked to summarize in few words the style they’re aiming for. My answer, right from the start, was: “think Rob Zombie doing stop-motion animation”. A coarse, wicked, sharp and sometimes repulsive style, which had to be recognizable in each aspect of the film.
But ofcourse I’m semplifying. If I think back to all the directors who inspired me, it might look like a meaningless list, and yet in Adam and Eve‘s world of opposites and extremes they make perfect sense to me: Carpenter, Cronenberg, Jackson, Spielberg, Selick, Park Chan-wook, Harryhausen, Quay, Svankmajer, Peter Lord and Aardman, Laika… they all influenced in a creative way the approach I chose for this short film, and its genesis.

The film shows extremely adult themes: phobia, alienation, family violence, unwanted pregnancy, despair. Yet all this is filtered through obvious irony: the handcrafted animation and the homages to the imaginary of American cinema make the film a “second level” experience. I personally find this ambiguity to be one of the strenghts of the project. But in your intent, should Adam and Eve be seen as pure entertainment, or taken more seriously?

This is one aspect of the “research” which I very humbly try to carry on with my work. One of he constants that can be found in everything I’ve done until now, from short films to music videos, from a pilot for a children TV show to the feature film I’m working on, is a search for the limit and the balance between two opposite extremes.

Using stop motion (which is often regarded as a technique for “children movies”) to tell an adult story, making an adult film about imprisonment, alienation and phobias with latex puppets, this is already a strong combination. To “cage” a real actor’s eyes inside the puppet, thus closing him within these narrow limits, to me is a further exaggeration of this concept. If you then imagine myself, the animator, stuck in strange positions and “prisoner” of a small dark room, the narrative gets really dizzying!

And what about the entertainment? Well, I’m not one of those who think cinema has the power to save the world, but it certainly makes it a little better. To me, films should not try to give answers, just to ask questions and create emotions.  It you’re looking for important answers, you’d better get a ticket for the museum, rather than for the movie theatre.
According to this philosphy, Adam and Eve is of course to be taken as a visual experience and not just as an artistic research: I think the scenes in which I “physically” enter the main character’s brain to show his past. make it clear that it’s also meant to be a product of pure entertainment.

This short film must have been quite a training ground. Will you continue with animation? What are your future projects? 

I am finishing my first live action feature film: here my personal research has evolved even further, as my movie is narratively and stylistically composed of an investigative report, a mockumentary and a more “traditional” film.
In the last few months I have been working on a TV animated puppet series for 5/6-years-old children, a project I very much believe in, and which gave me the opportunity to experiment with a different kind of animation.

As for stop motion, its “call” is very strong, despite the huge sacrifices that Adam and Eve demanded. One day I would love to be able to film my peculiar horror version of Peter Pan, or another small short film on Tesla and Edison.
A director’s work is often based on human interaction and mediation… I confess I sometimes miss being alone in my little dark room, moving my puppet’s head frame after frame!

Here is Adam and Eve Raised Cain Facebook page.

R.I.P. Jacopetti

L’uomo che inventò i mondo movies non c’è più.

Ieri si è spento a 91 anni Gualtiero Jacopetti, controverso regista assieme a F. Prosperi di Mondo Cane (1962), Mondo Cane 2 (1963) e Africa Addio (1966).