PRINT March 1987


ONCE UPON A TIME. In childhood these magical words announce departure for the worlds of fantasy, story, and myth; in adulthood, that once simple, spontaneous passage loses its ease and immediacy, and the words become a nostalgic memory, a verbal madeleine. As Bruno Bettelheim has argued, fairy tales speak “simultaneously to all levels of the human personality, communicating in a manner which reaches the uneducated mind of the child as well as that of the sophisticated adult. . . . [they] carry important messages to the conscious, the preconscious, and the unconscious mind, on whatever level each is functioning at the time.”1 Yet the the adult, through a kind of repression, or an overdetermined sense of history, often pays little attention to fairy tales, though there is no reason to suppose that such stories, which can plan such an active role in the imagination of the child, are useless once the child has grown up.

In general, Western art was more open to fairy tales, myths, and fables before the freeze-up of Modernist ideas that effectively divided the visual arts into two camps. Nondiscursive art became the bulwark of “emancipation from content”; figurative art came to be classified as regressive, making narrative art really non grata. A parallel development occurred in work based on writing and performance. The structure of this kind of work, spread sequentially through time, gives it a more immediate, more rugged link with narrative than, say, a painting has, yet here a tradition emerged of deconstructing narrative—in the novel one thinks of Alain Robbe-Grillet, for example; in film, of Jean-Luc Godard, and so on. And work in this mode seemed to carry with it an air of seriousness, of intellectual experiment, while more conventional narratives were often seen as unadventurous and passé.

A vast public appetite exited for this more conventional kind of narrative, however, and a great deal of work was produced to meet it—in novels, on television, in the movies, in comic tamps. (Noticing, incidentally, that all these media, with the exception of the novel, are distinctively 20th-century ones, we must remark that to call the narratives they bear “conventional” is a generalization—but I will come back to this point.) The popularity of these fictions is hardly surprising, since the interest in narrative is so time-honored a human function. Narrative fills many needs. On an individual, personal level, consciously or unconsciously, and we tend to see our lives as stories, with beginnings, middles, and unknown ends, and we tell stories, we experiment with narratives, to get a sense of the possibilities of what those ends might be. More broadly, even the least complex culture offers an array of social roles, characters, kinds of people, and so on, and we must both learn where we stand in that array and learn how to deal with the other men and women in it. Again, the unfolding of narratives helps us here; stories introduce and habituate us to the various contingencies of our society, of other people, of ourselves. Even when we watch or read the news, we are hearing a story, and implicitly or explicitly wondering what it might tell us about our own lives.

All this is not to say, however, that visual artists’ mid-century attempts to get away from narratives, or the efforts of writers to empty it out or slice it up, were misplaced. For narratives not only lay out possibilities, they also impose visions. Even fairy tales, which provide such rich opportunities for creative identification and imagination, do this. To say, as I did earlier, that we tend to see our lives as stories, with beginnings, middles, and ends, for example, is to accept the idea that time accords to a linear structure—but that structure is a structure we have learned, and it was taught to us through the fairy tales we were told in the cradle, which begin “once upon a time” and then tell us what happened next. Obviously, those fairy tales were powerful. It’s quite possible to imagine, however, that different cultures might have produced different stories and thus a different vision of time and of the life cycle. And in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when many visual artists in various parts of the world, who had grown up with narrative art forms in the popular culture that surrounded them but had been discouraged from experimenting with similar structures in their own work, began to respond to the desire for narrative, they did so with a consciousness of the limitations of familiar narrative forms, and of the fact that it’s not necessarily good for you to believe all the stories you’re told.

A great deal of American work over the last decade has deconstructed or ironically rephrased the imagery of the popular 20th-century media. Here in Italy, an older culture in which these media’s supplanting of earlier forms is perhaps less complete, it seems to me that a number of artists have revived the tone of fairy tale—which might seem a move less inherently critical, more simply recapitulating of familiar forms. In part, maybe it is, but on an important level it involves a critique of its own. For it seems odd that at a time when so much has been said about the threatening, imprisoning aspects of the media, and about the rigidity of the stories they tell, so much art continues to revolve around them, to treat them as central, at the same time that it argues the justice of their claim to centrality. The artists I want to discuss are implicitly calling for an art of the imagination, an art of creative action rather than reaction. Often in this work, what is sought is not so much an evocation of a specific story or story structure as a mood, the magical, germinal atmosphere of the tales, myths, or legends we heard long ago, which helped us to grow then and, brought back into the light, may again. Sometimes, these artists do deal with the modern media, and particularly with film, but when they do it is in a spirit that brings out what film has in common with fairy tale, the way in which the fairy tale has breathed its life into film in order to perpetuate itself in the modern period. And that, ultimately, may be what they themselves are trying to do—to find a way for the fertile suggestiveness of the fairy tale to live on in an increasingly regimented age, a0nd to combat that regimentation.

It was Luigi Ontani who first me to these thoughts; his work deals with mythical or symbolic narrative on a preconscious, vibrant level. Like fairy tales themselves, it has developed out of a ceremonial, tableulike representation. (The firest fables, Betteltheim tells us, were not narrated but performed dramatically; images survive of these performance in the figurative art of many ancient peoples.) In the ’70s Ontani was producing self-portraits in the form of fairy tale-like tableaux vivants, performed by the artist himself and recorded in photographs. In 1980 he slowed his development of these works to begin a series of watercolors; many of the figures in these painting—saints and devils, Eros, Bacchus, Leda, Leonardo—he had acted out in his tableaux. The two poles Ontani’s work are own self and the world outside him. Stories of artists, writers, saints, heroes, and other figures from history, religion, and legend interweave through his work, stories peopled by hybrid figures from both Ontani’s internal and his external experience, from his daily life, his dreams, his readings, his travels, as well as from Christian and eastern mythologies. The work is an intimate intermingling of the individual and the collective imaginations.

Ontani’s principal areas of reference are the Mediterranean, with its various myths and cultures, and India. Both are regions of the sun promising life and renewal, places where the element of fire is central, in both its positive and its destructive aspects. This is the fire of desire and of sin, of passion and of expiation. As a counterpart to the idea of heat, of energy, is the idea of illusion, fiction, artifice, which Ontani evokes through the theme of the role or performance, and often makes explicit through the presence of masks. Through masks he devours his own identity, constantly absorbing it in that of other people. Wearing the sly masks of a no-longer-innocent childhood, he a Harlequin and Pinocchio. He is Saint Sebastian pierced by arrows, the symbol of love and of martyrdom; he is Narcissus, man self-consciously aware of himself. He is half human, half animal or plant. He is a millipede, a, centaur, a unicorn, Daphne. He is the hybrid, the androgyne, the body in metamorphosis. In addition to photography, performance, and painting, Ontani has produced sculpture; made to his design by artisans (from Bali, among other places), this too evokes the presence of another person in the work.

Ontani’s deliberately ahistorical images are often populated by young people who symbolically express the transition from childhood to adulthood. More than adults, children have the ability to take refuge in their imaginations, their dreams of fantasy worlds, but as they grow older these worlds begin to be infused with the stirrings of sexuality. One’s uncertain sense of the role into which one will grow, the malicious games of adolescence—all these are integral parts of the psychology of puberty, and these Ontani evokes, presenting himself as a catalyst for and witness to a voyage of initiation. Just as the medium he often uses, watercolor, evokes fluidity through its very nature, so too the characters in his pretty fables have the impermanence of being in a state of growth, of being at that intangible stage in which a creature is both itself and something else. (Some of Ontani’s recent work is in oil, and while the images are as creative as before, they have lost the watercolors’ delicate evanescence.) The formal presentation and the lovely, light, almost wan palette of these works clash with their uneasy content.

In feeling, Ontani’s work stands to Felice Levini’s as the poetry of the pre-Homeric bards stands to the medieval chansons de geste. A painter who sees himself conceptual artist, Levini too walks a line between intensely personal images and references to the concrete world. The form of his work is often fragmented, or, in works on canvas, multipaneled; the shapes ate like cut-out parts of a puzzle, in paintings whose pointillist technique gives them a buzzing vibrancy, despite the slow, even repetition of gesture that has gone into their composition. Levini plunges into mythology, revising the symbolism of the epics, then resurfaces the historical present. Pensatore dei funghi (Thinker of mushrooms, 1983) is one of many self-portraits; like Auguste Rodin’s Penseur (The thinker, 1880), the subject, drawn in silhouette, and rapt in thought, is the archetypal personification or embodiment of human consciousness. He is juxtaposed with a field of objects—the mushrooms of the title, actually stylized representations of concrete forms in the industrial construction that has sprung up on the periphery of Rome, where Levini lives and works. Synthesized like this, these common place icons of architecture turn into allegorical signs. In the cycle Eroi al vento (Heroes in the wind, 1985–86), the figures appear as if seen from a distance; the perspective of the works floats somewhere between the present and the Middle Ages.

As supports, Levini at first used soft, transparent surfaces, which conveyed a desire for a certain lightness of approach, and the wish that the viewer get right to the center of things. Subsequently, he used silvered, almost mirror like canvases for a while, and in his most recent work his canvases are dark, as if the ground were a black hole in which history appears swallowed up, or a funnel from which it might be spat out. From transparency to darkness, from lively tones to somber ones, Levini has explored both the awful and the fantastic possibilities of history, using historical events as a series of paths into a labyrinth of the imagination. This maze, it is important to note, is not a hopeless one; as Levini himself remarked, it has both an entrance and an exit—it is a place of searching rather than of loses. Woven into the artist’s large canvas of are not only heroes and sneering skulls but pirate flags, all, acrobats, aviators in marvelous flying machines, dueling knights, and Olympic athletes, all mixed together in an allegorical patchwork. The labyrinth may be where we meet the Minotaur—or perhaps we are in the dark wood where we meet the witch, or the gloomy cave where we meet the ogre, or any other of the sinister figures of fairy tales and myths—but it is only by confronting these figures that the psyche survives. This old but nonetheless important theme Levini handles freshly through a careful use of fantasy and an intelligence that never falls into sentimentality. Like Ontani, he seeks a confrontation with the divers and the metamorphic, as if to completee, through syntheses of different symbolic systems and historical periods, the passage from infancy to adulthood.

Lanfranco Baldi renders objects extravagant by covering them in colored modeling clay, a second skin superimposed on everyday household things. (The manual and representational skills that go into the making of these works Baldi refined by making animated films featuring clay objects and characters; these films have been widely seen in Italy in the forms of television advertisements.) Baldi’s sculptures bring to life a soft, seductive universe, unsettling despite its sweetly colored skin, an entirely artificial landscape suggestive both of the friendly furnishings of domesticity and of some fantastic journey in space, as Astronavi fossili (Fossil spaceships, 1982). Perhaps the gingerbread house that Hansel and Gretel found in the wood was furnished with objects like these; nothing seems firm and functional, yet everything evokes a familiar use. This logical displacement recalls not only Surrealism but also the magic of fables, in which everyday objects may grow, shrink, or otherwise change their meaning, including the same sense of confusion that Alice felt in Wonderland. (In his art, Baldi works under the pseudonym “Jing,” a Mad Hatter-like figure who pulls contrivances out of his hat, who blurs the boundaries between the real and the magical.) Baldi’s recent sculptures, in fired sandstone, have hard instead of soft surfaces, but they have the same molded look, and as images they have the same the mood of exploratory fantasy.

In 1982, Baldi began a series of painting entitled Visioni della Regina in viaggio (Visions of the voyaging queen, 1982–86). Figures that look as if they were made of the same soft, gummy substance as the skins of the Astronavi fossili appear against a black background. Where are they going? What are they doing? They seem almost at the point of liquefaction or dissolution; they have the consistency of sugar and honey, and they spit out confettilike objects that might be their words congealing in the dark air, like slow-motion bubble gum. An accompanying text reads,

They say that the Queen one day on a journey. The goal of her departure: to reach another city, where a great king lived. The ritual began with the holiday. The poet says that the goodbyes lasted and days; the people came to the Palace to pay homage to Her, and to lay in her hands tokens of their affection.

Upon leaving Queen abandoned the warmth of her homeland—the familiar seasons, the Royal Palace, her friends, her son, love, the sunset and the dawn seen from high in the towers.

Now the distance that separated the Queen from that of the great king can be divided into three parts: the first, where the journey began, was characterized by events of separation; the second, the so-called central part, was the threshold of unknown territories, the place of encounters; finally, the last part, where, with the gradual nearing of the goal, the journey gradually came to end. . . .

Beneath the brightness of these forms lies melancholy, yet the paintings still give the sense of materializations of a beautiful dream. The fable takes shape through disparate suggestions of meaning, and the construction and deconstruction of meaning is a theme fundamental to Baldi’s work; emotional poles he moves between are open holiday and blackest tragedy. The first relationship I trace in his images is with science fiction, in particular that of H. P. Lovecraft, but formally they also remind me of the Peking Opera. There, the stage set is often almost nonexistent—it is the actors’ costumes that symbolically convey the scenario. They constitute a landscape of meaning, and the narrative is implicit them. Everything is of a dazzling clarity, and stage effects, makeup, and so on, instead of giving the illusion of reality, are obviously the products of artifice. So it is in the Visioni series. Save for those few objects involved in the event described, there are no sets; characters and objects float against the black ground, and the relationships between them are simultaneously heavy and light. Baldi’s vision is secret, private. Forms may resemble others forms in these paintings, but they are unidentifiable in themselves, and they have an unsettling solidity. Yet they are intimately playful, and, in an odd way, timeless. What might be in the future could equally be in the past, in the dark hole of space-time. Those black, velvety backgrounds recall the darkness of night, which gives birth to dreams; the prenatal, amniotic darkness; the darkness of a cinema before the film begins. And here is where cinema and all it symbolizes reenter our discussion.

In every age, people pass on descriptions events in their lives to each other, and if it is true, as Vladimir Propp writes, that the fairy tale is a kind of ritualization of some of these narrations of reality in the distant past, then we may suppose that the fairy tales of the future have their roots in the reality we describe to each other today, whether the stories we are telling are fiction or fact. If the fairy tale does spring from such representations, then perhaps its element of ritual storytelling has been replaced in our time by the collective ritual of vision, the modern genre of mythical representation, that is cinema. This evolution of storytelling—from its earliest beginnings in ceremonial performance, through its continuance in the relation of narrative, and now back to its role in a ritualized spectacle—brings it full circle, while at the same time reflecting the economic and material factors that modify it in every era. And this is the real subject at issue—the survival of the fairy tale, and the form it may take, in our age.

Earlier, we remarked that even during a period when great pressure was brought to bear on the notion of the worth and function of narrative, the mass media continued to tell stories of familiar, accessible types. Yet these media—and I speak particular of films and television—are new to our time, and while a volume of work exists in both fields to demonstrate conclusively that each can be just as much the vehicle of the imagination as any of the older art forms, each is a also a focus of doubt. In part, the concern comes from the economics of scale: while both video and film are accessible to artists on relatively small budgets, their distribution to the mass audience that both media have the power to call into has the innate tendency to involve dense concentrations concentration of capital and corporate conglomeration, and these concentrations become absolutely integral to the creation of the works in question. Often, when we see a TV show or a movie, we must wonder whether the hidden structure beneath the surface, the figure in the carpet, is the fairy tale or some other type of organization altogether. Furthermore, of course, both cinema and television are among the agencies through which it seems that in our time everything has already been seen, already been absorbed, already been made into a cult. They simply produce such a vast bulk of images that they threaten to drain any single one of them, or any single series of them, of any value or interest. While these media have preserved the conventional narrative, we must ask whether in preserving it they also modified it in such a way as to destroy it.

Alexandro Uboldi would probably answer that question in the negative—his work dwells on the element of the imagination that we know film can bear. For Uboldi, the screen on which a film is projected is not just a support: it is itself the love object. Since the surfaces he often uses for paintings are screens standing on tripods, these works do more than quote cinema, or refer to it symbolically. They actually incorporate one of its devices, creating a kind of short circuit between the real object and the illusion that is applied to it. Uboldi uses painting to tell a magical history of cinema from its beginnings to the present, following no strict chronology but moving back and forth in the mythical territory of the dream factory. Through the titles his works share with their films, he declares his affectionate homage to various film directors—Ernst Lubitsch and Robert Flaherty, D. W. Griffith and Jean Cocteau, Dziga Vertov and Louis Lumière, Wim Wenders and Akira Kurosawa. At the same time, through of their incorporation of the imagery of video clips and video games, his pictures situate themselves in the electronic age.

Abstract painting and electronic imagery, spaceships, and minarets all have equal place in the screen paintings, where fantastic animals, palm trees, and unknown objects float gravity-free in the starry space. It is a universe in suspension, a universe of darkness broken by the quick traces left as tracks by the creatures, objects, and flecks of paint that dart across the screen. The plots of Uboldi are elusive, since nothing seems to link these objects save that they are there, sliding along the surface of his fictions. Hour can one explain their attraction? Perhaps the answer lies in the incongruity between their handmade feeling and their technological inferences. They are charged by an element of surprise, which now and then breaks the silence of the spaces with a din and dazzle like a distant stellar explosion. Uboldi’s recent works on canvas show an involvement with the most rudimentary cinematic device, the kaleidoscope: as if with that glass toy, the artist tears up the Modern art tradition, bumping Jackson Pollack against Umberto Boccioni in Oviedo, Spain, or getting Wassily Kandinsky and Roy Lichtenstein to dance an “alchemic samba,” to quote the title of a work from 1985. Here, the idols of Modernism are chopped into a crazy puzzle, their pictures reciprocally enriching each other with the same kind of warmth that Uboldi’s screen legends show for the classics of cinema—but also with a tiny pinch of nastiness.

With completely different results, cinema has also influenced the group of three young artists—Gianni Cella, Romolo Pallotta, and Claudio Ragni—who go by the name Plumcake. Their work stands apart from that of the other artists I have discussed; where Ontani, Levini, Baldi, and Uboldi find and enjoy the energy of the fairy tale, Plumcake describes its contemporary petrifaction. These artists mostly draw their subject matter from the movies, and particularly from the B movies of the ’50s —those historical pastiches of ages past, whether ancient Greek, Viking, wild West, or prehistoric, or else the kind of film in which giant insects and lizards, or creatures from other planets, run search-and-destroy missions in modern city streets. Through the fitters of cinematic fiction, Plumcake digests history and myth. Narrative is collapsed in the group’s work; their shiny fiberglass sculptural tableaux fuse past and future in one icy moment.

The work emphasizes the fact it is a representation: in both its content and its material, it dwells on its own fictiveness. The surfaces are polished, their colors attractively bright but also glossily unnatural, fake.The work owes something to the tradition of comics, without the narrative element of plot. Behind the alluring patina of these minitheaters, behind their irony, is a real subjects—our disenchantment with the electronic and cinematic imagination. All these tableaux show its frozen state.

But out of the ice new myths, legends, fairy tales, and images may break. Once upon a time, Robert Musil wrote, “Blessed is he who can say: ‘as soon as,’ ‘before,’ and ‘after.’” And blessed is the time that brings forth storytellers, spinners of new threads.

Ida Panicelli is a writer who lives in Rome, and a curator at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna. She contributes regularly to Artforum.

Translated form the Italian by Meg Shore.



1. Bruno Bettetheim, The uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of fairy Tales, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1976, paperback printing 1977, pp. 5–6.