New York

Carlo Maria Mariani

From a quick glance at Studio per Costellazione del Leone (La scuola di Roma) one might think that Carlo Maria Mariani has a fine sense of humor. Mariani, with meticulous proficiency, paints in the neoclassical style that was popular in Rome in the late 18th and early 19th centuries; in this massive 15-foot-wide painting Mariani stays true to that style, but we immediately recognize that something is curiously amiss. Though all of the details, including postures and dress, are in the style of the period, the faces are distinctively real: they are the faces of Mariani’s colleagues, critics, and dealers. To name a few, Cy Twombly looks out at us from his perch atop a sculpted horse; Gian Enzo Sperone leans gracefully on a sphere, reading; Mariani himself sits proudly dead center, while a nude goddess sleeps at his feet. In case we misunderstand Mariani’s feelings about the pictured cast of characters, he provides a small numbered diagram of the painting for us, allowing him to comment on each figure in a flowery literary style that is in keeping with the spirit of the painting. Of Francesco Clemente, who appears looking haunted, as ever, Mariani explains: “Asked his opinion, he was content to say; ‘I have chosen myself, no one has compelled me, and furthermore, there is no subject so evil from which so great a talent as is not able to take some advantage myself.’” Of another figure, Mariani says: “He has razed and closed the temples of Art: he rebuilds them. He has profaned St. Luke: he purifies him and offers expiations to the ashes of the King.” Mariani’s comments about his friends may have a privately humorous strain, but to the outsider their overriding message is a serious one. Mariani is reaching to provide a discourse on nothing less than the timeless nature of creativity.

Mariani’s other, more usual work, does not have this provocative strain of visual self-aggrandizement to it. His emulation of the neoclassical style is generally very dry. A large, perfectly painted Ganymede with the eagle Jupiter and a copy of the lost Jacques-Louis David painting of the death of Le Peletier adorned the gallery walls with cool sobriety. Not only does Mariani recreate neoclassical painting, however, he also re-creates the mood of the period by providing accompanying texts which appear in the form of letters from or to such illustrious people as Goethe, Bettina von Arnim, and J.J. Winckelmann. Not surprisingly, these texts discuss the meaning of beauty: in beauty lies unity and simplicity—most highly developed by the Greeks, and resuscitated by the neoclassicists. Hence Mariani’s fascination with these painters, or so one would think.

But it is not in this way alone that Mariani justifies his revival of neoclassical taste. In a catalogue essay, Italo Mussa explains that Mariani’s aim is far loftier. Mussa says that, as Giorgio de Chirico did, Mariani sets himself not the problem of “originality” but of the “origin” of the creative act. “In essence, he paints things of which all trace has been lost or what has been the subject of esthetic disquisitions. Thus his esthetic experience is a courageous ascent leading the creative act itself to neutrality and impersonality.” In other words, by absolving himself from the demands of originality, Mariani purports to reveal the true nature of mythic beauty to his modern audience.

There are other conceptual artists, like Jannis Kounellis, who are interested in a similar discourse on creativity, but whose sentiments are more manifest in their work. There is a tension and an outrageousness to Studio . . . that makes us want to understand Mariani’s motives; but most of his other paintings are such exact imitations of neoclassical works that we appreciate them in nearly the same way as we do the originals, without considering the artist’s more highfalutin ambitions.

Joan Casademont