Michelangelo Antonioni

Galleria Nazionale D’Arte Moderna

As a filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni is no stranger to the seductions of painting—one need only think of The Red Desert (1964), in which Antoni Tapiès’ fashion of painting with real objects was crossed with the chromatic palette of certain Pop artists (John Chamberlain, Richard Hamilton) and certain nouveaux réalistes (Christo, Arman, César). Photography has also interested the director, to the point of his basing a film on the process—Blow-Up (1967), in which the photograph reveals a micro-reality of violence, and also of explanation and discovery, beneath the macro-reality of appearances. Now Antonioni abandons the large screen and the flux of cinematographic movement for the fixed, small-scale photographic image. His methods are still complex, however: he begins by using the processes of painting and collage to make the pictures that will become the matrices of the finished work; next he crops, or “frames,” the images; then he photographs the work, successively enlarging it to various scales before deciding on its final form.

In his films Antonioni may have set up a dialogue between appearances and the reality beyond them, but in these works, all realized in the last five years, the process is reversed. Here we see not an emergence of the secret but an absorption into enchantment. The figurative subjects of the photographs are identifiable; the specific title of the show was “Le montagne incantate” (The enchanted mountains), and these are more or less defined profiles of mountains, with broad, luminous horizons which the rising peaks do not so much obscure as exalt by virtue of their rich chromaticism—a counterpoint to the dense, full-bodied skies. In the films the horizon line often suggests nostalgia, desire, or anguish, but here the horizon is ample, open, charged, and free, and the scenes are in a way reminiscent of Ansel Adams’ work.

Where Adams represents the real world in absolute images, however, here it is like a distant memory. Instead of puritan black and white these images show a riot of bright color; instead of sharp focus they show graininess. The imagery and tonal range have been produced manually by the artist before being transformed by chemical and photomechanical processes into mountains and open landscapes. Antonioni uses photography as a means of distortion and manipulation, camouflage and trickery, and thus of the fresh discovery of the innumerable faces of reality. The works are suffused with a sense of silence—human and animal life is absent—and in this aspect are similar to certain forms of German romantic painting, especially that of Caspar David Friedrich in the 1820s. They evoke melancholy, solitude, and the existential pain of humanity faced with a nature more arcane and symbolic than threatening. These silent, grandiose pseudo-landscapes hark back to the German revelation of Stimmung, that particular quality of emotion emanating from melancholy and mystery, and characterized by a sense of anticipation and suspense. Antonioni’s process of photography extracted from painting is indebted to Friedrich for its precept: “Close your physical eye in order to first see your painting with the eye of the spirit; then bring to light what you have seen ‘in your death.’”

Pier Luigi Tazzi

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.