Carlo Maria Mariani

Galleria Gian Enzo Sperone; Galleria Carlo Virgilio

Carlo Maria Mariani’s recent exhibition consisted of two distinct parts. The first showed 11 paintings from 1986, identical in format, that portray American and Italian protagonists of “high art” of recent decades (all of them male), with the exception of the eleventh work, which is a classical allegory that served as the grand finale and the conceptual nucleus of the installation. For this group of paintings Mariani chose to depict eight European artists (Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, Mimmo Paladino, Jannis Kounellis, Mario Merz, and a double portrait of himself and the 19th-century Neoclassicist Anton Raffael Mengs) and three Americans (Andy Warhol, Julian Schnabel, and Jasper Johns). Each figure is dressed in garments of Greek or Roman antiquity, the Renaissance, or the Neoclassical era, and each bears attributes that explicitly or symbolically refer to his own art language. For example, Merz is portrayed with a snail on the collar of his cloak, against a background of saplings (references to the spiral based on the Fibonacci series and to the tree branches that are both frequent elements in his work), while Warhol, decked out in the royal ermine and crimson costume of Napoleon, holds a gilded laurel wreath. Mariani has portrayed himself from behind, with the body of a youth, looking at himself in the mirror, his face changed into that of Mengs. Johns, pale as a Romantic painter, is shown wearing priestly white robes and holding two brushes (but then isn’t he, among all of them, truly the pictor optimus?)

For years Mariani has used Neoclassical painting as a specific referent, quoting images and iconography from that period in order to suppress the sense of the present and to create an atmosphere both hyperrealistic and sublime. The idea of the sublime seemed to be the implicit theme of the show. His subjects here are all artists who have attained positions of privilege and power—i.e., they have reached the “sublime heights” of the art world. And Mariani has idealized them, portraying them all as gods and heroes.

By painting neoclassical subjects and using an extremely refined technique, Mariani makes clear his conceptual attitude: it is his attempt to eliminate all signs of passion in contemporary existence and to fabricate an ideal realm. However, what emerges from the conjunction of real, identifiable people and their idealization is a celebration without irony, which is unprecedented in Mariani’s work—a majestic parade of the divinities of a (not very) imaginary Olympus of art, in which he immodestly includes himself among the august company. Such ostentatiously heroic treatment achieves the opposite effect from the one desired: Mariani’s “pantheon of greats” seems more like a succession of carnival masks than an anthology of true, credible heroes.

In the 11th painting, called Sollemnis Caerimonia (Solemn ceremony)—which was also the title of this part of the show—Mariani presents a classically robed skeleton posed next to a canvas (of which we see only the back, with its exposed stretchers). The skeleton, whose skull is crowned with laurel and whose bony hand holds a paintbrush, symbolizes the transience of beauty and power, the vanity of earthly success and fame, and the inevitable fate of all the artists he has depicted in such glory. This work is the only one of the 11 that does not depict a specifically male image: Death—la morte. In Italian, the word “death” is feminine. Can it be that perhaps the portrait of Death signifies that the only presence of the “female” in art is mortal, or that such a presence inspires only thoughts of loss?

There was a different atmosphere pervading the second part of the show, in which beautifully rendered tempera-and-pastel “drawings” of seven gigantic heads were displayed, representing Spring, Autumn, Mercury, Aeolus, Apollo, Jupiter, and Tantalus (all 1986). In these works, too, a sense of mortality is present, in the veiled glances of Mercury and Apollo, who are still young and beautiful, and in the terrible and threatening expressions of Jupiter and Aeolus. But above all, there is a feeling of melancholy, that same feeling that has marked much of this artist’s production. And it is here that Mariani gives his best, when he remains faithful to the pure beauty of these ideal, almost androgynous figures, sad and extremely sweet, exalted in time without time. One can still believe in these heroes—which is something that cannot be said of Mariani’s contemporary pseudoheroes.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.