17 October 2013

Ghirri & Antonioni: Blue Sky Or Red Desert?

“Everything has a blighted, faded quality about it now. Still, if you look at it for a long time, the old charm reemerges. And that is why I can see that I will lose absolutely nothing by staying where I am, even by contenting myself with watching things go by, like a spider in its web waiting for flies. You need to look at things for a long time…” – Vincent van Gogh

Although Van Gogh was speaking of southern France, his words could apply as well Emilia Romagna, the region that connects northern Italy to the the boot; a place that was old when the Etruscans arrived is measured in millennia not centuries.  The photograph (at top) was the last one taken by Luigi Ghirri, who died unexpectedly at the age of forty-nine.   It shows a tributary of the Po River, disappearing into a misty, uncertain  horizon, characteristic of the area.  Ghirri died  in 1992 of a heart attack while documenting the old homes of his native Emilia Romagna,  This project  was a continuation of Ghirri's preferred practice, which was to create a series of images for publication, often by the small art press that Ghirri ran with his wife Paola Borghini Ghirri.  On the occasions when Ghirri made prints  for exhibitions, they were usually the size of postcards.

"Photography … I believe it to be an extraordinary visual language for being able to increase this desire for the infinite we all have within us. As I said before, it constitutes a great adventure in the world of thinking and looking, a great, magical toy that succeeds miraculously to combine our adult awareness with the fairy-tale world of childhood "…  - Luigi Ghirri, excerpted from L’opera aperta, 1984).

Luigi Ghirri (1943-1992) has received relatively low level attention in the English-speaking art world.    If only Ghirri had had the foresight to attend Harvard University or hang around with Andy Warhol.  But then, The New Topographics: Photography of A Man-Altered Landscape, an influential exhibition at George Eastman House in Rochester.in 1975, and the movement that followed in its wake, seldom mention John Brinckerhoff Jackson (1909-1996), the giant on whose shoulders these photographers stood. Jackson's preoccupation with aerial photography, a heavenly bent tempered by a deep respect for what we learned to call through his work, "the vernacular landscape"  was elaborated in the pages of Landscape, the magazine Jackson founded in 1951.

 Ghirri was born in Emilia Romagna  and lived there for most of his life.  As a young man, he worked as a surveyor in Modena; at first photography was just an avocation.  In the 1970s, Ghirri's early pictures were full of visual non sequiturs, evidence of an  acquaintance with Pop Art.  Then, in 1975, Ghirri saw an exhibition of photographs made for the American Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression and was moved.  Gradually, his photographs of the Po River Valley and its transition at wrenching speed by post-World War II industrialization,  with its concomitant air and water pollution .  Its flat land,  two-lane roads, moist atmosphere, its farms with dilapidated barns and silos were an invitation to melancholy.   Ghirri and his wife Paola Borgonzini bought a home in Roncocesi, not far from Bologna.

"You wonder what to look at; I wonder how to live."
   -  from the screenplay Red Desert by Michelangelo Antonioni & Tonino Guerra

To the east of Bologna lies the city of Ravenna, once the capital of the Roman Empire, where Michelangelo Antonioni  made his first feature length color film in 1964.   The working title of Red Desert (Il Deserto Rosso) was Celeste e verde (roughly, Blue And Green Sky) but Antonioni wanted more  color so he had the trees and the grass painted white to heighten what Andrew Sarris dubbed "the architecture of anxiety."  How and why Ghirri managed to achieve similar effects without direct intervention makes for interesting speculation.  It is likely, although I can't verify it, that the photographer was familiar with Antonioni's film.  Giuliana, the protagonist played by Monica Vitti, personifies the strain that materialism has brought to human relationships, the shriveling of intimacy likened to the wasting of nature, as the filmmaker sees it.

Two artists, then, with very different temperaments, at least on the surface, arrive at the same humanistic conclusion.  To paraphrase Michel de Montaigne, are we not brutes to consider a world that we belong to, brutish?

"It's too simplistic to say—as many people have done—that I am condemning the inhuman industrial world which oppresses the individuals and leads them to neurosis. My intention ... was to translate the poetry of the world, in which even factories can be beautiful. The line and curves of factories and their chimneys can be more beautiful than the outline of trees, which we are already too accustomed to seeing. It is a rich world, alive and serviceable..." - Michelangelo Antonioni

 "When it comes down to it, perhaps the places, objects, things, and faces which crop up by chance are simply waiting for someone to look at them and recognize them without the scorn implied by relegating them to the endless supermarket of the "outside." - Luigi Ghirri

Postscript:  Paola continued to live in their house  at Roncocesi until it was severely damaged by fire in the early autumn of 2011.  She had hoped for a speedy restoration but she died unexpectedly on November 8.  The first major exhibition of Ghirri's work in the U.S. took place in November, 2008 at the Aperture Gallery in NYC.

For further reading:
Discovering The Vernacular Landscape by John Brinckerhoff, New Haven, Yale University Press: 1984.
It's Beautiful Here, Isn't It by Luigi Ghirri, New York, Aperture Foundation: 2008.

1.Luigi Ghirri -  Roncocesi, 1992, Estate of Luigi Ghirri.
2. Luigi Ghirri -San Pietro in Vincoli Villa Jole, 1987, Aperture Foundation, NYC.
3. Luigi Ghirri  - Comacchio. Argine Argosta, Fondazione Sandretto re Rebaudengo.
4. Luigi Ghirri - Bologna, 1985, Aperture Foundation, NYC.
5. Luigi Ghirri -Cervia, , 1988, Galleria Massimo Minini, Brescia.
6. Luigi Ghirri  - Magrete di Formigine, 1988.
7. Claude Nori - Paola Borgonzoni & Luigi Ghirri, 1990.
8. Still photo of Ravenna from Red Desert, 1964, Rizzoli Films.
9.Still photo of Monica Vitti from Red Desert, 1964, Rizzoli Films.


Tania said...

Wonderful looks on the world and the time. Images to dream.

Jane said...

It is uncanny how similar the stills from Antonioni's movie are to Ghirri's photographs, especially given the skepticism that some have expressed about the 'realism' Ghirri's work. Just because he sometimes made visual jokes doesn't mean that he used his camera as a trickster. So glad you like them, as I do, Tania!

Janine Rae said...

Thankyou - fascinating and inspiring post -I especially appreciated the quote from the Red Desert. Ghirri's photos are like dreamscapes or mirages - I love them.

Jane said...

Janine, it does catch the attention but I wonder what it can possibly mean? Whether the art in question is ancient Greek or Roman, Medieval or Renaissance, or contemporary performance art, just to name a few, art eroticses submission, cruelty, and violence, all too often.
Apropos, two recent books that I have read are "Hold It Against Me" by Jennifer Doyle and "The Abu Ghraib Effect" by Stephen Eisenman.
Thanks for noticing that quotation!

Tom Sarmo said...

A just plain beautiful post. Thanks!

Jane said...

Hello, Tom. When Luigi Ghirri said "It's beautiuful here, isn't it?" that was heartfelt. When my mother used to get annoyed with my adolescent moods, she liked to point out that "no one else can enjoy life for you." A point worth taking to heart, I think.