Donald Kuspit


“The dream”, Gaston Bachelard writes, “issues from the animus, and rêverie from the anima. Rêverie with drama, without event or history gives us true repose, the repose of feminine”1. Where the dream is “marked by the hard accents of the masculine”, rêverie is “of feminine essence”. Let us go further: the dream is hard because it engages the real, which is hard, with the hope of transforming it into something soft and flexible, so that it can be re-made into the personal. The real resists assimilation, but the dream smashes it into imagistic fragments which can be manipulated at will, creating the illusion of mastery of reality. In contrast, rêverie starts from the unreal – from transcendental repose, sometimes appearing in the form of nostalgia, sometimes as a kind of gentle grace, descending onto the real to suggest that it is not the whole story of being, and to modify it so that it no longer seems inevitable.

In Luca Pignatelli’s paintings the locomotive, the horn, the airplane, the skyscraper are masculine – indeed, phallic – in principle, as their hard, metallic, aggressive character suggests. So are the columns of the various ruined temples he depicts, the dirigible that hovers in the sky above the Appian way, the stately horses that seem fixed in place for all eternity, and even the classical heads of Aphrodite and Eros, ancient symbols of eternal love. For it has become clear that they are artistic illusions – just as the love they represent is a kind of illusion – carved out of stone. Time has eroded their presence and cast doubt upon their divinity, yet making their underlying materiality – a very hard masculine materiality – self-evident. But Pignatelli places a melancholy veil over all these dramatically phallic objects, ancient as well as modern. He shrouds them in the pathos of dusk, a rather gloomy atmosphere that softens the masculine objects so that they seem mysteriously feminine. What they lose in drama they gain in poignancy. What they lose in clarity they gain in depth.

They become as much a matter of feeling as fact, indeed, more a matter of feeling than fact, because the dusk never lifts, so that the objects remain indeterminate and haunting, their presence less inevitable, less decisive. In Pignatelli’s deft hands they become exquisite chimeras –marvelous mirages. Their hardness no longer terrorizes us, for they have become nostalgic, the elusive substance of memory – always a form of mourning – rather than solid reality. Seen through Pignatelli’s dark glass, the historical world is a kind of Hades – a space in which death is lived, again and again. Pignatelli’s paintings are a revelation of the transience implicit in life, hidden in mechanical things as well as in art, the supposedly “eternal present”, as Sigfried Giedion called it. In Pignatelli’s pictures this irrevocable transience becomes the permanent dusk in which things are embedded – a dark amber in which they are suspended, as though in a spell. They never awaken from it: without the atmospheric amber that preserves their appearance, they would disintegrate into dust, confirming that they are in fact long since dead – that they belong to the remote past, and as such are more absent than present. Indeed, the fact they are virtually all shadow confirms that they are substance of absence, or at least of ambiguous presence.

Pignatelli is an archaeologist in spirit, as Scavi makes clear. It is an evocative image of the excavation of the Roman Forum – a photograph of the scene transmuted into a dark mood, deepened and intensified into a haunting memory of the grandeur that was once Rome. Pignatelli excavates familiar images from the unfamiliar past, presenting them in all their morbid transience, which he monumentalizes, confirming their archetypal significance – their collective, deeply human relevance. He begins with a photograph of a thing or event, which becomes a recurrent motif, abstracted into a shadow of itself. His images are shadows of shadows – of things and events that have become faded photographs, insidiously tragic yet ironically noble, for while they have lost immediacy they have gained the grandeur of ruins. For Pignatelli the photograph is a historical document that can be made emotionally resonant by art. The photograph is not art, but the catalyst of animation that can be expressed by art. He subjectifies the mechanical photograph by re-making it as an organic painting – a very subtle, complex gestural painting – which turns into an enigmatic emblem. Photographed objects become uncanny forms with only a passing reference to historical reality, however recognizable as “historical”.

Pignatelli’s paintings have a wounded look, as though the sections and patches of canvas – conspicuously sewn together – were old bandages conveying the hurt of loss – signaling the presence of time, to which all is lost. The material fundament of the painting has been ruptured and repaired, as though an earthquake had unsettled it. The sections are like tectonic plates, temporarily forced together. The seams where they connect are like fault lines. They can be ripped apart, suggesting the picture’s lack of stability and fragmentary character. It is as though Pignatelli had pieced together the shards of an ancient vessel, reconstructing the image that adorned it. Since many of the images belong to relatively recent history – the Second World War, for example – he seems to be suggesting the quickness with which reality becomes memory, breaking into dream-like imagistic fragments which only art can piece together.

In Eroe piangente (1997), paint-stained rags – they are painterly gestures in themselves – form a tearful patch over the right eye of the lamenting ancient god, no doubt mourning the loss of his power, his ruined state in the modern world. The German bombers that fly overhead – over the serene, majestic nature of Italy – in many pictures are no longer as powerful and threatening as they once were, as L’arc en ciel (1998), documenting the crash of one of them, implies. Indeed, the status of Italy is the recurrent, obsessive subtext of Pignatelli’s paintings, as the stenciled sign “FS-Italia-FS” on Trena (1996) makes explicit. Are his pictures of German fighters and bombers – for example, JU 87 (1998) – a kind of whitewash of Italy’s role in the Second World War? Pignatelli’s Italy seems to be all classical ruins and beautiful nature – a passive, even inert presence beneath the soaring, active airplanes. Is Pignatelli suggesting that female Italy was raped by male Germany? Is he saying that Italy always remains graceful under pressure? Eternal Italy holds its own against history (like eternal Rome) – remains essentially the same, unperturbed, intact, even virginal, pristine, unsullied, whatever aggression is committed against it, whatever crimes are committed on its soil, in its sky?

Not entirely, perhaps not at all. For, as Polveriera and L’ultima nevicata (both 1997) and Esplosione a San Lorenzo make clear, Pignatelli is dealing with the metaphysics of death not the history of death. He is dealing with the ontological unavoidability of death not particular acts of human destructiveness. Pignatelli is an eschatologist, using secular images to examine sacred last things – inescapable existential realities. For pignatelli, as Polveriera and L’ultima nevicata show, the world is informed by non-being, inwardly pulverized and bleak, disintegrated, made of nothing, bleached into the oblivion beyond the darkness of death. Pignatelli is not dealing with physical reality, but with the desolation of the human spirit that knows the possibility of its own demise. His paintings articulate the unresolvable tension between selfhood and death. Selfhood is represented by the temples and trains, the airplane and art – by all the things that have been built by human effort and ingenuity, by the culture and technology that constitute civilization, however ironically. Death is represented by the expressive atmosphere that darkens everything, even nature, however luminous it subliminally remains – however much some will- o’-the-wisp of the spirit seems to remain alive in it.

Pignatelli’s paintings deal, in symbolic form, with what the sociologist Daniel Bell calls “the nagging sense of mortality, the realization of negation, the annihilation of what is (man’s) greatest achievement, as man, his self-consciousness, his self”.2 If, as Bell writes, “the fundamental defense against death is the fantasy of omnipotence”, then Pignatelli presents symbols of omnipotence – airplanes that compete with angels, trains that move faster than the most fleet-footed animals and that have more power than any animal, and perhaps above all temples to the gods that human beings invent in their own image, thus fulfilling in a social dream the wish for personal omnipotence – in the context of death, conveyed by Pignatelli’s dark, annihilative atmosphere. For all the delusions of grandeur built into the airplanes and trains and temples, they remain finite compared to the infinite atmosphere, shrouding them in its indelible despair.

I am suggesting that Pignatelli is a fin de siècle master of the Scuola metafisica, Italy’s seminal contribution to early modern art. He extends it into the new social and emotional territory, in part through his judicious use of media imagery, in part through his brilliant painterly technique –through their ingenious integration in images every bit as haunting and mysterious as those of the Scuola metafisica. The word “metaphysical” occurs frequently in the titles of the paintings Giorgio de Chirico made between 1913 and 1919, and later he called the work he did with Carlo Carrà “metaphysical”. A mood was meant, not a system of thought, and Pignatelli deepens the mood of loneliness by adding to it a note of terror, making it more tragic. He adds to our understanding of the metaphysic of loneliness by showing that it informs history while transcending it. He convincingly “argues” that the sense of loneliness drives human beings to make history, and that loneliness is all that is left of a particular history after it is over, leaving ruins and memories in its wake, for all of Pignatelli’s paintings – and the memorable ruins he has brought to emotional life – are full of loneliness.

De Chirico said that “every serious work of art contains two different loneliness: plastic loneliness and metaphysical loneliness”: 3 the first results from “the ingenious construction and combination of form in the work;” the latter is unconscious – a fundamental emotion, acknowledging the generally human and particularly modern sense of isolation. Pignatelli reconceives the desolate metaphysical space of de Chirico – the space of loneliness, inhabited by human artifacts rather than human beings, when it contains something – in broadly modern social terms, liberating it from the classical undertones of de Chirico’s space. Pignatelli eliminates de Chirico’s often stark extremes of glaring light and blunt darkness, replacing them with a highly nuanced chiaro­scuro – an eloquent patina – making the space as a whole more subtle without losing its drama, and deepening the mood of loneliness, indeed, making it all the more inward and intense.

Perhaps most crucially, Pignatelli does not manufacture incongruities – bizarre figures and juxtapositions – as de Chirico did, but finds them in society, inherently absurd and terrifying in its everydayness. Pignatelli’s airplanes and trains are already dark ruins, for all the ominous, threatening immediacy, for all their aura of terror. We do not have to wait several millennia to see the modern world in ruins; we already know what it will

look like when the archaeologists of the future will excavate it and find the photographs that will be its most telling residue. Pignatelli deepens our sense of the metaphysical meaning of life, and shows us that art remains capable of mediating it, even as he reminds us that it is already evident in the noble ruins of ancient art.





1 Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Rêverie (New York: Orion Press, 1969), p. 19.

2 Daniel Bell, “The return of the sacred?”, in The Winding Passage: Essays and Sociological Journeys 1960–1980 (New York: Basic Books, 1980), pp. 336–37.

3 Quoted in George Heard Hamilton, Painting and Sculpture in Europe 1880–1940 (Baltimore: Penguin, 1967), p. 261.


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