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Domenico Gnoli at Fondazione Prada, Milan

Words by Riccardo Conti

Curl, 1969

Domenico Gnoli was born in 1933 to a family immersed in culture. His grandfather Domenico Gnoli was a poet, his father Umberto Gnoli an art historian – he wrote the seminal essay Pittori e miniatori nell’Umbria – Painters and illuminators in Umbria (1923) – and his mother Annie de Garrou was a talented ceramicist. Growing up among historians and poets, the young Gnoli chose to pursue the arts as well, starting out with a promising career as a set designer in the 1950s alongside Jean-Louis Barrault and Lawrence Olivier. His scenes for As You Like It (1955) remain memorable – using Bibiena-esque follies to imagine the Duke’s Palace and the paintings of Samuel Palmer superimposed on those of Caspar David Friedrich to evoke the Forest of Arden.

Install view, Fondazione Prada

His early experiences revealed Gnoli to be an eclectic artist, and the ideal illustrator for the calculated innocence of The Baron in the Trees (1957). These early achievements would eventually lead Gnoli to be celebrated for the technique and articulation in his illustrative works. In a sweeping new survey featuring over 100 paintings, Fondazione Prada reveals an important selection of drawings, sketches, documents and early works that chart the evolution of this singular talent.

With the opportunity to experience Gnoli’s drawings up close, the show reveals works that are rich in detail without capturing the entire essence of their subject, a trope that manifested in a slow arc through the artist’s short yet prolific career. In fact, it transformed Gnoli the ‘illustrator’ into Gnoli the philosopher. It is no longer the anecdote that he describes, but the close-up details which never appear in the whole. It is a portion of trousers that could belong to a mannequin or a gentleman; it is the rigid geometry of an ironed crease on a tablecloth that we could imagine as an endless topography; it is a dress collar and a piece of hair whose geometric structures appear analogous. The essence of these things seem to lie in their isolation: a hem of the collar of a shirt is something more than the shirt itself. Here, Gnoli arrives at the crux of the image that made him famous, a notoriety that came posthumously but exalted the artist as a cult figure, and his canvases as iconic images.

The focus on detail emphasises the objective quality of the subject at hand. The tunnel vision highlights the otherness that lies in identity: our skin seen through this lens is a geographical map of roughness unpredictable to the naked eye. For Gnoli, to isolate a particularity is to identify the constitutive essence of the whole, without any misunderstanding.

Capigliatura femminile, Riga in mezzo n.1, 1965

Robe verte, 1967

Coat, 1968

Apple, 1968

Chemise sur la table N°2, 1964

Zipper, 1967

Red Hair on Blue Dress, 1969

Red Dress Collar, 1969

Cravate, 1967

Curly Red Hair, 1969

It is wrong to consider Gnoli as a strange exponent of American Pop art, as a follower or refined European imitator. Neither Tom Wesselmann, Jasper Johns nor James Rosenquist have archetypes based in tradition, instead they reproduced banal objects of contemporary life without historical attachments. Warhol consecrated the mythology of everyday life and consumption without affecting the surface and appearance of these artefacts. Gnoli, on the other hand, contradicts these Pop art practices by reproducing objects in a fashion that underlines their consistency, durability and continuity over time.

In this regard, the exhibition at Fondazione Prada allows the viewer to examine how the pictorial surface is a rich elaborate world, patiently constructed more similarly to that of a Renaissance artist as opposed to an industrial artist. This becomes especially evident when, for example, we explore his Bed series; the bed, like the tie and the hair, act as artefacts that are undeniably tangible. Their existence is observed and declared in the same spirit of Italian Renaissance classics. Tradition is the main stimulus for Gnoli, Mantegna and even Bellini, for whom the past is relieved in their art form. The allegory is not in the myth but in the synecdoche, and the everyday becomes eternal as Gnoli sees it. Italian art historian Germano Celant wrote, “An absence of pathos and dramatic tension, almost an impersonal and inexpressive transportation of objective reality through the clarity and precision of the ‘description’ of things,” which perfectly describes the sensation one feels when observing the works of Gnoli hung neatly along the metal walls lining the retrospective.

Due dormienti, 1966

Is there irony in Gnoli? Looking at his smiling photographic portraits, or his poses as a dandy in the 1950s in London or at his illustrations for magazines such as Life or Playboy, it would seem so. Yet, there is something in Gnoli’s brief artistic history (he died of cancer in 1970, at the age of 37) which suggests a constant metaphysical vision that does not convey irony, but rather eternity. Ultimately, Gnoli’s banal and quotidian objects possess the same dignity as an altar, throne or tombstone.

DOMENICO GNOLI is on display at Fondazione Prada, Milan until February 27, 2022

Domenico Gnoli (Paris, 1963) by Mimi Gnoli

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