The Italian director Matarazzo Raffaello was the king of melodrama. He was a populist filmmaker who embraced his audience without contempt. In his film L’angelo bianco (The White Angel) (1955), actress Yvonne Sanson plays an icon of feminine purity tormented by an impossible series of plot twists that keep her and leading man, Amadeo Nazzari, apart. A sequel to Raffaello’s I figli del nessuno (Nobody’s Children) (1952), the sets in L’angelo bianco are stark and elaborate, the emotions are amplified, and the story unfolds in impossible ways (there’s even a doppelgänger). Artist Dawn Clements finds a muse in this cinematic work for her recent exhibition, as she integrates the movie’s breathless quality that portrays a frail but elaborate world on the brink of collapse.
The parallel with old movies is nothing new, since walking into Clements’s artistic world can generally feel like stepping into a classic film. Edges feel stylized, angles shift, extreme close-ups generate drama, wide angles feel theatrical, backgrounds disappear into an empty haze, and moments are spliced together like a film strip. In her latest exhibition, curiously titled Mother’s Day, two bodies of work (one devoted largely to her black-and-white cinematic drawings, and the other to colorful watercolors dominated by cut flowers) scrutinize the details of her home life and her cinematic obsessions.
The large gallery of floral watercolors are filled with engrossing details, and layers of color seem to dip in and out of sharp focus as they magnify objects on tabletops. A couple of the images integrate faces of classic Hollywood starlets, which gives them a nostalgic quality. Shirley Temple, Joan Crawford, and Carole Lombard (who appears in two different pieces) float among the wrinkles of the paper that ripple on the wall. Unlike the cut flowers, fruits, and one vegetable (a rutabaga), the heroines are not grounded, but drawn in stylized poses reminiscent of a publicity headshot — I later discovered that they are all photos that hang on the wall of the artist’s kitchen.
There is a precision in Clements’s renderings in these large watercolors that stops them from slipping into stereotype, giving the faces an intimate fan art quality and the plants a wilting personal grace. Almost all of the vases depicted are glass, allowing the artist to dazzle us with her ability to render transparency, while emphasizing a sense of time and mortality through the placement of cut stems in water.
In the back gallery, she has returned to her well-known ballpoint pen drawing technique for two large pieces (one depicting Raffaello’s L’angelo bianco and the other an old Italian library) that flatten three-dimensional rooms into webs of spindly lines. The linear vignettes allude to a nebulous narrative. In one riveting moment, Sanson sinks into her bed and words seem to suffocate her as she breathes in phrases like “even when no one is looking” and “people who handle a small matter well.”
These are wrought moments interrupted, made real through the frenzy of lines that drag our attention around a room. In “Lina (L’angelo bianco, 1955)” (2014) the room is splayed, giving us an impossible perspective that is still easy to read. In the smaller cinema-inspired drawings, a harsh line calcifies the tension making it more campy as delicate features turn crude and gestural — style, like in any good melodrama, overcomes content.
The way Clements constructs her works points to her obsessive vision. When she’s not drawing objects around her kitchen table, she is staring at a screen for source material. This is an immediate world at arm’s length, one where the world shrinks and expands like a walk-through Wonderland.
In 18th-century France, they used a term that sounds strangely contemporary today: “distinctness of vision.” Contemporary theorist Michael Baxandall lingers on the term in his book Patterns of Intention when he discusses the work of Enlightenment-era artist Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin. Writing about “A Lady Taking Tea” (1735), he explains that the artist was playing with perspective, creating odd cracks in perspective (like with the chair back), painting spots of brightness, and other elements that point to a flawed understanding of optics yet a fascination with its imperfection. It is a radical reading of an artist who we tend not to understand in relation to science. For Chardin, in addition to optics the Renaissance loomed large in his mind, and he combined the dramatic lighting of Veronese and Guido Reni with the quaintness of genre painting. Like any artist, his art was a product of many — sometimes unlikely — interests.
For Clements, there’s a similar diversity that blends in her work. Her equivalent of 18th-century optics is contemporary screen culture, while the uncanny observations of Albrecht Dürer (who did not always draw from life) meld with Leonardo da Vinci’s annotated world in his sketchbooks, and she stitches together elements that can read like filtered camera phone snapshots. Films and photographs overlap with her kitchen table, and everything is augmented with numbers and words. It’s a fragmented reality made whole.
Yet there’s something complete about her vision, even when it fades to blank, that makes the sensation more real than the original. Never do we see Lina’s room in the film with the same sweep that we do in “Lina (L’angelo bianco, 1955)” (2014). In Clements’s rendering, the room opens up for us to suggest a story that had not yet been told.
In the large watercolors, text is hard to read and clumsy, the petals and textures of food dominate. In the ballpoint and ink drawings the way we read the composition is part of the wonder. Walls and windows and stairs often flatten, while chairs and sheets push away in exaggerated moments that poke through into another space. They are two parallel visions, but they are two sides of a coin.
Raffaello is remembered today for his ability to capture Italy in flux, a land that was experiencing massive migration at the time. Unlike the work of Italian Neorealist directors, Raffaello’s films offered hope and they became beloved by Italian peasants and émigrés trapped by nostalgia. At the end of L’angelo bianco there is a stand-off in a women’s prison with a baby that is taken from his mother’s arm. A nun steps in and saves the child. It’s the type of emotional flourish that makes a meandering tale satisfying. Each time we look at Clements’s drawings, which can feel like watching and re-watching an old movie, the familiar shifts as new details emerge and old ones recede.
There’s a scene, the same one depicted in “Lina (L’angelo bianco, 1955)” (2014), when Lina turns to Guido, who can’t believe how much she looks like his dead wife Luisa, and she says: “Shall I tell you the truth. I really didn’t think you’d be back. Oh, right. You’re here because of her. Fine. Look all you want!” The scene, which concludes part one of the film, ends in a passionate kiss. At the beginning of part two she wakes up in an empty bed, the suggestion is they slept together and he left without saying a word. Soon the police arrive and arrest her for counterfeiting. Clements’s drawing patches the two halves into one. It is the only moment in the film when Lina ever appears truly happy, even if it is very short-lived. You can understand why the artist lingers there, and why she chooses to pause it forever.
* * *
UPDATE: Sunday, May 29, 2015, 2pm ET:
I received the following email from the artist, and it is republished here with her permission, my response is below:
I deeply appreciate your Hyperallergic article on my show Mother’s Day. I appreciate your looking, thinking and writing, your research and thoughtfulness. I am moved and am grateful. Thank you.
Factually, there is one part of your article that is incorrect, and that has to do with the faces in the flower works. The faces are not Shirley Temple, Joan Crawford and Carole Lombard. Only one of the face images is of a movie star (Sylvia Sidney). This is the image that appears in two separate works. The other 2 faces are not movie stars. One is a image of a woman from a pulp magazine cover and the other, a formal photographic family portrait of an anonymous dressed up little girl.
While the images you cite aren’t exactly who you name in the article, it is true that they all are posed in a style that is reminiscent of movie stars. You make me think about how strongly images of movie stars affect ways non-movie star viewers (and consumers) choose to represent and imagine themselves in posed photographic portraits. Desire is part of it. I have noticed it in other forms of portraiture, and very much in James Van der Zee’s work, but I had not considered it so deliberately in the portraits above my kitchen table. The passage and overlap between domestic and cinematic spaces always interests me, but sometimes I’m not always consciously aware of how intertwined they are in my daily life.
Thank you for your insightful looking, reading and writing. I am deeply appreciative,
P.S. I love your writing on Mattarazzo’s L’angelo bianco.
I find it really interesting that I read the images that way, and even asked others to help me identify the one I didn’t recognized (we were all wrong). The drawing by Clements was not precise but relishes in a subjectivity that changes the image (it’s one of the appealing aspects of her work), but this is what I decided based on web searches and conversations:
I wrote back to the artist apologizing for the error, but I do think the mistake highlights my point about blurring between various fields. Hollywood stars influenced generations of people, who mimicked (and continue to do so) their style through fashion, makeup, haircuts, and more recently even cosmetic surgery.
When I looked at the image of who I thought was Joan Crawford, I felt I recognized the star. A popular trendsetter of her time, her look was always changing even if the essence remained the same — perhaps this malleability might be why she was (and continues to be) frequently copied by women and drag queens alike, and why it is easier to look like her than most other stars. In the case of Shirley Temple, the young celebrity inspired a crazy across the United States and beyond, including numerous lookalike contests, so that style was certainly emulated and easily recognizable. For the woman who the artist identified as Sylvia Sidney, and I assumed was Carole Lombard, it is worth noting that they were both famous Hollywood actresses of the 1930s who shared a popular look. I do admit that I read Clements’ drawing incorrectly to suggest the woman in the image was blond because of the highlighting.
Movies, of all the contemporary art forms, have a way of influencing our lives and culture that we often aren’t aware of. Familiarity with stars, storylines, characters, or films, create connections in our minds that aren’t always conscious. In this case, that blurring between the screen and life, even in the intimate setting of a kitchen, adds a new layer to Clements’s work. The screen bleeds into art, adding another frame or lens through which we see the world. All this is no coincidence, of course, in the introduction to Sarah Berry’s Screen Style: Fashion and Femininity in 1930s Hollywood, she points out that this type of influence on fashion was a goal of Hollywood, and interesting enough Joan Crawford is the example they cite:
In 1939, MGM produced a short promotional film called Hollywood — Style Center of the World, about the American film industry’s gift of fashion to the masses. It tells the story of Mary, a farm girl who has an important date and needs a new dress. She goes to her small-town “Cinema Shop” and sees an ensemble worn by Joan Crawford in her newest film. Mary tries on the outfit, her image intercut with that of Crawford in the original costume. A male voice-over intones:
And so to this quiet little town, far from the metropolitan areas, the Hollywood influence reaches out to style and gown Mary, just as smartly as Joan Crawford is costumed for her role in [a] new film … The motion picture has annihilated space, blotted out the back woods … today the girl from the country is just as modern and dresses just as smartly as her big city sister.
The Hollywood screen is shown to have bridged the gulf between urban and rural merchandising, acting as a huge, luminous shop window and beacon to the fashion-disadvantaged across the nation. The film represents mass-market fashion as a democratic leveling of social distinctions, suggesting in its montage of small-town America and the glowing image of Mary superimposed against a billowing wheat fields, happily self-conscious in a chic white ensemble.
A fascinating example of how early screen culture insinuated itself into people’s lives it demonstrates how it was an early goal of the movie industry, of which Hollywood was a powerful global player, to influence the real-world in more than just viewing habits.