Today is the final day of a wonderful exhibition that crept into town during the holiday crush and threatens to leave just as quietly, after little more than a three-week run.
Pier Paolo Pasolini: Portraits, Self Portraits at Location One in Soho is timed to coincide with the Pasolini film retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (December 13, 2012-January 5, 2013). The forty drawings and paintings on display present a crucial if little-known aspect of the artist’s multifaceted genius, but its pleasures are not reserved solely for the Pasolini-obsessed.
Almost forty years after his death — a grisly murder that many insist was a political assassination — Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975) is still an unsettled subject. In this country he is best known for his films, but in Italy he is just as renowned for his poetry, much of which was written in the Friulian dialect of his native province, as well as his novels (Ragazzi di vita, 1955; Una vita violenta, 1959, among others) and his polemics, which inflicted uncomfortable truths on both the right and the left.
His directing career began when he was nearly forty; it was a move that provoked charges of dilettantism, despite his work as a screenwriter for directors like Federico Fellini and Mauro Bolognini. But his unusually accomplished debut, Accatone (1961), a neorealist tale that wends its way from gritty Roman housing projects to an unforeseen dreamscape, silenced some critics while inflaming others, who denounced it as blasphemous. (A neofascist group called Nuova Europa [New Europe] launched a stink bomb attack at the movie’s premiere.) His final work, Salo: 120 Days of Sodom (1975), released two months after his death, regularly tops the lists of the most disturbing films ever made.
Interestingly, when it came to painting and drawing, Pasolini was a self-professed dilettante. In the gratis, full-color (and Gucci-sponsored, the irony of which — Pasolini was an implacable enemy of consumerismo — is breathtaking) catalogue for Portraits, Self Portraits, there is a selection of the artist’s writings on art, including a short text from March 1973, written the day after he started painting again after a long hiatus.
It concludes with an appreciation of a landscape by Pierre Bonnard:
I would like to know how to make a picture a bit like a Provencal landscape of his I saw in a little museum in Prague. At worst, I would like to be a very minor neo-cubist painter. But I could never use chiaroscuro or colors with the spongy purity and perfect polish required by cubism. I need an expressionistic material that offers no possibility of choice (as you can see, even dilettantes are impassioned by problems).
There is, however, a substantial counterargument in the above fragment that Pasolini was far from being a dilettante. His articulation of the “colors with the spongy purity and perfect polish required by cubism” bespeak a powerfully discerning eye (not coincidentally, Pasolini undertook a serious study of art history with the great Roberto Longhi), and his love of painting informed everything he did, well beyond the obvious references to Piero della Francesca and other Renaissance painters in The Gospel According to Matthew (1964).
In his Pasolini: A Biography (Random House, 1982), Enzo Siciliano includes the following quote from the artist about his frontal approach to cinematography:
What I have in my head as a vision, as a visual field, are the frescoes of Masaccio, of Giotto — who are the painters I love the most, along with certain Mannerists (for instance Pontormo). And I’m unable to conceive images, landscapes, compositions of figures outside of this initial fourteenth-century pictorial passion of mine, in which man stands at the center of every perspective.
In the catalogue text, Pasolini asserts that he is “more interested in ‘composition’ with its contours than in material. But I can only make the forms I want with the contours I want if the material is hard to handle, even impossible.”
The works in the exhibition bear this out. While many of the drawings are free, light-filled sketches, there are other pieces, such as an undated pastel of Cubist-inspired figures and a male nude in tempera and pastel from 1947 (two pictures among several that fall outside of the Portraits, Self Portraits categories), in which the positive and negative spaces are expertly negotiated and the forms are tightly interlocked.
If Pasolini’s visual art did not figure prominently in his creative output, it did fill an emotional need at pivotal times in his life: “I read little, but I’m painting a lot” and “I’ve made quite a lot of drawings and a painting (my best one)” are lines from two letters, excerpted in the catalogue, that he wrote to a friend during the summer of 1941, when he was 19 years old.
Most of the drawings in the show are from 1941-1943, a difficult period during which Pasolini’s tyrannical father, a supporter of Mussolini, fought in Kenya and became a prisoner of war, Pasolini himself was drafted into the army and deserted, and the Germans occupied northern and central Italy. A couple of years later, in 1945, his younger brother Guido, who had joined an anti-Communist partisan resistance group, would be executed by Communist forces in an internecine massacre of his brigade.
The rest of the dated drawings come from the mid-sixties, when his turbulent movie career was on the rise; from 1970, when he made a fascinating portrait with glue and sand (and stained with wine) of Maria Callas, her profile repeated on eight sections of a large, folded sheet of paper; and from 1974 and ’75, when he sketched three bold caricatures of Roberto Longhi.
Callas and Longhi were both significant figures in Pasolini’s life, as was Ninetto Davoli, the “son of Calabrian peasants,” as Siciliano describes him, with whom Pasolini “fell in love as a father, as a friend, sweeping away the tie of competitiveness that occasionally bound him to boys.”
Davoli, who was in his early teens when he met Pasolini, was a force of nature, whose “voice was raucous, his physicality pliant and emaciated.” Pasolini cast Davoli in a number of his films, including The Gospel According to Matthew, Uccellacci e uccellini (1966) and The Decameron (1971).
For his tender, undated portrait of Davoli, Pasolini uses what the wall label describes as “ink and mixed technique.” It is well known that, in addition to the wine splashed across the Callas drawing, Pasolini used coffee and tea as painting materials. I would guess that, judging from the stains encompassing most of the sheet of “Portrait of Ninetto,” the “mixed technique” consisted of Pasolini soaking the paper with a hot beverage and then drawing into the damp surface, wrinkling it around the eyes and eyebrows to produce a nuanced sculptural effect (not unlike the glue drips embossing the eight Callas profiles). The results are uncannily alive.
Again, this kind of restless experimentation, which also included squeezing paint onto cellophane, is not the behavior of a casual artist, but of one who innately understands the link between what one does and what one chooses to do it with. In his 1973 statement cited above, Pasolini writes:
There must be some good reason why the idea never came into my head to attend some art lyceum or academy. The mere thought of doing anything traditional makes me nauseous. I mean literally sick to my stomach.
Another work in the show that doesn’t come under the heading of portraiture is a curious drawing on folded paper, like the Callas portrait, but in sixteen sections instead of eight. On each section Pasolini drew diagonally oriented charcoal squiggles that appear to represent a mountain range. While undated, the drawing is placed at the end of the exhibition’s chronology; its title is “The World Doesn’t Want Me Anymore and It Doesn’t Know It.”
Pasolini was the eternal outsider, the scatological truth-teller to the modern state, the martyred prophet of the underside of Eros. “The thought of doing anything traditional” — of accepting received wisdom, of failing to interrogate a concept to its core — “makes me nauseous.”
This exhibition may not deliver Pasolini with the richness of his panoramic contradictions, as the MoMA film retrospective would, but it supplies an indispensible foothold in that radiant, ash-strewn terrain.
Pier Paolo Pasolini: Portraits, Self Portraits continues at Location One (26 Greene Street, Soho, Manhattan) through today.