If you are planning any visit to the city of Naples during the next month, you cannot miss the photographic exhibition “Blow Up. Photography in Naples 1980-1990”, at the museum Villa Pignatelli – House of Photography.
Given the interest of the topic and the excellent contents of the whole circuit of art exhibitions on display around town, it could be worth planning a visit soon.
The photographic exhibition is contextualized in the wider project Constellation 80s. This the name of the virtual archive that constantly accompanies visitors, through multimedia points, all along the constellation of exhibitions and museums sections, which take part to this massive display of Naples’ art in the 80s. The constant reference to “archives” and material data, as art magazines, catalogues and newspapers of the time, suggests the importance given to historical contextualisation, possibly telling us about the renewed will to analyze and reintegrate the cultural history of the city. “Blow Up” is therefore presented together with the exhibition “Rewind. Art in Naples 1980-1990”, held in Saint Elmo’s Castle and the section dedicated to contemporary art at Capodimonte Museum, as the collection “Terrae Motus”, held in the Royal Palace of Caserta. Madre Museum of Contemporary Art and the Academy of Fine Arts offer their independent contributions to the project, with exhibitions and lectures.
The title of the photographic exhibition clearly refers to the first English-language iconic film by Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni (Blow Up, 1966). The mysterious play between reality and its representations, among the photographer, his subjects and his creations, core of the director’s arty thriller, here becomes the leitmotif to present 140 printed art works by Italian and foreign photographers, working in Naples during the 1980s.
Naples in the 1980s was an indomitable caldron of social excesses, where terrible catastrophes and clamorous triumphs used to walk hand in hand, plausibly mingling and melting under the skillful hands of an impetuous king volcano. On November 23, 1980 it was exactly the volcano Mont Vesuvius, which had buried Herculaneum and Pompeii in 79 AD, to restart its activities, causing 8.848 injuries, 2.914 deaths and leaving 280.000 people homeless.
That was the very start of the decade. Those were years of hardships, during which the post-traumatic psychology and the urban reconstruction were heavily overshadowed by a new wave of speculative construction, characterized in itself by the constant obtrusion of camorra’s lines and its political alliances. The culture and the street were besieged by this omnipresent burden, in a humble society where the borders between legal and illegal, right and wrong, public and private routinely disappeared in the crowd.
Nonetheless, the vital socio-cultural scene was also positively influenced by vibrantly challenging initiatives. Lucio Amelio, Lia Rumma and Pasquale Trisorio’s galleries, for example, attracted visual artists from all over the world, not only to exhibit their previous works, but to make them produce their art in the town. Meanwhile, outside the galleries, Naples’ younger artists’ initiatives became part of the urban daily routine and mixed with it. An uncountable series of experimental artists, photographers, actors, music bands, poets, writers randomly met and melt everywhere. Cinemas, bookstores, night clubs, underground bars, concert halls, garages -they all became stages to experiment contemporary art, in the constant mix between underground spaces and high society’s living-rooms. These new attitudes had actually started to create a flourishing international field in the city, since the end of the 1970s. But they completely bloomed during the following decade.
Being this the context of the time, it is clear how a memorable international art project as “Terrae Motus”, dedicated to the recent earthquake and quickly exhibited in Italy and France, was able to attract famous artists as Andy Warhol, Mimmo Cucchi, Richard Long, Mimmo Paladino, Gerhard Richter and many others to Lucio Amelio’s art space. Seemingly, it is clearly perceivable, in the collection of photographs displayed these days, that even the most claimed strictly artistic photographic “art works” produced by differently oriented maestros -Robert Mapplethorpe, Mimmo Jovine, Helmut Newton, Luigi Ghirri and so many others- always showed a deep connection between art and reality, society and its visual representations and interpretations. Those were the years in which the city poignantly expressed itself in every locally produced art form. Being it photography, painting, sculpture, theatre, writing or music, the city was there. There was the sea, there was the volcano, or simply a ruin, one street and there was the strong will to represent and understand it, in order to give it a new chance, a future.
Also in the field of photographic art an essential role was played by farsighted curators and buyers, who did not call up to the photographers as mere executors portraying a given subject, but as free intellectuals and visual artists donating their view to the world. There was coming to life a different perception of photography, behind the idea of historical record, and a completely new idea of paid assignments.
At the very start of the 80s the art and architecture historian Cesare De Seta, with the contribution of the Autonomous Tourism Society of Naples, was enabled to promote a series of national and international calls for photo artists. These calls aimed to produce series of photo and exhibitions dedicated to the city’s ancient heritage, to its architecture and contemporary urbanism, but moving out of any “stereotype” about the Bella Napoli (“Beautiful Naples”). That was, in fact, a quite strong social commitment for photo collections born from the ideas of a curator -a brilliant open-minded human indeed. The first series, exhibition and catalogue’s title, “Seven Photographers for a New Image [of the City]” (1981), strongly expressed the will to rehabilitate the city’s name, rescuing it from the cage of a stereotypical view of “the beautiful city nearby the sea”, which unbearably collided with its recent injuries and inherent explosive vitality.
But let us deepen the theme with one of the curators of Blow Up, Giuliano Sergio, who worked together with Denise Maria Pagano, director of the museum Villa Pignatelli, to collect this unique series.
Interview with Giuliano Sergio, curator, together with Denise Maria Pagano, of the exhibition BLOW UP – Photography in Naples 1980-1990
SB: Naples, Italy, in the 1980s. What was the cultural and artistic background for photography?
GS: There was an extremely rich background, in Italy as in Naples. The city actually had a double role in it.
First of all, Naples was one of the gems of that surprising Italian province of photography which enlightened, with so many other little towns and big cities as Parma, Venezia or Milano, the Italian photographic constellation. That was the time when there appeared quite famous photographers, as Mimmo Jodice and Luigi Ghirri, but also the first Italian critics and historians exclusively focusing on photography as art. Secondly, Naples in the 1980s was a core center for the production and distribution of contemporary art. It was in Naples –and not in New York or Munich- that Beuys and Warhol met and collaborated for the first time, on Spring 1980.
At the time Cesare De Seta conceived, here in Naples, a series of public assignments directed to photographers. They were a completely reinvented genre of commissions, with the newest attitude. For the first time, photographers were invited, for example, to work for an architect and portray his buildings. But they were not called to portray them following the buyer’s rules and suggestions: they were called up to give their own contribution to the “opera”. Their own rate was their view, which had a participative value. Their vision -a different sight and a different key to read the architect’s work, was going to become part of the opera in itself.
At the time Italian photography was just emerging from that very peculiar season of the 1970s in which photographers, possibly also under the influence of their constant connection with contemporary artistic circles, had slowly left their role as “portrayers of reality” and had started to become “independent intellectuals”, “visual creatives”.
Beyond the strictly artistic context, was there also an interest to turn their sight to daily life and influence it?
Well, this is quite an intricate topic.
I suppose we could say that Naples, as international capital of contemporary art, allowed us to admire great artists, as Robert Mapplethorpe, Cindy Sherman and their numerous German colleagues, invited here by art galleries.
Today we can surely affirm that this heritage, preserved here through more than three decades, keeps its value as a strong cultural legacy. Let us talk about, for example, the commissioned works we were just describing before, which are the core of the exhibition. Here we have chosen to show that, from an exclusively visual point of view, there was a common tension between the Italian and Foreign works, naturally connecting the mood of all these authors. This unitary wave connected and layered such a diversified series of images -extremely small and extremely large as they were printed- and was in itself the clearest evidence of the evolution our visual culture was going through. There was a culture of images, which were produced for different buyers and different audiences, composed and decomposed on parallel levels and, most of all, all those parallel levels of visual actions and interpretations could be found in the same very place. I personally believe that the multiplicity of the same expressiveness and its fecundity represent the most interesting aspects of Naples and its art in the 1980s.
Personally, I am back to Naples since a very short time, now. But my impression is that, from a strictly photographic point of view, this city is becoming quite vibrant lately. There are numerous labs and schools of photography, there are collectives of photographers, new exhibitions opening every week, workshops and they all are always quite crowded. I was just asking to myself “why this exhibition here and now?”. Let me turn the question to you. Is there any connection between your curated exhibition and this changing context, or is it just my own projection?
I think it is undeniable that Napoli lately is feeling more and more the urge to recognize again its indivisible connection with the cultural heritage of the last decades of the century. There is this strong will to look back to its heritage and history and this means being ready to look at the Future. Because when a whole people looks at its own history, it his basically looking for its Future, and this actually is excellent!
The same museum in Villa Pignatelli, with the House of Photography, is developing a first rate accurate work promoting both, new discourses and contemporary photographers, as a renewed attention to our photographic heritage. Moreover, in the case of today’s exhibition, the House of Photography is working in synergy with other local and national cultural institutions.
Yes. So I do agree with you. Lately there is so much to see in Naples. Effectively, what is even more important to notice to me is that, in terms of art, there is an extremely interesting offer of excellent exhibitions with deeply engaging contents. In brief, there is so much to see, because of the very high quality of the contents of the art works on display. Then, even if the city is constantly on display, now, it happens with a very positive attitude. What I mean is that Naples is on display, but proudly -it is not becoming another “exhibition factory”.
Today there is also more and more serious photojournalism around the city…
Yes, there is plenty of engaging photojournalism around, now. But I would like to point out that here, at Blow Up, we have chosen to present a series of strictly artistic photographic works from the 80s. What is on display here is what was considered as “art work” during the 1980s -photographs which were produced exclusively to be hanged on a wall, exhibited in a gallery. Consequently, photojournalism – even the finest photographic journalism, clearly born with the aim to be printed and inform the audience through magazines and newspapers – lies out of this collection.
Thank you for the interesting insights.
Thanks to you and to your readers!
(Interview with Giuliano Sergio by Sabrina Merolla)