The first tale

I come from painting and sculpture and use photographymy own or out of books, as material. I manipulate, cut, glue, form and deform the images, like in the collage technique, to lead them back to painting. Then I print them on glass or Plexiglass thereby emphasizing the ambiguity of vision: the eye gets lost between the image and its reflection multiplied by the mirror behind it”.

Interview to Mariella Bettineschi, Ilaria Bignotti, 2017

First tale, 1996
serigraph on glass, 64 x 48 cm

First tale, 1996
serigraph on glass, 64 x 48 cm

MARIELLA BETTINESCHI. Ilaria Bignotti, 2017

The complexity of Mariella Bettineschi’s artistic research, the offshoots and variety of the visual results it produces, its interdisciplinarity and constant shifting from one medium to another but with eclectic combinations, are familiar to academic and institutional circles as well as the art market. This determines on the one hand a substantial interpretation by scholars of different critical positions and on the other an attentive, discriminating form of collecting immune to preconceptions, prone to choosing the work rather than the signature, the image with its presence rather than the promise of its permanence

The artist’s swift creative transitions, restless – and excessive for someone approaching them cursorily – encompass an archive brimming over with soft objects featuring gilded writings, beads, and flashes, eyed by a thieving magpie jealous of the secret concealed in them; robust and worn papers and maps, tarred panels, gildings, vast circles and tenuous names in geographies of olden times, in the 1980s; imaginary constellations, will-o’-the-wisps and fires in the night equal to the finest late 19th-century imaginary panoramas and most acid postmodern skies, between the 1980s and 2000; extremely hard sculpture made of closed slabs, impassable boundaries, or else firmly repaired, sadistic environmental and site-specific passages, shattered limits; and all the work on the obliquity and deceit of pure form to demolish neo-concrete and post-conceptual references in the 1990s. An archive in which a large space is left for speech, stories, memorial and private narratives; an archive of women, nude, dressed, angels, little girls, grazed by an oblivious eye; and around all this a lush efflorescence that being entirely necessary refuses to become an anthology, in the true sense of the word, of drawings, sketches, projects for large installations and sculptures. For decades the artist has been creating them, made of paper flowers, protected letters, hands drawing mandalas, phytomorphic delights, magic bucrania of the new millennium, leopards and unicorns escaped from the tapestry manufacturers in Flanders; and again, blank open books immersed in water, windows and mirrors, white swings and heavenly chariots, mosaics and light projections.

A work archive. A continuous working, persevering, in perpetual mutation. With Mariella Bettineschi’s oeuvre the risk of mystification is ever lurking; we can master it by imposing on ourselves an interpretive grid that deliberately rejects the course of time with its sequence of dates and data, and seeks to identify visual and semantic themes, – iconographic and iconologic – soundly backed up by semiotics, symmetrical anthropology, and above all the “Warburg method”, with its anti-alphabetical and anti-chronological library, his Mnemosyne-book of images where a 1920s’ girl playing golf calls to mind the nymph of Hellenistic times, for those Pathosformein that,  belonging to every period, move bodies in the wind of the time.

Instants and centuries that somehow continue to flow in the work of Mariella Bettineschi, this artist both cultured and intuitive, beyond time yet ever present, with her eyes turned elsewhere.

Hermes bifrons of a next era. It may not be a coincidence if her first works are titled “magic boxes”, containers of an initiatic knowledge, small landscapes for hermits and hermeneuts of the visual.

After a necessary intoxication of images that Mariella Bettineschi usually imposes with a certain sadism on those who approach her world, the return to a sober organization of facts must therefore begin with the choice of a method: as we just wrote we shall not follow a chronological order – as besides this has already been performed in her latest monographic study in 2013 by Francesca Pasini[1] – but proceed by themes. Time, the times of Mariella’s work will intersect in an iconic and semantic reciprocity echoed through the ‘floating isles’ of her archipelago that Pasini so aptly defined: mobile.[2]

  1. Recognition

Before defining the thematic landings toward which we shall navigate, it should be made clear that our compass will be her latest cycle of works, – we might claim her most extensive yet – begun in 2008 and still being conceived and produced, titled The Next Era.[3]

These works, through the various thematic groups analyzed, will be the principal object of this essay’s critical examination.

The Next Era consists entirely of two-dimensional multimedia works created by superimposing and combining photographs and digital painting, prints on Plexiglass and mirror, operations of collage, blurring, fading, and blanks.

The visual result is diversified in several iconic and narrative typologies. A first corpus features pictures of missiles, rockets, shuttles, airplanes taking off, launched, or in flight, in the presence of the public or not, in atmospheres made surreal by operations of blank, out of focus, chromatic alterations. A second one is composed of industrial landscapes framing areas of giant highway interchanges, bridges and freeways, with overlaying of digital collages and other operations of color elaboration. A third group features views of natural landscapes, mostly woods and undergrowth, mountain lakes and ponds recalling gardens and Impressionist water lilies, either toned in black and white or chromatically altered with special filters and fogs, upon which are then performed operations of fading, color blurring, and digital collages with the insertion of opalescent elliptical shapes. Then come views of libraries and places preserving knowledge, Italian and international, digitally elaborated and toned in black and white, mirrored on reflecting supports and subtly manipulated, creating effects of spatial breakthrough and depth, centrally out of focus and misted with milky, diaphanous spots. A last series assembles female icons selected from Renaissance, Mannerist, and Baroque pictorial masterpieces, digitally reworked and toned in black and white, physically transformed with special actions of blank, cutting, and splitting, and printed with a special digital technique that makes the surface look like hand-painted porcelain, conferring on them an enchanting and moving patina of time.

The fundamental themes that arise from these samples are narration, Nature, woman, the eye, the diaphanous, and light. In each theme the double as antithesis, division, and dualism constitutes a fundamental element determining the visual outcome.

  1. Laden with the past and big with the future.

Each work of The Next Era is a phenomenon – a coming into the world, a becoming image – of a trajectory that joins a millenary past and a future time, emerging from an inner, unconscious space-time that the artist maieutically consigns to the beholder.

The Next Era is imagination’s call to arms, an appeal to creative responsibility, a gaze self-generating icons, an ethical option expressed in esthetic potentials. From Leibniz[4] to the Cassirer of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms[5] and An Essay on Man[6],  verging on certain interpretations of symmetrical anthropology advanced by the French school of Michel Serres and Bruno Latour, we can identify an ideal trace, a sort of Karstic river flowing under Mariella’s entire work and outpoured in her latest cycle, the fruit of a forty-year-long artistic development: The Next Era.

Man “is never located in a single instant. In [his] life the three modes of time – the past, the present, and the future – form a whole which cannot be split up into individual elements.”[7] To back up this reflection Cassirer quotes Leibniz claiming the impossibility to “describe the momentary state of an organism without taking its history into consideration and without referring it to a future state for which this state is merely a point of passage.”[8]

If we replace the concepts of state and organism with those of iconography and oeuvre we have an echo of Mariella Bettineschi’s words, when with intense awareness she tells us what was the fact – just as epochal – that set off this research: “I have been working on The Next Era since 2008, the beginning of the financial crisis, an epochal crisis that is involving every parameter, measures of judgement, terms of comparison, marking a deep and definitive change with respect to the past. Pictures of woods, of ponds arise, landscapes become evanescent by breaths of void or inhabited by mysterious, disturbing presences; precious libraries invaded by a gassy dilatation that floods and thwarts architectural boundaries. An obvious metaphor of the risk of their destruction. Next to these works, as a possible protection toward the transition to The Next Era, I place portraits of women, large icons of art history, to which I double the eyes to indicate that it is to women, able to see far ahead, that I entrust the difficult passage lying before us.”[9]

Mariella Bettineschi’s option does not express a backward-looking position, nor does she pronounce certainties on the magnificent and progressive fortunes of the Western future: she experiments a con-fusion of potential ages, merging one into another in an eclectic and empathetic combination of ritual and story-telling, vision and view, disaster and ecstasy, with an omnivorous and metabolic eye, able to abandon itself to a millenary breeze or a quick delving into 21st-century digital clouds.

  1. Nothing is born out of method.

If this is the theoretic approach, Mariella Bettineschi must necessarily reject a method arising from the project, developing in its possible translation into process, and ending in a series of “finished” product-images.

The Next Era was not born and does not end: it changes, changeable and borrowing from previous “ages”, that is, the other cycles of works that came before and which, in turn, necessarily already contained it and contained “themselves”. Like The Next Era today they were, as the philosopher suggests to us, “big” with the future. In this constant remixing and osmosis of creative periods, in this deep fissure where programmatic certainties collapse in a vortex of endless intuitive and random possibilities, Mariella Bettineschi acts with the conscious ecstasy of a dowser: she seeks the rivulet flowing beneath the crust of method until she decides to release the lava flow of the possible icon. Mercurial and mobile, the artist perfectly embodies the image of Hermes, the Greek god of communication, contact between divine and human, message and deceit, defined by Michel Serres in his recent piece, Le Gaucher Boiteux, published in 2015,[10] as the actor of the third revolution: a left-handed lame because able to deviate from the familiar and henceforth sterile path of our century with its rules and limits, to call it to perform a soft revolution, changeable like the possibilities offered by this great surge of virtual and increased reality, hypertrophic technologies, conflicts and hybridisms of peoples and cultures that humankind possesses today and must be able to rediscover for its own salvation.

Serres goes beyond the Western dualistic vision that was established ever since the Enlightenment between the world of science and the world of culture, even seeing in this very separation the present crisis of humankind.

Bruno Latour, his former student, tells us that even concepts of Modern are outmoded, just as that of Anti-Modern often used by Westerners to designate other cultures, judged “guilty” ever since Humanism of not distinguishing between transcendent and immanent, fatal myth and scientific verification, supernatural and natural; this in the name of a Non-Modern position, meaning a symmetrical anthropology approach where faith merges with science, fetish with concept, fate with foresight, in a web of fertile and nomadic relations that freely transcend the boundaries we set up during the first and second revolution, humanist and industrial.[11] The new education of Western man – hyper-technological, stressed, depressed, and above all torn between desires, anxieties, and fears – should be nurtured on invention, imagination, freedom. And also, above all, should be able to stray and deviate from the pre-established goal. The so coveted method does not work, thinking means inventing, inventing is finding other routes in the course of travel and experience, walking, swimming, navigating, stumbling, riding without a map: or holding a Hermetic Map as Mariella Bettineschi might suggest.

In The Next Era (and for decades now) she weaves, sews, joins, takes apart, mends, and checks the solidity of the materials – found, developed, natural, digital, ancient, second-hand -, combining with them images and tales of a history as a fluid osmosis between past, present, future, tripping over her own cultural and even existential roots, to test her own vision through trial or error, associating the accuracy of the procedure with the potential of the creative process. “I tried many times to give myself a method, set up a starting point, an orderly proceeding, a ‘first I do this and then I do that’. That way my work simply died. Inexorably died. I have no method, but I work by surrounding. I set up traps along the way, that gradually rouse the image, force it out into the open. This gives rise to the works that remain hidden even for years, but are there calling me, like a flicker, an idea, a little thing. Sooner or later everything emerges and is born, takes shape, because pressed by necessity, by these traps, I don’t even know how myself.[12]

Artists always know what is happening, even before “it” appears, a phenomenon, a fact that is born.

  1. Montageand narration

Suspense, deconstruction, narrative ellipse and iconic erasure, re-composition of the long-lost original all, collage of possible approaches to meaning.

Mariella Bettineschi’s compositional grammar is firmly anchored in the practice of montage: a montage that in being connotative, experimental, formed of found images – discovered, re-emerged, recognized in the process of the artist’s investigation and research – that is meant as a method for a maieutic extraction of depth and at the same time a cognitive approach and visual result.

The fact that it is not defined once and for all is on the one hand the ‘signature’ of Mariella’s work and on the other the quid that creates suspense, in the sense that gradually the eye becomes used to changes and insistences. Each group of figures can function as people telling their story, indicating temperatures and desires, but also their capacity to disappear to leave room for the next image.[13]

Precisely in The Next Era this constant procedural nature of the image becomes an explicit statement of anti-method by the artist herself, who declares:

I come from painting and sculpture and use photographymy own or out of books, as material. I manipulate, cut, glue, form and deform the images, like in the collage technique, to lead them back to painting. Then I print them on glass or Plexiglass thereby emphasizing the ambiguity of vision: the eye gets lost between the image and its reflection multiplied by the mirror behind it.”[14]

No other indication: let us just look.

In most cases the splitting of each work associates two fields of vision and makes them clash. One is usually a white blank, a fracture or iconic absence that asks us to complete the subject represented in the other field. Which precisely contains the image, which is often icon, synecdoche, symbol. This is the case for the reproduction of a rocket taking off amidst a fire that burns the surrounding landscape. We can feel its infernal heat. But the image is upside down and in the field below a blank cuts across the leaden sky. What happens after the explosion that precedes the possible take-off?

Elsewhere an eagle hovers in mid-air in the lower field of the work. In the upper one the total blank has the shape of an immaculate camp pillow, another partly hidden by torn blankets. Iconography and iconology: might and misery. It is up to us to complete the story.

The ellipses standing out on the watery patches of The Next Eras, that I like to call natural: are they lunar discs, apparitions of pagan deities, alien presences?

Slowness, not the fixity of the image, appears to be the artist’s chosen language: in blurring, dissolving, decoloring, or splitting some narrative and iconic elements she plays at an emotional slow motion with the beholder.

This gradual surfacing of the image’s deep meaning has a certain proximity with the Bill Viola of the late 1960s, from Reflecting Pool to Chott el-Djerid (A Portrait in Light and Heat). Here, as well, images emerge, submerge, drown one another in a slow happening that seems to repeat the emerging from the unconscious of an atavistic experience-knowledge. It is not a coincidence if later, in his most famous videos, Viola made a broad explicit use of the canons of classical pathos mediated by the Renaissance masters: Masolino da Panicale, Charles Le Brun, Leonardo da Vinci, Pontormo.

Elsewhere the thick woods of The Next Era are drowned in a milky presence that partly dissolves the image and offers the beholder a neutral space to fill.

De imaginationis loco. This is the title of one of Bettineschi’s early works, introducing the 1980s: a work that already anticipated and left behind the disquisitions between conceptual and transavantgarde, retrieving the poetics of the simple, minimal intervention, or pure poetry approached and woven in the material, that was to be so widely followed among 1990s’ artists.

A soft white cushion: a blank for resting your head, seeking to be mended, lit by the magic, evocative – and gilt – formula written by the medium-artist. The work is where we can imagine “something” happening.

From this one to Racconti morbidi (Soft Tales) that also arose in 1980, where the narrative thread is no longer speech but the colored and woven chenille, beads, thin twisted threads again pinned on stuffed objects. Esoteric prostheses of a female body, we might think, setting aside for a while this theme that Patrizia Serra was the first to point out, describing another series, the Piumari (Feather Boxes)[15] that came right after, in 1981.

Neighboring with the diaphanous landscapes and skies visited by the strange lunar discs of The Next Era, the Racconti ermetici (Hermetic Tales) even preceded the 1980s: places crossed with minute, meticulous traces, arisen from a narrative born of recollections and visions, peopled with elliptic signs in the sky and on earth, earthy blueish backgrounds that convey the notion of landscape; and the Indagini sull’isola[16] (Enquiries on the Island), rough thick white sheets of paper, textural, where small landings cut and dot the still vacant fields, to be written with the imagination.

Here the montage is left up to the beholder who, in the vast empty spaces of these latest works we mentioned, even before the early 1980s, is the director of a story in the making, called upon to fill its narrative ellipses that then it will rediscover decades later in the metaphysical woods and interstellar skies of The Next Era.

  1. Les Regards Perdus (Faraway Looks).

Looks, immediately perceiving the flash of a tale or slowly scanning the horizon of the possible future; tactile look that feels the burning atmospheres of a shuttle taking off, look that smells the mist of a woods and the nostalgia of time, amassed in the pages of books slumbering in an old library; look caressing the porcelain smoothness of a lady of olden times. In each of Mariella Bettineschi’s works the look is a subject activating and questioning the work and at the same time the work itself looking at whoever interrogates and scrutinizes it in a to-and-fro causing visual dizziness, perceptive splitting and putting out of focus: blessed errors of a fatal illumination.

Up to now no one has dared describe the women’s eyes in The Next Era. Incising our curiosity, they themselves are cut, pitilessly, and doubled, by the artist who thus creates monsters – in the sense of the Latin monstra, wonderful monsters – of female beauty.

Indeed, if we look at them from up close, these Medusa-like eyes give the same disturbing impression as the Sphinx’s might have been for Oedipus while he awaited the final verdict to its unresolved enigma; they disturb and morbidly attract, like the razor cut in Un Chien Andalou, not a coincidence if the artist quoted it to me as the constant theme in the gestation of The Next Era (an image that, we like to think, after having been “beset” and trapped by her, she had been able to bring back to life in her female iconographies).

These eyes are double: for each woman, four pupils, four irises, four eyelids, four arches of eyelashes and eyebrows. They are haughty black eyes, without shilly-shallying. Each pupil lit by a tiny, firm white light. A dazzling punctum. A flash that draws us to it hypnotically, like the beads, the gilt drops, the tiny ripples, the translucent and shiny risings in all of Mariella Bettineschi’s works. Dots of light that elsewhere, in other cycles of works, flare up in electric tangles, unruly fires, visual blinding.

The Lady with an Ermine looks elsewhere twice in her unruffled dignity; Judith doubles her concentration in the gesture of proud slaughter, and the four lights in the pupils are headlights aimed at the surgical choice of salvation through massacre; Bronzino’s Lucrezia Panciatichi is frozen in a look that hypnotically draws to her in the lunar mystery of an everlasting love enveloping and protecting her; the awareness of La Fornarina’s charm is doubled in her look, and the pearl pointing to her neck in the part of her black hair on the left is blurred before the glow of her eyes; all the secrets of Violante, portrayed by Titian under other garbs and names, are condensed therein, in the fulcrum of her four pupils; and the Mannerist symbolism of the Fontainebleau castle is heightened by the eight eyes of Gabrielle D’Estrées and one of her sisters, immortalized in the gesture that binds them, declaring the former the king’s future wife.

All the power of these eyes, of this flashing of eyes tortured by being doubled, prostheses and deictic for the beholder, is made even more explicit by the modality of painting digitally the space in which the women are placed. The portraits, that certainly remain firmly bound to the icons of the original masterpieces, underwent a twofold process: on the one hand bodies and faces are drowned in a black that dissolves into shadow, thus standing out with anguishing dramatic violence and loneliness. The erasure of the surrounding context, save for some narrative and symbolic detail – the slice of moon in Bronzino’s Lucrezia, freely inserted by Bettineschi, the summit of foliage in the Fornarina, and the architectural detail in Palma Il Vecchio’s Bella (Portrait of a Woman), these last two landscape notes existing in the original paintings – is further heightened by the field below dividing the work: a blank. As distinct and peremptory as the flashes of the women’s eyes. The predominance of the scale of greys and black concentrated around the women’s presences in the upper part of the image, and the blinding white replacing the rest of the body and the surroundings in the lower part, match the black iris and light-steeped pupil of the gaze. Looking at you is the work. Looking at you is I: the artist. In turn I ask you to look into us, look into yourself. To hold out your hand, to save us, dwellers in an era out of which we may emerge, visionary and mercurial, in the fullness of our ability to be humans.

I am asking you, Mariella Bettineschi seems to be saying to us, with the very eyes of the women trapped in a painting, in their being muses, lovers, concubines, wives. Never acknowledged as protagonists.

In 2001, visiting the XLIX Venice International Art Biennial curated by Harald Szeemann, equipped with a camera Mariella Bettineschi took thousands of photographs that she reworked in a project called Domino: a work entirely played on the theme of this reciprocity of the act of looking. Actually she had seized the visitors’ looks, catching the various reactions in front of the works on exhibit: “[…] who is before the images by the artist who in turn is looking through the lens at those who are observing. Then the shots are reworked and assembled according to two criteria: one based on rhythm, formal and compositional values, effects of light and shadow, and one suggested by the nexus of meaning legible in the images.[17]

As regards this openness and reciprocity in looking, it is worthwhile pointing out that the artist, twenty years before beginning The Next Era for her participation in the XLIII Venice International Art Biennial in 1988 showed “closed” works, inaccessible to others’ penetration, works for direct, frontal looks, impassioned and sibylline works: “[…] just a few graphic effects create the memorial modulation of a sign, with a nocturnal and vibratile intensity, on the surface intensely animated by the background color”, Giovanni Carandente wrote in the catalog essay describing Bettineschi’s works: L’accesso sigillato (1987), Colonna d’ombra (1987), Magico (1987), Celata (1988), Arcadia (1988).[18]  Eighty years before the first works of The Next Era René Magritte completed Les regards perdus (Faraway Looks) begun in 1927. A man, wearing a white tunic, is portrayed in profile. The man’s look is doubled in that of a woman whose profile is inset and as if cut out in the man’s, enclosed in the perimeter of the back of the man’s head and neck. Man and woman are looking in the same direction.

The face, duplicated in an androgynous projection, stands out against a neutral ground that looks like an alchemical metal, cut horizontally by a black blade that splits the entire image in two fields. A hint of nature rises behind the face, a rock spreading to the upper part of the image. What should arise is this hidden – lost? – potentiality, the twofold looking toward an elsewhere yet to appear.

Cutting, collage, doubling: in one of the capital scenes in the history of Surrealist film, Luis Buñuel cuts a woman’s eye. It is the delirious photogram of Un chien andalou produced by him, performed with Salvador Dali and directed by Buñuel alone. Through the sacrifice of a gaze the disturbing images slide over the screen in a 17-minutes-long delirious trip.

The artist is the medium of another vision, at the cost of placing on the anatomy table – so cherished by the early 20th-century avant-gardes – images of every kind and decencies of any nature. The entire Surrealist esthetics is thronged with looks. Women’s. From the seductive and persecuting eye in Man Ray’s Indestructible Object, 1923 – where the doubling of the gaze is given by its being vigilant at all times, following the pace of the metronome – to a frottage of Max Ernst’s Natural History series in 1925:[19] we would like to ask what Mariella Bettineschi thinks about this huge female eye barely attached to an ellipse of pink skin, not surprisingly titled The Wheel of Light.

She might tell us to ask the women in The Next Era: skilled enchantresses, they weave the threads of time and images, bewitching Fates of an ancient future.

  1. Why have there been no great women artists? [20]

Remedios Varo joined the Surrealist movement between Madrid and Barcelona and started “playing” at the cadavre exquis. In 1943 she worked on her own portrait: next to her face shot in profile she put Benjamin Péret’s half-face. Varo has her hands on her hips, a hat with a wide black rim, and doubles her visionary choice to be a Surrealist artist with the gaze of a fellow traveler who came to Spain to fight by the Republicans’ side. Again, amputation and doubling of one’s own gaze with the other’s: vision and ecstasy.[21]

Janet A. Kaplan describes another picture in which they are holding hands, each lost in the other’s gaze. But, she noted, both heads are replaced by mirrors so each one sees his/her own reflection.[22] Just as Nature was the background of Varo’s self-portrait in 1943, thus The Lovers painted by the artist twenty years later are seated in a wood with their legs in the water created by the vapor of their attraction, that rises and falls in the form of rain. Generation and power of the gaze that doubles, splits, repeated ad libitum. Women’s Surrealist world leads us into the visionary universe that Mariella Bettineschi created. Throughout her work, to borrow the words that describe the work of another Surrealist, Leonora Carrington, “Nature is animated by powerful forces and germinations and we are confronted with the authoritative voice of a woman embarking on a search for a meta-language capable of overcoming the limitations of linear space and time, and communicating the interdependence of all aspects of the phenomenal and physical worlds”.[23]

Over the decades the female icon in Bettineschi has been a metaphoric presence, virgin with the unicorn, initiatory traveler from adolescence to maturity, mother and angel, goddess and light generating an alchemical nature, now composed of animals and lush vegetation as in the recent work Mon seul désir, freely inspired by the Cluny Museum tapestries, or in the countless flow of drawings in which a mysterious Dulcinea often appears next to wonderful tiny minerals, or again, going back in time, in the above-mentioned Piumari (Feather Boxes), synecdoche of a woman’s corporality and perhaps autobiographic, where a light gust of white feathers is arranged like a landscape of limbs behind the pink organza membrane, a metaphor of skin dotted with flashes.

Whereas in the cycle La Vestizione dell’angelo (The Dressing of the Angel), created in the 1990s in an ebullient experiment with materials including brass, cutout glass, tracing paper, acetate, steel mesh, neoprene, Bettineschi replaced the woman with the synecdoche of the garment, dwelling of a body to be imagined.

Leading up to The Next Era when a procession of faces rises proudly from the oxymoron in which male chauvinist centuries relegated them: a familiar anonymity.

Bettineschi’s procession was of women, begun in the 1970s when her artistic experimentation took over: at a time when she had to choose between putting forward her own body to vindicate the right to expression and artistic creation, or else conceptually reducing gesture to sign and enunciation, in a project of reiteration. A course that Mariella Bettineschi had already somehow interiorized without needing to perform it, tending toward a way of doing art that would be asserted much later, after having also gone beyond Transavangardist demands: when, “with a kind of heroic approach, politically radical and anxious for a frontal clash, a more ‘deconstructivist’ attitude [would] arise, concentrated on creating her own gaze and position, not opposed but merely different from the male ones […] an individual vision, subjective, founded on the concrete practice of a language or, better said, of language.[24]

With her hybridizing and combining materials, media, alphabets, with the constant osmosis and contamination between her research periods, the central role given to process over method, the passion for manual dexterity where the medium is digital, the delicate hardness with which she entraps and circumscribes, sections and duplicates an image for it to become an offshoot generating new iconographies, Mariella Bettineschi is an artist who at the very dawn of her career was already fully projected beyond the 1990s into the new millennium: and it may well be because of this very choice of hers, innate and spontaneous, intuitive and “wild”, meaning solitary, that she has endured the lack of a historiographical position that has yet to be acknowledged.

Essential aspects of Bettineschi’s entire work, such as her using a plurality of media and materials, refusing a globalizing history for a personal memory that filters the epochal facts through her own visions, choosing to not exhibit and proclaim women’s corporality –  a prominent practice in the 1970s and even the ‘80s – in favor of a more hidden, subtler level, telling of woman’s identity and physicality in the contemporary context, a predisposition to playfulness in the sense of an imaginative and fabulatory stimulus of the work, are well-known components in women’s artistic research as of the 1990s: all of them were present in Bettineschi’s research long before.[25]

Modernist universality rests upon an esthetics of the universality of forms of representation, forms from which women were constantly excluded. Postmodernism, far from challenging this notion of universality, often does but reinvest it to peremptorily deliver a message of relativity. So a feminist critique of the patriarchal order has to also be a critique of the order of representation.[26]

  1. Finis Terrae.

The glows that reverberate in the Erme (Hermae) of 1983 are back in the mists thickening between the woods and ponds in the landscapes of The Next Era: then the tiny wooden showcases, painted black and protected by a pane of glass, contained hidden natural elements, flickering pigments, hints of peaks and foliage, enchanted natural atmospheres marking a here and a there – here reality, there the imagination of reality, the potentiality of art as a thriving, regenerating deed.

Leaving traces in the landscape to indicate an occult experimental trajectory is the source of Bettineschi’s research. Over the 1970s and ‘80s she intervened physically on the Nature around her, with elements and objects that became “[…] letters of a new alphabet […]. They are traces in the riverbed or Architectures on the edge of the forest where natural elements vary their usual position giving space new meaning.[27]

Since 1996 Mariella Bettineschi has replaced direct interventions on Nature and its concealment in the little black wood and glass theaters with digital painting and printing on Plexiglass, creating a lush, silent vegetation where if Man went by he gently cast a stone into the pond; elsewhere, cosmic ellipses suggest to us that alien presences, gazes from other worlds may have caressed the idea of halting in the coolness, steeping the surrounding glade in a milky, acid light.

Mystery, attraction, and silence, undecipherable trajectory, occult presence, alchemy of the image as it evaporates in diaphanous memory: the Natures in The Next Era are phytomorphic sisters of the Tesori[28] (Treasures) and the maps that after the Hermae, in 1985, Mariella Bettineschi wrinkled and coiled, perforated and stretched, creating rocky landscapes crossed with flashes and grooved with the Earth’s wrinkles,  with ancient caravan routes, fabulous crevasses into which the eye sinks: made out of translucent tracing paper coated with tar, turpentine, pigment, and set on fire, they possess the same twofold density-diaphanousness as the works of The Next Era.

Sometimes gilded, others written in the artist’s hand, these landscapes recall the ancient explorers’ maps, where in some places there had to be blanks of knowledge: hic sunt leones.

Mariella Bettineschi warns us that here we have reached Finis Africae or Finis Europae.

In these 1980s’ works there are also elliptic shapes, unmistakable signs of a geometry of the Earth, of a human tracery that strives to embrace inexpressible and almighty Nature.

Since the end of that decade a gradual reducing to elementary forms, a stripping of the organic element – that lives on, underneath, as originating idea, possible return, ultimate salvation –, characterize works such as Quando la notte tende le sue trappole (When Night Sets its Traps), almost the artist’s statement of her (anti)method, in 1988, and Orizzonte(Horizon) in 1989. In the forest of symbols and forms of Bettineschi’s work some geometries solidify and become pure sculptural elements: a decisive, peremptory intervention in the landscape, not represented but real. The sculptures evoking child’s play, like the Slitta (Sled) and the Dondoli (Swings) (1990), and the large environmental sculpture, a hyphen between micro and macro-cosmos, in the Carro celeste (Heavenly Chariot) of 1994, were unmistakably followed by large signs to go through in space, sometimes as obstacles, as in the instance of the Paesaggio in nero[29](Landscape in black) at the Serrone di Villa Reale at Monza, made in 1992 for the artist’s solo show: “[…] An X and a V, huge and black, stand out, and on a sort of planetarium modelled by acids twelve crosses loom”.[30] Disturbing like the shuttles poised between take-off and apocalypse, might and destruction, in the views of The Next Era.

At the same time her work swarms with myriads of eclipses, spheres, round shapes, like Pillole leggere (Light Pills) in PVC to lay out like a paving, in 1995, or a medium for measuring the temperature of the atmosphere with the light reflected through translucent multicolored membranes, in La teoria delle sfere[31] (The Theory of the Spheres) in 2003, or again they dot Paesaggio plurale (Plural Landscape), another site-specific installation in a Milan gallery in 1992. Whereas in Il Mulino di Amleto (Hamlet’s Mill), two years before, the spheres became black discs on an uneven red geometric field, on the wall. In the context of what then turned out to be an authentic pilot-project, reworked and remodeled in many other events in the years when business and culture went hand in hand, through the direct involvement of contemporary artists called to intervene in places of culture, Arte e Industria. L’esperienza Textile Produkte per l’arte contemporanea[32] (Art and Industry. The Textile Produkte Experience for Contemporary Art) arose in 1994 out of an idea Bettineschi had with Fausto Radici. Curated by Amnon Barzel it brought together a selection of artists asking them to express themselves in the space of the factory, receiving and elaborating the stimuli given by its rhythms and products, its workers and managers. So it is interesting to hear that Bettineschi declared that this installation united “[…] a horizontal, everyday time, the time of the place, with an oblique time, the time of imagination, of poetry: two times that seek one another, necessary to one another, but that never can perfectly coincide.[33] The eclipses of The Next Era also speak to us of these times, and their im(possible) reductio ad unum (merging into one).

  1. Heavenly sightings

Analysts, thinkers, journalists and those who should make decisions divided the net […] into so many little compartments, in each one of which we shall only find science, economy, social representations, news, piety, or sex. […] Beware of confusing heaven and earth, universal and local, human and non-human. […] But that a subtle shuttle connects heaven, industry, texts, souls, and moral law is something that remains unknown, undue, unheard of.[34]

In the new millennium Mariella Bettineschi goes back to measuring heavenly maps, by reducing the work to an icon seeking a formula that might contain this eternal dialogue between the microcosm of Man and the infinite macrocosm; or also and again between the originating, Platonic Idea – as also recalled in the title La teoria delle sfere (The Theory of the Spheres) – and its contamination and dissemination in the forms deriving from it like daughters of a first imprint. Primordial, arcane. Once again there is the problem of generation, of finding – or better said, finding all over again – in the mandala of the creative process the principle, the origin of a gesture that gives birth to the world all over again.

Here Mariella Bettineschi is exemplary, prolific, each time amazing in the variegated unity of the linguistic results.

Her trajectory, intent on the mystery of space, of a heavenly vault mirrored in the oblique sculptures lying like playful meteorites on a green lawn, or entangled in the papers processed with organic and non-organic materials, leads to Verso la costellazione dei leopardi (Towards the Constellation of Leopards), 1986: “Patches of sky struck by a sudden luminescence, places of contemplation whence the eternal can be perceived.[35]

These heavenly crossings where remote galaxies rend the darkness of knowledge –  always alternating black and light, as in the blanks and the dull hues on which the images of The Next Era stand out – seem to be echoed, in the new millennium, by La Costellazione del disegno interno (The Constellation of the Internal Design). It is a composite work, a series of drawings printed on round shapes of Plexiglass to be arranged in space: each one features astral maps, elliptic and circular signs turning around central pivots, satellites, chemical formulae of genesis translated into lines and clots of black color, numeral sequences, asteroids reduced to minimal terms, uncanny space shuttles: forms that already dotted the Feather Boxes and furrowed the Treasures, then traced more orderly processions in the works of the late 1980s. Finally here they are, gathered like pure ideas graphitized to dot space, with one eye on Federico Zuccari[36] and the other on Marcel Duchamp for his transparent panels breeders of mystical and alchemical icons, recalling his Large Glass: “[…] also through a certain familiarity of the engraved images above […] but if Duchamp used glass and images to negate art, Mariella Bettineschi does it to assert it; first because she belongs to a tradition, second because the drawings on glass are “internal designs” as the artist calls them and therefore with the precise intention of giving them the sense of a structure.[37] This is what Giacinto di Pietrantonio wrote for Voyager, a laborious project of a travelling exhibition that sent the Costellazioni del disegno interno (Constellations of the Internal Design) across the ocean to dock in New York, Detroit, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Chicago.

In titling his essay Senz’ombra di dubbio (Without a shadow of a doubt), Di Pietrantonio focused on a crucial element in Bettineschi’s research, that is, her capacity to work with light and shadow, going through all the gradations between the two opposites. I shall fully quote his reflection that opens the way to a disquisition on the theme of the diaphanous in the artist’s work, beginning with The Next Era, discovering it is a sustaining feature of her entire creative career.

There is a further difference it is worthwhile pointing out and it is that of the shadow produced by a translucent or even transparent body, because in this case light does not end where it meets the body and shadow begins, insofar as it goes beyond it, and the boundaries between light, body, and shadow end up by becoming labile and in turn merge, continually shading into one another.[38]

The libraries in The Next Era are photographic reproductions with a central perspective, manipulated by Bettineschi in their toning in black and white and the successive pictorial digital elaboration. The artist chose them, as she explicitly declared, among the subjects of The New Era insofar as they still represent today, perhaps even more than in 2008 in the midst of the Western identity crisis, “granaries” of knowledge, quoting Yourcenar, to be preserved as precious provisions in times of cultural dearth.[39] In an ideal journey through the knowledge preserved and bound all over Europe the artist shows us the Casanatense Library in Rome, the Apostolic Library at the Vatican, Trinity College in Dublin, the Marciana Library in Venice, the Library of the Benedictine Monastery of St Gall in Switzerland. Silence steeps the rooms, an absence of words that seem poised in the central cloud that thickens and evaporates in each of these interior views, barely letting us make out the edges of these storerooms of knowledge, with shelves and piled up books, stuccoed ceilings or geometric paving, chairs and tables where hours are spent immersed in reading. The eye is forced to a constant inside-outside motion, from the steaming vacuum encamped at the center to the perimeter where the objects reproduced remain visible. But on this laterality also, the eyes are drawn to the reflecting background that repeats and doubles the margins of the library in an apparently endless echo of returns.

Something similar occurs in Gerhard Richter’s Fotobilder, painted from the projection of a photograph on canvas and obtained by a blurring effect provided by the painterly ductus. A recent study examined to what degree Richter’s choice of blurring may reflect a metaphor of the process of memory – the recollection of something forgotten in appearing to the eye remains faded and not clearly outlined – in order to bring out another meaning of the archive: “something must be shown and at the same time not shown, perhaps to say something else, a third thing.[40]

If Richter, making use of the traditional oil painting and starting from an archive of photographic images, is able to achieve “a complex multimedia operation of mobilization of the archive” whereby “the everyday documents that are the supports of our memory become the fulcrum of a visual anamnesis able, ultimately, to rethink history”,[41] something similar happens in the work of The Next Era and especially in Mariella Bettineschi’s libraries. She starts analogically from the photograph to intervene directly on it with digital painting, and accelerate the blurring effect by a thickening that in the core of the reproduced image becomes blank, empty. Thus in her libraries “the eye focuses separately first one and then the other level, to then stop at an intermediary level between the two, like in an optical exercise preparatory to a more complex mental exercise of suspension of judgement and the ability to distinguish and name objects.[42]

I spoke of diaphanous in reference to Bettineschi’s work and I believe it is the most appropriate word for describing not only her way of processing the image but also her choice of numerous materials, from glass to Plexiglass and tracing paper. Diaphaneity in fact offers the artist a range going from the ghost of pure transparency to translucency (that lets light filter through but does not allow to see the outlines or the traces of the figures behind the screen) to cloudiness and the most impenetrable opacity. So diaphaneity is the medium whereby the process of surfacing something to visibility can happen: thanks to the mist thickening in the central heart of the reproductions of libraries chosen by Bettineschi we can imagine – seeing again, truly, for the first time, a new time? – the most important thing they contain: our culture, our having elaborated the world in alphabets, formulas, images. Seeing the edge, we discover the all.

There is something else.

In the etymology of the word, diaphanous contains the preposition Δia (dia), designating that which separates or splits, and as a result allows a crossing, an opening, a breaking through, to discern an interiority, to bring to light something hidden. This preposition is combined with the verb ϕaiνω (fàino) that presents a great semantic richness in being related to ϕως (fos), light: it actually means to shine, illuminate, but also cause to appear, render visible, bring to light what is veiled; and therefore make known, show, announce, present, indicate; make manifest a physical phenomenon or a spiritual aspect invisible by its very nature.[43]

In this sense Mariella Bettineschi’s libraries are the younger sisters of a creative continuum that from transparency thickens into cloudiness: a procession of images that the artist, a medium through the medium of diaphaneity and its range of possibilities, asks us to see for the first time, thanks to the flashes and flickers that dot them, the fires that blaze on the surface, the acid refractions of light caught in motion: from the Avvistamenti (Sightings) of the 1980s, to the Sovraesposti (Over-exposed) the Incendiati (Set on Fire), the consistent corpus of Alta velocità della luce (High Speed of Light) of the 1990s, is an entire work on light that becomes fire or explosive, barely perceptible or blinding.

Tireless, the artist asks us to continue to see with our eyes, free, intoxicated, pure.

Seeking for something that in us is latent, marginal, under the crust of conventions and habits: the ability to dream, to wonder, to imagine.

Thinking means inventing. All the rest – quotations, bottom page notes, indexes, references, copy and paste, bibliography of the sources, commentaries…-  may seem to be preparation – but soon becomes repetition, plagiarism and servility. […] Thinking finds. A thinker is a finder, an innovator like a troubadour. […] Discovering does not happen often.[44]

A small book, resting on an easel, is encamped on a stretch of sea, just set off for a journey in the cloudy depths of water: its name is Orfeo (Orpheus).

It is white. Blank.

It is up to us to write it.

[1] Francesca Pasini, edited by, Mariella Bettineschi, Corraini, Mantua, 2013.

[2] Francesca Pasini, Un arcipelago mobile, Ivi, pp. 6-12.

[3] Mariella Bettineschi, L’era successiva, booklet presenting the project, n.p., n.d., n.p.

[4] The original paragraph from which the quotation comes is in:

–                Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Monadologie, edited by Alexis Bertrand, Eugène Belin Editions, Paris 1886, p. 55, paragraphs 22 and 23:

“22. And every momentary state of a simple substance is a natural consequence of its immediately preceding one, so that the present is big with the future.”

In a note to paragraph 22, Leibniz refers the reader to paragraph 360 of the Theodicy, written in 1710 at the request of the Queen of Prussia and devoted to the problem of evil:

It is one of the rules of my system of general harmony, that the present is big with the future, and that he who sees all sees in that which is that which shall be. What is more, I have proved conclusively that God sees in each portion of the universe the whole universe, owing to the perfect connexion of things. He is infinitely more discerning than Pythagoras, who judged the height of Hercules by the size of his footprint.”

(Theodicy, 360.)

Successively the concept was clarified in the note to paragraph 23, quoting the New Essays on Human Understanding, written in 1703 and addressing the problems of the human soul and knowledge:

In virtue of the principle that the present is big with the future, each state of the soul has its reasons and cause in the states that preceded it; no action intervenes in the production of states of the soul; perceptions have no other natural cause than perceptions. The monad produces them out of itself. ‘It can even be said that because of these tiny perceptions the present is big with the future and burdened with the past, that all things harmonize […].’”

[5] See Ernst Cassirer, Symbol, Myth and Culture. Essays and Lectures of Ernst Cassirer 1935-1945, edited by Donald Philip Verene, New Haven and London, Yale University Press 1979.

[6] See Ernest Cassirer, An Essay on Man. An Introduction of Philosophy of Human Culture, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1944.

[7] Ivi.

[8] Ibidem.

[9] Mariella Bettineschi, L’era successiva, quoted above, n.p.

[10] Michel Serres, Le Gaucher Boiteux. Puissance de la pensée, Editions Le Pommier, Paris 2015.

[11] My connection with Bruno Latour is owed to Anselm Franke, ‘Shifting Backgrounds’, in Mousse, no. 54, June 2016. And of course Bruno Latour, Nous n’avons jamais été modernes, La Découverte, Paris, 1991.

[12] Mariella Bettineschi, in a conversation with the author, July 2017.

[13] Francesca Pasini, Un archipelago mobile, cit. p. 7.

[14] Mariella Bettineschi, in Francesca Pasini, ‘L’Era successiva: vuoti d’aria e sguardi doppi’in Id., edited by, Mariella Bettineschi. L’era Successiva, exhibition catalog, Nuova Galleria Morone, Milan, 24 September-7 November 2015, Nuova Galleria Morone, Milan 2015, p. 8.

 [15] Patrizia Serra, edited by, Piumari, exhibition catalog, Galleria Ipermedia, Ferrara 1982.

[16] Filiberto Menna, edited by, Indagine sull’isola, exhibition catalog, Galleria Corsini, Intra (Verbania), 1984.

[17] Cecilia De Carli, ‘Nel frammento il tutto’, in Mariella Bettineschi. Voyager, essay by Giacinto di Pietrantonio, travelling exhibition catalog, GAMeC-Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Bergamo; Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò and Dorfman Project, New York; Museum of New Art, Detroit; Santa Monica Museum of Art and Istituto Italiano di Cultura, Los Angeles; The University of Arts, Philadelphia; Jean Albano Gallery, Chicago; Biagiotti Progetto Arte, Florence, Bergamo, 2006, p. 94.

[18] Giovanni Carandente, ‘Aperto 88’, in XLIII. Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte di Venezia. Il luogo degli artisti, exhibition catalog edited by Marie-George Gervasoni, Venice, Edizioni La Biennale, 1988, p. 257. The list of Bettineschi’s works is on p. 281.

[19] This series of images (Magritte, Man Ray, Max Ernst) is drawn from Martina Corgnati, ‘Fotografia, scultura’, in Id., Artiste. Dall’Impressionismo al nuovo millennio, Bruno Mondadori, 2004, pp. 15 and 16.

[20] The title comes from the essay in the essential text that contributed to outline a history of women’s art, published in Linda Nochlin, Women, Art, Power, and other essays, Westview Press, Boulder (CO) 1988.

[21] For more on Remedios Varo, I refer again to Martina Corgnati, ‚Surrealiste‘, in Id., Artiste cit., pp. 130-151, where beside Varo we find Leonor Fini, Frida Kahlo, Meret Oppenheim.

[22] Janet A. Kaplan, Remedios Varo, Unexpected Journey, Abbeville Press, New York-London, 1985, p. 151, in Martina Corgnati, Surrealiste cit., p. 147.

[23] Whitney Chadwick, ‘Leonora Carrington. Visual Narrative in Contemporary Mexican Art’, in M. Agosín, editor, A Woman’s Gaze, White Pine Press, Fredonia (NY) 1998, p. 100, quoted in Martina Corgnati, Surrealiste cit., p. 146.

[24] Martina Corgnati, ‘Introduzione’, in Id., Artiste cit., p. XI.

[25] This is the analysis by Emanuela de Cecco ‘in Trame: per una mappa transitoria dell’arte italiana femminile degli anni Novanta e dintorni’, in Emanuela De Cecco and Gianni Romano, editors, Contemporanee. Percorsi, lavori e poetiche delle artiste dagli anni Ottanta a oggi, Costa&Nolan, Genoa 2000. In particular, De Cecco describes in these terms the outstanding and recurrent features in women’s artistic practices of this decade: Partire da sé; Indisciplina; Storia versus memoria; Corpi nascosti; Narrazioni; A che gioco giochiamo?, pp. 8-28. See also the extensive Bibliografia generale e teorica sull’arte delle donne negli ultimi vent’anni, edited by Emanuela di Cecco, pp. 371-383.

[26] Yves Michaud, ‘Introduction’, in Féminisme et histoire de l’art, essays by Marcia Tucker, Lisa Tickner, Griselda Pollock, et al., École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris 1990, p. 13, in Martina Corgnati, Introduzione cit., p. XVIII.

[27] Cecilia De Carli, Nel frammento il tutto cit., p. 88.

[28] Francesco Bartoli and Patrizia Serra, editors, Tesori, exhibition catalog, Spazio Temporaneo, Milan, Edizioni Spazio Temporaneo, 1986.

[29] Paolo Biscottini et al., editors, Mariella Bettineschi. Paesaggio in nero, exhibition catalog, Villa Reale, Monza, Federico Motta Editore, 1992.

[30] Cecilia De Carli, Nel frammento il tutto cit., p. 90.

[31] Laura Jane Culpan, editor, La teoria delle sfere, exhibition catalog, Platform Gallery, London, Edizioni Contemporanei, 2004.

[32] Amnon Barzel, editor, Arte e Industria. L’esperienza Textile Produkte per l’arte contemporanea, Marcos y Marcos Editore, Milan, 1996.

[33] Mariella Bettineschi, in Amnon Barzel, editor, Arte e Industria cit., p. 71.

[34] Bruno Latour, ‘I. CRISI’, in Idem, Non siamo mai stati moderni cit., pp. 13-16.

[35] Cecilia De Carli, Nel frammento il tutto cit., p. 89.

[36] Pointed out by Cecilia De Carli, recalling that in 1600 Zuccari borrowed from Vasari the concept of “disegno interno” (internal design) meaning the idea, distinguishing it from that of ‘external design’, or material. See Cecilia De Carli, Nel frammento il tutto cit., p. 94.

[37] Giacinto Di Pietrantonio,’ Senz’ombra di dubbio’, in Voyager cit., p. 11.

[38] Giacinto di Pietrantonio, Senz’ombra di dubbio cit., pp. 9-10.

[39] Mariella Bettineschi, L’era successiva cit., n.p.

[40] Hal Foster, ‘Semblance according to Gerhard Richter’, in Raritan, Winter 2003, p. 172, quoted in Angela Mengoni, ‘Ri-velare l’archivio: su Onkel Rudi di Gerhard Richter’, in Diafano. Vedere attraverso, edited by Chiara Casarin and Eva Ogliotti, ZeL Edizioni, Palermo 2012, pp. 170-171.

[41] Angela Mengoni, ‘Ri-velare l’archivio: su Onkel Rudi di Gerhard Richter’ cit., pp. 173-174.

[42] Emanuele Garbin, Il bordo del mondo. La forma dello sguardo nella pittura di Gerhard Richter, Venice, Marsilio, 2011, p. 20.

[43] Cfr. Patrizia Magli,’ Έστι δή τι διαφανές. Esiste dunque del diafano’, in Diafano. Vedere attraverso, edited by Chiara Casarin and Eva Ogliotti cit., pp. 17-24.

[44] Michel Serres, ‘Premessa’, in Idem, Il mancino zoppo. Dal metodo non nasce niente cit., p. 13.

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