Essays

GLOSSING BETTINESCHI’S ART, Giacinto Di Pietrantonio, 2018

Giacinto Di Pietrantonio World of the World, World of Art and Art World form a multi-layered founding triad: the poetic world of Mariella Bettineschi. Being a World made with Art, it contains all the Worlds: World of Above and thought, World of Below and matter, World of here and reality, World of there and the imaginary, World of the finite and World of the infinite. World and Worlds that, since the World is World, belong to the entire sphere of creation. This is why artists, as Alighiero Boetti indicated with one of his famous works, bring the World into the World. So we might say that Mariella Bettineschi’s expressive World is an artfully complex and multiform World that has a lot to tell us about the World.

Art has always been a World that enables us to look at the World in a different way and thus form hypotheses of a New World, thereby guiding our life into a different time. All this expressive World introduces the future and therefore a Successive Era, as the artist decided to call her work or, better said, her Art World since 2008. This is what the publication you shall have in your hands and before your eyes especially refers to, because, as the poet Joseph Brodsky said in his Nobel Prize speech in 1987: “There is no other future save that outlined by Art”. So we claim that Mariella Bettineschi’s art is a promise of the future, a successive time that has been lacking in recent times of withdrawal, and a here-and-now in which the World appears as actuality, as given fact, and no longer as a hope of building an afterwards, while, as Gerhard Richter claims: Art is the highest form of Hope and therefore of the future. It is towards this promise that our artist works, with the hope that things can change. It is not unrelated to this that she is a woman, one who not only brings human life into the World, giving the World continuity and future, but also as an artist, brings Art into the World. Actually, even if in recent times the marginalization of women in art has decreased, there has always been the notion, in the World of Art, that woman as creator of human life, fulfils, or almost, her creativity in biological creation. With her rich and complex work of over fifty years, Bettineschi belies this belief, just like other women artists who are increasingly revealing this successive truth. She never ceased being an artist, because a mother, or the reverse, for this very reason from the very beginning, at a time when daughters and sons were supposed to be named after their grandmothers or grandfathers, she rejected this tradition by naming her only son Tiziano (Titian).

For Bettineschi, who was born and lives between Brescia and Bergamo, this means consciously adhering to the tradition of Venetian culture, to which this part of Italy belonged before becoming part of Lombardy. This decision to remain in the “Venetian School”, steeped in light, appears in many parts of her Art. Art to Art for the sense of tradition, Art to Life for the fate of creation, Art and Life for the essence of existence, Art and Life of Art for alternative biography. Thus, each one of Mariella Bettineschi’s Art works is a wedge in the construction of the meaning of Art, of the Why, for Whom, and How we do Art, but also the Why we need Art and what we do with it once the artist has given it to us. Since the beginning of the world these are questions to which artists have tried to reply, and without Art the meaning of the world would not exist. In fact, not only the study of Art, but also of the neuro-sciences, or anthropology, or…  seek in Art the birth – evolutionary or not – of the human being that with it meant to celebrate life and death. Art is a reason for life, future, memory, past, being and actuality. Bettineschi’s works place us in front of these times and themes, sometimes as landscapes, at others as human figures, again others as stores of culture, other and different and successive worlds that tell us of the possibility of resisting and existing culturally in the language of Art that constantly reforms itself. Reform of the sign, Reform of the image, Reform of the form, here is another word suggested by the work of the artist who for years has stubbornly carried out a work aimed at trying out different paths. A work whose guideline is that of the tireless quest for signs, forms, images that are not challenged but re-elaborated through countless traditions, because aware that the future is not built in the present without awareness of the past.

So, of course revised in her own style, we recognize: forms of the informal, images of the Renaissance, signs of the classicism of worlds and modes, striving for years to build a single corpus as continuity and content. So the work bears many truths, through a liturgy of forms and contents, based neither on an ideology nor a faith, but on thought and sequence of ideas of the Idea. Idea of Art, Idea of Life, Idea of Creation, they cling to the work of the artist, harbinger of thoughts that seek to draw alternative meanings from the mass of images surrounding us. Actually, many of the images the artist uses come from the flux of visual flow with which television submerges us every day. What Mariella does is interfacing with them, reediting them in a kind of Situationist visual action, so the confrontation of juxtaposed images generates a sort of social critique. Art, thereby, is called upon to generate new ideas, proposals, and other meanings. In this highly contemporary compositional technique, the compositional dimension of the diptych – an ancient technique that allows to offer an alternation of stories – persists notwithstanding.

The story in fact is no longer just one, because the levels of the narrations are juxtaposed, layered as world and world reversed. In some of the works she has created, the double images are connected so as to underscore above all wartime situations, thereby pointing out the times of conflict we live in and urging to a responsible reflection that makes us face our moral honesty and Ethics. Ethics of alternated creation, Ethics of the dual condition, Ethics of the behavior we have in front of the concepts of Good and Evil, Ethics expressed by the doubled “images of war”. It is the Ethics of the use we make of images, images that we know are not always true, because often manipulated, insofar as aimed at creating consensus extorted through fake news, even when they put us “in front of the suffering of Others”, to use Susan Sontag’s meaningful proposal in 2003. So Bettineschi’s art becomes a battlefield where language fights the war of meanings using images, because always heralding truth. Indeed, art does not feign, and when it does it uses fiction as a bare language, therefore bearer of reality, creation of meaning, sense of truth.

So, if the flow of images of the Society of the Spectacle (Debord, 1967) assails us to alienate us, those of art – with the Situationist proposal to deviate language, criticize it, undermine it with the creation of a social critique that our artist undertakes – reveal a new ethics of the language of art. Hence she belongs to the creative trend of the critique of war, that ranges from War to War (1924) by Ernst Friedrich up to Fabio Mauri of Language is War (1975), and now Mariella Bettineschi’s Successive Era (2008), all addressing the exercise of the ethics of Freedom. Freedom of Spirit, Freedom of Thought are contained in the Freedom of Art that the artist is committed to warrant with her own stylistic freedom. It is the freedom to differ from one period to another, making them cohabit, creating them at the same time, in parallel.

The languages intersect, because freedom is never given once and for all, but constantly conquered, because its limit and meaning are always shifting and renewed. Certainly if we think of Bettineschi’s works as a manifesto, a theme illustration, then we cannot grasp its why and how they speak to us of the freedom of being, insofar as regarding freedom, it is not an easy nor a straight road; but it is the very diversity of her actions, signs, images that puts us in front of our freedom. Each one of her paths challenges the other one, each form contradicts another one, and this indeed is a manifesto, a hymn to difference. It is a journey of discovery as knowledge in the sense of Proust, for whom: “The only true voyage of discovery […] would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is.” The different universe that is the multiverse of many worlds, here as well built by connected images of our and the other worlds of our language and other languages synthesized by the Art that creates Language. Language of the Visual, Language of the Idiom, Language of communication, above all the very ancient struggle between Language of speech and Language of image, between the one who claims and believes that in the beginning there was the Word, spoken and written, and the one who believes that in the beginning there was the image. With which Language did we begin to express ourselves, with that of the spoken and written word, or with that of the drawn and painted image? It would be a commonplace to claim that the visual artist as such chose her field in favor of the image, because a lasting conceptual tradition, as regards our modern and contemporary art, is there to assert the opposite. Nor should we forget that a long time ago there was even a part of the world between Tigris and Euphrates that, from Hebraism first to Islamism, preferred the Word and writing to the image.

Observing Mariella Bettineschi’s image-laden art it is not difficult to understand on which side, as an artist, she chose to be. Naturally, this does not imply that there is not a conceptual aspect in her work, but it is a conceptuality that, from its very beginning, needed the image to exist. This is the Western path to Art, the one that broke away from Eastern religious orthodoxy, deciding to pursue the figurative path of Art and its Harmony. Harmony, Harmony accord of senses, Harmony concord of signs, Harmony proportion of contrasting forms, Harmony aura of Art that classicism identified as its founding canon. It comes from the Greek Harmonia, as proportion, union, accord, in turn arisen from the verb harmozein: conjoin, accord that is also linked to harmos, joining. And joining is present in many of her works: both in those opposing war scenes and weapons to landscapes we just mentioned, and in others merging terrestrial and extra-terrestrial landscapes, or Nature and Science, or various images with a white part that is light, pure space. Harmonizing these diversities is another goal of the art we are speaking of, that rather than in duality, finds in joining the sense of connection, not just as reflection, but as a dialoguing juxtaposition, wanted and sought by the artist. A reconciliation-joining in which, according to Hegel, lies Truth. No randomness in Bettineschi’s work, but research and selection for the construction of a Harmony of bodies, that in many cases has a cosmological beauty wherein the conflict of forms, signs and images is healed. A creative destiny that recalls Heraclitus for whom The unlike is joined together, and from differences results the most beautiful harmony and when this occurs in Art it produces elements of great Beauty. Beauty of the True and Aristoteles, Beauty of Fact and Vico, Beauty of Nature and Kant, Beauty of the Other’s Self and of dualism, found the trajectory of Bettineschi’s oeuvre. Indeed, her works are always completed forms that, as we already said, imply a dimension of classicism and golden harmony. In this scope she is an ancient artist who has not intended to side with the modern esthetics of the anti-graceful, in which and in the name of which form is broken and distorted, speeded up, becomes rapid. This proven by the fact that a certain linearity always runs through Mariella’s work: a work made of assembled parts, evanescent lights, dazzling whites. The same modern, or hypermodern subjects: missiles, rockets, spaceships are immobile, caught like still images, thus led back into the furrow in which arises the synthesis of the beauty of form and of thought, the Western classical cradle of Being.

Being of who we are, Being of where we come from, Being of where we are going, although these are mainly the queries of philosophy, Art which contains all, including philosophy, also engages in the quest of the destiny of Being. This happens mostly when it does not illustrate normative ideologies, instead plunging its Being in the magma of creation as the essence of Being and non-Being. Being and appearing, being here or being elsewhere, being oneself or being the Other, concrete beings and imaginary beings, including terrestrial or extraterrestrial beings, are drawn from her art in which everything becomes real insofar as it is language. It is the language of art that, as Ad Reinhardt points out, means that: “Art is Art and Everything Else is Everything Else. Being as Art is Nothing but Art.” Being and Everything, Being and Time are dimensions we find in Mariella’s images, and past the Martin Heidegger’s ponderings, detecting in art “a glimpse of truth”. So everything is true in art, even the arising of other worlds, as in Bettineschi’s, where every time nurtures the art that, as language, is subject to the interpretation of Time.

Time that has a beginning, Time of flowing and ending when it is an evolutionary arrow, or geometry of circular revolving in which everything returns, of which Picasso says: “All the interest of art is in the beginning. After the beginning it’s already the end,” or Einstein for whom “The separation between past, present and future is but a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Of course in Bettineschi’s works time, or better said, times begin and intersect in the actuality of the images of the global political conflict, in particular the Arab Springs with the past of the tradition in art, especially the Renaissance, future of Science and Science Fiction. But time and times in her images is/are frozen in the timelessness of art, her art whose images, even those of the present, are withdrawn by the artist from the real play of actuality and given as apparitions, ghosts.

This is obvious in her choice of the use of photography, a medium that only seemingly informs us about reality, conversely being ever ghostlike. And it is ghosts, presences, ectoplasms of light that throng these works. Light and lights are its visual focus, significant signs, diffusing energy, freeing the images from photographic staticity, opening up their time. They make us think of presences of time and times that allude to other worlds figuratively built by an artist who shows works achieved by using a great skill in Technique. Technique in draftsmanship, technique in painting, technique in embroidery, are a few of the techniques that Mariella Bettineschi used for years, but it is that of photography that prevails in the artworks of the last decade we are analyzing. It is a technique of which again Susan Sontag, in her essay On photography in 1977, says that: “The painter constructs, the photographer discloses,” seizing on the question of the art the ancient Greeks called technique. Actually, Bettineschi’s work uses photography while thinking of painting not just as subject but as technique and approach. Her works are always pre-existing photographs, chosen, manipulated, “painted” with computer techniques and then printed on Plexiglas or mirror, again the intention of doubling the image. We know that from the start photography sought to resemble painting, both formally and conceptually, because it aspired to be art, which means freeing itself of technique. This approach continues today, a boundary of art that artists are tackling in a new way, at least since the mid-late 1980s, as is obvious in the masters-pupils-masters’ relations, synthesized in the relation between the Becher pair and their disciples like Gursky, Ruff, Hofer…

As we said, if apparently many of today’s works to us seem photographic, they are actually works of painting, a relation merging the art of all times, but especially that of the digital era in which we are living. The photograph, even when it is chosen already taken, like a visual ready-made, as in Bettineschi’s case, is subjected today to an operation of “painting”, which is obvious in several landscape-works of the Successive Era series in 2012. Actually they appear to be a ‘quotation’ of Monet’s waterlilies. This to prove the fact that the image is always re-constructed, remade, beginning already with the eye that chooses it and the hand that manipulates it, techniques intended for the execution of an art with a powerful Identity. Identity of Being, Identity of technique, identity of the choice of art, are all stages that lead to the construction of the identity of Bettineschi the artist with her unmistakable style and identity. Certainly in the times of post-colonialism, globalization, gender, in which we are living, seeking traces of this mutation in the works and life of anyone is due, but in the works of our artist none of this can be seen at first sight. And yet she is an artist who, even as a woman, confers on her art the task of somehow reacting to the anxieties, the crises of the world, above all, as she says, since 2008, the year of the beginning of the global crisis in which we landed. A dysfunction of the world that coincides with the beginning of the series of the Successive Era, with which the artist begins to look at the world in a different way, a world in crisis that, as she says herself, can only be entrusted to women’s care.

This elucidates the interest she expresses in women of the Renaissance, Mannerism and the Baroque, focusing on the portraits of women conveyed to us by great artists: Leonardo, Raphael, Titian, Bronzino, Caravaggio… and reinterpreted by our artist in contemporary terms. There are also samples of images, digitalization and construction of a different way of seeing, in the company of artists ever looking for a successive chance, and acting in the tradition of seeking the New. New way of looking at Art, New way of doing Art, New way of being Art, the new and the successiveappear to be terms relating to the future, but nothing arises from the new, nor the next, without something coming before. In our case what comes before is the pre-existing image, already produced, already ready, to which the artist gives new meaning. They are images of today, but also of history and art, in constant dialogue, because, as Seneca said: “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end”. Here we are speaking of a work with many beginnings and therefore various novelties. Obviously this before-and-after relationship emerges forcefully, especially in works that, thanks to Seneca’s notion of a re-beginning, we might call re-portraits. These are our artist’s works that return to old portraits through black and white photography. Removing color, we might say she removes expressivity, but not esthetics, in that the choice of “non-color, black and white” whence photography was born is a precise esthetic option, because it means working on the minimalism of light and shadow. Man Ray already understood this, saying that: “Light can do everything. Shadows work for me. I make shadows. I make light. I can create everything with my camera.”

But Bettineschi does not create with the camera, she uses a scanner, a technique for copying the image. She does not photograph reality, but copies technologically an image of the pictorial image’s reality. Actually, nobody thinks we need to copy images from reality, for modern and contemporary art the copyists in the Louvre are almost folklore. Confrontation is not with the direct source but with the image we have of it, and it is with the image that the challenge must be won and not with reality, also because the image is the new reality. As we said, choosing to convert the images of the great masters’ paintings into black and white photographs also means wanting to enter in the dimension of Time, time past. Black and white brings us back to memory, and thus the Search of Lost Time: each photograph is a small visual madeleine, and perhaps it is not a coincidence if Proust in 1919, In The Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, wrote that: “a photograph acquires something of the dignity which it ordinarily lacks when it ceases to be a reproduction of reality and shows us things that no longer exist.” Well, it is not that the pre-existing images and above all the paintings that Bettineschi’s new works come from no longer exist; it would be silly to think that Leonardo’s Mona Lisa at the Louvre no longer exists, or Raphael’s Fornarina at the Galleria Borghese, or Judith and Holofernes at the Galleria Nazionale di Arte Antica in Palazzo Barberini, or…, even if a certain idea of the new in a modernity contemptuous of the past intervened for a visual purging in favor of a new eye. Bettineschi, quite the reverse, recovers this past and renews it, using not only the past but also modernist conceptuality and minimalism. “We do not invent the past, we discover it,” Pascoli recites, backed up by Foscolo who proclaims: “Art is not representing new things, but representing them in a new way”.

Our artist does not only turn the images into questions, but puts them in relation with a white square below, as if the image were resting on a base. The base, especially the white base, is by antonomasia the conceptual object upon which modern art has rested any sort of thing for it to be art. However, here it also merges with the almost similar idea of space, so that Bettineschi’s oeuvre, dialoguing with the supreme white, once again doubles the dialogue between image and its absence, between past and present, wisely following Confucius’ suggestion: “Acquire new knowledge whilst thinking over the old and you may become the teacher of others,” and therefore become Exemplary. Exemplar unique, multiple Exemplar, model Exemplar: these are the basic conditions and relations that articulate art works today, whatever they may be. Conditions and relations of our time even more evident and crucial, insofar as referring to the world of images, they themselves become reality of an era that, to describe it with Guy Debord, “prefers the image to the thing, the copy to the original, representation to reality, appearance to being.” And so what can art do, in a world where (Debord again): “the real consumer becomes a consumer of illusions,” and where “Merchandise is this actually real illusion. And the spectacle its general manifestation” in a “… world really capsized. Where the true is a moment of the false.”? Art has always sought a way out to those questions: on the one hand listening to Picasso, for whom “art is a lie that tells the truth”, and on the other reversing the notion of the loss of the aura “of the work of art in the age of its mechanical reproduction”, as the German philosopher Walter Benjamin foresaw in 1936. For the age in which we live these are ideas that no work of art can elude and to which art reacts by restoring a certain humanism, as we can grasp it in Mariella Bettineschi’s works. It is an operational modality that, using art like a Trojan horse, strives from within to overcome technique with a humanist, meaning exemplary, content. Such a relationship between unique, multiple exemplars and models, as we already said, is not new, instead it is a tradition of art to use the masters as examples and seek to be to some degree more or less different according to the instance. So quotation is not a crime, as it appears to many, but has always been an exemplary way of doing art, an art that offers us another way of looking at the same thing and thus another form of Seeing. Seeing of Being, Seeing of Communication, Seeing of Man, Seeing and plural Seeing of Woman. Seeing doubled sights. Plural seeing, because doubling the eyes of Mariella Bettineschi’s portraits of women; with these works she asserts the possibility of Woman’s other Seeing.

Drawing attention to the eyes, principally on Seeing, means speaking of uniqueness, because each person has unique eyes, so that Seeing is a sort of digital imprint, and actually, just as there are no two identical digital imprints, no Seeing is like another one. Eyes, with seeing, are the first means of communication and evolution. Indeed, there is much talk about the prehensile hand that enabled us to evolve with respect to other animals, yet it is also the alliance with the sense of sight, thanks to our erect position, that enabled us to build the modernity that Descartes underscored with his “Cogito, ergo sum.” A philosophy of Being and non-Being that the Greeks already so identified with Seeing, on which they so founded life and death that to say that someone no longer is, they did not say he had breathed his last breath but his last Gaze. This may also be why when someone dies we close his eyes: life ends with the end of the visual with which its upright and moral usage was also associated. Thus, choosing to act upon sight means choosing to act upon life and death, good and evil. Now, given that art is an eminently visual activity, working on eyes means working with a tautology on the idea of art. Taking an image of the past and manipulating it is certainly nothing new, Duchamp did it with Mona Lisa by giving her a moustache, Bettineschi doubled her eyes, because, as we already said, Seeing is a special human activity, as taught by the Chinese philosopher Confucius, for whom the man who is looked at in the eye can no longer hide anything; meaning that depending on how we look at the world, it becomes something else. What is Art? What does Art show? What does Art make us understand, what are we for Art? Can Art be something? Can the thing be everything and thus also Art? What does the Thing question? What does this art express which, to paraphrase Publius Cornelius Tacitus, is aware that: “All the things that we now believe very old once were new.” And so, one thing we can say is that this art of Bettineschi’s discusses the relation between old things and new things, and also things of now and successive things. Here things are images, representations, that is, things of things. Art deals with things, showing what things we are, to use a happy intuition of Mendini, who, in doing so, makes the Thing a humanist issue; another reflection and subtraction of technique as maker of things as objects. Actually things taken over by Art are no longer objects but abstractions, ideas of reality, which, according to Nietzsche, exists only in our interpretation.

So to the question: what is Art? Bettineschi’s art replies that it is that thing used to regulate the image of art. In fact, the essential thing about Art is giving itself rules to then disregard them, something she does in each of her works, and this is obvious by the distance she produces with respect to the given images, where the things of before become the things of after. What else does Art need to break the rules and rewrite them, if not finding a new measure, as we see in the fact that the remote images not only need to be doubled in the seeing and removed from color through the modern esthetic of black and white, but to be re-cut, re-measured. Therefore, the choice is not only using a well-known image, but also the portion to take, in the chosen detail, the correct measure, because, as Leonardo paradoxically claimed: “Details make perfection and perfection is not a detail.” And perfection, we know, is something so divine that it led Warburg to say that “God is in the detail”. This has its opposite double in the sentient ancient proverb that The devil is in the details. Observations and sayings that ultimately lead us to assert that it is in the detail that Art finds its H-H, that is, its Habitat-Humus. Habitat-Humus of Creation is the place-soil where art finds its fertile cultural environment, the fertile and sensitive place where one’s own poetics can be cultivated. Habitat-Humus of shapeless paintings with shades of tones of brown. Cushions and images in tulle transparencies. Gilded haloes of stellar dots. Collections of past and present images in sequence… But on this occasion the library-works call for further reflection. Libraries as Habitat-Humus, environment and store of culture in which and on which knowledge grows, thereby becoming another privileged subject in Bettineschi’s work. But here also, as in the other works, the making into an image is never neutral and leads to a reflection on the state of things. They are not a mere portrait, instead the fragility, the danger of their disappearing is shown. This is why the focus is corroded, both in the mirror behind, that introduces fragments of the external habitat into the work, as art, life and world are fragmented, reflected in the fragments adding details from outside; and in this sort of mist, aura, ectoplasm that corrodes the image from within, the focus is therefore realism.

But it is also warning-work, admonition-work, memory-work of destroyed libraries, given up to the flames by extremists of various times and places, but also for some others by the media. In this way the work becomes a metaphor of the dangers threatening culture stored in libraries, Borges’ Paradise, where “If God existed he would be a library”, Eco. Here is Paradise on Earth with the library: “… one of the most beautiful sceneries in the world” according to Jacques Sternberg, and indeed in Bettineschi’s works all this can be perceived in the relation between mirror (knowledge of the double), architecture (books like bricks of knowledge), vaporization (metaphor of the spirit of thought). It pays a tribute to the place of excellence by becoming Image. Image as unity of Parts, Image as unity of Thoughts, Image as Universal unity with the aim of concluding a text written at a moment in history in which everything appears as fragment (Mandelbrot), liquid (Bauman), chaotic (Lorenz), disordered (Prigogine), relative (Einstein). It is a necessary action for seeking to understand an art that, in the difference and diversity of the world, strives to bring the parts back to a unity of style and thought, using the force of the creation of a style. Herein the use of the fragmented mirror as the background of several of Bettineschi’s works is eloquent, being placed there not to make us see but to let itself be glimpsed. This challenges the specific quality of the mirror which is that of reflection as double, opening onto the multiple, as multiplication varied according to the photography technique’s static duplicator. Many ways of looking, reasserted, as we already said above, in the double gazes of some of her works as well.

Multiple gazes and mirrors that fragment the post-modern Narcissus Ego’s obsession, advancing a successive hypothesis wherein the use of an object of vanity and realism becomes a conceptual device, an object of morality and caution. Thus a vertigo of representation is set up as a continuous doubling and multiplying of images and reality itself, leaving the last word up to the image-art work of Mariella Bettineschi.