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Looking at looks

by Vittoria Coen

In a portrait, the artist always works on the subject, and by doing so, makes a contribution to general knowledge. For example, how could we not help but think that the Court of Philip II of Spain was highly corrupt, if we look at the famous group of the Royal Family painted by Goya, complete with the notorious minister Godoy?
The story of the portrait is old, but probably with the coming of photography, the portrait as a “genre” related mostly to specific aims, and in a sense, lost its importance. The commemorative, rhetorical, extremely narrative portrait gave way to much more suggestive contents.
With the coming of the Historical Avant-gardes, (such as Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism) the “outlines” of the portrait were determined by the styles, the formal inclinations, the aesthetics related to those searches. The concept of likelihood was more and more abandoned, while a deeper study of the subject started to emerge, especially with the birth of the psychoanalysis. The aesthetics supporting the image of the totalitarian regimes which developed in Europe and elsewhere recovered the rhetorical aspect of the portrait with instrumental aims related to power, strength, and courage glorification. Mao, Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler became symbols that, to this day, refer to particular historical moments and events.
Alongside the most innovative and free studies of Picasso and Bacon, the propaganda aesthetics acquired mystical and absolutist tones. The two ways were inevitably separate, yet continued to be related, however, to a unique aspect, until Pop Art invented the serial character of the image, particularly of the portrait. This stopped being a myth in order to become a commodity, and then a symbol for everyone, overcoming the territorial and temporal boundaries.
Barbara Nahmad honours her obligations. Her characters are portrayed as living and present. But she catches depth starting from magazine pages.
There is the sidelong glance of the old crusader John Paul II, the premonition, in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s ‘Look Behind the Chasm’; the deadly sorrow in Primo Levi’s eyes, the queen of flawless style Coco Chanel, the half shut eyes of the sempiternal Cuccia from the “long reign” of Piazza Affari, the solemn, inscrutable impassibility of Mao, a very young Elvis Presley, a genuine Fellini with his arrogant and rebellious imagination, Moana Pozzi, proud of her life, the rabbi Toaff with his especially ironic smile, Saddat under the strain of risky and final political choices, and Marilyn as the very portrait of anxiety. Oil and enamel together contribute to shape a sentiment that, from the look, emerges in all its tragedy.
These people are portrayed with their own characteristics, such as eyes, mouth, emotions, expressions, personalities and destinies. In order to do it, the artist entered their lives, through secret doors beyond the simple Warholian moment of a celebrity crushed by the serial character, and obscured by the usual outward appearance of the “dear departed”. They enter through the door of the art in an Olympus that is, all in all, familiar and almost domestic.
Today there is a lot of talk about myths, with icons: seeming to be a popular category.
We give a celebratory emphasis to our language and paradoxically only subsequently to our judgements. Here, with Barbara Nahmad, very laically, there is sympathy as well as sharing shown through the images, which have already been viewed and reviewed, more as a mental activity than as a reflection of real emotions. And some of these faces have also been “mythicized” by movies and spots, which have shown them endlessly. It is not very likely, indeed, that a university student, for example, knows Saddat or Toaff, and even Moan Pozzi, unless he has carried out specific studies. Not mentioning those who wear the red T-shirt with Che Guevara’s face, without knowing who he is.
This is the undeniable result of well-structured deliberations, like the ones that Nahmad has made, such as looking at the sky, speaking to everybody or maybe to few people today, where individual and collective memories are forgotten, for the sake of going on in a hectic and ambiguously propositional way.
Almost all these stars have fallen, each one having their own light. But here they shine again, and the artist removes the dust from their often tragic destinies. This is an act of great politeness, which gives each one space, with their single distinguishing dreams, as well as their identity, and all the filters and mediations have not faded the truth. There isn’t any change, even when certain features seem to be emphasized: they always correspond to what we know. Fellini, Maria Callas, Che Guevara were as they are portrayed, and so in this way everybody is a part of our past. In a sense, they nourish it and give it that complex and sometimes confusing meaning that we carry in our mind, with or without our protective veils, decent bulkheads, and aesthetic-psychological mediations, without all the possible devices of the image and the entertainment world. Women’s faces hide the flows of a clear but not necessarily genuine beauty. The wrinkles of perplexity run down their faces, looking down seeming to seek the invisible. Those “wonderful” 60s were also full of illusion.
So we look at these faces and, this time, we do not speak about images, myths, icons, but about people. With their support, in the past that they represent and today when they speak to us, in a temporary dimension and an everlasting essentiality, they tell the time of humanity, right from the beginning, because this world is in a hurry. Once they have become worn out, and lost their freshness, as has happened with others, distant but real, as protagonists, they represent the certainty of a long lasting tie. They are therefore images. The icons of the Byzantine tradition don’t have any expression. Their meaning emerged in the whole work and details, as an explanation of the sense that should be expressed. They had a specific function replacing the books; they spoke to believers.
But their faces showed nothing: it was the emotionless sacredness. Emotions, for example, which are shown so painfully in Gothic sacred art, were forbidden. The subject was the symbol, besides being a person, and the existence was based on this identity.
Then there is the long story of the portrait.
Now instead, in the work of Barbara Nahmad, these representatives of our time do not have many means to impress us at their disposal. Our imagination is notconsiderably stirred. Wisely giving up the pleasure of ornamentation, she has not given in to other usual temptations, for example the temptation of proliferation. She has avoided the easy effects of personalisms, she has not given up to an expressionist way, that we could perhaps expect, as the distance with the subjects does not exclude, far from it, an external participation in the surface values.
Something happens when the colour austerity, which is so clear in the images, does not exclude the colour innovation of the extremely strange background, perhaps based on the aim of making the background the guarantor, the custodian and the guardian.
The artist does not play with the snapshot, by the way. Rarely, even better, and only in some cases, a real surprise is shown: it was not necessary to catch meanings. Those faces, those expressions, taken from the newspapers, have become significant for a strongly enriching process.
There is, indeed, a particular way of placing oneself in front of the image which has already been influenced by the photograph and it cannot be either idealized or shocked. That image expresses a reality, which has already been codified by mechanical means to a more or less realistic extent, being both a news snapshot and a description photo, of course far from being elaborate. So it is a case of creating the image again, through a second process, working on what has been done by the photograph, without eliminating the inevitably realistic feature that characterizes it, but considering it as uniquely instrumental. So, obviously, narrative elements, too exposed signals, the obsessive pleasure of the “Flemish” precision, for example, should be avoided. But also a focusing of any further element to the photos, even if implacable, is ultimately, a proposal. When Barbara Nahmad does that, she asks questions, I think, beyond the barely visible. For me it appears in Chuck Close’s intentions, in a dialectic relation between the purely empirical, physical, visual aspect and a purely allusive dimension.
And to think that Barbara Nahmad comes to the portrait after multiple experiences related to very different themes: the adherence to the aesthetics related to the world of eroticism and porn, the interventions which have been translated in a real work with a thriller sound-track (Allarmi-Alarms) on the snapshots of urban battles of our recent history, Le tavole della protesta (the tables of the protest). Also in this case, the artist stars in the snapshot, which focuses the action and the fragment, as a contemporary reporter.
History and memory are interwoven in these works, and maybe it is not appropriate at all to speak about before and after.
Looking at looks is like looking at oneself, and we are our story too.

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