Domenico Gnoli: Isolation and Representation
Article written by Bianca Mafodda on March 11, 2022
“I was born knowing that I would be a painter. […] My themes come from the world around me, familiar situations, everyday life; because I never actively mediate against the object, I experience the magic of its presence.”
- Domenico Gnoli in Le Journal de Genève, 1965
Domenico Gnoli, Poltrona [Armchair], acrylic and sand on canvas, 1966, Private collection
Domenico Gnoli, Due dormienti [Sleeping couple], acrylic and sand on canvas, 1966, Private collection
A couple of weeks ago, I have had the chance to visit Milan and Fondazione Prada’s major exhibition dedicated to the Italian painter Domenico Gnoli (Rome, 1933-New York, 1970). Celebrating the fifty years from his death, Fondazione Prada’s overview of his ouvre - on display from the 28th of October 2021 to the 27th of February 2022 - had been conceived by the Italian scholar Germano Celant before his death in 2020. It is presented as a retrospective that is divided in two floors and that gathers over 100 paintings, created by Domenico Gnoli from 1949 to 1969, as well as an equal number of his drawings and sketches.
A chronological and documentary section, including historical materials, photographs and other supports, traces Gnoli’s life and artistic career as was never done before. This incredible exhibition has allowed to broaden the knowledge of Domenico Gnoli’s work and to discover his artistic practice as a set designer and an illustrator, other than, of course, as an exquisite painter. Even if drawing and painting were always two separate fields for Domenico, as the disposition of the exhibition on two separate floors clearly underlines, the two paths sometimes crossed in his career. As Germano Celant reports: "his fantasy narrative, which took him to the Old Vic theatre in London as a set and costume designer, met with great success in New York as well, where he lived and shown work in many galleries, earning praise from critics in the New York Times and The Herald Tribune."
Domenico Gnoli was born in Rome in 1933, the son of a ceramist and an art historian, he grew up in a strongly intellectual climate thanks to his parents, and his family in general: his grandfather was a poet and historian, also named Domenico Gnoli, whereas his aunts were also poets and his uncle was a literary and German critic. Domenico studied stage design at the Fine Arts Academy of Rome and his passion for theater soon brought him to work at the creation of costumes, settings, and manifests for the first half of the 50s.
Domenico Gnoli, Male Head of Hair (Capigliatura maschile), acrylic and sand on canvas, 1966, Private collection
Domenico Gnoli, Riga in mezzo n. 1 (Capigliatura femminile) [Central hair part no. 1 (Female hair)], acrylic and sand on canvas, 1965, Prada collection
In 1953 he moved to Paris, where he is close to the Parisian school and the décadents circle, and in 1955 he moved to New York, where he starts to experiment with his painting technique, mixing tempera paint and sand. He was very close to his sister Marzia, known as Mimì, who followed him to the many trips that were part of his life and his career. He was a curious traveller with a deep thirst for knowledge.
From the beginning of the ‘60s, Gnoli started dedicating himself mostly to painting and to refining his own painting technique. Always traveling between Asia, South America, Europe, and North America, he became more and more well known on an international level as he exhibited in the major galleries around the world, gathering enthusiastic reviews from all over. "I have painted a whole load of imaginary characters: a large woman reading the newspaper, a gentleman peeing against a tree, an office worker, a poetic waiter with blue lips, and then numerous portraits, but with a difference: instead of people seen from the front, they are seen from behind." – Domenico Gnoli, letter to his mother, Paris, 1963.
Domenico Gnoli was viewed both as a pop or a hyperrealist artist by his contemporary critics, who surely didn’t fail in recognizing the peculiarity of his poetic imagery. The attention of the critics was mostly captured by his paintings from 1964 onwards, characterized by the photographic cut and the specific interest in the human figure and objects that he is best known for even today. "I always employ simple, given elements, I don’t want either to add or take anything away. I have never even wanted to deform; I isolate and represent." - Domenico Gnoli in Le Journal de Genève, 1965.
According to Germano Celant "Gnoli manages to mate the living body with inorganic things [...] A sensual and carnal theater where the continuing exchange between things and bodies is enacted, the protagonists of a total complicity." An article titled “Magic Realism” published in The New York Times in 1960 states that Gnoli “has a gift for endowing inanimate objects with a strangely moving feeling, a gift that is essentially dramatic and far removed from the common place character of his subject matter.”
For Domenico Gnoli, the oldest auction result ever registered for an artwork by this artist is a painting sold in 1985, at Christie's, and the most recent auction result is a print-multiple sold in 2022. Fondazione Prada’s great exhibition certainly set the starting point of a new golden age for the artist, who has never suffered of obscurity, and now became more known than ever.