Paolo Carosone

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Peter Selz

TEXTS > Writings on the Artist

Paolo Carosone's images are his autobiography.
They are made up of spontaneous associations, fusing actual recollections with suggestions of dreams and memories. Physical facts and spiritual experiences fusing into a new engraved presence created by the artist to deal with his own world which exists on the borderline between reality and illusion.

"Existence in the world is understandable only as an aesthetic phenomenon" ( Nietzsche).
The memories concern his childhood in Rome, his studies in Amsterdam and in Copenhagen, the years in Tokyo, his extended stay in California, his return after seventeen years of travel to his own home in Rome where he found a new peace and security, and where it became possible for Carosone to create this book of "emotion recollection in tranquillity" . (1)

This book derives from the artist's desire to concentrate on a single theme: his life; and to work with a single technique, which despite its heterogeneity of processes is yet uniquely directed at the printed intaglio image to create a single object: this book. This small volume even in its format reminds us of a Book of Hours. Relating to the personal life and vision of the artist himself, however couched in his subjective style, it is a Book of Hours of our time. What can we say about his style, so far away from what appears to be the "mainstream" ? Back in 1966 Cesare Vivaldi observed in an essay on Carosone's work that his is a "sui generis surrealism which is absolutely spontaneous.

A surrealism not assumed as a conscious means of formal expression, but originating out of the autobiographical and preponderantly psychological material from all levels which he has chosen for his discourse".
In addition to the memory of actual events and the recollection of dreams, Carosone makes room for images of his own work such as the sophisticated kinetic and mechanized sculptures he produced in Japan; he includes pictures taken from old advertisements, Popular Mechanics or funky old books. These images may be transformed by the artist or they may be included quite literally by means of tracing paper. They all become fused by means of the technique which he has developed over a period of many years.

Carosone uses etching and engraving; he employs aquatint, mezzotint, soft ground and stipple engraving, crayon method as well as contemporary photographic techniques. He is able to use the burin with the ease and confidence of a pencil and is an extraordinarily fine draftsman. He works on zinc plates which he cuts up, recombines, always open to the continuous change necessitated by his reliance on hunch and intuition.

Several plates are often used to produce a single unique print. No two are ever alike. Carosone's studio is in his apartment, it is integrated with his life even geographically. Once he created kinetic sculptures, but they had to be executed with the help of engineers. Now, however, he feels the need for closeness, to do his own work, at his own place, with his own hands, even using tools designed and fabricated by himself. At a time when most artists have their prints executed professionally by highly trained professional printers in large and lavishly equipped print shops, Carosone, opting no longer to rely on others, controls the aesthetic quality of his prints by doing all his own printing.

Now there is no division between art and craft in his work. It would now be inconceivable to him to have another person intrude into the privacy of his own work. His process of etching, of working with bitumen, tars, acids, and waxes is not unlike an alchemist's search for emergent transformations. In his etchings, techniques are combined, images are fused, space and time are displaced and re-located and new images - disparate, yet unified - issue from the press.

Working in his Rome apartment, rooms of his childhood re-emerge in his mind, or rather in his work. There is " La Stanza dell'Organo" (The room of the organ ), the room in which Paolo was born and to which he returned after many years of absence. It is a dark and ominous room with walls that are left undifferentiated. The undefined space is activated, however, by the vivid juxtaposition of black and white square tiles on the floor. A very large easy-chair faces an enormous bed, both in the style of the 1940's when Paolo was a child. On the right he has depicted the organ which he completed in Tokyo in 1969, a sophisticated piece of kinetic sound sculpture on which he worked for two years with the aid of four electronic engineers. In this organ medical equipment was used to amplify brain waves which were subsequently transformed into audible sound waves.
The emission of the electronic waves also activated the trumpets, lights and wings of the organ. This mysterious and foreboding machine is juxtaposed to imaginary window, where we see memories of Tokyo in the brightest daylight. A truck, old automobiles, an elevated train intersected by the prow of a ship, an airplane, all painted vividly by hand. It is this imaginary memory picture within the picture to which our attention is drawn immediately.
"The marvellous is always beautiful, anything marvellous is beautiful, in fact only the marvellous is beautiful" ( Breton ).

The winged organ appears again in " My first and last toy" (Il mio primo e ultimo giocattolo) where he himself, Paolo as a small boy, sits in a high chair, holding his first toy car while other children are swinging or blowing a trumpet while suspended in mid-air. A chicken is pecking on its food. Images constantly make re-appearances. The large bed, placed again in a dark room recurs in " La stanza del porco" (The room of the pig) but now a flock of swallows swoop down outside the bright window. For no rational reason a huge pig -again a childhood memory- has approached the bed and is sniffing its sheets. A pair of boots hangs in the air.
The bevy of swallows has become dominant as the birds swoop through " La stanza del Presidente" (The room of the President) and are contrasted in their rapid flight to the two chicken standing placidly on the president's table. Outside the window, which could also be a portable movie screen or a rolled down map in a classroom, we glimpse an old fashioned biplane. On the side there is another kinetic sculpture by Carosone, a rectangular slab which can be turned by means of a large wheel and pulley. The male image on the lamina was taken from the pages of a book on anatomy, but now this image of male norm is reduced to a revolving robot.

Carosone has made a similar robot in which an "anatomical man" was laminated on a board and by a turn of the wheel coloured powders would move through lengths of glass tubing which indicate the channel of blood circulation. In " La stanza della segretaria" (The room of the secretary).
This robot sits on a large table, ignored by the secretary who works in a room in total and eerie solitude.

A sculpture of winged "ghetta" or Japanese wooden sandals whose wings will never be able to them off the ground is in the center of " Each Age is a Dream that is Dying" an etching which also assembles the picture of his lover, the pecking chicken as well as a disembodied hand which seems to drop medicine into a mysterious organic form, resembling the chicken's food.

The same winged sandal appears on the round table in the foreground of " La stanza dei genitori" (The room of the parents) where a Japanese winged temple seems to be rolling down on tracks in the corner. Here the tear-like forms are now coming from the mouth of a super-size swallow that has materialized outside the window looked upon by his seated mother. Dealing with the mystery of life the ghost-like swallow could also be an analogy of a stork dropping the seeds of life. In another version of the print an italian suburban landscape is substituted for the large bird, the father has remained seated on his sofa. In fact, nothing has changed except that the night scene of the dark etching has now become a daylight room yet paradoxically the light exterior is replete with stars and moon.

Sometimes in place of a sculpture made by the artist, we find objects which seem to be totally fantastic such as the saddle chair, supporting the young lady in " Vibrazioni in tutto il corpo" (Vibrations of the Whole Body). Actually this is a reducing machine illustrated in a 19th century volume which displays many great fantastic and unlikely mechanical devices of this kind. It appealed to him not only because of its splendid absurdity but precisely because it resembled some of the mechanical, kinetic sculptures he had designed in Japan ( 2 ).

But who can penetrate into the meaning of the small little lady standing in front of the steps, or the dismembered objects floating in space ? Another version of this idea, totally ridiculous but delightful to contemplate, is the reducing device in " Estensione del tronco in piedi" (Extension of the Trunk Standing). Indeed, Carosone who had done highly original kinetic sculptures now transforms these old automatons into similar objects. The mechanical contraption becomes totally fantastic, combining fantasy, irony and technology. It reaches a stage of surreal preposterousness in " Vibroterapia".

" La stanza di Fortunello" (The Room of Fortunello) (3): here instead of complicated imaginary machines, a mechanical wooden toy entered the dining room of childhood with his mother and the family friend who gave him the little man on the mule seated at the table. An earlier sarcastic print of his, titled: " SoffiaBismarck" (BlowingBismarck) hangs on the wall. The toy itself has assumed dynamic form as its head travels through the room almost like an animated film.

Transmutation is an important aspect of much of Carosone's work: here we see Fortunello's head eventually transformed into the moon and the mule ear into a tree in the static landscape painting that hangs next to the "SoffiaBismarck".

The procedure is reversed in " Fortunello acrobata", where through a series of eight positions the little Happy Hooligan swings through space in a semicircle before reaching his seat on the back of the mule.

This book consists of a series of narrative pictures reflecting on the most important events in his life, but they are not treated successively as in a narrative novel. In his stream of consciousness mode they have become simultaneous experiences, etched onto paper by his poetic sensibility as well as artistic skill. Sometimes, instead of remembered forms, we find, contrary wise - yet not surprisingly - prophetic images, such as the small Japanese wooden shrine, equipped with wheels, wings and a pilot's head in the far background of " La partenza del Cambodge" (The departure of the Cambodge), a sculpture which was still to execute in Japan where the liner Cambodge took him from Denmark. In " L'arrivo del Cambodge" (The arrival of the Cambodge) there is now a ghostlike, imaginary group of people, bidding him welcome in Japan and the pilot-shrine has assumed much larger proportions in the foreground.

The " La prima comunione" (The First Communion) sees him holding onto his candle while around him fluctuate the toys of his childhood, again the memory of pigs as well as perched parrot, the ship which took him to Asia, the watering can to give life to plants, plants which for many years have formed an important part of his environment, a bandaged heart and the portrait of Julia, his close friend who confronts the imaginary scene of a life which exists on the edge of the tangible, on the borderline between reality and illusion.

Present, future and past time are a unit in the space of Carosone's engravings. Reality and illusion have lost their separate existence and, indeed, the artist's thought and work are one.

(1) Wordsworth, Preface to the "Lyrical Ballade";
(2) Specifically : the kinetic sculpture represented in "La stanza del Presidente";
(3) Fortunello is the Italian translation of the American Happy Hooligan.

Professor Emeritus of the Faculty of Art History at the "University of California, Berkeley"
Ex Founding Director of the "University Art Museum, Berkeley"
Ex Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the"Museum of Modern Art, New York"


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