Paolo di Paolo, Lost World

MAXXI, Rome, 17 April – 30 June 2019

It may seem slightly odd to post an article on Paolo di Paolo, a photographer born in 1925 who never presented himself as an artist, and mostly took pictures of Italian life in the 1950s and 1960s for the well-known current affairs magazine Il Mondo where he worked from 1954 until its closure in 1968.  Di Paolo is however an interesting example of how to portrait a society, a period in the life of a country, thanks to his intimacy with a number of characters in all the strata of society, ranging from celebrities such as Mastroianni and Monica Vitti to intellectuals such as Pasolini or Gadda, or the finest aristocracy, but also his proximity to everyday life in the countryside and in the factories.

In 1959, he sets off in a small car with Pasolini to experience and document with his camera the long Italian coastline, “the long road of sand”– La lunga strada di sabbia – as he will call it. They depart from Ventimiglia, all the way down the peninsula and up again, to end in Trieste where all things end… This is the year when Pasolini published Una Vita Violenta, when Fellini was shooting La Dolce Vita, when Moravia was writing La Noia… It is also a time when the country was changing very fast, with the old ways slowly bowing out under the pressure not only of modernization, which had been part and parcel of the ideology of the Fascist regime, but also of a tremendous and multi-faceted social energy reaching all aspects of life.  Luigi Tomasi di Lampedusa, who felt so acutely that inarrestable wave of change, had died little before. Di Paolo captures a world of civility, of simple pleasures, of light hearted expressions of social life: the violence of competition and the urge to succeed are not yet obvious, perhaps even not visible. Elegance has not yet turned into exhibition, activity into business, celebrities into VIP. But of course, black-and-white images transfigure reality, and easily turn poverty and suffering into a form of aesthetic object, and fame into immortality, people into archetypes.

His archives had remained silent for half a century, and was only recently “exhumed”; the excellent initiative of MAXXI to provide a glimpse on parts of this very substantial archive of around 250,000 negatives is a rare enough event to deserve a mention.

This is a fairly moving experience as it represents a perhaps nostalgic stroll into a lost world (Mondo Perduto, as the exhibition was aptly called). Because of these five or six decades of oblivion, we are faced with two lost worlds instead of one: the world that Di Paolo felt was become lost when he took his pictures, and the world of Di Paolo himself to the eyes of anyone aged more than fifty or so. Perhaps a better title would have been “World lost, and again”. These vast panoramas help us understand better how the world has moved on, what direction it took, what was forsaken. Contrary to people, societies do not really age, they change, and even sometimes die and vanish; but in a sense they have a face made of the addition, or the juxtaposition, of ways of life, places, symbolic characters, clothes, the design of objects… This huge archive provides a picture of this face.

There is no point in commenting each and every picture; a couple of observations will suffice. One relates to the striking impression of a well-tuned universe, in the musical sense of the word, where each individual seems to belong and contribute to its particular culture: workers look and act like workers, peasants like peasants, aristocrats like aristocrats, and so on; this emanates a general feeling of serenity. Serenity and also measure: even the femmes fatales do not look so fatales… It could perhaps be related to a different conscience of time, a longer horizon. The second is a sense of direction and purpose which we feel implicitly in the genuine grief of the crowds mourning at Palmiro Togliatti’s funeral in 1964. Another is the revolution in the gender relationships which are expressed, in a sort of jokingly frivolous manner, in more than a few of these pictures. Behind each one of these phenomena, there is indeed a lost world, irrespective of the judgment one may hold today about such worlds, and which partly depends on current individual and social position.

In some cases, Paolo di Paolo moves beyond the documentary to reach the universal: for instance, when he depicts the loneliness and dereliction of this father watching his just-married daughter walk away with her husband along an empty road, in an empty landscape. Or in some of his portraits, such as when he captures the great Emilio Gadda with the same look as that of the marble elephant behind him, or the enigmatic Giorgio De Chirico watching Gina Lollobrigida, the statue incarnate

Overall, this gigantic documentary effort in inevitably uneven in its artistic quality; it is the project as a whole which makes sense. One is inevitably reminded of the work of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Theodor Jung, Arthur Rothstein, and all this generation of photographers of the Great Depression. And one fantasizes about the juxtaposition of pictures taken at different times of history of equivalent characters in similar places, to observe the general movement of humanity. Each generation needs a Di Paolo.

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