LOOP Barcelona 2019
MASBEDO. For Beauty is just the beginning of terror
Curated by Paola Ugolini
Produced by In Between Art Film by Beatrice Bulgari
12 November — 14 December 2019 Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya
This year, the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya hosts three video works by the artist duo Masbedo, in direct dialogue with its recently renovated sections of Renaissance and Baroque art.
Unlike the beautiful, the sublime does not generate any immediate feelings of pleasure. It’s more like a kind of aesthetic dizziness situated somewhere in the uncertain abyss between wonder and terror. This sensation, which is too astonishing and too great for our imagination, was discussed by Pseudo-Longinus in On the Sublime, (a rhetorical treatise dating from the middle of the first century) and became a fundament part of 18th century cultural deba- te. This was the century of the sublime and it provides an aesthetic for the sensibility that transfers enjoyment of a work from the object to the subject. Terms such as “delicious horror,” “terrible happiness” or “pleasant horror” were used to refer to natural phenomena or Re- naissance masters’ major pictorial cycles and become the verbal codes used to build subli- me iconography. The sublime’s “entry into the canon of culture coincides with the overthrow of classical terms: it is no longer related to the great taste and great style of the art of words or tears, and can only reveal its impact through intensification and focus on what was hidden in Longino: the association between terror and the remains of the beautiful felt in its presence.” Massimo Carboni, Il sublime è ora. Saggio sulle estetiche contemporanee (The Sublime is Now. An Essay on Contemporary Aesthetics.) Castel- vecchi Editore, Rome, October 1993, p.15).
In the first of his Duino Elegies (1912), Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes that beauty is:
“… nothing but the beginning of terror which we are barely able to endure and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.” (Rilke, Rainer Maria. “First Elegy” from Duino Elegies (1923), lines 4–5, translated by Mitchell, Stephen (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1992). So, unaware of its terrible nature, the beautiful can annihilate its admirers by ensla- ving them, a quality often attributed to Michae- langelo’s Vatican paintings.
This ‘sublime’ and philosophically complex phrase provides the title for the videos by Masbedo (Nicolò Massazza, 1973 and Iacopo Bedogni, 1970) exhibited at the National Art Museum of Catalonia (MNAC – Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya). Oil paintings, engravings and drawings by great past masters converse with the contemporary nature of moving ima- ges and reaffirm art’s power to convey meaning and introspection through its past and present declensions. The professional and existential history of a woman: Milanese fine art restorer Pinin Brambilla Barcilon, lies at the centre of the first video: Madam Pinin (2017) and a profound visual reflexion on the concept of beauty, its ex- piry and preservation. From 1977 to 1999, Pinin Brambilla dedicated fifty thousand hours of her life to the restoration of a great masterpiece: The Last Supper, that Leonardo da Vinci pain- ted on the walls of the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan from 1495 to 1498. This restoration is one of the most controversial and complex operations carried out in the history of art, and this video explains the process focusing attention exclusively on the restorer’s hands, face and eyes. As if mag- nified through a looking glass, these details become the protagonists of this work. The video investigates the relationship between the world of painted images and their conserva- tion, between creation as an active, palpitating force that firmly opposes the concept of an ending and the inevitability of time; and the care and dedication needed to rescue beauty from the oblivion of time. The negativity of the pain involved in the idea of an end attenuates the sensation of beauty, especially if we associate the idea of beauty with the aesthetics of gent- leness (Byung-Chul Han, Saving Beauty, Polity Press, 2017). The camera’s indulgent handling of the skin wrinkles and folds on the face and hands of this extraordinary guardian of beau- ty provokes uneasiness as, the areas in which there is no gentleness reveal the worrying wound of the passage of time and plastically foreshadow the finite nature of our lives. Displayed in the same room as Renaissance painters, the video Fragile (2016) portrays the surreal visit of a young Indian man grasping an old peacock as he wanders curiously around the rooms of Turin’s Sabauda gallery, a majestic temple of classical art. As we jointly observe the eternity of a grandiose and irredeemably distant past, the young man gently caresses the peacock’s feathers. This care seems to express a desire to protect it from the failings and afflictions of old age. This moving meta- phor of the fragility of art, and therefore also of the artist, who descends from the pedestal of genius to unclothe his humanity, is also a (perhaps slightly bitter,) demonstration of our limits. Its limbs withered by arthritis, the pea- cock is an allegorical figure, a tragic and also brilliant symbol of the change from a condition of vitality and power to the inexorable fatigue of the end. Wonderful in their eternal and perfect splendour, the paintings by Bronzino, Mantegna, Van Eyck, Rembrandt, Pollaiolo and Botticelli seem to indifferently witness the misery of our finite human nature. Beauty remains the common denominator, and is not freed from negative connotations due to the presence of the old, arthritic animal. It therefore drags us into the fascinating sphere of the sublime, with all its roughness, pain and fear.
The third and final room addresses the sub- ject of immigration and cultural contamination, a current and difficult topic. The video Blind Mirrors (2019) spectacularly stages this pheno- menon. The magnificent ballroom of the Palaz- zo Gangi Valguarnera, a baroque jewel encrus- ted in the heart of Palermo’s multicultural Kalsa neighbourhood, becomes the stage on which Tamil women dance in their striking traditional costumes. This cultural and aesthetic short circuit overpowers the ostentatious local 18th century ornamentations that Visconti made famous as the perfect setting for the famous ball in his film The Leopard, with the ancient ritual of Tamil dance. Our collective memory is forced to make an imaginative leap in order to superimpose the indelible images from the film, (with its diaphanous, 18th century crinolines) with bare feet decorated by the men of the gra- teful women of a community that has received nothing but ill treatment from history, and that is now one of the largest ‘minority’ populations in Palermo. The screen is filled with aesthetica- lly perfect images that are at once conceptual and politically powerful, forcing reflections not only about Palermo, which is an example of a city that has always been multicultural, but also about concepts of identity and belonging. The metaphorical and symbolic dimensions of the art are located in a different space/time continuum to that of life. Imagination is not reality, and this gap between dream and reality is home to the sublime created by these two artists. It is not in the ability but rather in the obligation to create this work. The artist crea- tes the work not because they can, but becau- se they must, in order to transform the sublime into the ethical.