“The people do not pass over to the side of the camera without the camera having passed over to the side of the people.” – Gilles Deleuze
Hail the new Etruscan is a new body of work by Oona Grimes which fuses drawings, stencils and film. Hail the new Etruscan #1, the first of three solo exhibitions, focuses on drawing. The touchstone here is clearly post-war Italian cinema and the films designated as Neorealist. This canon of films ranges from Visconti’s Ossessione, (1943) and Rossellini’s Roma Città Aperta, (1945) to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, (1960), and Pasolini’s Accattone, (1961) and beyond. The earlier of these films were inexorably tied to the social, political, and economic reorganization of a nation – an antidote to Fascist-era national identity. That said, they were not the naively literal narratives as often characterised. Film may have given Pasolini the “quintessences of factualness’ he needed, but he reinvented and improvised far beyond this beginning. Gilles Deleuze holds that the time-image threatens boundaries between stable binary oppositions. He locates the power of the Neorealist cinematic image between reality and dream, the subjective and objective, the self and other – the very same liminal space Grimes’ drawings inhabit.
“a spritz of grrrls” – the spare, crayon drawings on white of brutalised faces running with snot and blotched with cold – are a hymn to unsung extras. These are the unknown players, without credit or lines of dialogue, who inhabit the background action of Rossellini’s Roma Città Aperta, (1945) or Fellini’s La Strada, (1954).
“Daily I would walk to Piazza Rotunda and beyond, just to be in Rome, early before the crowds; to watch the road sweepers and shop keepers setting up, to see the light changing over the city. Gradually those walks, and those films wove themselves into my dreams and my drawings.” – Oona Grimes
Sometimes, in large colour on black drawings and stencils, the bit players are allowed to rise to command their own self-contained episode within a film. In “the nest is served” a woman wearing a headscarf decorated with sparrows and hawks avoids penetrating – possibly threatening – eyes. Her straggly hair echoes her accuser’s threadbare garment. As in Pasolini’s Uccellacci e Uccellini (1966) where a woman won’t let her children get out of bed for fear of their hunger, there is poverty here. And there is a wry humour too.
“…fundamental to neorealism are “subjective images, memories of childhood, sound and visual dreams or fantasies, where the character does not act without seeing himself acting, complicit viewer of the role he himself is playing.” 1
Visually, these drawings could not be further from the grainy black and ivory white of analogue film. Colours float in a blackness made denser by occasional repair patches, (mirroring restored frescos or stone work). The strong pallet was newly developed by Grimes on her Rome fellowship. These are a fugue dream of the Neorealist films. The emerging and receding images are layered with hypnagogic memory and sensation – fluid and hyper-associative. Like Terence McKenna’s self- transforming machine elves, characters such as the twins in “i gemelli di Fellini” will sometimes speak or sing into existence a shape or physical object.
As with the repair patches, the colour coding squares that appear at the corners of these pictures recall printing technology. Drawing our attention to the making, these quotes act as an ironic counterpoint to the highly subjective. Like caricature, they allow us a brief step back to reflect.
Patterns derived from painted folds, Etruscan porn or icons from a particular film adorn material and clothing: the levitating woman from Pasolini’s “Teorema”, 1968 (“la maggiorate and Santa Veronica”), the birds on the hat in “mani parlanti”) Sometimes headdresses, sometimes disembodied garments floating free, these phantoms or snakes seem to be searching for a shape – and for connection to the featured character.
The larger than life characters that invade these pictures, whether played by Giulietta Masina or Anouk Aimee (featuring in “roman Skandals”) remind me of Kauffmann ’s descriptions in his 2018 review of Accattone:
“The minor characters are chosen like gems by a jeweller: Mario Cipriani as a turkey-cock thief; Umberto Bevilacqua as a Neapolitan hood whose beetle-browed, broad smile is scary; and an anonymous, runty, wide-eyed girl as the bereft wife of a man in jail, with a brood of kids who move around her wherever she walks like an animate hoop skirt.”
Totò (il Principe della risata) embodies the Commedia dell’Arte, the musical hall, the pantomime. A genius of the surreal, radical and naively immoral he is unknown in the UK, but a national treasure in Italy. The great Totò lives on. He features in “Toto and le tre sorelle Fontana”, pronouncing with the insane ingenuity of a magician to le tre sorelle Fontana – drawn from the Fontana sisters who founded an Italian fashion house in 1943 and helped reinvigorate a shattered nation. Here, the sisters keep their conjoined thoughts to themselves, so fearsome is Totò’s manic energy. “cinzano and cherry soda” sees Totò weeping alongside his sidekick, Davoli
Ninetto, Pasolini’s life long companion. Their despair may be theatrical, but it becomes real as children’s games become real. We are what we believe. The decorations on their headgear may be a clue to their distress. A writhing and highly decorated stole seems to offer some comfort, though as in many of these pictures, its nascent animation means it is still trying to figure out what its purpose should be.
“…in this globalized world where it seems that everyone sees the same movies and eats the same food, there are still unbridgeable divisions between cultures. How can two peoples ever come to understand each other when one of them is ignorant of Totò?” – Umberto Eco
Throughout this collection of irreverent juxtaposition, fever-dreams and mischief, we are always minded of Grimes’ starting point: the humanity and the pathos of those post-war films. “biscottino” sees a village fool hypnotised by a magically folding and unfolding material shape, momentarily forget the loaf of bread he thieved. In “angelo del fango” Paola’s deceptively simple cartoon face dreams herself away from a patterned garment willing itself into existence. As in “sempre le ginocchia”, it is only a matter of time before it morphs into an ally. Or an enemy.
1 Mental Landscapes: Bazin, Deleuze, and Neorealism (Then and Now) by Justin Horton