Introducing a new masterpiece of ballpointing which pulls together disparate elements of history and geography and retrofits them for a 21st century audience. The artwork's title is spoiler to part of the story: the 2019 fire at Notre-Dame. As subjects go, the fire at the beloved 13th century cathedral in France is worthy of any artists' time in its own right, but this is no typical ballpoint pen drawing; there's more history and geography to this story. This depiction pulls from another fire recorded in world, and art, history.
Followers of 19th century British painting might recognize compositional similarities to The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons by J. M. W. Turner, renowned artist of that time and place. That's no coincidence. Modeled around that painting and masterfully reinterpreted in ballpoint by Italian artist Paolo Amico, The Fire of Notre-Dame is somewhat of a double homage; the French tragedy and British master both left their mark on Sicilian-born Amico. ''I am a great lover of art and history,'' the artist asserts. No doubt the lasting influence of parents who, although not artists themselves, were ''lovers of travel and museums'' and introduced culture to their children. ''Notre-Dame has marked many epochal passages, and seeing her on fire shocked me. When I saw the images of Notre-Dame in flames I immediately thought of Turner's painting, in particular,'' Amico tells us. Having made that visual connection, Amico took this leap in time to express the social and personal impact and ''to make people understand how events can repeat themselves after many years.''
To hear Amico talking Turner, one can imagine the two as old pals. ''I have always found him one of the greatest masters of all time. The first time I saw a Turner painting was in London in the National Gallery, I was about ten years old, I remained to observe it for a long time. It often happened that I was enchanted in front of a painting, to examine every detail.'' If his parents lost him in a museum, young Paolo might be found sitting in front of a Turner. Sitting in front of Amico's Fire, one might experience the same sense of wonder that he himself might've felt as he sat before Turner; How'd he do that? Why? What's it all about? Wow. Amico shared a story about how Turner tied himself to a mast of a ship during a storm so he could 'learn' how to represent such circumstances in paint, but Amico's own research is less perilous; no, he did not set himself on fire to understand the flames. ''My research has always been more dedicated to the city in the quietest hours of the night. In searching for new subjects, I happen to walk alone at night until I find what I am looking for.''
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PENNAME PICK posted May 8, 2020
Burning Man PICKS SPECIAL: Paolo Amico・Turin, Italy
The Fire of Notre-Dame (L'Incendio di Notredame)・2019—2020・ballpoint pen on paper・92.5 x 123cm (36.3 x 48.5'')
The Fire wasn't Amico's first try at Turner. In 2014 he was offered a solo exhibition in Turin and decided to create a series of works that ''concerned artists who lived in Turin or who have passed through''. Amico reinterpreted works by famous Italian artists such as Giorgio de Chirico, whose work influenced the surrealists, and Alighiero Boetti, a conceptual artist whose oeuvre also included ballpoints. Turner lived a short period in Turin in his youth, Amico tells us, ''in a phase of research in which he dedicated himself to creating views from the peaks of the mountains that line the city.'' Amico chose one of those views. When referencing existing work, including Turner's Burning, Amico isn't striving for faithful reproduction. Copying isn't the point.
Amico took artistic license in his portrayal of the actual fire, engulfing Notre-Dame in much more of an inferno than had actually occurred; forgivable as his expression of the impact. Amico made the necessary geographical and historical modifications to change 19th century London into 21st century Paris — Houses of Parliament out, Notre-Dame in. The towers of London's Westminster Abbey noticeable in Turner's painting also had to come out, and are replaced by the Pompidou Centre, identifiable by its exterior staircase. To the left, the Eiffel Tower was added, and what might be a skyline of modern high-rise buildings farther in the distance. Those architectural modifications are enough to imply that London's River Thames is now Paris' Seine, although Amico keeps the arched bridgework of the original painting. One of Amico's most apropos revisions is his contemporization of the crowds gathered to witness the fire.
''I tried to make them more visible and to update them by inserting elements of our days.''
The 'elements' of which he speaks is, of course, the now ubiquitous glow of smartphone screens; crowds filming world events such as this in unison, often watching through their screens instead of that occurring before their eyes. They even seem to be jostling with each other to film from the best angle in Amico's scene, as they would in reality. Amico didn't spend much time with physical characteristics of each figure, but neither did Turner, a vagueness which adds drama. But while Turner was local to the Parliament fire and among the crowds he depicted, witnessing first hand what was reportedly 'the single most depicted event in 19th century London', Amico watched Notre-Dame burning via mass media — perhaps some of that smartphone footage. Amico kept faithful to Turner's original in one very quirky way: its aging. Pen strokes visible in the reflections of fire on the water correspond to cracks in the aged oil painting.
At left : The Fire of Notre-Dame, shown in its hand-singed frame. Below, detail : witnessing the fire through a smartphone (work in progress). Bottom left : the actual fire, April 15, 2019. *Photo from Wikipedia. Artwork & detail images © Paolo Amico.
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