Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Marxist Criticism of Painting

The Italian poet, painter, polemicist, and director Pier Paolo Pasolini was born on March 5, 1922, six months before Mussolini’s March on Rome, and was murdered on November 2, 1975, three weeks before the release of his film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, which enacts the Marquis de Sade’s unfinished novel in the last-gasp stronghold of Fascist Italy.

Moralist, sensualist, revolutionary, reactionary, prodigy, dilettante, Catholic, atheist, blasphemer, martyr — nearly 50 years after his death bequeathed a legacy comprising dozens of films, novels, poetry collections, plays, essays, paintings, and drawings, let alone hundreds of newspaper columns, we continue to struggle with the inherent contradictions of Pasolini’s cultural and political persona.

The latest piece of the puzzle is a compilation of writings on art, Heretical Aesthetics: Pasolini on Painting, edited and translated by Ara H. Merjian and Alessandro Giammei (Verso, 2023). The book appropriates its title from Heretical Empiricism, a collection of Pasolini’s essays published in 1972, and like the earlier volume, as the editors note in their introduction, its contents present “an articulate image of what it meant to self-identify as a Marxist intellectual in Italy during the Cold War.”

Lest that sound antiseptic, the editors quickly remind us that this was

a period when armed groups and elected officials, politicians and terrorists, musicians and priests, painters, students, workers, academics, and activists genuinely believed that a revolution could have, at any moment, subverted the status quo in the country and perhaps the continent.

The stakes, then, couldn’t have been higher, and within a few years of Pasolini’s death (which, from the moment the news broke, was suspected to be a political assassination), the extreme-left Brigate Rosse was kidnapping and murdering Italy’s former prime minister, Aldo Moro, and the extreme-right NAR (Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari ) was massacring 85 people in a bombing at a Bologna railway station.

17. Mantegna Lamentation over the Dead Christ
Andrea Mantegna, “The Lamentation over the Dead Christ” (1490), tempera on canvas (Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan; image in the public domain)

For Pasolini, the way forward was a turn to the past. Merjian and Giammei write:

The word “tradition” in his poetic language has hardly anything to do with mores or calcified conventions. […] Rather than looking ahead to imagine and organize the end of the dominating class, Pasolini’s communism longed for an age that pre-dated class itself. The prehistorical, antediluvian (sub) proletariat of his political and erotic utopia had to be protected from, not liberated by, progress — protected, in fact, from history.

To better understand Pasolini’s redefinition of tradition, it is necessary to remember that his first book of poetry, Poesie a Casarsa (1942), published in the teeth of the war when he was just 20 years old, was composed in the dialect of Friuli, the region of northwestern Italy where he grew up. This was not simply an artistic choice, but an act of subversion in a Fascist state where the imposition of standardized Italian was crucial to Mussolini’s attempts to tighten his grip on a linguistically unruly nation.

Pasolini, then, should be viewed as a proud regionalist who took the work of his compatriots seriously, and did nothing to spare them the same acidic critical eye that he cast on such sacred cows as Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol. In all likelihood you have never heard of Federico De Rocco or Giuseppe Zigaina, but he puts them up against the leading Italian artists of his day, including Giorgio Morandi and Renato Guttuso, precisely as “a means of freeing our best painters from the suspicion of provinciality.”

The title of Pasolini’s discussion of De Rocco, Zigaina, and others, “On Light and the Painters of Friuli” (1947), written when he was in his mid-20s, spells out a key interest of the future director — the idea of light as a “thread uniting [a] set of values.” This will become one of the book’s motifs in terms of both painting and film.

In the ekphrastic poem “Piero’s Frescoes in Arezzo” (1957), he describes a figure “welcomed / among these walls, into this light, / whose purity he fears he has spoiled / with an unworthy presence….” He writes of the cinematic light of Caravaggio (1974), which “replaced the universal, platonic light of the Renaissance with a quotidian and dramatic one,” and in his poem “Picasso” (1953), he captures the restless intensity of his subject, and his own ambivalence toward the man, through mood swings ranging from a “sunset […] like a scorching / dawn” to “the zone / of an almost pastoral light” to the mirrored “light / of the tempest [illuminating] the rotting flesh / of Buchenwald.”

Heretical Aesthetics cover image
Heretical Aesthetics: Pasolini on Painting, edited and translated by Ara H. Merjian and Alessandro Giammei, Verso, 2023 (image courtesy Verso)

It speaks to Pasolini’s capaciousness as a maker of worlds that he structured his poem about Picasso, the presumed progenitor of modern art, in the terza rima of Dante’s Commedia (c. 1308–21). Other poetic works include a six-line lyric addressed to the sculptor Giacomo Manzù (“For Manzù’s David,” originally published in Poesie a Casarsa); two poems dedicated to De Rocco (1959 and 1963); an odd combination of prose and verse about Gattuso’s drawings (1962); and an extract from a longer work, “My Longing for Wealth” (1955–59), that concludes with a reverie on:

[...]my collection
of paintings that I still love: next to
my Zigaina I would want a fine Morandi,
a Mafai from 1940, a De Pisis,
a small Rosai, a large Guttuso

This handful of poems is indicative of the mixed bag of art-related and art-adjacent writing collected here. Along with straightforward reviews and essays, the volume includes a hagiographic obituary of Pasolini’s art history mentor, the great Roberto Longhi (“What Is a Teacher?,” 1970); a discussion of movie lighting and lenses for his films Accattone and The Gospel According to Matthew (“From ‘Technical Confessions,’” 1964); and a diaristic musing about his own art-making (“I Started Painting Again Yesterday,” 1970).

What might at first seem like padding becomes at second glance a reflection of Pasolini’s volatile hybridity. The apparently freewheeling criteria of the selection, which allows for the appropriately titled screed “Venting about Mamma Roma” (1962) — the director’s denunciation of critical assumptions regarding the visual sources of his post-neorealist film starring Anna Magnani (“Mantegna had nothing to do with it. Nothing!”) — as well as an all-but-impenetrable excerpt of an essay on linguistics, “From ‘Observations on Free Indirect Discourse’” (1965), present “an articulate image” not only of “a Marxist intellectual” but also of a consummate polymath who failed to recognize conventional boundaries in the creation or reception of art.

What galvanizes this potentially vexing melange of styles and subject matter is the author’s compulsion to cut against the grain, and the heat of his moral fire. Whether it’s the sticky question of Picasso (the art historian T.J. Clark describes the poem in his foreword as a “mixture of anger and insolence and dignity”) or the corruption of the avant-garde by the forces of the marketplace, Pasolini’s pronouncements display a prescience redolent with the concerns of our day.

In an essay provoked by a horrifying, now-forgotten incident at the opening day of the 1972 Venice Biennale, in which the artist Gino De Dominicis staged a tableau vivant featuring a man with Down syndrome, Pasolini rails against the abandonment of political commitment by the avant-garde (in literature and, later, visual art) for a newfound “rapport with society” and an acceptance of “the new values — not yet wholly defined — of neocapitalism.”

In these conditions:

The case of [Gino] De Dominicis is the typical product of such monstrous confusion. In fact, he could serve as its metaphor. For he mixes the neo-avant-garde’s provocation — “Pop” art taken to the extreme — with the neo-Marxist provocations of those innumerable little political movements [i.e., the demands of the 1968 student revolt], likewise carried to their extreme, and a fanciful rhetorical posturing.

The coarsening of discourse; the seduction of spectacle; the co-option of radical gestures; the commodification of art by and for the super-rich: Pasolini saw the germs of our disordered culture in his own, and sought solace where he could. As he wrote of the art of his close friend Federico De Rocco (“Your Colour,” 1959):

Grace is surrender, labour is humility,
the absolute is an intense vibration of backcloths
behind the fresh images of an ancient life.

Heretical Aesthetics: Pasolini on Painting, edited and translated by Ara H. Merjian and Alessandro Giammei (2023), is published by Verso and is available online and in bookstores.

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