Wall covered with gold sheets, coat hanger with hat, overcoat and oil lamp
22.04.06 | 04.11.06
Shown for the first time in May 1975 at the Lucio Amelio gallery in Naples, Civil Tragedy is one of the most evocative and poetic installations Kounellis has conceived, and it is one of the rare pieces to have its own title. The tragedy to which it refers is the disappearance of the ancient revolutionary hero, decreed earlier by Hellenistic culture with the death of Prometheus. The artist pays homage to him with a golden wall, Byzantine in its sacred quality, precisely at a moment when the civil struggle of the “years of lead” (the period of terrorism) seemed to ebb into the political and social disengagement of “things as usual.”
The absence of the actor’s body corresponds in the work to the celebration of the luminous flow of gold, which dematerializes the back wall, transforming it into an abstract and ideal space, similar to one of mosaics in Ravenna. Unlike the latter, where background and figures share the same immaterial two-dimensionality, and similar to the Sienese altarpieces from the 14th century, where real figures stand out against the flat gold background, Kounellis inserts into the splendor of the gilded surface the ordinary opacity of a black overcoat and hat, hung on a wooden hat stand. The earthly nature of their presence is confirmed by the oil lamp, whose dramatic light creates shadows and chiaroscuros. Just as the lines of the hat stand refer to the serial production of Viennese proto-rationalism, the oil lamp is also an old object, the result of the achievements of the industrial revolution. Its image brings to mind things experienced or seen, like the analogous lamp in Picasso’s Guernica (1936). And the hat and overcoat constitute an image that is full of history. From the felt garments of Joseph Beuys to Magritte’s Man in the Bowler Hat 191964); from the film versions of Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol’s The Overcoat (1837), adapted by Alberto Lattuada (1952) and by Grigoru Kozintsev and Leonid Traugerg (1926), to the overcoat and hat worn by the anonymous prosecutor in Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1925), these garments imply in themselves the absent body of the hero, and they speak of the birth and evolution of modern man.
The overcoats appear frequently in Kounellis’s work: nailed and jammed by girders against a metal sheet (Untitled, 1988, reproduced in G. Moure, 1996, p. 198); squeezed and pressed between metal sheets (Untitled, 1990, ibidem, p. 201), or crucified on them (Untitled, 1990, ibidem, p. 196). The appear hanging, high up on the stage wings, in a production of Mauser, performed at the Deutsche Theater in Berlin in 1991 and at the Schauspielhaus in Düsseldorf in 1992, with text by and directed by Heiner Muller (ibidem, pp. 381-382). In the 1993 exhibition at the Kunsthalle in Recklinghausen, eight overcoats are arranged on two panels finished off with a small frame and shaped by the juxtaposition of wooden slats, varnished brown. Two years later, at the Galerie Konrad Fischer in Düsseldorf, an overcoat is attached with a hook to a double metal sheet that is traversed horizontally by two sheets of paper with drawings (ibidem, p. 202). The overcoat and hat hang together once again on a metal sheet marked by the presence of colorful butterflies (Untitled, 2000, reproduced A. Zevi, 2005, no page number) and in the forest of girders arranged in a cross in Oxford in 2004 (Untitled, 2004, reproduced in S. Cotter – A. Nairne, 2004, p. 53). The black felt hat, adorned in 1972 by a crown of laurel (Untitled, 1972, reproduced in J.-C. Ammann et al., 1983, p. 104), returns in an installation at the Städtisches Museum in Mönchengladbach in 1978, where it is attached to the wall, above a pair of shoes with the soles covered in gold leaf (ibidem, p. 124, n. 88), similar to what happens at the same time in a work by Gino De Dominicis, Standing Figure (1979), consisting of two shoes and a hat suspended in the air (reproduced in Arte in Italia negli anni ’70. Verso i Settanta 1968-1970, edited by L. Caramel, Ed. Charta, Milan, 1996, p. 67).
As for the presence of gold, it confers religious and sacred status. It is a material “precious as blood, and moreover has a symbolic, prestigious, and grand value” (Jannis Kounellis, in G. Celant, unpublished interview, February-August 1974, published. in J.-C. Ammann et al., 1983, p. 93). He uses gold because of these properties, to mold his own lips while listening to a singer performing an excerpt from Bizet’s Carmen, accompanied by a pianist (Untitled, 1972, reproduced in J.-C. Ammann et al., 1983, p. 116); to cover the crown of laurel in Untitled, 1972; to connote the shoes of his son Damiano (renamed Rousseau because he is the offspring of social freedom), placed on a cross-shaped shelf (Untitled, `972, reproduced in J.-C. Ammann et al., 1983, p. 92).
If the candle that shone beneath the revolutionary slogan of Untitled, 1969 (fig. 102) was a sign of pathos, of a participation that is discovered, like gold” (Jannis Kounellis, in G. Celant, unpublished interview, Genoa, February-August 1974, published in J.-C. Ammann et al., 1983, p. 93), now that gold gleams concretely in an empty but creative space, traversed by the expectation (the lighted oil lamp) of a new, profound transformation that turns contemporary man into a modern Prometheus.
In Kounellis’s earliest works one can already glimpse this tension between a search for historic and poetic identity and a desire to break with the status quo by opening ...
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Modern Art Agency, Napoli, 1975; Documenta 7, Kassel, 1982; Städtische Galerie im Lembachhaus, Monaco, 1985; The iron window, Stedelijk Van Abbemueseum, Eindhove, 1985; Castello di Rivoli – Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Torino, 1988; Ex edificio industriale in 401 West Ontario Street, Chicago, 1986; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, 1996; Diözesanmuseum Freising, Freising, 2001.