Survive the Art Cube is a series of interviews with artists from different generations. The title refers to Brian O’Doherty’s most famous book to echo its critical tone. This project aims to better understand how these artists perceive the analogue-digital space in which we are immersed and our contemporaneity, the meaning and importance of artistic space today, and what sense there is in making an artistic journey in our present. Dark times call for reflection on reality and perhaps only artists can open our minds.
We start with Mariella Bettineschi. An all-round artist who has never rested on her laurels (i.e. her artistic career), always trespassing into the beyond of a complex, hidden reality. Her numerous experiments – encompassing abstraction, optics, photographic blurring, embroidery, etc., as far as iconology – are a clear demonstration of this. To listen to Mariella Bettineschi is to delve into an artistic conception that balances sensation and concept, aesthetic and social entropy, inner and outer space.
Fabio Giagnacovo: Today there are multimedia artists everywhere. All you need is a PC and you can call yourself one. You, on the other hand, are a true multi-media artist, having experimented with painting, sculpture, drawing, collage, photography and, finally, digital painting. Your works, from series to series, reveal new dimensions of thought, adhere to a renewed zeitgeist while remaining as enduring as poetry. Viewed as a whole in their diversity, your works reveal themselves as being extremely coherent. In an excessively fragmented and confused reality, such as the one we’re experiencing (and perhaps in the art world this is even more exasperating), what’s the secret of remaining true to oneself?
Mariella Bettineschi: There are no secrets, you just have to listen to the work and what it asks for. I am the hands, together with the intellectual and technical knowledge, that are made available for the work to come into being. The techniques I use (drawing, embroidery, collage, digital painting photography…) are just “traps” which give shape to an imagination, an intuition.
“The more distant and right the relationship is between two close realities, the stronger the image, the more emotional and poetic power it will have,” I wrote in 1990.
One thing that is never said is that every work is like a person: it’s specific and has its own needs, it wants particular things and keeps calling on you to get them. But you still don’t know what exactly they are, so you have to find out through trial and error. You try, you invent, you move, you give up and you start again. Then, suddenly one day everything falls into place and the meaning of the work is revealed.
Last year, you created a beautiful installation which consisted of a picture gallery of portraits from the L’era successiva series (The Next Era) and served as the setting for Dior‘s Prȇt-á-Porter Autumn Winter 2022-2023 fashion show. This was not the first time that Maria Grazia Chiuri created a fascinating melting pot between fashion and contemporary art, just as we are increasingly seeing collaborations between the luxury industry and art. Some commentators think this is evidence of the decline of art, of its inability to create imagery in the analogue-digital space and therefore seeking accreditation from the luxury sector. I believe it’s counterproductive to look at the present through the eyes of the past and I’m not as negative about this development. Can you tell us about your experience and what you think of this trend?
First of all, artists have worked with rich and powerful patrons since time immemorial, be they the Church, princes or rich merchants… so nothing new here. Perhaps contemporary patrons are the big fashion houses, since museums, especially in our country, always claim to have no money.
Apart from these general considerations, my collaboration with Dior was not really a commission considering that the 56 Portraits exhibited at the Tuileries already existed. In fact the cycle L’era successiva began in 2008 and still continues.
Maria Grazia Chiuri’s invitation was really exciting. In collaboration with the curator Paola Ugolini, she wanted to make a large ‘militant picture gallery’ and my women, whose eyes I had doubled, were perfect for this concept. Moreover, it was a great experience – seeing my three-metre-high portraits reproduced made my heart lose a beat. They were incredibly powerful, filling the space with a magnetic force. They looked at us, reminding us that “…environment, animals, plants, minerals, women and men are all connected in a very fragile equilibrium. To understand and respect this balance is to enter The Next Era”.
Many of your works are imbued with a feminist quality. The existential role of women and its meaning seems to flash by in a hinted, subtle, yet powerful and untamed way. There’s an extremely gentle naturalness in your translation and manipulation of women painted by past artists in the female portraits of The Next Era, for example, as well as in those golden sentences from the early 1980s series, Morbido (Soft). It’s a practice, yours, rare nowadays, which represents a disruptive poetic violence (the whole project L’era successiva is just that). What sense does it make for an artist, today, surrounded by post-gender ideologies, schwa and cyborg asexuality, to claim, as you did in your biography, “the centrality of woman, her infinite capacities to give birth to the world”?
My work starts from me, a woman, and from my journey towards the invention of a female alphabet in a patriarchal world where everything, for millennia, has always been under the male gaze.
Now, finally, a complex multiple world has revealed itself, where the infinite nuances of masculine and feminine are being uncovered. A world that has always existed (just look at the mythological figures present in all cultures) but was strictly hidden, forbidden, as women have been.
As a result, new reflections and new inclusions are needed, and if this really happens, it will mean we have entered The Next Era.
You bend the digital to your will with your digital paintings, also thanks to your long artistic experience. There’s a dexterity to be found in these works that emphasises thought, they are never overpowered by the bit and are undoubtedly works designed for an analogue space, despite being born thanks to digital space. You use technology as a tool, like a brush or a needle. We’re increasingly inclined to think that a PC can fully replace our analogue existence, forgetting that we are made of flesh and feelings. What do you think about this and, as an artist, what do you think is important in order to make the most of these increasingly new technologies?
I had a solid academic education where it was normal to acquire all the traditional techniques (from painting to sculpture, from drawing to mosaic or fresco…). At a certain point, I discovered the great possibilities of digital technology, I was over 40 years old, and I realised that there’s something valuable there. With some difficulty, I learned how to use this tool, which does not replace acquired techniques tools but represents an addition to them. I’m an old artist and, therefore, perhaps conditioned by the need for the work to be an idea that then materialises, but I don’t exclude that there may be different forms, techniques and languages in the future.
Every day we hear about some ad-flavoured art operation or some trivial NFTs sold for extortionate sums. More and more often we see artists who claim not to have studied art and, by exploiting the dynamics of the Internet, earn much more than many who did. With Web 2.0, projected towards Web 3.0, where information dominates aesthetics, we are told that we are all post-conceptual artists. At the same time, the academic professors themselves advise people to look elsewhere during their studies, not to fixate too much on ArtWorld. An anti-academic message emerges even more clearly in everyday life, echoed by many who have attended art schools (I’m referring exclusively to state schools) and talked about them in disparaging terms. What do you think the point of studying at a Fine Arts School today is?
This is a great topic!
In Art Schools, drawing has disappeared and young artists are often very ignorant about art history. They are Duchamp’s great-grandchildren, learning like window dressers to set up ‘installations’ and prepare perfect portfolios.
Perhaps we should no longer call them “Academies” but rather Schools of Higher Artistic Education, where learning is of the highest level and all disciplines (manual, digital and cultural) are acquired with great seriousness.
I’m very strict about this. It’s time to stop everyone thinking of themselves as artists.
Art is a long, difficult journey – it steals all the energy from life, for life.
images: (cover 1) Mariella Bettineschi, illustrazione di Nikla Cetra (2) Mariella Bettineschi, «Morbido», 1980, organza, cotton wool, gold, 20x20x3 cm (3) Mariella Bettineschi, «L’era successiva», Sfilata Prȇt-á-Porter Autunno-Inverno 2022-2023 di Dior (4) Mariella Bettineschi, «L’era successiva (Ingres, La grande odalisca)», 2015, digital painting, direct print on plexiglas, 120x80x2 cm (5) Mariella Bettineschi, «L’era successiva (Biblioteca Malatestiana)», 2016, digital painting, direct print on Plexiglas, mirror, 155x100x4 cm (6) Mariella Bettineschi, «Il primo racconto», 1997, digital painting, direct printing on acetate sheets, 130×91 cm