Tuesday 25 October 2022

representation's swoon

Perhaps something of Palermo’s psychic ambiguity is suggested in the relational axis between two remarkable paintings held in the Museo Abatellis, a few steps from Lo Spasimo down Via Alloro. Firstly, an anonymous 15th century Gothic fresco, Il Trionfo della Morte ('The Triumph of Death') startling in its scale (6 square metres) and grim impact. An enormous skeleton archer, riding a flayed, bare-ribbed horse that seems to prefigure Picasso’s suffering beast in Guernica, gallops through a lush hedged garden dispatching volleys of arrows at popes, cardinals, nobility, and courtiers; they twist and clutch at their wounds as they fall. To one side, a gaggle of the poor seems to call out for an end to their misery, but they are ignored, or favoured. In their midst, an expressionless figure looks directly out at the viewer, a brush in his hand – the artist. Elsewhere a group of elegantly attired aristocrats hunt with dogs and a falcon, chat and listen to music by a fountain: revelers unaware of or indifferent to the proximity of Death’s ‘triumphant’ quiver. As a result of war damage to the palazzo that originally housed the fresco, this didactic allegory had been cut into four sections and reassembled in the Abatellis. The ensuing scar remains unrepaired, and rips a peeling X through the very centre of the image, like the overlay of blurred crosshairs in the eyepiece of a rifle, its target the gaunt flank of the horse.

Secondly, Antonello da Messina’s L’Annunziata ('The Announced', 1476), an exquisitely composed, icon-sized representation of the Biblical annunciation, Mary’s encounter with the Archangel Gabriel and her reception of his message. This restrained humanist image is the very antithesis of the fresco’s graphic apocalypse, for it distills a narrative sequence into an enigmatic moment, like a single frame of film in which everything is discreet, suggested, withheld, mysterious. A solitary woman, her luminous face framed by a blue headscarf and a black background, is interrupted while reading. Her left hand holds the scarf lightly over her chest, while her right hand is raised slightly towards the viewer in an ambiguous gesture - of surprise, perhaps, or instinctive defence, self-steadying, or even, in its intimation of the viewer’s presence, a blessing. Her quiet angled gaze focuses on a point just to the lower left of the viewer, as if reflecting internally. The angel remains invisible, unrepresentable. The surface of Mary’s body, like a minutely sensitized seismograph, registers the fleeting presence of something radically other and incarnates its passage - and we are cast as witnesses to the barely manifest signs, both intensive and extensive, of this passage: the dynamic stillness of her suspended hand, the gravity of her contemplative expression, the raised page of her open book as if lifted momentarily by a tiny current of air.

In the space between the narratives and representational economies of these two images – enfolding mortality and becoming, unrelenting threat and fragile possibility, explicit excess and ineffable secret - representation itself seems to spasm and swoon.  This (overtly Catholic) axis between panic and grace informs the uncertain ground on which Palermo’s dreams and nightmares are played out. 

Extract from an essay, 'Performing Palermo: protests against forgetting', originally published in Nicolas Whybrow (ed.), Performing Cities, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014

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