Paolo Moreno
Maria Cristina Crespo

from Images Art & Special

Apparently harmless toys enter our homes: boxes, looms and frames containing dummies. It is easy to gain access to Maria Cristina Crespo’s world, though difficult to come out of it unharmed. Our eyes skim the polychrome shapes she arranges, reassured by the discovery of a tactile substantiality. We penetrate those tabernacles thanks to the realism of an environment or landscape painted in the background; we end up being caught up in a carnivorous plant. A desire of containment that the artist exercises in collecting contributions from Art of all time lays siege to the viewer in a mental labyrinth. What at first sight appeared to be a naïve miniature of André Malraux’s imaginary museum is in fact as unfathomable as Jorge Luis Borges’ universal library. Once we are initiated in such an endearing mythical nomenclature, we are soon plunged into painful interiority, as if towards the truth of a forbidden sect. Like an evil diamond, an explanation of the world lies hidden, set among false jewels, damask and brocade wastes, fringes and lace, all of which never cease to create illusions in a sequence of elusive theatre wings.
The source of such art is the very childhood of the artist in the marvellous archaeology of Palestrina: the cave of destinies, the sacellum of Isis, the mosaic of the Nile, the grey marble colossus of Fortune. Cristina’s great aunt was among the pious women admitted to the ritual of dressing the Madonna del Carmine. An ancestral urge towards cloaking those fetishes which nowadays recite in a box; but they are lars of an unknown pre-Christian dynasty, guardians of children who played in the place where Giovanni Pierluigi was born, penates of the city lost under the bombs.
What followed was her exploration of Liberal Arts in our times: classical studies, a degree in a medieval subject, a specialization diploma, her first job as a restorer, collaboration with Angelo Canevari in a foundry, some museographical work, journalistic articles, and participation in a renowned Baroque music choir (the C.I.M.A.). Finally, with her own family in an ancient country house on the Via Cassia which has become a point of reference for a circle of artists, critics and – let’s say it though it is no longer fashionable – civilly committed intellectuals. What springs from the trickles of a minimalist biography is the myth of an interpretation outside time, leaving room for inventive freedom and allowing the grafting of various suggestions: popular tradition and Serpotta’s plastic “teatrini” [tiny three-dimensional compositions of the lives of Saints]; puppets and sophisticated collages created by Palermo nobility at the end of the 18th century; Dino Buzzati’s and Gustave Moreau’s symbolism; trips to the Far East and South America, and even some rose-pruning classes. Her Muse concealed herself in a helpful professor, an anonymous passer-by, and an occasional traveller on a train with whom to exchange a word which, on second thoughts, becomes crucial: favourable presences, angels of a lay Annunciation. Rather than a current in Contemporary Art production, what one can detect in her inexhaustible work is the mark left by men of letters, philosophers and poets: 20th-century maîtres à penser evoked by works of art which play on intertextuality like books written by the best writers.
One of her cycles is dedicated to James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, that is, to anthropology of syncretism, an evolution of cults and rituals and a reiterated fascination with the world of performance: Orpheus’ Altar and Orphic Altar in different circumstances (1994). There are her visionary Diorama from Hell, including the pale Böklinian Animula (1993), A Madrigal to Proserpine (1993), Little Altar to Isis (1993), Aedicule of Saint George (1993) and Villiers’ Love (1994). Then there are her cameos, fanciful pantograph versions inspired by the Farnese gems: Miracle, Splendour, Death of Giulia Soemia, Giulia Gonzaga, Pasolini, and the marvellous Apotheosis of Heliogabalus, which incarnates Antonin Artaud’s words: “it is here that a sort of superior anarchy is manifested, in which his profound disquiet is set on fire, and he runs from stone to stone, from one splendour to another, from one shape to another, from one flame to another, as if running from one soul to another, in a mysterious interior odyssey that no one has since been through”. The artist’s arduous challenge to Novalis: Heights of a Newborn World, Wonderful Intruder, The Day’s Farewell (1995), Sacred Sleep, Melancholy, Obscure Womb of the Tomb, Celestial Spheres (1996), Farewell (2002); these are symptomatic titles which appertain without further distinctions to themes devoid of illustrative commonplace, full of the wisdom of the Hymns to the Night. Among her latest works is a restless Tanagrina (2001), the technical description of which is like a poetic list by Jaques Prévert: “wood, stucco, cloth, mirror glass, hologram paper and acrylic”.
It would be useless to subdivide into sections an artistic career which is rich in revivals and comebacks, or to attach temporary labels to an unequalled prophetic intuition renovated with every season. The most exhaustive essay (Achille Bonito Oliva, Crespo, Milan, Electa, 1999) outwardly classifies her artefacts according to their dominant colour: white, red, gold, blue, light blue, black: an echo of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s trilogy: Blue Film, White Film, Red Film, a non-marginal source of inspiration for her trophies of love, as Cristina calls her own artefacts.
There are not many male protagonists: Bolivian Angel (1997), Saint Sebastian of Mishima (1997), François Villon’s Diptych (1996); Neapolitan Templar (1990), a pompous homage to Francesco Solimena; the daily sanctity of Prince Igor (1997); Enea Silvio Piccolomini’s Box (1994); Shakespearian (1998); Leone XIII in the emblematic A.R.A.T.O.R. against a Pythagorean sky; the surrealistic scenario of Miracle in Milan for Cesare Zavattini’s hundredth anniversary celebrated in his hometown Luzzara in 2002; but who tainted the dreamy face of the Phoenician prince in the Wedding of Cadmus and Harmonia? I can remember that painting at the exhibition Alma and Other Women (1998), at the Remo Croce bookshop, with the sombre cavern of Pannychis, the stunned, feminized Kairós, the fairy-tale field of The Dragon Men, and the Jocasta’s Aedicule included in a Hellenic series dedicated to The Death of Pythia by Friedrich Dürrenmatt. The subtitle of that exhibition, Stories and Legends of Women, concerns Cristina’s entire production, the black continent of an intrepidly-explored femininity.
A paradigm of this is the monstrous beast in Oedipus and the Sphinx (1994) which traces the destiny of the young Theban and of whoever penetrates this figurative adventure through Frazer’s eyes. A procession of irresistible enchantresses in the depth of Russian Aquarium with Belle Époque Mermaids (2002), a painted relief on three perspective planes which is a masterpiece of that conscientious technique with which the artist arranges layers of materials resulting from metamorphosis through patient alchemies. Another Siren plastically dressed up in Liberty style stands in the middle, and on our side of the glass there is a human couple watching the numinous marine apparition.
From a profane Nativity (1992) her childhood draws the turbid face of Alice in Wonderland (1998), which is more appropriate to Lewis Carroll’s repressed paedophilia than to the pedagogical theme of the fairy tale. A maiden exposes herself helpless to the Arrow of Fire (1995): a small, decadent lyrical drama taken from Hugo von Hoffmannsthal’s The Knight of the Rose. Desire finds its expression in the Pulcinella’s Serenades (1989), addressed to the lady leaning out from a proscenium functioning as a balcony; in Madrigal to a Sweet Nightingale (1994) inspired by Adriano Banchieri’s Feast on the evening of Carnival Thursday (“oh sweetest nightingale, on those green branches all night your friend you call and with melodious notes render sweet your laments: among the greatest horrors of my thoughts, I long for my Clori, from whom I live apart, deprived of all pleasure and every sweetness”); finally, in the languid Rococo (1993) where the frivolous costume approaches parody. The sepulchral set-up in Sarcophagus of the lady of Scarlot (1991) is refuted by the vividly wide-open eyes of the occupier lying there cherishing Lancelot’s letter. The illicit passion of Artemis’ priestess ends in tragedy: she sees her loved one die in the waters of the Hellespont and flings herself naked to follow him unto death: Hero and Leander (1991); in parallel there are the sketches for the death of Ophelia drowned in cellophane (1987-1991). Elsewhere it is the woman who becomes the avenger, as a re-born Judith for the Carlotta Corday’s Cenotaph (1991), while Marat bleeds to death in the hip-bath on the same lines as in the famous painting by Louis David.
Naked lovers surrender to passion in a green field, inspired by a naïve song by Patti Pravo, The Garden of Love (1995): “Il cuscino sembra un prato dove il vento s’è fermato [our pillow is like the grass where the wind has stopped blowing]”; the protagonists obediently get dressed again in The Garden of Love, No. 2 (2002), thus protecting an authentic copy of the singer’s 45 rpm record.
Sex is torment. The voluptuous flesh of Danae (1992) buckles under the invasive violence of divine gold. In the Francois Villon’s Diptych (1996) pink stucco (moulded over a core of nylon and polyvinyl acetate adhesive) exposes a torso to lust amongst black drapes, just as in the blasphemous An Icon for Jean-Jacques Lequeu (1999), the Illuminist architect who inspired Wanton Nun (2000) as a shocking manifesto of libertinage. A suspicion of devilish hybrid disturbs the mysterious splendour of Beautiful as Nefertari (1995), glossed by the epigraph “mal d’aurore”, a phonetic allusion to the cruel Songs of Maldoror by the Count of Lautréamont. Zenobia (1993) will be sentenced to prison by Emperor Aurelian. A hallucinated majesty dominates the group of Elisabeth and Christine (1990).
The relationship with the divine darkens in the southern hysteria of the Clairvoyant (1993), domestic seclusion among photographs of dead people and little holy pictures on the tallboy mirror. When will the souls burnt by purifying fire in the Fantastic Aedicule (1985) save themselves? Mystical agony runs through an endless Way of the Cross in Umbrian Faintings (since 1987) and in Sorrowful Thirteenth-century Women (1994) until Masonic Veronica (1999), conceived in the esoteric San Severo Chapel in Naples, and the Biblical Vision, also painful in its protracted execution (1979-1987): since each stage in this artisan labour is a component part of the content, it pertains to the final intensity of the message. Cristina’s personal transfiguring vocation is what she metaphorically adumbrates in the Mexican Nun (1999), according to the promise made by John of the Cross “tu nella tua bellezza mi trasformerai” [“through your own beauty you will transform me”] to finally sublimate in apotheosis: Macarena Hope (1994), the aedicule of the Coronation (1993), Hodighitria (1993), the Virgin under the Fallen Angel from a Nabis Sky (1996), the Madonna of Capo d’Orlando (2000) full of Sicilian character, and the novel Little Medieval Idol (2002) stylized in the way of Otto III, through the Romanticist lens of Gregorovius. When not overwhelmed by sensual exuberance, spirituality risks being lost in the exotic - the Indonesian tapestry and the feathers of Iman (2002), the model of Arabic origin who married Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones - or ending up suffocated by ornaments in the sumptuous Peahen (2002). It just about comes to the surface in Madame de T. (1997), from Slowness by Milan Kundera, a chance for us too to think back to the positiveness of Love and Art: “by slowing the course of their night, by dividing it into different stages, each separate from the next, Madame de T. has succeeded in giving the small span of time accorded them the semblance of a marvellous little architecture, of a form. Imposing form on a period of time is what beauty demands, but so does memory”. Salvation blows below the moon in The Wind’s Bride (1997), the only painting in which a man smiles beside his sleeping partner. Yet another d’après from the homonymous painting by Oskar Kokoschka in Basel, a nocturnal comment on the mystery of Alma Mahler: “I have gathered and accumulated in me great wealth, death no longer scares me, I have recovered that harmony which I possessed as a little girl, in this light it seems I have walked in paradise”. We come to see the stars again in the enchanted Milky Way (1995), a non-ephemeral delight of proliferating cosmic matter incarnated in a tender white woman: we have reached the height of a theatre stage abnormally expanded to produce overwhelming seduction.

Paolo Moreno