A Translucent Embrace
Diego Mormorio - 2009
It is morning and in the crystal-clear light of day the sea of Sardinia is like a tender, translucent embrace. In the deepest silence, broken only by the cry of a seagull, a woman walks towards the water holding a book and a camera. With slow steps – a slowness that seems ritualistic – she walks a few yards into the vast sea, then stops and drops the book into the water. For a few moments, she watches its transformation. She lifts the camera to her eye and snaps a picture: once, twice, several times. Then she retrieves the book and returns to shore.
The woman is Ileana Florescu, a photographer who seeks – and finds – a visual reality that transcends ordinary, everyday visibility. A photographer who, through the realism of photography, reaches a fantastic universe that would have seemed unimaginable years before. If Baudelaire had seen Florescu’s photographs he almost certainly would not have written his famous invective against photography published in the Revue française on 10 June 1859.
“During this lamentable period,” wrote Baudelaire, “a new industry arose which contributed not a little to confirm stupidity in its faith and to ruin whatever might remain of the divine in the French mind. The idolatrous mob demanded an ideal worthy of itself and appropriate to its nature – that is perfectly understood. In matters of painting and sculpture, the present day Credo of the sophisticated, above all in France (and I do not think that anyone at all would dare to state the contrary), is this: ‘I believe in Nature, and I believe only in Nature (there are good reasons for that). I believe that Art is, and cannot be other than, the exact reproduction of Nature (a timid and dissident sect would wish to exclude the more repellent objects of nature, such as skeletons or chamberpots). Thus an industry that could give us a result identical to Nature would be the absolute of Art’. A revengeful God has given ear to the prayers of this multitude. Daguerre was his Messiah. And now the faithful says to himself: ‘Since photography gives us every guarantee of exactitude that we could desire (they really believe that, the mad fools!), then photography and Art are the same thing.’ From that moment our squalid society rushed, Narcissus to a man, to gaze at its trivial image on a scrap of metal. A madness, an extraordinary fanaticism took possession of all these new sun-worshippers”1.
This invective sprang from what in the author of Les Fleurs du mal might be described as a real myth, that of imagination upon which, in the poet’s view, depended not only the creative act, but also everyday life. For Baudelaire, imagination was the core of everything.
Imagination, he writes, “is both analysis and synthesis; and yet men who are clever at analysis and sufficiently quick at summing up, can be devoid of imagination. It is that, and it is not entirely that. It is sensitivity, and yet there are people who are very sensitive, too sensitive perhaps, who have none of it. It is Imagination that first taught man the moral meaning of colour, of contour, of sound and of scent. In the beginning of the world it created analogy and metaphor. It decomposes all creation, and with the raw materials accumulated and disposed in accordance with rules whose origins one cannot find save in the furthest depth of the soul, it creates a new world, it produces the sensation of newness. As it has created the world (so much can be said, I think, even in a religious sense), it is proper that it should govern it. What would be said of a warrior without imagination? That he might make an excellent soldier, but that if he is put in command of an army, he will make no conquests. The case could be compared to that of a poet or a novelist who took away the command of his faculties from the imagination to give it, for example, to his knowledge of language or to his observation of facts. What would be said of a diplomat without imagination? That he may have an excellent knowledge of the history of treaties and alliances in the past, but that he will never guess the treaties and alliances held in store by the future. Of a scholar without imagination? That he has learnt everything that, having been taught, could be learnt, but that he will never discover any laws that have not yet been guessed at. Imagination is the queen of truth, and the possible is one of the provinces of truth. It has a positive relationship with the infinite”2.
Baudelaire saw photography as the bitter enemy of imagination, and as such it could not belong to the universe of creativity. It might, if anything, aspire to being “the servant of the sciences and arts – but the very humble servant”. Something like printing and shorthand is to literature.
The father of modern poetry set the mightiness of the art of the past against photography which, falling short of that very imagination so central to him, was seen as unworthy of redemption. For the poet, photography should not have been allowed to go beyond, to emerge from the narrow field of reproduction and recording. As the eminent Baudelaire scholar Giovanni Macchia emphasizes, the poet takes Leonardo Da Vinci’s point of view to the extreme: the spiritual world of colour as the uncorrupted seat of imagination. Obviously Baudelaire’s love was all for Delacroix and his aversion all for Horace Vernet and Paul Delaroche, the painter who enthusiastically welcomed photography and saw several of his students – Charles Nègre, Henri Le Secq, Gustave Le Gray, Roger Fenton – become famous photographers. In the eyes of the author of Les Fleurs du mal this proved that the new invention was the sanctuary of all the “peintres manqués”. Had the poet been familiar with the works of a photographer such as Ileana Florescu, his whole anti-photography theory would have collapsed. Florescu – and others like her – clearly prove, in fact, that photography has a place in that realm of truth whose queen, for Baudelaire, is imagination when it touches the absolute.
Ileana Florescu’s explorations in photography have a specific character of their own which, in these last years – a whole decade now – I have watched develop extraordinarily and in the way I had foreseen when I first set eyes on a small corpus of images that immediately convinced me I was in the presence of an artist of unquestionable talent. We were introduced by a close mutual friend, Arturo Patten, a superb portraitist and an eccentric character, who dragged us to the Sala Umberto one day to see a surreal musical on the Mafia. The second time we met it was at Patten’s memorial service at the Chiesa Nuova in Rome. Some time later, quite by chance, I met Nico Tucci, Patten’s former assistant: “Do you remember Ileana Florescu? She takes good photographs, you really ought to see them,” he told me. Our dear friend had brought us together for the third time.
Struck by the photographic portrait Arturo Patten had made of her, Florescu would have liked to have become his assistant, but, as she told me, “ignorant as I was of the technique of photography, I realized I wasn’t up to it”. She was too shy to ask. And there are a number of reasons why, in my opinion, this could only have been a positive thing.
When I visited her studio, I realized that Tucci was right: Florescu’s photographs were indeed very interesting, so much so that I immediately suggested an exhibit in the gallery that I was running at the time. In those images, sea and sky were part of a whole and the rocks that broke the Sardinian coastline seemed to come from galactic vastness (I look at one of these images morning and evening; it is on the wall facing the bed where my wife and I sleep, and gives me a sense of peace).
“I don’t think you are born a photographer,” Ileana Florescu wrote to me a couple of years ago, “you become one. At least in my case. Painters, poets, writers are born, not made. These three fields have always attracted me but I have never persevered or succeeded in them. Some signs of talent perhaps, but mostly doubt and uncertainty. Thus, for years I pursued my studies in the field of historical research which has given me a lot and to which I owe as much: first of all a method, or rather a methodology, then precision, respect for the lengthy hours preceding discoveries, and the urge to push the research ahead. I kept my artistic aspirations hidden until I realized that photography would enable me to exploit painting not as a protagonist but as a spectator; not as an aim but as a visual and critical means. Photography reproduces. My desire was not to reproduce but to recreate. That is to paint, to write, to draw, to abstract: using light. What more could I ask? I had permanently eliminated the anguish of the blank page or empty canvas that once appeared as a threat and an annihilating void. The moment I realized that this could happen – and it happened to me seven years ago – it seemed like magic. A magic that I have repeated, and which is still the guideline of all my research.”
Later she wrote: “I have never been interested in everyday life, or in an anthropological type of inquiry. I shun Aristotle’s three unities: time, space and action, which are so present in photography nowadays. My viewpoint, therefore, is not that of a physical eye recording reality, nor that of a camera which records it in a figurative sense but real none the less, but of a noetic eye which at best becomes poetic. A third eye.” These reflections shed considerable light on what drives Ileana Florescu to photograph, her way of understanding the world through the camera. However, there is one point I would like to return to, because it seems important for understanding any creative work. As mentioned above, Florescu says, “I don’t think you are born a photographer, you become one. At least in my case. Painters, poets, writers are born, not made.” Well, I think that we are not born to be anything in particular, but become everything by studying and working, living and taking from the past no less than from the infinite of our spirit. One of the great men of the 20th century, Pavel Florensky, in a letter sent to his daughter Olen from the gulag on the Solovki islands where he was imprisoned for a long time before being shot by the Communist police in a wood near St. Petersburg on 8 December 1937, writes: “In Bach I see an artisan. Don’t take this as an insult. I have great esteem and admiration for artisans, especially for those of past times; indeed, I will go further and say I would very much like to be an artisan. But it is a question of a particular state of the spirit: habits and experience inherited and formed in the course of centuries, mastery without passion and without inspiration, or more precisely without inspiration at a given moment, a work that the master can begin at any moment and interrupt at any moment with no harm done. It is probably the healthiest kind of creative process, flowing always between well-defined banks, without suffering, without anxieties, without Romanticism, without tears and without ecstasies, with a calm confidence in his own hand, which already knows of its own accord what it has to do.”3 Pavel Florensky’s letter has the merit of reminding us of the craftsmanship involved in any creative exercise, and of seeing art as not dominated by inspiration but as the outcome of practice and awareness. Take, for example, Florescu’s images in this book. To some it might seem that there is a mysterious, indeed miraculous, correspondence between the words on the pages thrown into the water and the chromatic atmosphere of the individual photographs that so perfectly match the contents of the books. In reality, the artist did not proceed randomly, but sought the right form. For each book and phrase she had in mind, she tried to find an appropriate shape in the water. She photographed with a precise aesthetic result in mind. So much so, that we can say that in these photographs the mysterious and the miraculous appear, just as they do in any genuine work of human creativity: they are the result of willpower, necessity, and, at the same time, an impulse towards the uncreated, towards the ability to make and to understand beauty, which is none other than the real miracle that the world is home to: beauty as a daily exercise and as a gift that is continuously bestowed on us by the world.
Now we come to the question that occurs to anyone who looks at the images of the sunken books: why these books and not others? To this explicit question Ileana Florescu has sent me a reply via the web which I think should be published in its entirety: “Dear Diego, When I got the idea of the drowned books that summer in Sardinia I did not have access to a bookshop (no car to get into town). That same day Isa Danieli, the great Neapolitan actress, was coming to visit us at Cape Ceraso. Such was my urgency that I called her and asked her to pop into the Feltrinelli bookstore at Olbia, Costa Smeralda airport as soon as she got there, and buy two or three classics of her own choice. I liked the idea of creating a library that was not so much my own but that of ‘others’. I wanted to rely on the randomness of their choices. Isa brought me Horace’s Complete Works, and Dumas’ Le Vicomte de Bragelonne, though translated into Italian. First great dilemma: Could I, who have an aversion to translators unless they are themselves great writers (Quasimodo translating the Greek lyric poets, for example) immortalize Dumas in Italian? If I had not found, as the title of the series, the quotation from Robert Louis Stevenson (who read Le Vicomte five or six times), I would have thrown away my photographs even if they had been miraculous. The quotation is as follows: ‘Good souls, I suppose, must sometimes read it in the blackguard travesty of a translation. But there is no style so untranslatable; light as a whipped trifle, strong as silk; wordy like a village tale; pat like a general’s despatch; with every fault, yet never tedious; with no merit, yet inimitably right.’ (Robert Louis Stevenson, in A Gossip on a Novel of Dumas’). Because if I have to choose between a picture and a text, I ditch the picture. And when I had finished working on these two books, what next? Nothing simpler. I would ask my friends to let me drown their summer reading. I didn’t find a single one of them willing to relinquish his book. Of course I tried to tempt them: ‘But it will be immortalized for all eternity… it’s for a noble cause’. Nothing doing. Not even my children would back me up. For my mother-in-law, it was a real crime. I realized that throwing a book into the water was taboo. So I started to toss them in at random, from the great authors who impressed me to the most rubbishy stuff, even making a joke of it: I ristoranti d’Italia which ends on the high note of “curried ice cream”; the Sotheby’s catalogue with Cartier Bresson’s photograph going for € 30,000-40,000; instructions for sowing turnips, dedicated to all those young people who think turnips grow on trees, and so on. In some cases, and for chromatic reasons, I chose colourful covers to vary the tones of the images. I am now waiting for Vickie Kan to send me Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book and Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber from Beijing in Chinese while Angelo Palma has just found a splendid edition of The Thousand and One Nights in Farsi. You can’t imagine the trouble I’ve had in finding the original versions of these books (which I hope to have the time to photograph, weather permitting), not to mention the expression on the sales assistants’ faces in the so-called international bookshops. Obviously they don’t speak Russian, Chinese or Persian, and don’t know what they have on the shelves (so much for globalization!). Time and again the conversation was more or less the same: ‘Excuse me,’ I said, ‘have you got Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons in Russian?’ ‘I think so,’ was the answer, and I was led to the section containing a handful of volumes of literature in Russian. ‘Yes, but which of these is Fathers and Sons?’ I asked. The reply was laconic: ‘Excuse me, but if you don’t speak Russian what do you need the book for?’ I daren’t describe the expression on their faces when I told them the reason. I have tons of other anecdotes I could recount. For example, you should have seen the face of the policeman at the airport when I put a bag through the X-ray machine with a soaking book inside. ‘And what is this?’ he asked. ‘A book,’ I said. ‘Any complaints?’.”
Therefore the criterion according to which books have been thrown into water has partly to do with chance and partly with Florescu’s feelings. Books that I love and books that I haven’t read and never will read have ended up in the water. What matters, aside from the quality of the works of the writers’ who have taken a dip, is the quality of the images: Ileana Florescu’s special aesthetic sense. The result is a work which, on account of its beauty, I hope the artist will continue to develop sine die. In this hope, I am going to give her two books and ask her to consign them to the waters and to her own eye: they are Don Quijote and The Waste Land. I am sure I shall once again make my way through La Mancha as I did the first time, and that Eliot will come and tell me again: “Son of man, / You cannot say, or guess, for you know only / A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, / And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, / And the dry stone no sound of water.” And I shall answer, “Yes, I am here for that very reason: to find within me the place you speak of.” With words and pictures, in the company of Ileana Florescu, I shall be there in the water, as sodden paper, as a breathing mind.

1 Charles Baudelaire, Salon 1859: On Photography, op. cit. in Charles Baudelaire, The Mirror of Art, Jonathan Mayne ed. and translator, London, Phaidon Press Limited, 1955
2 Charles Baudelaire, Salon 1859: III – The Queen of Faculties, op. cit. in Jonathan Mayne, Art in Paris: 1845-1862, London, Phaidon Press Limited, 1964
3 P. Florenskij, Non dimenticatemi, Mondadori, Milano 2000, pp. 346-347, translation by Scriptum, Rome