Io e Calliope
Russel Banks - 2012
The fotoromanzi are not the point, of course, but they are the unavoidable entry point. And Ileana Florescu’s clear intention is that our first glance of these photographs register their source, as if they are her invocation to the muse. Calliope, the eldest of the classical muses, the goddess of epic poetry and the mother of the bard Orpheus, is usually portrayed holding a tablet or a scroll. But she appears over the centuries in many guises, often where one least expects her. For the creation of these extraordinary pictures she has presented herself to Ileana Florescu cleverly disguised as fotoromanzi.
So let us begin there, by considering the literal, visual source for the photographs—in Italy, the so-called fotoromanzi; in France, romans photos; in the Spanish-speaking world, fotonovelas. With a bold and affectionate affirmation of the vitality, wit, sentiment and craft of the individuals who created and published the internationally popular originals, Florescu has made no attempt to disguise or hide where she began this project, its inspiration and origin. Quite the opposite. She is genuinely drawn to the fotoromanzi and wants us to recognize the originals as the gateway to her transformations, her trans-figurations, of the originals, as if we cannot truly enter her photographs without bringing to them a respectful appreciation of their visual and cultural DNA.
There is nothing condescending here, no supercilious irony, no high cultural disdain for low. The distinction between “high” art and vernacular or merely “popular” art is one that serious artists themselves seldom make, anyhow. That’s a task better left to academics and critics; artists prefer to disregard categories. For millennia, from Homer and Ovid to Dante, Shakespeare and Cervantes, to Picasso, Duke Ellington and Scorsese, artists have found ways to engage the works that make ordinary people—people who don’t know anything about art, but know what they like—weep, laugh, shiver with fear and shudder with pity. From the beginning, artists have immersed themselves, therefore, in folk music, soap operas, burlesque, work songs, animist totems, religious ikons, comic books, graffiti—and, yes, fotoromanzi.
In viewing the world through the imagination of the people, artists have emerged from their immersion again and again bearing stories, poems, paintings, plays, films, symphonies, songs and photographs that are profound works of art, morally and philosophically complex narratives, music and images that are often subversive, subtly ironic, aesthetically self-aware and highly personal in ways that popular and so-called folk art cannot manage on its own. Inasmuch as works of art sourced in the demotic are made more democratic, more accessible to the general public, there is also a political dimension to this mode of appropriation. Sometimes, an entirely new genre gets invented, as in Cervantes’s reconfiguration of medieval romances into the modern novel or as in the invention of jazz in New Orleans with its roots in African-American slave songs and spirituals. It’s always high art that gets revitalized and enriched by the demotic, the vernacular, the folk, the merely popular. Never the other way around.

Briefly, for those unaware of the history of the fotoromanzo, in the late-1940s several Italian publishers started releasing stories told at first in tinted drawings and then in carefully staged photographs, with text in fumetti (literally, little puffs of smoke, or speech balloons). Aimed at women, they were by and large sentimental romances, modern-dress fairy tales in which a virginal, pliant maiden is woo’d and won by a powerful (often wealthy) man, stories whose heroines overcome many obstacles in order to arrive happily-ever-after in a financially secure marriage: a post-war Italian working-class woman’s middle-class dream. Honesty, courage and resignation were rewarded; deception, cowardice and vanity were punished. Sometimes published as paperback books, the stories mainly appeared in magazine format, the most successful being the weekly, Grand Hotel (the name invoking the glamour and stylish exoticism of Garbo, Barrymore, and Joan Crawford), from the publisher, Cino del Duca. Actors and actresses trying to launch film careers, as well as minor celebrities, were frequently cast in the stories. The then unknown Sophia Loren, Helmut Berger and Ornella Muti, for instance, all show up in Grand Hotel editions.
By 1949, Cino Del Luca had exported the fotoromanzo to France with the magazine Festival, where it spawned dozens of imitators. The phenomenon quickly spread to Belgium, Spain and Latin America—but, curiously, not to the Anglo- Saxon world, where, instead, in the United States in the 1960s the format was employed mainly in “photo funnies” by humor magazines like National Lampoon, aimed mostly at adolescent boys. In England the stories were designed to meet the tastes of young girls and boys. (As if among the Anglo-Saxons fotoromanzi were not considered worthy of adult interest—perhaps because of their extreme popularity on the Continent and in Latin America among the hoi polloi.) Nevertheless, by 1979 one in three adult French citizens were reading romans photos, and over a third of them were men. Despite numbers like this worldwide, the extended international family of fotoromanzi, unlike those of detective or fantasy fiction, has never quite acquired respectability, even in Europe and Latin America. Nor has it evolved much, technically, aesthetically or in narrative complexity and depth. Like its equally popular distant cousins, TV soap operas, romance novels and comic books, the fotoromanzi family remains encamped in an artistic demimonde, kept well outside the city (and museum) walls.

Enter Ileana Florescu. Those of us familiar with her previously exhibited and published work might be forgiven for not being quite prepared for this project. The American poet and critic, Tom Healy, in a recently published monograph on her drawings and photographs, Lunatiche, wrote, “Here everything is touched and made, never simply taken; everything is changed—wave to particle, black to white, fiction to truth, copy to original. And these changes, these questions of shifting borders, shifting definitions, take literal foothold in Florescu’s locations: the uncertain edges between land and sea, in moonlight, from the sands of her beloved Sardinia to the rocky beaches she frequents in Maine. [...] Florescu celebrates the natural trickery of coastal light, water, sand and wind, by employing the learned trickery of the obsessive, shifting pen, the focused trickery of photography, printing and subtle computer manipulation. She jumbles image-making techniques together, refusing to prioritize one technique or practice over another, refusing us the easy comfort of recognizing, choosing or valuing an original over a reproduction”. All true, up to now. Generally, in the past, although her photographs have embraced the physical world—the sea, sky, moon—and moved from there to near-abstraction, they have eschewed narrative and have not focussed much on the messy world of human interaction. The images tend to swirl quickly away from the specific, recognizable physicality of nature and lead the viewer to a more contemplative, philosophical, aestheticized level of perception. Exhibitions of her “drowned books” and books transformed into sculptures such as L’umana sintesi at the gallery Studio d’Arte Contemporeana Pino Casagrande in Rome, Biblioteca Scufundata at the National Museum of Contemporary Art of Bucharest, Simfonija tolimam kraštui at the M.K Ciurlionis National Museum of Art of Kaunas, all give clear evidence of her lifelong passion for literature and point suggestively to her early background as a trained historian, but the images discretely evade the personal, the autobiographical, the self-revelatory, by morphing into abstraction.
While we may not have been prepared for the transition these new photographs represent, Florescu herself was more than ready, for as soon as the opportunity to make them appeared, she seized it, and seemed from the beginning to know exactly how to go about making them, regardless of the technical and artistic (and, one might add, art historical) difficulties they posed. Serendipity played a part, as it always does. In September 2010, Florescu learned through a mutual friend that Fabrizio Albertini, who for decades had been a leading photographer of fotoromanzi, mainly for the magazine, Grand Hotel, was out of work. The transition from negative film, at which Albertini had long excelled, to digital had made his particular skill-set prohibitively expensive. Hoping to help him somehow and curious as to the techniques used in the making of the fotoromanzi, she met with Albertini at her studio, where he brought her bound editions of his work, Albertini showing Florescu the lighting conventions of the genre and how to make the characters seem to direct-address the audience/viewer. As for costumes, props, the sizing and arrangement of the photographs on the page, and so on, usually the combined work of a director, costumer, graphic designer, and other specialists— Florescu quickly mastered on her own.
From the start, of course, she had a very different, much more personal and imaginative use for the photographic and story-telling conventions and structures of the format. The dependence of the genre on narrative, on story, led her away from the sentimental, cliched romances and soap operas told by the fotoromanzi straight to the great works of literature that have shaped her intellect and imagination—her visual imagination, I should emphasize. She herself has said, “When I read a novel, a flow of images from my mind is set free: such images are linked to an environment which is familiar to me—to my own history. I associate some of the novel’s characters to people I know, I am enchanted by certain passages rather than by others and am moved by reading not only what is universally true, but also by what is truthful to my own life. I think it is a rather common process. If there is not always identification, there is empathy; if there is not empathy, there is revelation; sometimes there are all three elements. I had found a way, a photographic way, to reveal what I wanted to reveal about myself through the words of writers I admire”. She’s describing what happens when we read fiction, when we enter the fictional world of a novel, suggesting that, perhaps especially for a visual artist, it’s like a linked series of controlled visual hallucinations whose nature is partially—and sometimes essentially—created by the imagination of the reader herself, as if the text on the printed page were a set of visual cues capable of opening to the reader images from her own secret interior life. The reading mind, like the writing mind, is selective, the process of selection shaped by the conscious and subconscious memories, reflections, dreams, fears and desires of the reader as much as of the writer. Central to Florescu’s understanding in the making of these photographs is that when we enter the visual world of a photograph, the gazing eye is equally selective. And perhaps no eye is more selective than that of the photographer herself.

Florescu’s transformation of the fotoromanzi is more than the appropriation of a format; it’s a transfiguration, an alchemical conversion that’s nearly metaphysical, by means of which an objectively existing phenomenon, a mere book— paper and glue and ink—is changed into a subjectively existent phenomenon, a woman’s private, perhaps secret reading of that book, as if the texts she has chosen, the specific passages and scenes from specific works of literature, have been internalized and made her own, lived and inhabited by her the way one lives and inhabits one’s dreams, then re-released to the world as a series of photographs, into which we, the viewers, tumble as if into our own dream.
She is not merely illustrating great literary works, the way fotoromanzi illustrate their cliched sentimental romances; nor is she adapting works of fiction the way films are made from novels. As self-revealing as the costumed, thinly disguised self- portraits of Cindy Sherman, and as referential and mysteriously allusive as the elaborate, sound-stage dramatizations of Gregory Crewdson, Florescu has discovered her own way to externalize through photographs her deepest personal longings and fears, her distant memories of childhood and the passions of youth and middle-age, her ethical base-line and philosophical principles, and her dread and expectation of death. She has found “a photographic way”, as she says, “to reveal what I wanted to reveal about myself”.
Indeed, she chose the literary works and passages, not by consulting their standing in the canon, but by how they created her inner life and continue to reflect it. She cast specific people, nearly all of them personal friends and family members, to portray particular characters—just as we do when dreaming. She selected the locations, in some cases tearing down walls and renovating rooms, in Rome and Sardinia and in one sequence (Thoreau’s Walden), Maine in the United States, locales that are imaginative wellsprings for her. She personally hunted and gathered the furniture, costumes and props, right down to the seemingly trivial—a crucifix on the wall above the bed in her Don Quixote, for instance, or a rejected manuscript burned in a stove by an embittered writer in The Master and Margarita.
In a dream, as in a novel, every detail is significant, and the dreamer, like the novelist, inhabits every character, even the minor characters. Dreams are not about other people; they are about oneself. So, too, in these pictures aspects of Ileana Florescu’s inner life are embodied in every character, male and female, young and old. Madame Bovary, c’est moi, Flaubert famously declared. Similarly, Florescu is the Little Prince andthe downed pilot, Antoine; she is Musil’s man without qualities, Ulrich, as well as his sister Agathe; she is Camus’s existentially anxious artist, Jonas, Turgenev’s Nezhdanov, and so on. Every character’s lines resonate for Florescu in some deep way. Their conflicts, anxieties, desires and disappointments are hers. The rooms and landscapes in which their dramas play out haunt her. These are not portraits; they are self-portraits. And, yes, every detail is meaningful.
One would not presume, however, to de-construct or attempt to de-code the hidden meaning of those dramas and details for Ileana Florescu. That is for the artist herself to know, or not, as she chooses, and for us, the viewers of her photographs, mostly to ignore—except on the rare occasions when deciphering the private meaning of those details, characters, scenes, bits and pieces of dialogue and exposition help us to better see the photographs for ourselves. Such occasions would be precious few, I’m afraid. Is it useful to observe, for example, that in every photograph in the series two main characters are shown in conflict both with each other and within themselves, (even in the Walden series, where, in the absence of human beings, we have instead a pair of birds perched face to face), and then wonder what this tells us about the artist? Of course not. Better, far more useful, to note what that observation tells us about our divided and conflicted selves, instead. Regardless of any hermeneutically hidden meaning that the photographs might reveal about their creator, they are meant first and last to be put before the selective gaze of someone other than their maker. They are her gift to us.

As Duke Ellington said about music, “If it sounds good, it is good”. By the same token, one might say about visual art, if it looks good, it is good. And these pictures look good. From a distance or up close, they are a pleasure, almost a physical pleasure, to gaze upon. We view them differently than the ways in which we have been conditioned and trained to view art today. Partly, it’s because, in an angst-ridden, cynical era, they are so obviously good-natured and without cynicism, and in an era intimidated by the power of the commodification of art, they are so boldly unlike anything else we may have seen. They are utterly, swiftly accessible to the eye and mind, and yet they fly in the face of convention. They are both as corrosively subversive as acid and as cheerfully comforting as a childhood memory of skipping school. They are shape-shifters that change form and artistic allegiance before one’s very eyes. From across a room, for instance, one is struck first by the way the geometric complexity and dynamism of the overall composition of each photograph is enlivened by assemblages of brightly colored, organic shapes inside the intersecting planes, as if minimalism has collided with expressionism. We note that the proportions and dimensions of the rectangular panels vary and harmonize rhythmically with one another, yet are held tautly within the picture’s frame, so that at this distance one can “read” the individual panels and the overall image from any direction, as in color-field painting. But then, as one moves closer to the photograph, the overall image splits vertically into halves, or facing pages, and it becomes evident that the picture is meant to be viewed from left to right, top to bottom. It’s not the text that tells us this; we haven’t gotten to the text yet; it’s the placement of the panels. Close up, of course, we lose sight of the whole, and images of the individual actors take over, their physical surroundings, their body-language, facial expressions, costumes, and so on—like those old-fashioned framed movie stills posted in the lobbies of theaters inviting us to enter the darkness beyond. This is not realism, though it points in that direction, even in the surreal scenes from The Little Prince. By now we have begun to discern words, black against white, printed inside little boxes, the fumetti, the little puffs of smoke that tell us what the characters are supposed to be saying to one another, what the books have said to Ileana Florescu—and what the photographs are saying to us. We are taught by the pictures, as we approach them, how to view them, and in the process we are subtly altered. The quality of our attention is first challenged and then changed. Just as a novel or a poem creates its best reader by requiring a specific quality of attention, instructions for which are provided within the text itself, a picture invents its best viewer. Florescu’s fotoromanzi, like the originals they’re descended from, are high artifice— indeed, like the originals, they are stage-managed in the extreme. Yet we are drawn into them as if into a stranger’s dream-life. Ileana Florescu’s, as it happens. In order to be truly seen, her pictures both require and create a dreamer, and when we look at her pictures, each of us becomes that dreamer, and the dream becomes our own. Identification, empathy and revelation are the three elements Florescu claims to seek when reading great literary works. It’s perhaps what we all seek from every work of art. For the reader of a novel, given the nature of narrative and its reliance on the flow of literal time in order to make itself known, they most often arrive in that order: first identification, then empathy, then revelation. But for the viewer of a painting or photograph, since nearly all works of visual art exist outside the flow of time, they would have to arrive simultaneously and of a piece, mysteriously and inextricably fused, as they do here—and as, in a real and lasting sense, the fotoromanzo has always done for its audience. Florescu has not betrayed or abandoned her source for these photographs, nor has she denigrated its form and function; she’s given it a whole new depth and register of meaning, complexity and drama. One imagines the devoted readers of the original fotoromanzi gazing on Florescu’s photographs, and one can’t help believing that they would be drawn into the stories glimpsed there, Cervantes’s, Turgenev’s, Moravia’s, Thoreau’s—and Florescu’s own story, also glimpsed there. One can’t help believing that they would want to read the rest of the story: all of Don Quixote, Virgin Soil, Mistaken Ambitions, Walden. But only if the complete text were photographed by Ileana Florescu.