Critical texts

Paola Crema ‘knows’ that somewhere in theMediterranean, perhaps in the region of those‘columns’ that daring researchers today wish wereeven closer to us, a submerged continent is to befound. Of this there remains, despite the avowal ofPlato in the dialogues of the Timaeus and the Kritias,only the name: Atlantis. An empire whose royal city,Vassileia, was built upon concentric circles of landand water. An immense underwater earthquake (theexplosion of Thera?) seems to have been the cause forits disappearance.Right from the start the myth evokes the image of a sortof earthly paradise blessed by nature and governedby illuminated kings, but the gods, in order to punishthe profligacy and pride of its inhabitants, supposedlydecided upon its ruin. Later Aristotle pronouncedupon the wholly visionary nature of the story, somethingwhich from ancient times did not prevent manyscholars - the latest being that genial and equally fortunatedilettante, Schliemann – to attempt to unmaskthe legend and to locate the geographical coordinatesof this island kingdom.Given that Plato admits having obtained initial informationconcerning Atlantis from Lower Egypt throughhis ancestor Solon, it is likely that at the origin of hisnarration lay Egyptian ancient mythical geography,according to which in the “sea of sunset”, the distantWest, there was a land of happiness which then disappearedas a result of the foolishness of mankind.The way in which the rings of the royal city aredescribed also denotes the exquisitely symbolic characterof the Platonic myth. Think of the so-called ‘cross of Atlantis’, a combination of concentric circles with acruciform structure at the centre that would correspondto the plan of Vassileia (then to become the emblem ofesoteric sects).

But if, as Roland Barthes maintains, “myth is a word”,then the name that in more recent times inspired thatsmall masterpiece of fiction, Atlantis, by Pierre Benoit,will be sufficient to activate the ‘reconstruction’process of a world which he have not yet rediscoveredand which perhaps never existed.Art, we know, has less need of certainties than stimulito nourish our imagination.Let us start therefore with realising that these falseremains from a lost continent which Paola Crema pretendsto have brought to light, cannot and must notbear witness to a recognisable style, nor belong analogicallyto epoques and civilisations that the scienceof archeology has been able to reveal to us to thepoint where they have become part of our destiny asMediterranean Indo-Europeans.The time and the geography of the work of PaolaCrema therefore become necessarily mobile andhybrid, just as these ‘fragments of Atlantis’ will alwaysappear to us in a mutating state which will be indifferentlyorganic, fossil and mineral in substance, anthropomorphic,zoomorphic and phytomorphic in form. A universeat the limit of consumption and disappearance,confirmed by marine incrustations and sparkling preciouspatinas to the point of cruelty in that the sedimentationhas been applied more due to a “desire for loss”than as an exercise in camouflage. In the words ofJean-François Lyotard, due to “desire as metamorphosiswithout aim, like a game without memory”(1).

It is here, within this dimension that might lead us totalk of symbolist mythologisation, that Paola Cremafinds her extremely personal expressive key, whichthen constitutes a fine challenge, certainly a provocationfor the critic when it has to do with collocating hisexperience of art, orphan as it is of reference modelsin terms of trends and currents that are, so to speak‘legal tender’, as we move from one century intoanother.

However in attempting, as this artist also does – andlater I will say how – a personal excavation, an‘archeological’ reconnaissance among these remainsin excess, to what point can our knowledge and memorypush for ‘recognition’ of those signs? What arethe parameters of comparative judgement to beadopted in order to patch together again the historicalstyles which also here, inevitably, emerge like thepermanently deformed echo of remote civilisations, orlike the light of a star which comes to us from spacetimedistances; in any case always ‘after’ the eventand the phenomenon, when everything is done,when, that is, it is only upon what remains, upon whatis fixed in its extreme and irreversible phase that ourexperience can count?Desire for loss, I said. Unearthing again and reinventingwhat has been provided to us to excavate withinvery private experiences, but also within the depths ofour collective memory, which has nothing to do withthe various ‘nostalgia operations’ of a quotational andanachronistic mould that around the 1980’s, especiallyin Italy, allowed the postmodern Stimmung to renderlegitimate its own basic scepticism, providing it with aface. To find, that is, in Time - Marguerite Yourcenar’s Great Sculptor - the denominator of a cultivatedreflection upon Museum and Art History able to invertthe course of art itself, its physiological and neverguaranteed flight forward towards ‘that which there isnot’, which is the most yearned for, feared and almostalways unobtained pole of attraction for those whomake art. Basically it is this awareness of impotence –that which disproves the ‘athletic’ attempts of theavant-gardes of the past where art consisted of aseries of goals to be reached each time – which determinedthe impasse at the end of the century whichthen became known as thePostmodern.

Here, decisively, the subjectchanges. Paola Crema’s gazeis not celebratory of a world ofperfection whose vestiges,even if mutilated, or perhapsprecisely because they areconsumed and imperfect,strengthen its evocative power,exalting the stereotype of abeauty that will triumph in anycase over the inclemencies andthe devastations of time (proofagain that the somnium ofWinckelmann strikes again)and relying basically on a tautologicaltransfert. This infertilegaze belongs rather to IgorMitoraj, among the artists ofthe generation inbetween, whoobtained the status of being its accredited interpreter, populating museums, monumentalsites, art galleries and theatrical scenery withnaked simulacra of gods and heroes wherever thatgaze might return to the sender like a boomerang.To take up again the earlier metaphor: Paola Crema’srepertoire of bronzes is not on the other hand directedat a fixed star, by which I mean a model acquiredand assimilated by centuries of cultural habit. Thechain of references, whether they can be decypheredor not, which her multiform catalogue is capable of,continuously escapes not only our recognitory quotient, but also its own figurative premises, like a bodyin progess in perennial evolution, which is reborn fromitself to present us every time with a different plastichypothesis, perhaps just one step removed from the stylisticoxymoron: provided that the subject is always therepresentation of a terminal moment, of life or things, itdoesn’t matter.Upon closer exa-mination Paola Crema’s vicissitudewithin this interior archeological site of hers resemblesa census of memories that reappear in their most fantasticand seductive version, and although always, forthe onlooker, at the limit of revelation, or better, at thesublime level, the lower threshold of her prerogativesfor assimilation, almost an invitation to widen itsrange of enquiry. This is a vision which approachesthe vision of György Lukács: “Every individual is continuouslydriven to abandon livedreality; and should thatcontinuity be broken,reality will appearlike a dream…”(2).Which is like saying that in the living and in the drivingthere is nothing that is not marked by the stamp ofthe significant. Lacan himself recognises the supremacyof the symbol over the real (3).

There are two basic ‘schools of thought’ that designatemyth at the categorial level, the crucible of ourprofound conscience, incipit of the religious, moraland philosophical sentiment of the West. For Hugovon Hofmannsthal myth is, tout court, the beautifulfable: “….I remember this idea that went back to Idon’t know which sensual, and at the same time spiritual,pleasure: just as the deer being pusued seeks outwater into which to throw itself, in this way I longed tolive in these naked, shining bodies, in these figures ofNarcissus and Proteus, of Perseus and Acteon: I wantedto disappear into them and express myself withtheir words”(4).Hofmannsthal’s cupio dissolvi becomes a declarationof symbolist poetics. That divinesunniness referred to as pleasure of interpenetrationinvolves the very reasons fora conception of the world where it isno longer art that imitateslife, but life that imitatesart. As a ‘scientist’ ofmyth, Karòly Kerényianswers him by presentingonce againthe necrophiliacfatalism of thisidentity of ourswhich searchesfor the final reasons for the universe: ”Like the bodiless headof Orpheus”, the Hungarian scholar writes, “ mythologycontinues to sing even after death, even at aconsiderable distance from the timeof death…”(5).The mythologising which overflows from PaolaCrema’s work therefore appearsto entrust itself to this second key, where the constantsetting of the end I was talking about becomesa reference to a selenic and nocturnal world, subterraneanand bottomless, quite similar, to use the artist’swords, to that “Atlantis in us”: which is nothing otherthan the evocation of a primitive golden age, which‘must’ remain buried, for the sake of its very survival,in the intangible dimension of the mythos. An age-symbolof a far-off time, marked by a very high level ofwisdom and a nearness to a divinity which is immensurablysuperior to that of any historical age.The myth of paradise lost, it is noted, rests upon theconviction that in a primordial age man had directaccess to the sources of that knowledge then deniedto him as a consequence of original sin. From a psychoanalyticalpoint of view it is determining that everyexperience from early childhood on be lived moreintensely and profoundly than in the following stagesof the personality of mankind when, as an adult, sheor he faces rationally the multiple problems of existence.An identical psychic mechanism ensures thatthe prodigies and mysteries belong by right, withJung’s help, to times passed in contraposition to thoseof the past and present. From here also comes the conviction,as common as it is atavic, that a cyclicaldevelopment of the history of humanity exists withinwhich one rediscovers a closeness to the divine thenlost following unutterable catastrophes. A golden age of this kind is described by Hesiod in the Theogonyand later by Ovid in the Metamorphosis. The basis ofthis ancestral faith is a vision of the reality that camebefore the dawning of the world as a perfect age followedby an iron age marked by a ferocious strugglefor survival.

The poetic and iconographic universe of Paola Cremapositions itself in the divide between these two mythicaleras. Between the golden and the iron. As if uponthe ambiguity that springs as much from their contiguityas from any possible impact they may have. This isthe innocence that overflows into barbarity. Salomewho plays with her body, ignorant and at the sametime aware of the fatal stake, just as Moreau, VonStuck, Beardsley, Toorop and Alma Tadema knew andwould have been able to read in order to provideSymbolism with the poisoned sap that is its own.It is no accident that the recurrent figurative motif inPaola Crema’s work comes from what we might call‘Herodias’ syndrome’, with the human, divine or animalhead become a sacrificial offer for rites which we willknow nothing about: a cruel and idolistic presencealways engraved upon a disk, a shield, a votive basin,the hub of a wheel, upon prehistoric eggs, horns,ammonite and nautilus, evoking the summits ofcanopies, of rython or herma, but also of protomes, gargoylesand acroliths, in a delirious race through centuriesof sculpture, architecture, decoration and function,everywhere in time where Paola Crema has rested her‘prehensile’ gaze and where she has made her choice.A medusean citation often two-faced, two-headed andthree-headed, emptied out like a funeral mask, sectionedand recut to end up as a profile à jour, where the emptiness interacts with the fullness, the concavewith the convex, to the point of inventing flights ofpespective that touch upon non-sense. The containerbecomes contained and the image is turned inside outlike a glove showing its interior, its cavity, almost the‘skin’ of a cast, to become a shell in the form of a helmet,with the sallet and the crest that conserve theprint of the head which inhabited it. This is how it isfor the torsos of Amazonians and warriors whosearmour is modelled by the artist – again a residue, anempty surface – encrusted with swarming and microscopicbiomorphic entities that transform it into asumptuous martial apparatus.

Everything in this work is subjected to a mutationwhich has taken place or is taking place. It is like sayingthat the ‘other’ and the ‘elsewhere’ become forPaola Crema not only a poetic goal, but also amethodology: the arms of this people which todeserve the chastisement of the gods must have beenwarlike – halberds, clubs, two-edged hatchets, axes –ostentate in their sharp-edged heraldic elegance,when the collections of rust-covered and oxidised jewelsresemble rather precious instruments of constrictionand torture.At all times the artist belies the certainty of our examinationby leading this vertigo of the contaminatio toconsequences without return: Mycenaean goldenblades go beyond their bounds into the ‘classic’ plasticismof Benim heads, asexual allegories of pompièresculpture find themselves one step from the erophilevortex of the sign of Sezession. Even Arcimboldoappears to rise again in the metamorphical figureswhere the vegetal element envelopes the cocoon ofthe human element, but also in the crowded assemblagesof scales, encrustations, leprosies and excrescencesthat render these surfaces impervious and hostile.Not without however having opened up to us a decorative universe revisited by a chattering fantasythat intercepts the DNA of that aesthetic productwe call style, subtracting it from its historicalperiod and consigning it to ours. To apresent that, by now we know, it will beinadequate to believe is ‘modern’.

A desire for alchemy and the esoteric appearsto accompany this voracious and risky artisticpath in its playful and narcissistic determination toimpose itself as pure inventive mechanism. The tribaland totemic emblems that emerge as if through psychicautomatism of such a repertory are the signal ofa regression from the source of conscience, to thearchetype – an unconscious representation of ourinstincts, again according to Jung (6) – the momentwhen they testify to the substantial diachronism of thepath itself.At this point we will have to add to the already citeddenotating of ambiguity - with Eros and Thànatoswho alternate in the ecstatic apparitions of this crowdof Gorgons, chimerae and sirens - the specific caseof ubiquity as a bearing factor in Paola Crema’s study.From the syncretism of signs of ancient civilisations,her sextant moves continually towards seasons thatare closer to her in terms of professional association:her long practice as a - so to speak - avantgarde antiquarianof periods, certainly difficult and unusual,such as the mitteleuropean and French neo-baroque,has left an unmistakeable mark upon her personalWunderkammer: we think of Jean-Léon Gérôme,Emmanuel Frémiet, Antoine Barye, Auguste-NicolasCain, animaliers sculptors of the Second Empire who,between esoticism and eroticism illustrated a moment of evasion - certainly audacious for the times - from thecustom of academic eclecticism imposed by commissionersof art.All considered these works by Paola Crema are a sortof ready made ‘discovered’ during the course of herreconnaissance of the territories covered by other styles,in that overflowing and equally poorly knownfrontier where the hedonism of the surface has alwaystriumphed over the reasons for contents and messages,which the symbolist word instead wanted to attributeto the image and its setting. It is upon this profaneand mundane material, assumed as if it were anappropriation, for ever that she moves: making out oftaste a categorical imperative, an object of the extreme,but also a mental habit, a category of existence.The in-topicality of her universe is not a promise keptof liberty which can reach the point of free will andlicence, vertigo of the imagination. And it is right thatthis is so.Paola Crema has the courage to express herselfwithout ideological cover because she has understoodwell that making art is a luxury of necessity. She doesnot set out to make of commitment a philosophy ofbehaviour, just as she would never be able to takefright before the diktat of trends. If for Karl Kraus “originis the end”, for her what counts is the path.Even if the end, like her continent, is lost.Irresponsably, precisely.

1) J.F.Lyotard, in Remo Gaibazzi, Ed. Galleria Mazzocchi, Parma 1993
2) G.Lukács, Filosofia dell’Arte (vol.I), Sugar Ed.& C., Milano1973, p.25
Imaginary Archeological World
La voix des choses
Antinoo dopo e oltre
lost continent
petites éternités
lost continent
precious memories