“The Measure of the West,” by Giovanni Chiaramonte

The Measure of the West Giovanni Chiaramonte

By Luca Fiore

A Doric column in Gela, the birthplace of his parents. Magna Graecia, and all that it signifies. A symbol that is found at every stage of a long pilgrimage, all the way up to the Glienicke Palace in Berlin, and all the way back to Athens and Istanbul, or further West towards Portugal, where one might embark on the Atlantic crossing to the United States, Mexico, Panama and Cuba. The column is ubiquitous, in temples, porticos, ruined homes. It is a sign of something capable of reawakening the present from a past it cannot leave behind. This is what Giovanni Chiaramonte calls “The Measure of the West”, which is also the title of his book, edited by McGill-Queen’s University Press , which collates images of this over 30-year long journey, accompanied by travel drawings from one of the giants of world architecture, the Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza.

The Measure of the West Giovanni ChiaramonteIn the year of his 70th birthday, the Milanese artist, a friend of Luigi Ghirri and pioneer of photographic publishing in Italy, publishes another book of a seemingly contrasting nature: “Salvare l’ora” [“Saving the Hour”]. It is a collection of polaroids that Chiaramonte began taking in 2011. Theirs is no longer the infinite horizon of the countryside; rather, the dimensions are domestic, intimate. From landscape, which betrays the image of the destiny of an entire civilization, Chiaramonte has moved, borrowing the expression from the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, to inscape, where personal destiny appears. Yet, Chiaramonte assures us, they are both spectacular movements; one orientated outwards, the other inwards, both moved by the same propulsive energy, triggered by the same certainty: the world is image. “The Bible tells us that man is created in the image and likeness of God. This means that the eternal, the infinite, chose to create me as image. Thus the world, creation presenting itself to us as reality, suggests the existence of a “giver”. I can comprehend what I am in the moment in which I become conscious of this mysterious likeness. As a photographer, a producer of images, I am given the task of revealing the destiny of man and of the world”.

Chiaramonte’s language betrays his widespread reading: from Hans Urs von Balthasar to Oliver Clement, from Romano Guardini to father Luigi Giussani. His reflections are intertwined with those on the history of photography, which, for him, emerges not by chance in England and France. It was there, after all, that the stained-glass windows of gothic cathedrals emerged for the first time; images created with light. Yet his maddened, desperate studies also incorporate the works of the greats of American photography–Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, Minor White, Joel Meyerowitz–and the Europeans André Kertész, Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Doisneau. Yet it is from cinema that he learns his use of colour. At the end of the 70s, the technology of colour photography was beginning to provide the materials necessary for artistic works that could stand the test of time. Before then, it had been filmmakers who had concerned themselves with the transition from black and white to colour: Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, Michelangelo Antonioni, Andrej Tarkovskij. From them Chiaramonte learnt the poetic potential of chromatic scales. At the start of the 80s, with this cultural and technical burden, he faced the open sea in a magical moment which would see the beginnings of those individuals nowadays considered masters of Italian photography.

The story of “The Measure of the West” began in 1983, when Chiaramonte followed the advice of the great German architect Oswald Mathias Ungers, who told him “Go to Berlin, to the Glienicke Palace, designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel for Prince Charles of Prussia”. The idea, Chiaramonte explains, was that of returning to a location where the progress of the West was visible, where the reasons for building a new European city corresponding to man’s nature could be perceived. “Ungers, a Catholic, felt a profound need to find and sustain the value of man. For him, finite nature, represented by the symbolic figure of the square, was capable of opening the heart of anyone living in the world to the infinite nature of God, which, in Christ, is present in history thanks to the experience of the sacraments. In other words, there is a method for understanding the existence of a path linking the infinite to the present day, the places we live in; a path in which all of time coexists”.

It is no coincidence that it was precisely during that journey to Berlin that Chiaramonte’s work met that of Álvaro Siza. “I had gone to photograph his building renamed Bonjour Tristesse, built in Schlesische Straße, in the Kreuzberg neighbourhood, not far from the Berlin Wall. My images, published by Lotus, had travelled the world, making his first piece of work outside of Portugal very well known.” For Siza, the photographer explains, modern dimensions do not stem from the tradition of Le Corbusier, which attempts to break away from history. “For him, the modern is what is essential from what is handed to us from the past. He stems from Milanese rationalism–let us not forget that it was Giovanni Muzio who developed Porto’s urban plan–for which the new is what realizes the presence of what has been inherited from history”. Siza was a Catholic who embraced the left-wing cause under Salazar; Chiaramonte loved his social inspiration. A commitment to social housing, for example: “For him, the job of the architect was to “serve the people”, which is what I wish to do with my photography; to contribute to the common good. When I went to visit him for the first time, I was struck by his very essential way of life. He was a successful architect who had managed to find a way of life untouched by the idols of modernity. He came to pick me up in person at the bus station in Evora and helped me carry my luggage…”.

Art does not belong to us, Chiaramonte declares; it is a gift that we receive when we listen to the world. “In Siza, this is the greatest theme; wherever he goes, he is listening. Everything is graced by his gaze. His architecture is born from this gaze which becomes drawing. Yet this relationship with things does not precipitate into the utopia of the “great architect”; he is not building the Tower of Babel. His buildings respect the stature of the human, which, we know, means not only height, but also depth. Not only light, but darkness too”.

Salvare l'ora Giovanni ChiaramonteDarkness. An image of pain, the incapacity to see. It is from this experience that, mysteriously, Chiaramonte’s other book is born: “Salvare l’ora” [Saving the Hour]. “In 2011, the Diocese of Milan asked me to be involved in the creation of the new Ambrosian Evangeliary. Photography had never been used for such a liturgical function, and I did not know where to start.”. He goes on: “It was a difficult time. Due to an intense depression, my doctors had forbidden me from shooting with professional equipment: medium format cameras on a tripod requiring a physical and emotional effort which, at that time, I would not have been able to endure.” Yet the call of art proved too great, and the photographer armed himself with a simple instrument: an instant camera that does not allow any sort of edit before or after the shot. A €100 Fuji Instax. “One morning, returning from mass, which had been a source of light in my darkness, I entered my dining room. The winter sun was crossing the curtains, tracing a line across the table. The ray of sunlight was striking a crystal seal that refracted it into a rainbow of different colours”. This was an epiphany. He grabbed his camera, got close, and shot. “That small image, 6x10cm, captured all the power of what I felt in that moment. I realised that, to respond to the Diocese’s commission, I could only capture images of my relationship with God, as it appeared in domestic settings in which I pray every day. What I could offer was a testimony of my experience of faith, showing its small traces”.

Thus emerged the photographs which introduce the liturgical periods in the Ambrosian Evangeliary. Yet this also entailed a new, tiringly dispossessing type of work for Chiaramonte; the new medium forced him to set aside the techniques acquired across an entire career, and begin learning from scratch. “I had to take measurements of colour quality, and of the optimum position and distance at which to place myself in relation to the subject, to that it would acquire significance in this rectangular format I was not used to.” The “measure of the West” was shot with a medium format camera (with 6x6cm negatives), with the focus set to infinity, very long shutter speeds, and a shift lens to make vertical lines parallel. Then there was the lengthy work in the dark room; on tones, colours and masking. In “Saving the Hour”, all of this is replaced by a simple click. “I had to adjust my perception of the colour scale that the camera offered automatically, and thus relate to the world I was seeing within this new measure. Aside from the choice of subject and the chosen distance to situate myself from it, the rest was an obedience to what I had in front of me. Obedience to the world.” Within this simultaneously technical and poetic new dimension, Chiaramonte found himself facing up to his own darkness. “Erich Auerbach puts it well: the pagan world is unable to deal with the scandal of man’s sin. Oedipus’ self-blinding is a clear example. The Greek world was unable to give reasons for evil. Meanwhile, the Western artist, after the coming of Christ, is called to an extraordinary adventure: that of crossing the darkness, like light. This book gives an account of what this means for me.”

There is thus no longer an infinite horizon to face, the ocean, or the great American prairie. What remains are impoverished, restricted spaces, reduced by the limits of illness. “I told myself: these small images can be a testimony of the poverty of man, which, despite everything, is consoled by the light. I can see a corner of my house and it can be filled with a reason for life; one that all humans can encounter”. A white feather on a green field, a dry leaf on a deposit of coal, a line of salads on a vegetable garden, fake flowers on the graves of children in a Berlin cemetery. “If one is at prayer, these things that are far from the glory of the world become light. I learnt this from “Andrej Rublev” by Tarkovskij. The road of Eastern monasticism opened to me the path of the Prayer of Jesus; that is, the intertwining of the breath with invocation: “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner”. Chiaramonte recalls that, in his studies as a very young man, he had encountered the art of Minor White, a key figure in American photography as critic and theorist, and long-time director of Aperture magazine. He too, engaging with the Hindu religion, had had a similar experience: that of mantra. “The recitation of a short phrase that enables those who repeat it to eliminate worries and fears. It allows you to remove yourself from your lost, fragmentary condition and listen to reality. Listen to the mystery. Prayer is like the cancellation of inner turmoil, because the interior is not only intelligence or acumen, which moves outwards. The interior is also an abyss, into which you can fall”.
Chiaramonte has long walked on the ridge of this abyss, not least due to a serious illness which struck him in recent months, and impeded him from taking up even his light Fuji Instax. Thus, his own inner turmoil has been expressed instead in brief poetic compositions; haikus. Few words, placed on three lines, which he sometimes would message to his friends. Among these is friend and poet Umberto Fiori, whose lines have followed on from and accompanied many of Chiaramonte’s books. It was Fiori who insisted that the photographer should publish these haiku phrases in the book alongside the polaroids. The last two haikus on the book are the following: “Beyond death/preserving time/saving the hour” and “The day begins/the heart awakes and looks/the world commences”.

Il Foglio, 26th December 2018

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