Children love to be told the same stories over and over again […]. the same stories over and over again […] because they speak of the desires, the deepest desires, anxieties and hopes of human beings.Asha Philips
The works in a series are united by their content and formal discourse, without the need to develop a narrative. A cycle, on the other hand, is a set of images united by a narrative thread. In the 20th century, artists rarely created narrative cycles, except in religious or ideological art. During his career Orsi produced five cycles: Stories from the Gospel (1943), Letters from the Future (1959), Dance Macabre (1964), Total perception, mutation of things in space and time – Homage to Muybridge (1976) and Rooms of a Museum (1990). Sometimes the cycles derive from series: it is in them that he identifies the elements (or characters) with which to develop a story in images. For example, from the imposing series Le Menine, executed between 1963 and 1964, comes Danza Macabra. The series of nudes made around 1975 gave rise to Homage to Muybridge. There are two particular cases: the Stories of the Gospel, which originate from a commission, and the Letters from the Future, which derive from the experiments on the sign of the late 1950s. The twelve Rooms of a Museum do not derive from the synthesis of a life’s work on the reworking of images from the past. The cycles show how the artist has a literary vein that eschews illustrative narration. His images are never descriptions of one circumstantial action following another but maintain an indefinite vagueness in time. Another learned, if not literary, element is the quotation: the characters staged by the artist already exist in other paintings and in other epochs. Like the heroes of a fairy tale by Italo Calvino, they are resurrected from the repertoire of traditional fairy tales to live a new, surreal adventure.
No one has ever painted, sculpted, modelled,Antonin Artaud
built or invented except to get
literally out of hell.
The first cycle of which there is a trace is the Stories of the Gospel, executed by Dady Orsi in 1944. Amintore Fanfani, as the cultural officer of a refugee camp in Switzerland, did his best to get the architect Bassi and the painter Orsi an order to renovate and decorate the Catholic Chapel of Chexbres. Orsi prepared some sketches in tempera on paper but did not finish the work because of his hasty return to Italy. The painter took all the sketches home except one, which Fanfani kept for himself (the figure of St Peter). The sketches share a Christological theme, probably dictated by Fanfani himself. The scenes depicted are a Crucifixion, a Resurrection, probably a Conversion of Saul and at least three Miracles of Christ. From a symbolic point of view, these iconographic choices seem to be a reference to the process of change and rebirth that was taking place in Italy through the Resistance. The Miracles have a longitudinal format and seem to have been designed for the side walls of the chapel. Marked by a modernism that Italian sacred painting did not usually embrace, they are characterised by a synthetic style, vivid colours, and an absence of chiaroscuro. In its composition, in the expressionist rendering of the bodies and in the cubist representation of space, the Crucifixion seems to be influenced by Guttuso’s 1942 painting. This encounter with sacred painting and public art is unique in Orsi’s experience, which was only taken up again in the 1990s with his personal homage to Mantegna’s Dead Christ.
The true painter of the future will be a silent poet whoYves Klein
who will not write anything down but will tell, without detail
and in silence, an immense painting without limits.
Dady Orsi’s art would be totally figurative if it were not for a group of completely abstract works, the so-called Letters from the Future, executed in 1959. This title implies a narrative element, assuming that the ‘letters’ were sent from a future civilisation, written in a script that is incomprehensible to us. This writing was invented by the artist, inspired by the Informal Sign Language, one of the languages of the artistic avant-garde of the time. If some of Paul Klee’s works were his precursors, in Italy the main exponents of this current are Accardi, Capogrossi, Crippa and Scanavino. The science-fiction theme of Letters from the Future coexists, however, with an inspiration from the deep past: the format of these works on paper is that of a long ribbon, like an unrolled papyrus (those from Qumran had recently been discovered). The viewer is free to imagine when they were delivered, with what technology, and what the message was. Of those scrolls exhibited in 1960 at the Libreria San Babila in Milan, eleven specimens remain today.
You are the guest of honour at the dance we are playing for you.Angelo Branduardi
Round one dance and then another.
And you are no longer the lady of time.
Between 1963 and 1964 Dady Orsi produces a considerable amount of works on paper and canvas, executed with the most disparate techniques. Drawings, collages, pastels, and tempera paintings in various combinations, where the protagonists are young girls inspired by Picasso’s reworking of Velazquez’s masterpiece Las Meninas in the late 1950s. However, the rarefied synthesis of forms also reveals connections with the style of Giacometti and Melotti. Here the artist compares himself with the great Master of Art choosing a tender and childlike, almost disarming, approach. The Macabre Dance was born from this copious production, a cycle of drawings executed on 9 April 1964 and given to his wife Megy on her 26th birthday. The succession of images tells the story of how the Menina, having met Death, does not flee but dances with her. In this cycle, the two characters are always depicted with the same strokes, as one does when illustrate a story, but they present a great variety of technical and chromatic combinations. The pastel-coloured panels have a particularly modern colour scheme: the pinks, bright blues and light yet vigorous lilacs are unusual in the art of the time; they would come to the fore later – in the 1970s and 1980s in post-modern design. If the medieval representations of the dance macabre show the triumph of death over humanity, in this case the artist decides to change the ending and meaning of the story through an ironic détournement. In the last drawing, death appears as a puppet moved by the girl’s hands. Death is thus defeated and disarmed. There is a conflict in this cycle: on the one hand, the artist’s admiration for the grandiose painting of Picasso and Velazquez and, on the other, his anti-heroic attitude, expressed through Giacometti’s subtlety and Melotti’s lightness. Instead of the classical figure of the warrior hero, Orsi prefers a figure of a young girl with a vaguely astonished grace.
How long is forever?Lewis Carrol
Sometimes, just a second.
The twelve paintings that make up this cycle investigate as many fleeting moments in the movement of an undressed woman as she lies down. The ambition to grasp the mystery of movement is common to many artists. Examples include Balla and Bacon, who found inspiration in Eadweard Muybridge’s chronophotographs. The English photographer’s sequential shots are not taken with the intention of creating the illusion of movement (like the frames of a film), but to capture and freeze the moments. If Bacon and Balla use Muybridge’s teaching to create impressions of energy and movement, Orsi unveils the paradox: the precise and sharp painting gives the image a static quality. Raffaele Carrieri sees another paradox in this cycle of paintings. In these figures with their marble pallor, he sees the paradoxical eroticism of chastity. Familiar with the languid eroticism of the nudes painted in the first half of the 1970s, the poet emphasises the cleanliness of the figure, achieved through a clear drafting of colour within taut outlines. In the last panel, the “chaste and unassailable” protagonist disappears between the sheets. At the foot of the bed appears the image of a deformed skull taken from Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors. This symbolism makes the cycle a modern Vanitas. The reference to Muybridge is one of Orsi’s many connections with the world of photography; it is an object of study, a source for painting and material for composing graphic advertising works. Fundamental to the artist’s life is his relationship with one of Italy’s finest photographers, Federico Patellani. The two were united by a friendship that lasted several decades crossing over into professional collaboration. Painted in 1976, the cycle was presented to the public in 1981 at Piero Fornasetti’s Galleria dei Bibliofili.
They are a link in a chain.Keith Haring
All artists, even the most radical innovators, are always aware of the link with the past. As a profound conoisseur, Dady Orsi likes to re-enact images from art history. His latest cycle is a definitive reflection on the theme of continuity in art history. The cycle consists of 12 large canvases. Moving through the rooms of an imaginary museum, the artist unveils those relationships, similarities and kinship that stimulate his imagination. The individual paintings are dialogues in which a character from a work of the past is depicted as if it were three-dimensional and could move through the rooms of the imaginary museum, thus being able to observe other works of art that are similar to it. The observed work, on the other hand, remains two-dimensional and closed within the space of its own frame. By choosing the works to be given the parts in these “dialogues”, Orsi creates his own personal anthology of painting populated with images whose historical origins range from the deep prehistory of Lascaux to Picasso. The noble father of this operation is André Malraux. In his book Le Musée imaginaire, Malraux points out the potential of a visual dialogue between works of art from different eras and countries of origin. Closer to home, the critic Philippe Daverio has developed this comparative approach throughout his work and in his book The Imagined Museum. The importance of mise en scène reconnects Orsi to the world of theatre, where he was a young set designer in the 1940s and which played such a large part in his cultural formation. Painted in the early 1990s, this cycle is influenced by the postmodern climate, in which the practice of appropriation enjoys a legitimacy it did not previously have.