Life Above All Review
Several times, I wondered whether I would have been able to write a simple and objective critical essay on Monica Silva’s work.
The answer was always no. No, because emotional ties always play an important role for me. I am a sentimental person, and by sentiment, I mean the friendship that binds me to her combined with the emotion and vision of her passionate and perfect shots that always stirs up in me. So, I will go into an analysis of this particular work with the firm belief that this time I have to make a much greater effort than in other circumstances to remain impartial in my judgement. We had the opportunity to meet thanks to a common friend who called my attention to a picture story of a journey she had made, and her work deeply impressed me for its originality. Later on, we called each other, we met, and I began to follow attentively her professional career. Last year I went to see some of her works, which were exhibited in Milan at the Mondadori Bookshop. These works were a set of portraits of some big names of the show business, especially music. There, I realized how essential the use of colours is for her. Both in her photographs of landscapes and in those portraying figures, Monica Silva uses her considerable creativity going in search of the energy released by the chromatic shades, and highlights the positive ones making use of filters and other objects as though they were a painter’s brush.
Those portraits were shots that drew their inspiration from pop art, and were very close to German Expressionism and to the artistic current founded by Andy Warhol in the past century. Also her mania for details seems to come from pictorial art and she, who is a smiling and positive woman, uses to define herself a person crazy about details, and believes that the overall balance of a shot depends just on them. I was able to find these peculiarities of her photographic thought, along with other characteristics I shall later mention, also in this complex project dedicated to the Spoon River Anthology, translated by Fernanda Pivano and published in Italian for the first time in 1943 by Einaudi. In recent times, also the photographer William Willinghton re-interpreted Masters, and gave us some interesting black and white pictures of the places described in Spoon River, which however considerably diverge from Monica Silva’s approach
I was also able to find in her works several references to various authors. But never mere imitation. I could find in them some unconscious references to Joel Peter Witkin, to his anomalies represented by morbid “mises-en-scène” and settings, to the bones scattered around his subjects. Shinbones, thighbones, and skulls Monica Silva had put in the hands of her models without telling them whether they were real or not, and from where they came. The skeleton, later nicknamed Edgar by her crew, was used for giving the setting the aura of mystery a shred of death always stirs up among so many vital and lively people. In some single portraits I could recognize the flaking walls, the grotesque postures and the crumbling settings that characterize the works by Jean Saudek, though in Monica’s photographs there is no trace of his naked and repulsive figures who recite motionless the strophes of Edgar Lee Masters. Another celebrated photographer she unintentionally calls to her mind (particularly in the portrait of the angel and in that of the optician, respectively performed by her son and by the son of the art-gallery owner Valeria Mazzoleni), is baron Wilhelm Von Gloeden, who was lately the protagonist of a controversial and debated exhibition organized and fiercely wanted by Vittorio Sgarbi in Milan. An outrageous, ambiguous artist who lived and worked in our country in the late 19th and early 20th century, he is famous especially for his pastoral scenes of male nudes portraying Sicilian boys who hold amphorae and are dressed with costumes inspiring to the Greek classical age, which suggest his search for a sort of idyllic setting in ancient times. If we wanted to find also some assonance in painting, we should then consider the Flemish painters and the abundance of details we find in the paintings of Jan Van Eyck or in those of the 17th century portraitists: for example, Rubens’ and Rembrandt’s balance, Titian’s use of colour, Raphael’s perfect and mannered composition. And finally, Francisco Goya, whose bewitching “Duchess of Alba dressed in black” is recalled by her.
In other words, this work is the result of many inspiration sources and of the author’s strong desire to strike the spectator’s imagination. She wanted to conceive a strong, new idea capable to send a non-banal message and leave a mark of undisputable originality. She had been deeply impressed by the masterpiece of Edgar Lee Masters, an American man of letters who published this anthology between 1914 and 1915 on the newspaper Mirror. Each poem tells, in the form of an epitaph, the life of the persons who were buried in the graveyard of a small village of the American province. A hundred and nineteen stories in all, involving 248 individuals who represent in practice all kinds of human arts and crafts. Masters drew his inspiration from the life of real persons, who often had not even passed away, and some of them felt offended when they were informed that their personal events had been disclosed so freely and publicly. Monica Silva likes the Spoon River Anthology because of its capability to go against power and against its concealed forces, because of its strong denunciation of people’s faults and weaknesses, because of its ability to let emerge the truth of a world based essentially on hypocrisy and interest. Those who know her also know that this photographer likes to combine words and images. Inspired by the poems of Spoon River and by her own imaginative and sunny character, she succeeded in carrying out a project whose impact is very strong. At the beginning, she had thought to work with elderly models, which were actually closer to the spirit of the original text and to the general atmosphere of this work, but later on, she decided to choose her subjects among 13 to 30 years-old persons. She selected some boys and girls among her son’s schoolfellows, she asked her friends and acquaintances whether they were available to pose for her, she even stopped some persons in the street asking for their collaboration displaying her typical smile to anybody who could inspire her. An enormous care was placed also in the choice of make-up and costumes. Impeccable are all the backgrounds, the wallpapers and the tapestries, the wood floors she re-created using aged wood planks or glazed stoneware tiles arranged as a chessboard, as though she wanted to emphasize the perspective and the depth of the field. Very soft and suffused are the lights, which contribute to stress the absolute beauty of faces and dresses, and provide a soft tone to the psychology of each character. The atmospheres borders on decadence like the still-life paintings called “vanitas”, which in 17th century were stuffed with symbols that hinted at the transience of earthly things and life. A skull, a misted-up mirror, an ancient book, or a silent violin and a score, the same signs Caravaggio put in his elegant “Amor Vincit Omnia”, the wonderful smiling portrait of his apprentice Cecco, which is kept today in Berlin. Love overcomes everything, a reverse quotation of Virgil’s verse that was taken up also by Geoffrey Chaucer in his “Canterbury Tales”, and which in this case underlines that everything becomes part of a positive thought. In this way, Monica Silva completely overturns the classical iconography: through a “photographic licence”, it is possible to transform the dead into living, vital and immortal persons who are ready to dance, read, or strum an instrument. The models’ faces remain mournful, their look is sullen like their poses, and the painting of the “Repentant Magdalene” by Caravaggio comes immediately to our mind. These signals are part of a past that has not yet died out, but we can perceive this sense of rebirth in which all things are soaked, an act of faith of a photographer who believes in the regenerating power of life even after an existential shock. The characters of Spoon River, being dead, would have no chance to come back. However, they revive as young and beautiful persons, and the bones scattered on the ground are not placed there to represent defeat, they are not trophies collected by death, but rather the revenge of those who still live in this world and have overcome death itself.
These twenty-five works dedicated to Edgar Lee Masters are real “mises-en-scène”, stage performances inspiring to literary imagination, which through the gestural expressiveness, the tones, the expressions and the settings in which these kid-actors are moving, are able to express the atmosphere of the poems, the spirit of that age combined with the contemporary one which we belong to, more intelligible to a modern spectator who is accustomed to a world made of continuously overlapping images.
To be noted also the choice of the predominant colours, green and red, dictated by the need to give every shot an emotional connotation, and the peculiar cuts chosen by the author: sometimes they include a scene, in other cases they are focused on details like flashes that stress what had previously escaped the analysis of her notice and of her eyes. Monica Silva is well known for her contortions while she works. Her body seems supple, bent or folded up in the oddest positions in order to allow her getting just into the shot, leaving the surplus out of it. She eliminates all what may divert her attention or hamper the fluidity and the movement of the whole picture. And on the computer, during the post-production stage, she makes disappear all what she cannot remove from the shot or is not correctly positioned. She uses this process in order to provide her works with greater three-dimensionality, by superimposing different levels, and by enlarging details in transparency. Ultimately, this is a form of painting, as well. It makes use of the same principles: nothing useless is ever included in a painting. Each thing has a reason for existence, a place and a sense we cannot help catching. In photography, this should happen, too. At least when the final result does not require the speed of the shot, which is instead absolutely necessary to a war photo-reporter in front of a bomb that is exploding.
Monica Silva confided me that her passion for photography is unlimited and inexplicable. She told me: “When I put my eye on the finder and I begin to frame, the world around me disappears, I launch myself into a new dimension and all the rest has no importance. I would never divert my attention even if my son were passing nearby”. Then, she continued and said: “When I work, I seem a robot, my eyes scan everything, I would live all the time with my camera hanging round my neck as Lartigue or Cartier-Bresson did, in order not to lose any single fragment of the reality that surrounds me”. She also likes to photograph the persons in sequence, because, as she says, “I always wait for a particular movement of a hand, of a nose, which can make the difference for the final result”. Her shots are only apparently simple. If we observe them carefully, we will see that every reference emerge from them and we will realize that in an area in which many authors now seem to copy ideas and styles, she is capable to think with her own head and her own brains, even running the risk of not being fully understood.
Barbara Silbe lives and works in Milan. Since many years, she’s in charge of photographic critic articles for the newspaper Il Giornale and meanwhile collaborates with several magazines and reviews, about photography, arts, culture, entertainment, customs and tourism.