The Marazzi Years
1975 - 1985
Luigi Ghirri, The Marazzi Years 1975 - 1985 is an unique memento of the ten-year collaboration that has linked Marazzi to the master of Italian photography, Luigi Ghirri. During this period, Ghirri created a series of unique works for the company that represent an outstanding relationship in terms of longevity, depth and aesthetics. “Ceramic has a history that is lost in the mists of time. It has always been an 'object' on which other objects are placed: the furniture, the gestures, the images, the shadows of the people who inhabit those spaces ", commented Ghirri about his work with the brand," This work, beyond other meanings, is the reconstruction of some rooms of my memory ”.
Luigi Ghirri, The Marazzi Years 1975 - 1985 was born to highlight and emphasise this artistic heritage of inestimable value.
To conduct an experiment which provides accurate results, the use of the right instruments is essential. Take, for example, a crucible, a concave vessel still used for chemical analyses in laboratories the world over. Crucibles are usually made of ceramics, because it is able to maintain its characteristics unchanged even at extremely high temperatures, while the substances inside them change state, mutating into something else.
Ceramics was also the material that Filippo Marazzi decided to stake his future when, in 1935, he shut down the family grocery shop and started to turn out tiles in a “cardboard factory”, as his fellow residents of Sassuolo nicknamed it, responding to the odd appearance of a building held up by two rows of poplar
trees, between the railway and a drainage ditch. He was right: in the first half of the Twentieth Century, ceramics – for centuries a form of ornamentation reserved for the dwellings of popes, the aristocracy and sultans – gradually, centimeter by centimeter, made their way into the homes of the Italian middle classes, promising to render them sparkling clean and ultra-hygienic. Marazzi was ready to assist in this process and within a few years, with courage and entrepreneurial flair, the company grew and conquered the Italian market. But that was not enough, because paradoxically, in metaphorical terms ceramic tiles were hard to pin down: once they had gained access to bathrooms and kitchens, they soon broke through into dining areas, corridors and dining-rooms, in search of a shape which would release them from their grid pattern and of an identity over and above their function. We are talking about the post-war years: the years of i Pennellati, a collection hand-painted by painter and potter Venerio Martini, and Triennale, the “four curve tile” designed by star architect and designer Gio Ponti with colleague Rosselli. These were the first bubbles of creativity, a sign that the chemical reaction had begun and something was changing.
And proceeding from container to contents in a sort of reverse metonymy, our experiment had reached its second phase. The magma inside the ceramic vessel was now boiling, fusing ingredients that seemed completely incompatible until just a short time before. This was probably the image that flashed into the mind of another Filippo Marazzi, grandson of the founder, when in the Eighties he decided to open an in-house research and experimentation center, and to call it the crucible, or crògiolo in Italian. In the previous decade the company had registered the international patent for the single-firing process, which revolutionized the sector and propelled it to world leadership. And at the same time, it had invested in artistic and creative experimentation, with top fashion names Biki, Fourquet and Paco Rabanne, designer Nino Caruso and photographer Gianni Berengo Gardin, who captured the beauty of the material, the coatings and the conveyor belts inside the factory.
“Transforming matter through form, light and colour to bring it to life: this is what producing ceramics means to Marazzi,” Filippo Marazzi explained. “Over time, this vocation and mission have expanded to become a broader research project, in which the company has involved artists, architects and designers.”
The first half of the Eighties saw the birth of the “Marazzi Portfolios”, in which the company asked a group of contemporary photographers to interpret the collections in their own way. American Cuchi White photographed a red pepper on a grey tile, using light to underline the texture and contrasts of the Metropoli collection. Charles Traub, artist and director of the Light Gallery in New York, portrayed a man in a dark double-breasted suit hiding his face behind a beige tile. Luigi Ghirri, on the other hand, played with the geometry of spaces, uperimposing real or imaginary grids on those created by the tiles themselves. The photographs were printed in limited editions of 120.
An Italian photographer who had already achieved international critical fame, Ghirri was born at Scandiano, in the province of Reggio Emilia, but at three years of age he moved to Braida, an outlying area of Sassuolo, to a huge building that was home to many families, and where every morning most of the men got on their bikes to go to work at the nearby ceramics factories. As an adult, his travels and exhibitions took him around Europe and the United States, but he always came back to this corner of Italy’s Emilia Region, and the provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia, to reflect on his latest ideas, conceive new projects, talk to his old friends and earn a living. And it was in this provincial context, where everybody knows everybody else, that the photographer and company came together.
They first worked together in 1975: Ghirri ventured timidly into the factory to shoot Marazzi ceramics. But unlike commercial photographers, used to repeating the industry clichés with their technique and experience, Ghirri became profoundly interested in his subject and interpreted it freely, with the aid of his own poetics. In his images, a tile becomes a backdrop for a rose, a surface on which two coloured pencils are placed, or the stage for a miniature piano.
The partnership continued until 1985, then the photographer and the company went their separate ways. Ghirri turned to his many other projects – including the exhibition “Esplorazioni sulla Via Emilia” staged in Reggio Emilia, Bologna and Ferrara in 1986 – and accepted commissions from other brands: Ferrari, Bulgari, Costa Crociere. Marazzi continued to use photography as a tool for overturning preconceived ideas. Over the years, it worked with French photographer John Batho, who used tiles to build a path leading to the sea, American Elliott Erwitt, who shot the “Disegniamo il mondo” advertising campaign and, more recently, Andrea Ferrari and Brit Adrian Samson, who came up with a new reading of Triennale. This leading-edge use of images influenced the work of the great artists and designers asked by Marazzi to experiment on its materials over time:
Roger Capron, Amleto Dalla Costa, Original Designers, Saruka Nagasawa, Robert Gligorov. The outcomes were products and collections that gradually swept away the clichés on tiles’ size, colour, decoration and intended uses.
Now we come to the third phase of the experiment: the least known yet also the most important. Once the substances have fused, what interests the chemist is not what has evaporated, but what is left in the crucible. Microscopic residues of waste used to measure the purity of the original contents.
For decades, the photographs which Ghirri took for Marazzi in the late Seventies and early Eighties have been conserved in the company’s archives. Many of them have never been published. Some have occasionally been chosen for an
exhibition or printed on the cover of a catalogue. Now, for the first time, they re-emerge together in a single volume, crowning the success of the partnership between a far-sighted company and an artist who turned his geometrical and inspired, ironic and emotionally charged gaze on a simple, two-dimensional, often ignored object. With wonderful results. So, it is now up to us to analyse these residues, record the results and wait for the ceramic material to cool.
At which point, the crucible will be ready for a new experiment.
Luigi Ghirri began working for Marazzi at a crucial point in his career as an artist. Ghirri started to take photographs in 1969 and his first exhibitions and publications date from 1972. The Seventies were basically his debut decade characterized by a conceptual approach in which photography is both the medium and one of the subjects of his work. In the Eighties, on the other hand, his recurrent theme is the physical territory, explored not so much in terms of landscape, geographical features or weather, but in a broader sense, embracing the interaction between people and the surrounding environment: how they live there, modify, use, look at and represent it. In 1979, Ghirri’s most experimental period was recorded in a monumental exhibition at the Palazzo della Pilotta in Parma, with over seven hundred works and a catalogue bearing the names of the leading critics of the time. 1984 was the year of his Viaggio in Italia, an “Italian Journey” recorded in an exhibition and book of which Ghirri was both curator and author (together with nineteen other photographers who took part on his invitation). This project, the result of his investigation of places representation, was to inspire a large proportion of Italian photography in the following years. The commission from Marazzi falls midway between these two phases, not only from a chronological point of view (he began to work for the company in 1975), but also in terms of its contents, which cover both linguistic and spatial issues. Ghirri himself implies this in the short text that accompanies his portfolio: “Ceramics has a history that is lost in the mists of time. It has always been considered an “object” on which other objects are placed: the furniture, gestures, images and shadows of the people who live these spaces. When creating these images, I kept all this in mind and tried, by using surfaces in different colours, and superimposing objects and images, to reconstruct a space which was not physical and measurable as a real room, but rather a representation of mental space in a given moment...”. So instead of being, as one might think, detached from the rest of his artistic output, Ghirri’s photographs for Marazzi in fact provide a synthesis of it. Light years away from the standard concepts of marketing photography, this commission actually provided the photographer with a major opportunity to challenge and continue his exploration of a number of crucial points in our relationship with the world. This set of images consists first and foremost of an in-depth investigation of three key actions, all interconnected.
From the general to the specific: seeing, representing, photographing.
Seeing. The most ancient forerunner of photography: you must see before you photograph. It is basis of everything, the foundation plinth of this building. But it is more, because a photographic image is not a record just of the subject on which the lens is trained, but rather of what was seen by the photographer, who looked at it before us. In a photograph, we see something that has already been seen, in the way in which it was seen. When Ghirri places a pair of glasses in the middle of an image produced for this series, he is photographing his own gaze. Like the Pale Man in Guillermo del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth, the photographer removes his eyes and puts them in front of him, before returning them to their place. What’s more, the lenses of the glasses correspond to those of the camera. In another image, we see two carved heads (or rather their reproductions) facing each other. The black-edged space between them identifies their hypothetical fields of vision. We are looking at two faces looking. They are identical. We are looking at their act of seeing.
Representing. This is the next step. Ghirri’s work is grounded in history: not just the history of photography, but the history of art in general. He examines the present on the basis of knowledge of the past. He uses many references, starting from the carved heads already mentioned. A short sequence of images consists of a series of perspective studies that reach back to the origins of the camera oscura. Another photograph shows a reflection in a mirror of a still life painting, the genre also referenced in a series of works that evoke memories of Giorgio Morandi: the same pastel colours, the same space around the subjects, which are not compressed into the frame, and the same preference for a general impression of very dense simplicity (it is no coincidence that Ghirri conducted an in-depth study on Giorgio Morandi’s atelier between 1989 and 1990). There are also a couple of images of an egg, an inevitable reference to the Brera Altarpiece by Piero della Francesca, who produced ground-breaking work on geometry and perspective. It is a matter not just of perfection but also of imagination. Ghirri’s eggs are resting on a spoon and a glass, both drawn.
Photographing. These images make countless references to the act of taking photographs itself. Ghirri draws on his conceptual experience to put forward a complex theoretical argument with his expressive medium at its centre. Ghirri photographs photography. He does so literally, when he points his lens at an old black and white print of a portrait of a child. In front of it, he actually places a miniature camera (photography is, in itself, a form of miniaturisation of the world, enabling us to keep it in a drawer in the form of an image) and a hand that mimes the gesture of pressing the shutter. It’s all there: the photographer, the camera and photography. The photographs with a (clearly reconstructed) rainbow and a piece of paper bearing the word “colori”, or “colours” are also homages to this language: Ghirri is one of the main pioneers of colour photography on the international scale. At a time when almost all his colleagues were describing a universe completely submerged in black and white, he went right to the root of the problem: “I photograph in colour because the real world is not in black and white and because films and paper for colour photography have been invented”. Last but not least, mirrors, close kin to photography throughout its history (Holmes defined photographic images as a “mirror with memory” as long ago as 1840) feature several times. In one image, a mirror is held by a woman and is facing towards the lens, except that instead of reflecting the figure of the photographer it is showing a ceramic tile. This is what photography is: an inextricable blend of reality and illusion.
At this point, there is one last term we have to add to those already examined: living. It is not on our earlier list, but it is central to the theme of places, mentioned above. Here, spaces are ceramic tiles themselves. Tiles’ colours and surfaces constitute the territory within which all Ghirri’s work is created. They form the stage on which his subjects act. Like the theatre, photography is a matter of interpretation and transformation. Paradoxically, without ever lacking realism. In the hands of Ghirri, an inexorable explorer of the infinite ways in which reality may transform its appearance, an object may become a whole room.