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Ugo Mulas, inside photography
Elio Grazioli

Let’s reverse the usual critical perspective on Ugo Mulas’ work and look at his Verifications not as the end of a life and itinerary, otherwise dominated by different preoccupations, but as its ideal beginning, whose traces can be observed in his previous artistic attitude towards photography and in his pictures. An attitude we define artistic just because his main concern is about art rather than about the documentary, explanatory or other aspect of photography. The Verifications are, then, not the sole artistic ending of a professional career but the concentrated and urgent analysis of something which was already part, though in a different form, of a complex but consistent course. It is my firm belief, and my reasoning will attempt to prove it, that they cannot be reduced to this analysis but possess a further aesthetic and sensibility. The fact is, the work confirmed by the Verifications, this journey inside photography, starts from Mulas’ beginnings and develops along an original and exemplary way which makes him not only an artist, but a great one.
Some people may have regarded this itinerary, where the artists have always been present, as a rarely intelligent and “critical” reportage but not as an independent work; or as not sufficiently autonomous as in the case of set design photos or those used for the illustration of poems. Some people, in the end, may have regarded it as too “conceptual” to be consistent with what has preceded it, and as a dubious future promise. Those who appreciate Mulas’ “conceptual” period refuse to consider the rest, the supporters of pure photography regard the Verifications as a didactic episode, or even as a dangerous diversion leading to a dead end. I think Mulas has always been an artist, like those he has always regarded as such and it is my intention to go over his work following some hints and suggestions he left us which point that way. To do that I have focused my attention on a more limited and targeted selection of images, to the detriment of anthological completeness.

“I started this job by chance. I was a student and I frequented the Giamaica, a former dairy turned into a sort of café and a meeting point of painters. Someone lent me an old camera and told me: ‘F11 at 1/100 in the sun, F5.6 at 1/25 in the shadow’. And I took this camera with a great diffidence” . “By chance” is obviously a way of saying, yet absolutely right, if you mean by chance what happens to you, what comes into you while you are waiting for it. For, after all, the Law student Mulas, in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, in Milan, does not spend his time in a café with future lawyers and judges but, with a book of poems in his pocket and still torn between his passion for writing and that for drawing, he is exactly where he wants to be, that is, among artists. He talks with them, discusses with them, or better, as I like to imagine him, he listens to and observes, discreetly and with an open mind, intrigued by the particular world and way of life of the artists. [...]
Certainly, photography and its most recent developments were a subject of conversation at the Giamaica, since, besides painters and writers, there were also photographers such as Alfa Castaldi, Carlo Bavagnoli, Giulia Nicolai, and Mario Dondero. [...]
Yet, something else, besides neo-realistic motives, leaps before one’s eyes while skimming through the pictures: it is Mulas’ attention, his voracity in capturing small gestures, important more for what they say about photography than about the environment; true metaphors of the act and status of photography rather than realistic or descriptive elements. For Mulas the mystery of photography is first of all the light, that phenomenon which gives origin to the photographic image. Any time someone lights a match or a cigarette, or uses the fire, he is there always ready to take a photo. It is striking to note that in almost every group photo taken at the Giamaica there is someone who is lighting a cigarette. Equally striking is the great number of portraits explicitly depicting people who are doing exactly that. [...]
Thus the eye captures any reflected light both in the night scenes with street cleaners and in the glass of the man at the bar - who, for Mulas, is then drinking light - or on surfaces and mirrors, a foreshadowing of Mulas’ self-portrait in the second Verification. Another example is that of the series depicting some men asleep inside a train station waiting room. Here, again, the light is protagonist, bouncing on the contours of the benches or on the timetable board and making it impossible to read, a denied image, pure square of light.
People lightning their cigarette often perceive the photographer’s presence and look up in his direction or, technically speaking, into the camera: it is, then, as if their gaze lighted up in its turn, thus showing another central theme of Mulas’ quest. After all, do not the luminous objects return our glances? It is the theme of both seeing and posing, of seeing and being seen. What does posing mean or imply, even when it consists only of being aware that someone else is looking at us, when we return one’s glances? For Mulas, this is a crucial moment, not only because of reciprocity and the “meeting”, of an idea of image - a phenomenological idea, as Quintavalle would say - which becomes such through a double directionality and the active participation of the other, an image which comes out from the meeting of these two flows and gives it a concrete form. It is a crucial moment since it is no less than a moment of truth, Mulas’ real stake. [...]
In almost every photo taken at the Giamaica, one of his “territories”, there is someone who, in that moment, is looking up into the camera. It is this presence which brings in the sense of reality, which avoids the image to be reduced to a mere sociological, environmental or biographical evidence or to turn into a sketch. It is the real world which “bites” in the image, the lump which originates inside the outwardly peace of the image, the sharpness of the eye which thinks, “meditates” while looking. Two or more people are doing something, a third next to them or detached, in the background, seems to be there, on the scene, by chance, and looks at the photographer. What has Mulas actually photographed? What was he really looking at?
What are the artists, journalists, writers, and intellectuals of the Giamaica, doing in Mulas’ pictures? They clearly lead a kind of life free from the duties of work, from timetables, pressures, norms, a “bar” life. It is not the duchampian “doing nothing” yet, a meaningful aesthetic choice, but it is a version of it which prepares and foreshadows Duchamp’s discovery. Not looking for particular moments, sensational gestures or events, focuses one’s attention on any moment, any gesture, on what is there and the way it acquires meaning and becomes image. People at the Giamaica therefore, chat, smoke, sometimes show their own works, drawings, photographs, they court women, often play cards, billiards, chess…Worldly metaphors of art, of the relation between artist and language, and artist and model, in which Mulas looks for his own truth: a confrontation, an exchange, a relation, a reciprocity, a solidarity, a sharing.
It is a choice, a position of an intrinsic morality whose further thematic implication is Mulas’ attention towards the world of work, in particular towards lowly jobs of which he searches the poetry, melancholy, and humanity. Not only the street cleaners, subject of extraordinary and well-known series, portrayed alone or in group, in the dark of the night or the white of the snow, full front or who, meaningfully - Chaplin-like - turn their back to us and go away, but also pedlars selling their stuff at markets or along the road, maybe holding just a few eggs in their hands, which is all they have. All of them are powerful symbols of life and precious spheres of light for the photographer-poet. In this case too, whenever a pedlar arrives at the Giamaica, Mulas often photographs him not when he is selling his products, but when he stops to look at people playing cards or bowls, when he becomes part of this world. After all, Mulas seems to identify himself with these figures, a particular, ideological and aesthetic, identification that will remain constant over the years. An identification which from an idea of a photographer-artist-worker develops into, or rather identifies with, that necessary figure of the pragmatic analyst of the photographic language, a photographer who does not leave to other people the, not only theoretical, “verification” of the photographic medium. [...]
Then, when he gets his own camera, he leaves for the Venice Biennale, the most important art exhibition in Italy, the first time in 1954. There, he finds a bigger, exaggerated and “open” version of what at the Giamaica is limited, closed and more provincial. In Venice he observes and documents the fashionable life, the festive air which pervades the city, and the preparation of the pavilions. There are a lot of photos depicting workers who are carrying paintings, moving sculptures, arranging works, or the artists themselves who are doing the same things, like workers. In short, what is around the work rather than the work itself, the “after”, when the work has already been created. Mulas, however, is tireless in studying the artists in order to steal their secret. Sometimes he meets them by chance, in a fashionable place, in a square or on a ferry, and then the photograph becomes more psychological and sorrowful. An example is Max Ernst’s portrait where he seems to have grasped, more than any other thing, the loneliness of a great man among “normal” people, at odds with the fashionable and festive atmosphere which dominates the artistic event. Actually Mulas emphasizes the cheerful character of that experience of photojournalism and sums it up this way: “From 1958 Biennale and then in 1960, 1962, and 1964, I have underlined more and more the joyfulness of being together, looking, showing and showing off” , another version of seeing and being seen, not only of returning one’s glances but of showing oneself, not only of exposing but of exposing oneself.
Meanwhile Mulas is defining an innovative portraiture, innovative in that it attempts to better understand the artists, and is focused on an interpretation of their oeuvre which comes out from the peculiar intersection of their works and their individual personality. Mulas’ subject, rather than the artist, is creativity, art itself and art, I repeat, as a way of life. This gives origin to his “critical” portraiture, “critical” not only in the sense Umberto Eco indicates, that is of doing art criticism by means of the photographic image instead of words, but in the more global sense of an aesthetic drenched with ethics. Art criticism, then, meant as a deep analysis of the reasons of art and the particularity of these reasons and this practice as a way of being in the world, a particular response to the meaning of life. [...]
In conclusion, the form is the key, the secret of Mulas’ relation with the artists, the others, and of his attempt to understand them, that is of his own chance to be himself a true artist. Mulas wants to capture the form created by the single artist in order to understand his work and personality and, through them, his own personality and that of photography, his medium and language. “The secret reason which pushed me to go around photographing painters for so many years, was the idea that, through painting and painters, I would have succeeded in getting something which concerns not only painting, and thus understanding myself” . [...]
This is the meaning of Mulas “unrecorded art criticism” and the reason of his uncommon and also prompt discernment. In fact, when in 1964 he witnesses the explosion of American Pop Art, he immediately leaves for the USA. And again, in New York, he experiences this phenomenon in its entirety or, better, he is among the first who attempt to reconstruct a comprehensive picture of it, as the artists’ reaction seems to prove. They in fact open the doors of their studios to Mulas, allowing him to stay there for long periods of time, working in front of him, allowing him the freedom to photograph whatever he likes. He not only enters into the creativity of each artist, studying it in depth, but also participates and takes the initiative. It is obviously an aesthetic initiative, as you can see from the form of the “sequence” that he develops while he is discovering American photography, Klein, Friedlander, Frank, and American way of life. A “sequence” is a group of images that tell, certainly not in an anecdotal sense, the four-sided relation artist-work-photography-Mulas.
In these sequences Mulas shows the artists’ working methods: Poons going back and forth between his sketch, a sort of “score”, and the canvas, or Nolan colouring large strips drawn on a canvas laid on the floor; or Stella, Johns, Lichtenstein… As regards to these sequences, Germano Celant has talked about a lack of self-sufficiency of the image, of its static nature and fragmentariness. However Mulas’ sequence originates not from this limitation but from an aesthetic evolution towards not the story or time (of which we will see later Mulas’ treatment in the Verifications) but the series, the “concept”, the staging of a photographic truth which, again, does not coincide with the fleeting moment but with the precision of the gesture and non-gesture.
This can be better understood if you think about the real sequences, such as those of Duchamp and Fontana, and Brecht’s aesthetic of estrangement Mulas deals with during his theatre experience, in particular his cooperation with Giorgio Strehler. [...]
Here lies also the sense of his encounter with Robert Frank whom he has met during his first trip to America. A similar role has probably had his meeting with Andy Warhol of whom Mulas has immediately acknowledged the essential difference from all the other artists he has met in New York.
Frank’s photographs, which he sees for the first time in 1958, impress him immediately. In particular he appreciates and shares the photographer’s attitude which consists in refusing “to use any trick”. This means that the photographer refuses either to show off or force his skill and photographic ability - another thing to remember when talking about the moderation which dominates the “conceptuality” of the Verifications, anything but self-referential and exhibitionistic. This, in turn, means avoiding any exaggeration “aimed at confusing the play of reality, things, life”, that is - thus completing the circle photography-life-photography - “if a thing has already a photographic character, why forcing another photographic element on it?” . When he meets Frank, they discuss about impersonality, the distance of the photographer from his action, the issue of not “entering” the photograph, not revealing a personal and subjective look. A vision of things Mulas has always supported, which has been part of his work until that moment and whose opposite he has found in Friedlander, for him a shocking discovery. However it is through his discussion with Frank that he develops a deeper awareness of these issues and finds, not a compromise, but a personal solution, in line with the premises. For Mulas, everyone has, in oneself, in one’s own background, a story, a professional evolution, a character which influence what one does. So the “point of view” always emerges and there is no need to force and exaggerate it, to put it in the foreground, to build a “style”. However, he now becomes aware that it is a meeting, an issue which does not need to be removed and avoided by means of an otherwise intentional and exhibited impartiality, because “being aware of this fact means also to have a different attitude while shooting, while choosing what and how to photograph”. Therefore, finally, it means that “one no longer needs any support, or to look for truth in the others, but has to find it only in oneself, to understand what this job really is, to analyse its single operations, to dismantle it as one does with a machine in order to know it better” . This is the passage and gradual evolution that leads to the Verifications as well as their already inherent premise. In the end Mulas will acknowledge Frank a role in photography similar to Duchamp’s role in art, citing his statement that “the air has been contaminated by the smell of photography” , a transposition of Duchamp’s words about the smell of turpentine in painting, which denounces the risk of a “retinal” vision, one that appeals only to the eye without engaging the mind.
And Warhol? “The most striking thing about Warhol was his total compliance with any of my decisions: I am sure that he would have done anything I had asked him to do” . Warhol represents the extreme embodiment of Duchamp’s not doing, turned into complete willingness, pop indifference. He is always ready to pose and take whatever pose you want. There is no “meeting” or interaction with him, just an “objectual” relation because he is like an object you can place anywhere and arrange as you like. He is also over-production, mirror of the pervasive nature and the cult of quantity and consumption proper of the society he depicts through repetition, and of which stirs up, always as if by chance, the meaning and existence of minimum differences. Mulas is impressed in particular by Warhol’s films, by their static framings. They are “practically photographs, close-ups of friends’ heads, where nothing happens; they seem the enlarged projection of a photograph, a picture which blinks, swallows, nothing else, small events which however have an exceptional significance” . Warhol does nothing, he lets the things happen under the mechanical eye of the camera, “adding nothing” as states Mulas who suffers a further shock. What happens when you do nothing? Mulas’ answer is: it is as if the film itself, the photograph, starts living, blinking, swallowing…[...]
It is through this passage, this evolution, that Mulas develops also the rest of his work and starts thinking about it as his own “work”. Now he begins collecting his images in books and he takes care of every detail, from the choice of images and their “sequence”, that is their matching and succession, to its “mind attitude”. Now he is not afraid to think about himself as an artist and creates images disjointed from the documentary occasion, which still “lean” to an external motif or reference but have been realized with greater autonomy. I think that now, whenever he takes a photo, he faces those issues which involve him so much because they - this is the true reason - concern both his art and his life. Mulas, as it is now obvious, is totally involved in what he does, he suffers and lives his own meditations on the inside. These are never abstract, purely meta-linguistic, nor are they separated from the artist’s inner, ethical and human, torment. It is important to stress this point in order to follow the thread which runs throughout his work and to remember the sense of his “conceptual” ending.
His first autonomous idea is that of creating some images to “illustrate” Montale’s poems, in particular Ossi di seppia (Cuttlefish Bones). A meaningful choice that relates photography to poetry, to the poetical content of every artistic expression. A meaningful choice also because it is a sign of a “relative autonomy” - that is this “leaning” which is part of Mulas’ mode - which goes back to an old love. An autonomy claimed through the reference to words instead of by keeping them at a distance: an autonomy from words through poetry, that can be found also in the set design photos where it is autonomy from non-photography through theatre, fiction, music. [...]
Yet, the majority of the photographs for Ossi di seppia (Cuttlefish Bones) can be regarded as completely separated from the poems they refer to, as “poetry” in their turn. As to those taken on the sea, the central theme is the relation, or better, the reversal, between horizontality and verticality. In these pictures the sea is shown vertically with an astonishing effect which gives meaning to the bather-starfish “under” it, the tree “through”, the rocks, waves and sprinklings “inside”, the sun “above”. The rocks on the mainland shows their almost horizontal stratification, in contrast with the verticality. A spatiality, a language, a poem, all of them visual, photographic, which are made up of photographic metaphors: the light, the dazzle, the sea as development bath that lets the image appear on the paper or hides it, that strokes or smoothes it, abandons or tosses it about, like the waves with the cuttlefish bone. “‘... sballottati / come l’osso di seppia dalle ondate / svanire a poco a poco; / diventare / un albero rugoso od una pietra / levigata dal mare; nei colori / fondersi dei tramonti; sparir...’; that is the kind of metamorphosis he (the poet) is dreaming of, that of turning into a stone smoothed by the sea” .
The same can be said of the set photos realized for Puecher’s productions which, however, have been created and can be read even independently. They are two modern and daring musical plays: The Turn of the Screw of Benjamin Britten and Wozzeck of Alban Berg. They both present a very gloomy vision, which originates from the work themselves, but is also exaggerated by the director who in Wozzeck’s case explicitly refers to prisons and concentration camps. Mulas in his turn takes the opportunity to experiment. [...]
And now let’s move to the final “series” the Verifications, the implied conclusion of Mulas photographic and artistic activity. A real conclusion because, as everybody knows, Mulas creates this series when he, seriously ill, realizes that he has got no time left. Many of those who have known him during those years, from 1970, underline, in various way, the importance of this fact. “Verification” means also this: an urgent need to check, define, take out, conclude what otherwise would remain implicit, maybe too much, and to carry out urgently what otherwise would remain unaccomplished, experiment with no more delay the idea for the future, before it is too late. [...]The Verifications open and close with two works both under glass even for this reason. It is a duchampian glass which in the first case holds, “frames” the ready made unexposed film, without images. In the last work instead it is broken as in The Large Glass, meaning the decision to accept the end, “definitively unfinished” in Duchamp’s words, “staking” for Mulas, “an operation which is impossible to repeat” as well as “radical break with the previous image” awareness that a new image is born “different from the first”.
Now, the “conceptual” side of the Verifications is well-known: “In 1970 I began taking photographs whose subject matter was photography itself, a sort of analysis of the operations of photography aimed at identifying its basic elements and their intrinsic significance. For instance, what is a sensitive surface? Why using a telephoto or wide-angle lens? Why do you choose a certain format? Why making enlargements? What relation exists between a photograph and its caption? And so on.” . Conceptuality then means that art chooses itself and its own medium and form as subject matter, thus favouring the concept, or even reducing to or identifying with it: art equal concept of art. Mulas, however, dedicating his first Verification to Niepce and not to Duchamp, refers to the origins and not to the present time, that is, explicitly to the reality that “makes itself” through photography, to “an age when people talked about photos made by the sun, about self-delineating natural objects which do not need the artist’s hand”, when “pictures created themselves” . Images then as pre and super ready made, photography brought back to an absolute ready made, inherent in its own origin and then in its form and status, thus claiming its own “natural” anticipation of Duchamp’s idea. Yet in Mulas the analysis of photography does not follow the direction leading to the pure concept, the meta-language, but always that of the circle art-reality-art where the real, in all its meanings, is always at the centre, and is the aim of the form. [...]
Only now he refers to Duchamp and his ready made which Mulas regards as an operation that has by no means separated form from content and sensibility from concept, on the contrary, it has been the only one to keep them together because it has understood and respected their difference. And now, a kinship between the ready made and photography can be acknowledged. A photography where “the artist’s intervention was altogether insignificant from the operational point of view. It consisted in fact in a conceptual identification of a reality already materialized whose mere indication was sufficient to allow it to live in “another” dimension” .
It is this “other” dimension what is most important, the true reason of the Verifications, what makes them works of art, of an art tout court, not “conceptual”. This other dimension is what leads far from the conceptual premises and establishes a new kind of beauty, which “breaks radically with what comes before”, creating its own present and anticipating the future. The Verifications, in this sense, must be regarded as works, not as meditations through images and words, as well as analysis of the medium and its possibilities. You must look at the images, rather than at the words Mulas has generously and urgently provided to accompany them in order to illustrate his whole project, his operation. Or, as it is clear from his own itinerary, you must keep together what is only outwardly divided, you must remember his constant appeal to reality and truth, you must always keep in mind the ethical and human element. In this sense Mulas’ “conceptual” represents the synthesis of his search for the right distance between himself, his own subjectivity, even his own self, and the object, the model, the thing, the image, in their relation with the language on one side and truth on the other. [...]