Executed in 1969, Domenico Gnoli's Central Partition dates from the most intensely productive period of the Italian painter's career. This striking image of a crown of parted hair joins Gnoli's most celebrated series of paintings, in which he enlarged images of the humble and banal to transform them into an alien source of wonder and beauty. This renowned series was created in preparation for Gnoli's debut exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York, in December 1969, an enormously successful show that brought exposure to America's elite art audience and secured his international reputation before his untimely death the following year.
Central Partition forms part of a group of related works that focus on amplified views of human hair. Where the cropped perspective and close proximity to the subject typically preserves the anonymity of the model, this portion of human anatomy is almost certainly an intimate reference to the artist's wife, the painter Yannick Vu, who characteristically wore her black hair in an identical style. 'My themes come from the present,' Gnoli acknowledged, 'from familiar situations, from daily life; because I never intervene actively against the object; I feel the magic of its presence' (Domenico Gnoli, extracts from an interview with Jean-Luc Daval, Journal de Genève, 1968). In his examination of the minutiae of everyday existence, Gnoli magnifies this static glimpse of life almost to the point of absurdity, stripping the figurative subject of any contextual or emotional clues to free it from connotations associated with nature and time. Indeed, this detail could belong to anyone and can only barely be registered as human, its perfect formal symmetry deliberately flirting with the austere reductivism prevalent amongst abstract artists of the 1960s. In doing so, Gnoli looks at reality as if it too were an abstraction, highjacking the emphasis on surface and materiality found in the work of many of his contemporaries, whilst puncturing their refusal to portray the exterior, visual world.
Having established a career as a successful set designer and a prodigious illustrator before deciding to dedicate his life to painting, Gnoli set himself apart from the lengthy debate over figuration that had dominated a generation of artists caught in the wake of painterly abstraction. Instead, Gnoli's background in the graphic arts lead him to continually place the human figure as a central concern in his work, whether he featured it in its entirety, fragmented it into fetishistic parts or implied its presence through the depiction of clothing or furniture. With works like the Central Partition, Gnoli approached representational imagery in a manner that made perfect sense to a public caught in the thrall of the Pop Art explosion. Yet, unlike his American counterparts, who typically focussed on the iconography of their commercial world, Gnoli's work was steeped in the traditions of his rich artistic heritage.
Central Partition not only acts to sustain pictorial traditions by addressing the figure in art, but also hints at Gnoli's earliest sources of inspiration. The complexity of Albrecht Dürer's etchings and the unique stillness of Piero della Francesca's paintings were amongst the first touchstones for the young artist and the peculiar realism of Central Partition reflects the influence these masters had on his sense of suspended animation, clarity and masterful articulation of light. The composition of Central Partition also unveils a perception of reality resembling that of Surrealism, and more tellingly, its precursor, the Metafisica tradition in Italian painting established by Giorgio de Chirico and perpetuated by Giorgio Morandi. Like these artists, Gnoli transfigures the commonplace into something ineffably strange, in order to examine the relationship between art, reality and the psychology of perception. However, where the Metaphysical painters often used jarring juxtapositions and eerie scenes to evoke a strange and potent atmosphere, it is precisely in the isolation of details of the world that Gnoli's paintings derive their timeless atmosphere and deeply philosophical sense of existential angst.
The incongruous feelings of distance evoked by Gnoli's hugely enlarged details of life stem from his deliberate attempt to express the abstract and the sublime through figurative means. In this way, Gnoli reinvented the figurative tradition in painting at a time when non-representational aesthetics dominated Italian art. 'At a time like this,' Gnoli explained, 'when iconoclastic anti-painting wants to sever all connections with the past, I want to join my work to that 'non-elegant' tradition born in Italy in the Quattrocento and recently filtered through the Metaphysical school. It seems that the experience of those who wanted to interpret, deform, decompose and recreate has come to an end, and reality is presented undaunted and intact. The common object, isolated from its usual context, appears as the most disquieting testimony to our solitude, without further recourse to ideologies and certitudes' (D. Gnoli, quoted in the Premio Marzotto catalogue, 1966, reproduced in E. Braun (ed.), Italian Art in the 20th Century: Painting and Sculpture 1900-1988, London, 1989, p. 435). Following these principles, the detached introspection of Gnoli's meticulous naturalism successfully manipulates the observed world into an unprecedented new form, instilling the mundane with an unexpected sense of mystery that suggests an imagined or dreamed reality. The pictorial grammar of Central Partition therefore hovers somewhere between truth and fiction, converting the micro into the macro and the ordinary into the extraordinary to prompt a re-evaluation of our understanding of the world through its uncannily familiar form.