In Michelangelo Pistoletto’s exquisitely rendered Corteo from 1965, a pair of life-sized protesters march, their flags propped over their shoulders, rippling in the air. In this evocative work, the artist merges the pictorial and the viewer’s space is a single, powerful image on a mirror-like surface. Corteo is one among a celebrated, cohesive group of protest-themed pictures the artist painted in the mid-1960s alongside Rally I, Rally II, and Vietnam. These works were collectively exhibited at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis in Michelangelo Pistoletto: A Reflected World in 1966. Corteo was prominently exhibited among this illustrious group, which stands out as one of Pistoletto’s most iconic and coveted early examples of the hand painted mirror paintings from this period.
While Pistoletto’s protest paintings are unified by one common theme, executed during the turbulent 1960s, “these pictures remain apolitical and are generalized to include, within their ambience, the most active and passive polarities” (M. Pistoletto quoted in A Reflected World, exh cat., Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1966, p. 5). In the same vein, the flags in Corteo do not reveal any trace of nationality or any agenda—hidden or otherwise. They read simply as flags, symbolic of revolution or rebellion, rendered in shades of fiery red and more subdued ochre. The figures are marching for a cause, but the objective is unmistakably absent.
Pistoletto bestows his audience with the same experience felt by the artist: “the viewer becomes the one who walks on the canvas—finds himself in the same space as the artist” (M. Pistoletto quoted in J. Lewinson, “Looking at Pistoletto / Looking at Myself,” J. Lewinson in K. Burton, (ed.) Michelangelo Pistoletto, Mirror Paintings, London 2010, p. 15). By foregoing the traditional painter’s canvas in favor of the highly-polished mirrored surface, Pistoletto allows the viewer to participate. He is at once looking at and engaged within the work, as Pistoletto had been during its fabrication.
Upon viewing Corteo, the audience is immediately immersed in the procession, between the figures, through the highly polished, reflective surface. By employing the stainless steel mirrors, Pistoletto brings the audience into the image, yet in the act of creating the work, he removes himself of any political position. “He who makes a protest painting arrests his vision at the fact that he portrays. He does not take one position or another—he removes his judgment in his literal translation of the photograph onto the stainless steel surface”(Ibid, p. 5). Pistoletto does not choose a side of the protest, he remains detached as an apolitical observer himself. As the artist articulated, “The purpose and the result of my mirror paintings was to carry art to the edges of life in order to verify the entire system in which both of them function. After this, there remains only one choice. On the one hand there is the possibility of a monstrous involution and a return to the system of doubling and conflict, and, on the other hand there is the possibility of revolution and of leaving the system altogether. One can bring art into life, as Pollock did, but no longer in terms of metaphor” (M. Pistoletto, Le ultime parole famose (The Famous Last Words), Turin, 1967). Unique to Pistoletto’s mirror paintings is that the image moves, lives and evolves with the viewer’s presence. One immediately thinks of a cinematic narrative, and perhaps brings to mind the work of Federico Fellini’s classic films of the same period. On the other hand, the idea of a moving image dovetails with performance art and the happenings of Alan Kaprow, established just a few years earlier. The moving, pictorial language of Pistoletto’s mirror paintings are unique and particularly in Corteo, a rally scene, the image lives.
The artist’s mirror paintings venture into the surreal, Pistoletto shares a common ground with the pursuit of painters like René Magritte and Giorgio de Chirico, challenging the perception of our reality. Playing with notions of time and space, Pistoletto’s mirror paintings, exemplified by Corteo, are completed by the audience, the room and the environment within which it is placed. “Ambiguity and semi-mythological situations are central to the Surrealism of an artist such as de Chirico with whose work Pistoletto has affinities. Pistoletto’s becalmed space also evokes that of Magritte and Delvaux, masters of creating atmospheres in which time is suspended and spaces are ominously charged with a great sense of apprehensions” (Michelangelo Pistoletto: A Reflected World, exh cat., Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1966, p. 5).
Pistoletto’s vision in Corteo is accomplished by the fact that the stainless steel is not a perfect, but a distorted mirror. Corteo is immersive in a nonsensical way. As expressed by Martin Friedman in the exhibition catalogue for the 1966 Pistoletto exhibition at the Walker Art Center, “Although he is far removed from its ambience, it is traditional Surrealism, not recent Pop art, which is the permeating ingredient in these mirrors. By being presented an incomplete reality, the observer-participant is confronted with infinite possibilities for completing this reality. By allowing the observer to complete his paintings Pistoletto also invites him to consider the irrational” (Ibid, p.5).
Delving into concepts of time and space, the beginnings of Pistoletto’s renowned mirror paintings in the early 1960s—reflecting both reality and illusion—stem from the origin of his working process with the photograph. Through the artist’s use of a photograph, enlarged to life size and then transcribed onto the mirror surface, Pistoletto’s work is once removed, and thereby obscured, from the original source image. By employing photographic techniques in painting in the 1960s, Pistoletto’s practice is akin to the work of Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, both of whom relied heavily on the photograph as an integral part of their painting practice. For Warhol, the Polaroid photograph was inextricably linked to his oeuvre, snapping shots of everyday objects, shoes and celebrities alike. Similarly, Rauschenberg translated his own photographs then later found magazine and newspaper photographs in his paintings where traces of the original image linger, but are reappropriated. Pistoletto’s use of the photograph is paramount to his practice and lends a distinctly cinematic element to his compositions. It is without question that photography, and by extension film, are at the forefront of his artistic practice as exemplified by Pistoletto’s paintings on stainless steel.
Reflecting on the origin of his mirror paintings, Pistoletto wrote in 1966, “In my mirror-paintings the dynamic reflection does not create a place, because it only reflects a place which already exists—the static silhouette does no more than re-propose an already existing place. But I can create a place by bringing about a passage between the photograph and the mirror: this place is whole time. If the film frame could carry out another movement in addition to its interrupted gesture, there would be a new time between the two movements; but this does not come about, so the film frame represents a maximum of slowness. The reflection is simultaneous with the real image—there is no time between a body and its reflection in a mirror: if the reflection occurred an instant before or after the presence of the body, it would be possible to measure the velocity of the image in becoming a reflection, but this does not happen. In the case of a mirror the image is so fast as to be body and reflection simultaneously, thus representing a maximum of speed. In the distance-in-time between the film frame (minimum velocity) and the reflection (maximum velocity), all possible places and all possible times exist. But because the two extremes coincide in the picture, we perceive, simultaneously, the cancelling of all created places and times at the moment of their creation. Past and future simply do not come into this process. All that remains of my action in any given moment are the materials and the language… Just as no space is occupied by the relationship between the silhouette and the mirror (although the entirety of existing time is suggested) so each new work comes about as though it were inside the space between the paper of the film frame and the mirror of the previous pictures. The artistic act must contain an individual dynamic system” (Michelangelo Pistoletto Minus Objects, exh cat, Geneva, 1966).