‘When I realized that someone like Pollock, although he attempted to transfer life onto canvas through action, did not succeed in taking possession of the work, which continued to escape him, remaining autonomous, and that the presence of the human figure in the painting of Bacon did not succeed in rendering a pathological vision of reality... I understood that the moment had arrived to make the laws of objective reality enter the painting’ (M. Pistoletto, quoted in G. Celant, Identité Italienne, Paris 1981, p. 81).
Executed in 1971, Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Donna che prende il te’ (Woman drinking tea) is an exquisite mirror painting depicting the nude figure of Maria Pioppi, the artist’s lifelong artistic collaborator and companion. Created in the same year that Maria gave birth to the couple’s twin daughters, in this sensual portrait the viewer catches Maria unawares, interrupting her in a moment of calm solitude. Stirring a cup of tea, she gazes downwards with her hair loosely tied away from her face to reveal the enigmatic expression of a woman lost in thought. From the moment of their first meeting in Rome in November 1967, Maria has been Pistoletto’s foremost muse and an enduring subject in her husband’s oeuvre. Infused with a sense of domestic quietude and marital contentment Donna che prende il te’ reflects Pistoletto’s deep affection for his beloved partner. The startling combination of the intimate and mundane captured in this rare portrait dissolves the boundaries between the fictive realm of artistic representation and the prosaic reality of ordinary daily life which Pistoletto sought to deconstruct with his interactive mirror paintings. Comprised solely of a thin tissue-paper image laid down over a reflective stainless-steel surface, this painting represents one of the last of Pistoletto’s much sought after tissue-paper works; from 1971 the artist abandoned the complex and painstaking process with which he had inaugurated his mirror paintings ten years earlier in favour of silkscreening directly onto the mirrored surface. Included in the artist’s first important museum exhibition at the Kestner Gesellschaft in Hanover in 1973, Donna che prende il te’ is an exceptional work that reflects the tranquil atmosphere of Pistoletto and Maria’s domestic milieu, capturing the romance of their everyday life.
Donna che prende il te’ is one of two works from 1971 that portrays Maria nude, tea cup in hand. In its partner piece, Donna nuda che beve il tè Maria is pictured standing with the vessel raised to her lips. As in the present work, her hair is pulled away from her face, several loose strands falling across her profile. In both images she is entirely unselfconscious, radiating a youthful beauty and sense of domestic calm. They are portraits that could only have been made by Pistoletto, conveying a sense of the deep love and understanding that exists between the pair. Elaborating on their relationship, in an interview with Alain Elkann over thirty years after he first met and fell in love with Maria, Pistoletto declared, ‘Maria and I are always together’ (M. Pistoletto, quoted in M. Pistoletto, A. Elkann, The Voice of Pistoletto, New York 2013, p. 175). At the same time, portrayed deep in thought, Pistoletto’s portrait underlines the fundamental unknowability of the woman with whom he shares his life, a conviction which is echoed in the major series of paintings from the late 1960s which cast Maria in an array of poses drawn from the history of fine art. Invoking a similar interpretation of Maria’s fundamentally mysterious nature, Maria nuda, 1967, depicts her reclining nude on a bed in a pose that mimics Manet’s Olympia. Facing inwards into the reflective space of the painting, Maria turns away from the viewer, forcing them into the role of voyeur. Caught in the act of staring at the naked woman, the viewer simultaneously catches sight of themselves in the reflective surface of the painting. As in all of Pistoletto’s mirror paintings the viewer is the protagonist of the painting – in this case, cast as the observer of Maria reclining in the role of Manet’s most infamous and confrontational nude. These paintings, inflected with the legacy of art history, align Maria with the elusive representation of woman throughout art history, while evoking the elevated position Maria holds in Pistoletto’s life and work.
Pistoletto’s first mirror-paintings had evolved out of a series of self-portrait studies that the artist had made in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was ‘when I realized that someone like Pollock, although he attempted to transfer life onto canvas through action, did not succeed in taking possession of the work, which continued to escape him, remaining autonomous, and that the presence of the human figure in the painting of Bacon did not succeed in rendering a pathological vision of reality,’ Pistoletto recalled, that ‘I understood that the moment had arrived to make the laws of objective reality enter the painting’ (M. Pistoletto, quoted in G. Celant, Identité Italienne, Paris 1981, p. 81). Isolated against a vast and empty vertical expanse of stainless steel, Pistoletto’s image of Maria interrogates the boundaries between the world of representation and the reflective ‘reality’ of the mirror. Plunged into a paradoxical and problematic world, the viewer seemingly both participates within the very intimate and private space of the subject and yet also remains remote and separated in an alternate space and time that nevertheless exists within the same picture frame. As is emphasized by Maria’s introspective stance in Donna che prende il te’, where she poses frozen in a single spellbound moment, totally absorbed in her own thoughts, Pistoletto’s subjects inhabit an entirely different realm from that of the viewer. The ‘true protagonist’ of these works, Pistoletto later wrote, ‘was the relationship of instantaneousness that was created between the spectator, his own reflection, and the painted figure, in an ever-present movement that concentrated the past and the figure in itself to such an extent as to cause one to call their very existence into doubt: it was the dimension of time itself’ (M. Pistoletto, quoted in Minus Objects, exh. cat., Galleria La Bertesca, Genoa, 1966, unpaged). Yet, appearing, as she does, throughout her husband’s oeuvre in a variety of different guises drawn from the canon of art history, Maria offers a further dimension to the work. She represents a timeless image, immortalized in the eternal temporal space of painting. While the contemporaneity of the viewer may bring the image into the present moment, Maria’s inner world remains uninterrupted by her audience, whose voyeuristic intrusion is unable to infiltrate her private sphere.