In Domenico Gnoli's Branche de cactus, painted in 1967, a seemingly everyday object, a cactus branch, has been elevated through the artist's unique perspective and is presented as a gargantuan, swelling object. It is beautiful in an awe-inspiring, revelatory way and yet revels in a highly playful sense of the uncanny thanks to the swelling and distortion that the cactus appears to have undergone. Now, it stretches across almost the entire breadth of the metre-and-a-half canvas, painted with an incredible attention to detail in the painstaking manner that Gnoli used in his greatest and most popular works. Branche de cactus, which featured in two of his most important lifetime exhibitions at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels and the Kestner-Gesellschaft in Hanover, both in 1968, perfectly demonstrates Gnoli's incredible ability to transform the world around him and imbue it with a new, magical potentiality, revealing the mysterious beauty that lurks in even the most humdrum corners of our lives and which it is all too easy to overlook. It is for this reason that Gnoli turned his sights towards such details as a shirt and tie, a bed, a desk, a high-heeled shoe and indeed a branch of cactus.
Because of the transformation to which Gnoli submitted his subjects, magnifying ad absurdum the incidental details of our lives, Gnoli's work can be seen as a parallel to the developments that were occurring on both sides of the Atlantic but in particular in the United States under the banner of Pop Art. Of all the Pop Artists, perhaps Gnoli is closest in affinity to Roy Lichtenstein, as both developed meticulous and time-consuming means of working that showcased their incredible perfectionism, as is clearly the case in Branche de cactus. However, Lichtenstein's works were based on the media, on the presentation of images, on the way that they are read, whereas Gnoli was a more mystical character, interested in the more enduring and universal aspects of the world around us. This was observed by Stéphane Rey in a review of the show in Brussels in which Branche de cactus featured: 'This is a long way from Pop Art, thanks to an intelligence and interior poetry of an extreme ambiguity' (S. Rey, quoted in Domenico Gnoli: Ultimas Obras 1963-1969, exh. cat., Madrid, 1990, p. 68).
While the cropping of the image and the zooming in on the subject in Branche de cactus and others in Gnoli's oeuvre reveals a media-savvy eye on the part of the artist, he was using his own experiences as an illustrator to create his poetic visions. The language of the iconic interested him, but not those aspects of commerce and commercial art that appealed to his American contemporaries. Instead, Gnoli mined a rich wealth of visual erudition and personal memories as well as the fresh perspective with which he himself viewed the world in his search for subject matter. In the case of Branche de cactus, this is all the more clear as the cactus that Gnoli has painted on such a vast scale, a gigantic specimen over a metre across, was based on an eighteenth-century still life that he himself had acquired in Palma, near his home at Deyà on Majorca. Gnoli felt himself very much the heir of the Old Masters,
'I was born knowing that I would be a painter, because my father, an art critic, always presented painting as the only thing acceptable. He pointed me towards classical Italian painting, against which I rebelled soon enough. However I never lost a Renaissance sense of taste and craft.' (Gnoli, quoted in ibid., p. 28).
Gnoli was knowingly tapping into the history of art, a history in which he was himself steeped, as the son of a major museum director and the grandson of a poet who had helped to found one of Italy's important arts journals during the Nineteenth Century. In Branche de cactus, the influence of the Old Masters can be seen in the handling of the light on the cactus, which recalls Masaccio and Piero della Francesca. Gnoli also shows a concern with the mystery and poetry of the everyday object that links him both to the epiphanic paintings of René Magritte and to the Pittura Metafisica of Giorgio de Chirico, whose timeless images of Italian piazzas and also of fruit aimed to introduce a heady and intoxicating sense of Stimmung, a Nietzschean atmosphere, that is related to Branche de cactus. However, Gnoli's work is relieved by its playful character, which perhaps reflected his continuing work as an illustrator. At the same time, the floor and the dots on the surface of the canvas appear to give a wry and knowing nod to the Op Art that was developing around this time. Those details, though, also highlight the fantastical incongruity of the picture and its subject matter alike: the cactus has been magnified in such a way that it has been pushed towards abstraction, and the materiality of its surface manages both to emphasise this while also adding a tangible quality that blurs the boundaries between our world and that of this giant cactus.
Gnoli himself greatly anticipated the exhibitions that took place the year after Branche de cactus was painted, in which it featured. They were a mark of his recognition, and he appreciated this, writing in 1967 about his forthcoming show: 'In May I am exhibiting again at the Kestner Gesellschaft of Hanover which is considered the most important thing that can happen to a painter in Europe... So I am pleased' (Gnoli, quoted in ibid., p. 66). He was doubtless gratified by the plaudits that the exhibitions received, for instance Paul Caso, who wrote of the Brussels show in terms that cut to the heart of Gnoli's spell-binding aesthetic strategy: 'We are inclined to think that the show of work by Domenico Gnoli at the Palais des Beaux Arts constitutes an event. In any case, it is rare for an avant-garde collection to derange so profoundly, by means of an unsettling simplicity which achieves such perfect results' (P. Caso, quoted in ibid., p. 68). WP