‘The symbolism behind the object (shoe, for example) is perfectly explicit and should be taken largely in its most simple erotic sense’ (Y. Vu, ‘Rome, 3 May 1933, New York, April 1970’, quoted in Domenico Gnoli: òltimas Obras, 1963-1969, exh. cat., Madrid, 1990, p. 74).
‘I am doing this because this is what really happens deep inside you! You begin looking at things, and they look just fne, as normal as ever; but then you look for a while longer and your feelings get involved and they begin changing things for you and they go on and on till you don’t see the house any longer, you only see them, I mean your feelings, and that’s why you see this mess’ (D. Gnoli, quoted in Domenico Gnoli, exh. cat., Palazzina dei Giardini, Modena, 2001, p. 13).
An exquisitely executed painting of the interior of a shoe, Domenico Gnoli’s Inside of Lady’s Shoe is a master class in the microscopic observations that the Italian artist was best known for. One of Gnoli’s most intriguing and revisited subjects, this painting is unique for its internal depiction of a woman’s shoe. Included in Gnoli’s inaugural exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery, New York, in December 1969, Inside of Lady’s Shoe belongs to a body of work that brought the artist signifcant exposure and critical acclaim mere months before his untimely death in 1970. Since the mid-1960s Gnoli had increasingly looked to the lesscelebrated corners of everyday life for inspiration, but in 1969 he mastered a style that for its virtuoso technique and entrancing close ups made him one of the most signifcant fgures within the Italian artistic panorama of the Post-War years. Presenting magnifed, distilled details of clothes, furniture and objects, Gnoli abstracted these elements into hypnotic surfaces of continuous textures and patterns that hover somewhere between truth and fction, converting the micro into the macro and ordinary into the extraordinary. Exploring the parameters of representational and abstract painting, his magnifying vision is at once intimate and remote, obsessive and distant. Expressing Gnoli’s poetic vision, Inside of Lady’s Shoe is a work that springs from a sense of wonder at the artist’s own everyday universe, prompting a re-evaluation of our own understanding of the world through its uncannily familiar form. Extravagantly enlarged and from an aerial perspective, Inside of Lady’s Shoe strips the fgurative object of all context. With painstaking precision Gnoli weaves sand through the paint in an almost tangible interpretation of stiff new leather. This illusionistic depiction is a triumph in metamorphosis: curving voluptuously, the two-tone leather undulates in opposition to the direction of the insole’s stitching, giving way to the intricately rendered wooden footbed. In meticulous detail Gnoli conjures up the grain of wood and the shiny black leather of the inner heel of the shoe, creating an extraordinary visual textural juxtaposition.
A key theme in his catalogue of inanimate objects, Gnoli had more than once depicted shoes: a female shoe viewed in profle (Scarpa vista di proflo, 1966, Ludwig Museum, Cologne); a male shoe perceived in motion the sole rises from the ground (Sous la chaussure, 1967, Private Collection); stilettos, neatly paired and seen from behind (Lady’s Feet, 1969, Von der Heydt-Museum, Wuppertal). The penultimate work of the artist’s life depicted the tip of a pointed female shoe (Pointed Shoe, 1969, Private Collection). Gnoli’s fascination with shoes resonates with ideas of fetishism and the subconscious that were central to Freudian psychoanalysis. Writing on the subject, the artist’s second wife Yannick Vu suggested: ‘The symbolism behind the object (shoe, for example) is perfectly explicit and should be taken largely in its most simple erotic sense’ (Y. Vu, ‘Rome, 3 May 1933, New York, 17 April 1970’, quoted in Domenico Gnoli: òltimas Obras, 1963-1969, exh. cat., Madrid, 1990, p. 74). The inanimate object is animated by its association with human intervention: with its understated eroticism, the shoe becomes a metonym for a woman. During his life, Gnoli expressed a vivid interest in psychoanalysis. In the late 1950s he regularly visited St. Luke’s Hospital as a volunteering therapist, helping patients to express their obsessions and traumas through drawings. Adopting this practice, Gnoli must have been familiar with the work of the Surrealists, who had championed the method half a century before in order to unleash the unconscious into their art. Inevitably, shoes played a crucial role for the Surrealists too: in L’ Amour fou, André Breton’s unconscious is unlocked by the vision of a spoon transforming into a slipper, while Salvador Dalí’s mechanical sculpture, Scatological Object Functioning Symbolically (1931) used a lady’s red shoe to trigger the object into action.
Credited with reinventing the fgurative tradition in painting at a time when non-representational aesthetics dominated both Italian and American art, the metaphysical complexity of Gnoli’s macroscopic details challenged the prevailing artistic movements of Arte Povera and Minimalism in the 1960s. 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. The son of an art historian, Gnoli was deeply infuenced by the Italian Quattrocento tradition. ‘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 fltered 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). Gnoli’s work neatly synthesises the past and present, fusing an artistic language rooted in examples from the Renaissance with a proliferation of the contemporary mass-made. Speaking of the present work, the Italian art historian Dario Micacchi invokes this wide frame of reference, describing the inside of a lady’s shoe as ‘a mysterious cavity visited by light as though in the Annunciation and which brings to mind the metaphysical cavities of Giorgio Morandi’ (D. Micacchi, quoted in Gnoli, exh. cat., Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Rome, 1987, p. 29).
Gnoli’s insistence on the world of objects – devoid of any integral human presence – nevertheless struck a chord with the realism of Pop Art, seemingly catapulting the artist into the contemporary art world of his day. Pop artists such as Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol were shaping their sculptures and flling their canvases with larger than life objects, borrowing from the sensational language of advertising and turning these symbols of mass consumption into overwhelming and estranged icons. While Pop Art – cynically or not – pointed at the charms and faws of the new consumerist society, Gnoli’s art remained, nonetheless, centred around those very textiles, clothes and accessories which consumerism was about to replace with cheap, expendable substitutes. While seemingly concerned with the bourgeois trappings of everyday life, Gnoli’s art investigates the inherent meaning that their amplifcation exposes, fnding the emotionally identifable in the abstraction of the ordinary: ‘I am doing this because this is what really happens deep inside you! You begin looking at things, and they look just fne, as normal as ever; but then you look for a while longer and your feelings get involved and they begin changing things for you and they go on and on till you don’t see the house any longer, you only see them, I mean your feelings, and that’s why you see this mess’ (D. Gnoli, quoted in Domenico Gnoli, exh. cat., Palazzina dei Giardini, Modena, 2001, p. 13).