'You begin looking at things, and they look just fine, 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' (Gnoli, Appunti per un testo incompleto, 1968, quoted in Walter Guadagnini, 'Domenico Gnoli', pp.7-27 of Domenico Gnoli, exh.cat., Milan, 2001, p.13).
Domenico Gnoli's most celebrated paintings are detailed, focussed close-ups of the landscape of our everyday lives. Painted in 1964, La robe rouge is one of the earliest of these paintings and dates from the inception of this new visual idiom, which would be Gnoli's primary focus for the rest of his life, until his career was cut short by his untimely death in 1970. It is a mark of the importance of La robe rouge that it has featured in many of the exhibitions dedicated to the artist, including the important one-man show he was given by André Schoeller at the end of 1964. It was owned by the author Frédéric Dard, famous for the police novels he wrote under the pseudonym San-Antonio. Gnoli was one of Dard's favourite artists; while they did not meet during Gnoli's lifetime, it is a mark of Dard's reverence that he was thrilled in later years to meet the painter's mother. Gnoli was also mentioned in one of Dard's later novels, Le mari de Léon.
Gnoli had long had an eye for the absurd, and this was conspicuous in his prize-winning illustrations as well as his paintings. Until the beginning of 1964, these could often be seen to have an overtly capricious quality that some people linked to Surrealism; however, with the new zoom-like focus on details from the world surrounding him that he pioneered in 1964, Gnoli forged a new, unique, idiosyncratic path. Already, his earlier works had been slowly progressing towards the exclusion of extraneous details, as was visible in his 1963 painting La robe grise; while that work focussed on the dress, though, the body and head of its wearer remained visible. In La robe rouge, Gnoli has focussed on a particular section of his subject's clothed torso, filling the entire composition with her breasts, arms and hips as well as a segment of her arms. The voluptuous and exaggerated curves of her voluminous body are accentuated by the various folds and plays of light depicted in the abstract patterning of the material in which she is enshrouded. Gnoli's own enthusiasm for the subject matter is clear, and it is no surprise to find that he returned to similar depictions of women's torsos several times during the following years.
The new work that Gnoli was producing during this period had already gained the attention of the dealer André Schoeller, who arranged for the breakthrough one-man show that took place at the end of 1964 and featured La robe rouge. Despite complaining that the art world and the market in particular had been in the doldrums at that point, Gnoli's show met with great success both in terms of the enthusiastic reviews and the resulting contracts he signed with Jan Krugier of Geneva and Mario Tazzoli, the owner of the Galleria Galatea in Turin.
Looking at La robe rouge, it is easy to see why Gnoli's work met with such success, not least because it openly reveals why his work has sometimes been compared both to the Surrealists and to Pop Art. The configuration of the composition, with the breasts and the pit between the thighs, resembles René Magritte's iconic 1934 painting, Le viol, which substituted those areas of a nude body for facial features. At the same time, the intensity of focus in La robe rouge echoes the celebration of the everyday, using the deliberately restrained iconography of striking advertising images, aligns the picture with those of, say, Andy Warhol, as does the choice of material from the world around us. But both of these comparisons are far too restrictive, ignoring both the incredible, potent poetry of Gnoli's late paintings and their painstaking execution.
Gnoli's work comes from a sensibility that is at once linked to the atmosphere prevalent in Europe and its avant garde at the time, and yet runs against its current. The fantastic attention to detail shown in his manipulation of the abstract paisley that engulfs this woman's form reveals his continued reverence for the Old Masters, and to the Renaissance tradition in particular, recalling some of the sumptuous fabrics that have been shown in the fifteenth-century altarpieces of his native Italy. This incredibly emphatic figuration is in stark contrast to the abstraction and Informel favoured by so many of his contemporaries and close predecessors. In this sense, the fabric of La robe rouge can even be seen as a riposte to the pleated fabric of the Achromes of Piero Manzoni. At the same time, the atmosphere of La robe rouge is wholly European: it appears to have its precedents in the Stimmung, the atmosphere of revelatory timelessness, of the Pittura Metafisica of Giorgio de Chirico. At the same time, the lurching focus of this gargantuan vision of a large woman's middle section recalls Gnoli's interest in Jonathan Swift's discussions of scale in Gulliver's Travels and the necessary conclusion, as evoked in Gulliver's encounter of a towering colossus of a man in the land of Brobdingnag, that the size of one object is only perceived relative to another.
In terms of more recent literature, La robe rouge also explores similar territory to Jean-Paul Sartre's La nausée and in particular its vivid description of the feelings induced by its narrator's feelings on observing the gnarled roots of a chestnut tree. Gnoli's fascination for the epiphany that could be produced by showing the overlooked features of the world in a lurching, opulent, overspilling focus that surpasses the normal limits of clarity uses the absurd as a means to reveal the sublime in reality.
While there is a great timelessness about Gnoli's painting which reflects the universality of its concerns, La robe rouge is also firmly rooted in the modern era. The paisley design of the dress resembles a configuration of atoms, implying that Gnoli is tapping into the very fabric of existence. Indeed, the individual elements recall the appearance of blood cells under a microscope. And that sense of the atomic composition of the woman is heightened by the use of sand within the paint, a distinctive technique that Gnoli used as it gives the surface more texture, more substance. It invokes the sense of touch as well as that of sight, it hints at the composition of all things, and it also means that Gnoli has woven into the very fabric of his painting the sands of time.