Assembled in the manner of a triptych and yet functioning as a single entity, Parnaso belongs to a series of six works completed by Giulio Paolini between 1977 and 1979 (M. Disch, Giulio Paolini: Catalogo ragionato, vol. I, Milan, 2008, n. 375, 384, 394, 395, 404, 416). Carrying the same title and structure, these works toy with the idea of pictorial perspective: presenting two trapezoid canvases, symmetrically placed at either side of a central panel, each of them creating a trompe d’oeil effect aimed at transforming three canvases into the very illusion of the space that they purport to portray.
Executed between 1977 and 1978, the present work is the only one in the Parnaso series to present the insertion of a three-dimensional object in its central panel. Jutting out of the canvas, precisely where the linear perspective of the composition converges, a wreath of laurel leaves meets the eyes of the viewer. Emerging directly from the canvas, it invites the viewer to image the existence of an ‘elsewhere‘ beyond the white, seemingly impenetrable surface of the canvas: the representational space of painting from which its image has literally ‘surfaced’. In doing so, the wreath of laurel leaves - symbol par excellence of the poet, hence the artist - seems to reiterate art’s, and more precisely painting’s mimetic power. Its three-dimensional reality, however, ultimately discredits this very claim by a parallel mechanism in which its physical presence undermines the illusory spatial construction created by the two lateral canvases. Cut into trapezoid shapes and cunningly manipulated along the edges to evoke, through nails and shadows, the impression of a receding surface, the side canvases aim to create the illusion of space, forming on the flat wall, the conventional scheme of a room perceived through linear perspective. The tactile, real spatial dimension of the wreath of laurel leaves, mockingly placed at the fulcrum of this spatial construction, inevitably discredits the make-believe dimension of the scheme, pointing to perspective’s, -and consequently painting’s - shortcomings in sustaining the illusion of representation.
It is through such discourse on perspective and illusion that Parnaso seems to establish the most interesting connection with the Classical world evoked by its title. A real mountain possessing mythological significance, the Parnassus was designed in Greek mythology as the abode of Apollo and the Muses, thus becoming the symbolic sanctuary of poetry and artistic inspiration. The reference is reinforced by the inclusion of the laurel, a plant that was sacred to Apollo. Through such direct references to the Classical world and through the work’s own focus on mimetic pictorial perspective, Paolini seems to pay homage to the Classical figure of the artist as someone able to conjure reality through the artifice of his art. Yet, it was in that same Classical world that art - especially mimetic arts such as painting - found their fiercer enemy. In his Republic, for instance, Plato mercilessly banned all arts grounded on illusion from his ideal city because of their treacherous, dangerous nature. According to the Greek philosopher, they were like ‘shadows’, agitated at the end of a dark cave to distract our gaze from the empirical world, thus impeding our knowledge of it. Looking at Parnaso, one could wonder whether it is not ultimately Plato’s suspicion for mimetic art to float in the shadow cast by the wreath of laurel leaves over the illusory space formed by three, flat, empty canvases. Affirming his detachment from mimetic art, and opening the door for a whole new set of creative possibilities, Paolini had once admitted: ‘I think I belong to that phase of contemporary art referred to as conceptual’ (G. Paolini, quoted in ‘C as in Conversation’, p. 81, in Giulio Paolini: Fuori programma, exh. cat., Bergamo, 2006).