‘The mirror paintings could not live without an audience. They were created and re-created according to the movement and to the interventions they reproduced. The step from the mirror paintings to theatre—everything is theatre—seems simply natural…. It is less a matter of involving the audience, of letting it participate, as to act on its freedom and on its imagination, to trigger similar liberation mechanisms in people’ (M. Pistoletto, interview with G. Boursier, in Sipario, Milan, April 1969, p. 17).
‘The step from the mirror paintings to theatre – everything is theatre – seems simply natural... It is less a matter of involving the audience, of letting it participate, as to act on its freedom and on its imagination, to trigger similar liberation mechanisms in people’ (M. Pistoletto, quoted in ‘Interview with G. Boursier’, in Sipario, April 1969, p. 17).
‘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).
Extending over two and a half metres in length, Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Donna nuda che avvita una lampadina (Nude woman affixing a light bulb), 1968, is an important early mirror-painting depicting the nude figure of Maria Pioppi: his life-long artistic collaborator and companion. Standing alone against a vast, empty reflective field, she reaches upwards to affix a light bulb. Comprised solely of a thin tissue-paper image laid down over a reflective stainless-steel surface, the work is one of a major series of early mirror-paintings in which Pistoletto brilliantly reinvented images from the history of fine art, casting Maria in a series of famous poses. Created during the politically turbulent era of the late 1960s and early 1970s, these works used the fluid borderlessness of Pistoletto’s mirror-painting concept to break down the apparent boundaries between the fictive, representational world of fine art and the dynamic but mundane reality of ordinary daily life.
‘The purpose and the result of my mirror paintings,’ Pistoletto claimed around this time, ‘was to carry art to the edges of life in order to verify the entire system in which both of them functions. After this, there remains only one choice. On the one hand there is the possibility of a monstrous involution and a return to the system of doubling and conflict, and, on the other-hand there is the possibility of revolution and of leaving the system altogether. One can bring art into life – but no longer in terms of metaphor’ (M. Pistoletto, le ultime parole famose (The Famous Last Words), Turin 1967).
In the first of this series of works appropriating famous images of the past, made shortly after Pistoletto had first met Maria in Rome in November 1967, Pistoletto depicted her reclining naked on a bed in a pose that mimics Manet’s Olympia. This painting, Maria nuda of 1967, did so, however, in such a way that Maria’s back is turned to the viewer while she faces inwards into the reflective space of the painting. The idea was that the viewer would then catch sight of their own reflected image standing in the space of the mirror-painting and caught in the act of looking at this provocative nude. As in all of Pistoletto’s mirror paintings therefore, 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. This mirror-painting of Maria was first exhibited at Pistoletto’s first solo show in Rome held at the L’Attico Gallery in February 1968. For this exhibition, the entire gallery had been transformed into a fantasy environment using stage sets from the nearby Cinecitta film studios and, in a move that marked the couple’s shared and expanding interest in the theatricality of life, viewers were encouraged to dress up in costume in order observe the mirror-paintings on show. In another of these mirror paintings involving the nude figure of his wife, Pistoletto depicted Maria standing facing the viewer in the dramatic pose adopted by Meret Oppenheim in Man Ray’s famous photograph of her standing naked at a printer’s wheel. In Donna nuda che avvita una lampadina, made during the turbulent, revolutionary year of 1968, the pose adopted by Maria evokes the central figure of Paul Gauguin’s most famous painting D’où venons nous? Que sommes nous? Où allons nous?
Like this epic and monumental work, Donna nuda che avvita una lampadina also explores an existential theme but in a far more mundane context than Gauguin’s elaborate Tahitian panorama. While Maria’s pose and positioning is almost identical to that of the central figure in Gauguin’s painting holding aloft a shell, in this work she is shown performing a deliberately banal household task. Like his representations of pot-plants, lamps and other household objects that had dominated many of his mirror-paintings during the period 1964-66, the domestic image of a light bulb had made a previous appearance in Pistoletto’s mirror paintings, featuring alone in a memorable mirror-painting from 1964 owned by Robert Rauschenburg.
In Donna nuda che avvita una lampadina – in a move that is a startling combination of the intimate and the mundane – Pistoletto sets Maria alone against a vast and empty horizontal expanse of polished stainless steel. In this way, the viewer becomes a spectator, intruder and voyeur of this simple domestic scene. Their own isolated and animate presence confronts directly with the static and exposed naked figure. The viewers are here caught in the act of observing the naked woman and, simultaneously, are themselves revealed in their own existential isolation against the sparse setting of this simple, unaffected domestic scene. It is in this deliberately understated way and at a crucial time of political transition and upheaval in Italy, during the 1968 riots and protests, that Pistoletto brilliantly invokes a new, distinctly modern take on the same timeless questions about humanity posed by Gauguin’s masterpiece: ‘Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going?’
‘The mirror paintings could not live without an audience’ Pistoletto said, not long after this work was made. ‘They were created and re-created according to the movement and to the interventions they reproduced. The step from the mirror paintings to theatre – everything is theatre – seems simply natural... It is less a matter of involving the audience, of letting it participate, as to act on its freedom and on its imagination, to trigger similar liberation mechanisms in people’ (M. Pistoletto, interview with G. Boursier, in Sipario, Milan, April 1969, p. 17).