Domenico Gnoli’s Wonderland

Enfant prodige, stage designer, illustrator, internationally renowned painter. An exhibition at Fondazione Prada celebrates the artist’s unique way of looking at details and turning them into works of art.

“Oh, how I wish I could shut up like a telescope! I think I could, if I only knew how to begin.” For, you see, so many out-of-the-way things had happened lately, that Alice began to think very few things indeed were really impossible.

Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll’s famous novel, is a matter of perception, details, size and dimensions, a dream world that is very, very close to the one that Fondazione Prada in Milan has chosen to explore and show to the general public through the works of Domenico Gnoli, on display from 28 October to 27 February 2022.

Domenico, son of the ceramist Annie de Garrou and the well-known art historian Umberto Gnoli, was born in Rome in 1933. He turned out to be an enfant prodige who held his very first exhibition when he was only seventeen years old. In the 1950s, he worked both as a stage designer for theatres in London and Paris, and as an illustrator for various newspapers. Gnoli then moved to New York and began to work mainly as a painter, developing the style and creating the works of art that made him the hyperrealist artist everyone appreciates today. It was in New York that, after a brief illness, he died prematurely at the age of 37.

Domenico Gnoli, Red Dress Collar, 1969, acrylic and sand on canvas Private collection, Rome © Domenico Gnoli, by SIAE 2021

Weaves of fabrics, a collar, a pocket, a sleeve, a tie knot, the parting of the hair, the shapes of bodies articulated by drapery, women’s shoes that, seen from behind, are totally distorted by their sensuality. A world, the world seen from the detail, the detail that becomes a work of art, an infinitely small detail that represents the world.

This is Domenico Gnoli’s pictorial universe, and his theoretical proposal. An intelligence that offers a point of view that is absolutely negligible and yet exists, made up of forms that are small in appearance or absolutely large depending on the point of view and on who or what is observing them. Absolutely private, subjective, personal, almost voyeuristic perspectives.

“Sometimes I try to concentrate on the story I would like to write, and I realize that what interests me is something else entirely or, rather, not anything precise but everything that does not fit in with what I ought to write–the relationship between a given argument and all its possible variants and alternatives, everything that can happen in time and space. This is a devouring and destructive obsession, which is enough to render writing impossible. In order to combat it, I try to limit the field of what I have to say, divide it into still more limited fields, then subdivide these again, and so on and on. Then another kind of vertigo seizes me, that of the detail of the detail of the detail, and I am drown into the infinitesimal, the infinitely small, just as I was previously lost in the infinitely vast...”

Domenico Gnoli, Due dormienti, 1966, acrylic and sand on canvas Private Collection © Domenico Gnoli, by SIAE 2021

Italo Calvino in Six Memos for the Next Millennium seems to interpret perfectly the feeling of the works of this extraordinary artist who does not draw inspiration from the tradition, and expresses the feeling of his art through his obsessions. 

Works that specify an absolutely new theme. We could also describe it as original, but this would be a wrong definition, as Gnoli’s point of view is absolutely ordinary - only more careful and extraordinary.

I always employ simple, given elements, I don’t want either to add or take anything away. I have never even wanted to deform; I isolate and represent (Domenico Gnoli)

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