The exhibition Paolo Gasparini. Campo de imágenes [Field of Images] that Fundación MAPFRE is bringing to Madrid, after its run in Barcelona, can be visited from June 1 to August 28 at the Sala Recoletos. The exhibition covers the entire six decades of the artist’s career, focusing on both his photographs and another of his main means of expression, the photobook, offering, overall, an itinerary through various mutant cities: Caracas, Havana, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, but also with resonances in Munich, Paris, Barcelona, Madrid and London.
TEXT: FUNDACIÓN MAPFRE CULTURE AREA
Paolo Gasparini was born in Gorizia, Italy, in 1934. To avoid military service, he moved to Caracas in 1954, with a cultural background that included profound knowledge of Italian neo-realism. Part of his family, who had emigrated voluntarily, was already in Venezuela. This included his brother Graziano, by then already a renowned architect, who gave him his first camera at the age of seventeen. He then began to dedicate himself to photographing architectural constructions, while at the same time capturing images of the capital’s suburbs. He soon began to work on UNESCO projects, in parallel with his more personal work, which he carried out in Venezuela and Cuba. As a result of this work, the book Para verte mejor, América Latina [To see you better, Latin America] (1972), considered one of the most iconic photobooks in history, was published in Mexico. In 1979, he was the first Latin American artist present at Les Recontres Internationales de la Photographie in Arles, and in 1984, with a second exhibition in Arles, he received the Les Recontres silver medal. In 1993, he was awarded the Venezuelan National Photography Prize and two years later he represented his country at the Venice Biennial.
In the past two decades he has been traveling intensively in Europe and Latin America completing series on previously opened subjects and has held numerous exhibitions based on his photographs and books, some twenty of which have been published to date.
Andata e ritorno [There and back] (1953-2016)
Andata e ritorno is the title of Paolo Gasparini’s bestknown photobook, published in Caracas by La Cueva Casa Editorial in 2019. It alludes, metaphorically, to the author’s way of working, which shatters temporality, as he revisits his series in time and creates stories in which Latin America dialogues with other latitudes and shows how the consumer society has a global impact.
The publication focuses on Gorizia and Caracas, which is like saying Italy and Venezuela, or the first and third worlds. It comprises seventy photographs printed in full bleed that connect realities of two seemingly contrasting worlds while at the same time nuancing their differences.
Rostros de Venezuela y Bobare [Faces of Venezuela and Bobare] (1956-1960)
Between 1955 and 1960, Gasparini traveled through Venezuela, first with his brother Graziano, then with his wife, the laboratory technician Franca Donda, with whom he crossed the Colombian border, traversed the highlands of the Andes and traveled through the lands in Lara state. He documented the way of life of the rural farmers and the indigenous Wayú community. He published Bobare in 1959, under the influence of one of his undisputed masters, Paul Strand, whom he met in France in 1956, describing it as “The poorest, most abandoned and most miserable village in the state of Lara.”
This, Gasparini’s first photobook, was arranged with reference to the structure of Strand’s Un paese (1955). A reportage denouncing the situation based on individual and family portraits, interior spaces and house façades, as well as texts describing the history of the village, as told by its inhabitants. The publication outlines the villagers’ plea to the President of the Republic, Rómulo Betancourt, to help this town surviving in a such a barren spot.
Between 1961 and 1965, Gasparini traveled with Franca to Havana, invited by the architect Ricardo Porro and the writer Alejo Carpentier. They toured the city and took photographs of Havana’s colonial architecture and baroque style, from which the series “La Habana, la ciudad de las columnas” [Havana, the City of Columns] (1961- 1963) was born. There he also began to portray street scenes, public rallies, carnival, and became interested in the project to establish a school of plastic arts in the city.
During his career Gasparini has returned to Cuba on several occasions, his experience is evidenced in this reflection: “[…] the Cuban Revolution, at a certain moment meant utopia, the alternative, the possibility of creating the new man and it was photographed in that sense. Today it has taken a course contrary to what we had imagined, and that generates great disappointment, bitterness and lack of credibility.”
Estudio Caracas [Caracas Studio] (1967-1970) y Karakarakas, democracia y poder [Karakarakas, democracy and power] (1967-1970)
In his work, Gasparini articulates contradictory situations into his frames, he records images within images. Sometimes he assembles them in the lab and superimposes them. He uses montage and editing as a system for producing ideas, and his narratives seek to motivate action and shock consciences.
As expected, Caracas is the focal hub of Gasparini’s work, and his photographs are linked to the sad present of a nation in which contrasts have been annihilated, leaving behind ruins and the evidence of a false welfare project.
In 2014, Gasparini published the photobook Karakarakas, structuring the narrative around archival photos: the first ones he took when he arrived in Venezuela in 1954 and images of the demonstrations against the Chavista regime in 2014. This project, says the author himself in his preface, is “an anthology of rage, of old commitment, disenchantment, but also of poetry” and in the words of Sagrario Berti in this photobook “[Gasparini] proposes a reflection on the violation of civil rights, abused and transgressed as a policy implemented by the Venezuelan State, where the 1999 Constitution, devised by Chávez, continues to be flouted.”
Retromundo (1986) is a photobook in which, aided by poetry, the author establishes a dialogue between the first and the third worlds. The first is represented through images of advertisements, slogans, passers-by in European and American cities that are reflected and multiplied in the translucent surfaces of the shop windows. In his third world there are no reflections in mirrors or glass, but rather he depicts street scenes, misery and poverty, aspects that are common in Latin American countries. By opposing images as if in a diptych, Gasparini asserts a way of working that is common in his output. The creation of a discourse that makes sense by relating something to its opposite.
Series “Acá, este cielo que vemos” [Here, this sky we see], 1971-1992; “Brasilia, dos en uno” [Brasilia, two in one], 1972-1973 and 2013; “São Paulo, la muerte del aura” [São Paulo, the death of the aura], 1997, 2013 and 2015; “Maracaibo, La Guajira y petróleo” [Maracaibo, La Guajira and oil], 1970-2017; “La calle” [The street], 1969-1999; and “El faquir de la Torre Capriles, Plaza Venezuela, Caracas” [The fakir of the Capriles Tower, Plaza Venezuela, Caracas], 1970.
In 1978, Gasparini participated in the Colloquiums of Photography held in Mexico, and later in Cuba in 1984. These meetings were the most important forum for discussion in that period. The talks dealt with topics such as the role that the photographer should assume in relation to the context in which they worked, as well as the need to create a visual project that highlighted the contradictions that can be produced by the coexistence of poverty and wealth, but without falling into dramatism or exoticism.
In this sense, Gasparini’s work is deeply respectful and reveals the harshest aspects of society, the life of miners and Andean peasants in series such as “Acá, este cielo que vemos”, but using images endowed with great dignity, such as those of mothers with taped hats tying their children into handmade blankets after long days of work in Peru.
After his experience as an architectural photographer in Caracas in 1970, UNESCO hired him, along with art critic Damian Bayon, to photograph the pre-Columbian, colonial and contemporary buildings of the continent, with a view to publishing them together with Bayon’s research (Panorámica de la arquitectura latinoamericana). As a result of this assignment, the author was able to photograph urban construction projects from Mexico to the Argentine Pampas and from Brasilia to Machu Picchu. Moreover, as Gasparini himself points out: “I strive to photograph the lives of the marginalized, of those who have nothing, and the great differences that coexist next to and around these large edifices.” These contradictions and the unjust effects of post-colonization can be contemplated in series such as “Brasilia, dos en uno” (1972-1973 and 2013); “São Paulo, la muerte del aura” (1997-2015); “Maracaibo, La Guajira y petróleo” (1970-2017) and “La calle” (1970-1999). Photographs that reflect a robust visual project that, as Sagrario Berti points out, “is far from victimizing and, quite the contrary, reflects a hostile environment, but one that is beautiful in its powerful capacity to endure”, and which supports the idea that photography should be a vehicle to denounce social injustices, one of the ethical objectives of the Colloquiums mentioned above.
One of his most recognized series is based on Plaza Venezuela in Caracas, crowned by the 60,000-square-meter Capriles Tower with a modern façade, designed by artist Jesús Rafael Soto. This element, which transforms public space into art, stands as a metaphor for the fall of the utopia of progress. A homeless man who has placed his bed in the middle of the path of those who walk by is the real focal point, and not the tower or its façade.
México-El Suplicante [The Supplicant] (1971-2015)
Since 1971, Gasparini’s trips to Mexico have been so frequent that its capital has become almost his third home. After receiving the Venezuelan National Photography Award in 1993, he was invited to be a researcher in the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana Unidad Iztapalapa, as part of Mexico City’s Urban Culture program. Since then he has toured the great metropolis on several occasions, photographing its streets and inhabitants. Over time, these sojourns have borne fruit in Letanías del polvo [Litanies of dust] (2009), an audiovisual CD that accompanies the photobook El suplicante (2010). With texts by Juan Villoro and Gasparini himself, this publication tells a story that begins with the Zapatista uprising and extends to the leader of the armed indigenous group, Subcomandante Marcos.
El ángel de la historia (1963-2018)
El ángel de la historia is a twelve-meter mural composed of 63 photographs taken in different countries that form an overview of Gasparini’s work. The title is a specific reference to the philosopher Walter Benjamin and his idea about history, which, like an angel, looks at the ruined past to reflect on and understand the environment, and denounce the non-existence of future and progress.