Art, film, fashion, literature and comics often influence one another, but they rarely appear reunited all together in the same work. Yet there is an Italian comic book in which strong inspirations from such different disciplines are intertwined one with the other. The comic in question is Valentina by artist and illustrator Guido Crepax (1933-2003).
An exhibition that recently opened in Rome, "Guido Crepax: Valentina Movie", curated by the Crepax Archive and by Italian journalist Vincenzo Mollica, analyses the art, architecture, fashion and film references in the comic book.
Born in Milan in 1933, Crepax was an architect and first started working as an illustrator, creating artworks for magazines, record covers, adverts and books and giving life to Valentina in 1965.
Originally Valentina was a secondary character in a story published on Linus magazine and entitled "Neutron" focusing on a male protagonist, Philip Rembrandt, an art critic with special powers. Pretty soon, thanks to her sensuality and charm, Valentina, stole the scene winning the readers' hearts.
Valentina was based on the author’s fascination with Louise Brooks (who also obsessed another famous Italian, director Michelangelo Antonioni...): Crepax had a picture of Brooks on his desk and moved from her hairstyle when he first came up with the look for his heroine. Legend goes that Crepax’s wife, maybe jealous about his husband’s admiration for the actress, had her hair cut in the same style of the silent movie icon.
Living in Milan at the address of her creator, Valentina has a partner (but she’s not married) and a son and works as a fashion photographer, a rather revolutionary job for a woman in those times.
Her life, though, is constantly suspended between reality and imagination and her mind is often overtaken by dreams, visions and hallucination, while her adventures are infused with a healthy dose of eroticism and surrealism.
Valentina charmed many intellectuals and artists and was admired by both male and female readers: men loved her because she represented the quintessential erotic dream and obviously found irresistible her silk lingerie; women liked her because she was transgressive and independent symbol of emancipation and of the many battles women fought and won between the ‘60s and the ‘70s.
These were just the most interesting aspects of the story on a content level, but Crepax radically revolutionalised his stories also on a visual level. Maybe inspired by the precision of an architect drawing a building, he designed extremely detailed strips, then he physically destroyed and deconstructed them, allowing his characters to get out of the restricted spaces dedicated to them and giving the comic page a new architecture, referencing artists such as René Magritte, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Piet Mondrian, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol.
The Rome exhibition moves from the illustrator’s main muse, Louise Brooks: in the very first room a black and white video shows the silent movie actress recounting how one day she received a mysterious book from Italy.
Soon the actress and Crepax started writing each other (the letters have been recently published in book format in Italy): in one of her missives, Brooks praised Crepax for capturing her essence and transposing it on his page, and thanked him for finally giving peace to her troubled heart and reconciling the actress with her inner self.
The next section looks instead at a vitally important point, time and space in this innovative comic strip structure.
Valentina is indeed one and many: she is a photographer, but she is also the protagonist of hundreds of different adventures that bring her back and forth through time and space.
The passing of time was represented also visually by Crepax: when Valentina first appeared in Italian magazines and books, she dressed in clothes by French designers, Paco Rabanne included.
When Milan turned into the capital of Italian ready-to-wear, Valentina moved onto Armani, Krizia, Missoni and Valentino, while her models often resembled real fashion icons such as Veruschka.
The fashion section of the exhibition also includes two rare Pop Art scarves Crepax designed in the ‘60s for La Rinascente department stores.
This section also introduces the part of the exhibition dedicated to the secondary female characters in the Valentina stories and to the attention Crepax paid to the tiniest details of their attires and looks, using his strips to zoom in on his characters like Valentina zoomed in with her camera on her models.
A video installation continues the exploration of the theme of space: Crepax didn’t like to travel, but he considered himself a motionless traveller capable of reaching places as far as Milan, Venice, Rome, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin or New York through his imagination, without moving from his desk.
The second floor opens with the more commercial sides of Crepax’s work with his adverts for Dunlop tyres and Terital textiles and with a series of products - including bikinis, T-shirts and jewellery – dedicated to Valentina and created by various fashion houses and brands (Iceberg’s Spring/Summer 2012 collection featured a few tops with Valentina’s face).
Crepax's comic book had the same fragmented rhythms of jazz and the author also used to be a fan of Charles Mingus, Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman among the others, so it's only natural to find here a room dedicated to Valentina and jazz (even though this section may have been expanded a bit).
One of the most interesting parts on this second floor is the recreation of the author’s studio, with a wooden desk that originally belonged to his grandfather, an armchair for him and an Eames chair for his visitors, his pens, quills and inks, scattered razor blades and Schoeller paper.
Fans of the most visionary and fantastic pages of Crepax’s comics will instead enjoy the very last two rooms, one dedicated to psychedelic and dream-like storylines and hallucinations, the other looking at the influence of sci-fi/fantasy/horror in Crepax, with installations that mix illustrations with famous films.
The author actually created futuristic costumes reminiscent of ancient Japanese armours for his heroine and, in some cases, he even managed to anticipate the visions of the future directors such as Kubrick and Lucas had in later years.
There are no explicit references in the exhibition to Corrado Farina’s Baba Yaga (1973) and to the TV series, shot in 1988 and starring Demetra Hampton as the main character, or to further influences in design, such as Giuseppe Canevese’s furniture pieces decorated with Valentina comics.
Yet there are enough original sketches, comic pages, video installations and black and white documentaries to entertain Valentina’s fans and to remind those visitors who may not be too familiar with Crepax that he was and remains one of the most influential European comic artists in the second half of the 20th century.
Guido Crepax: Valentina Movie, Palazzo Incontro, via dei Prefetti 12, Rome, Italy, until 30th September (note: you can get a discounted entry even with a basic bus/metro ticket, very handy if you're a tourist hanging around Rome for just a few days).
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