In yesterday's post I mentioned an exhibition at Turin's Ersel celebrating among the other photographers also Pasquale De Antonis. Readers of this site may already be familiar with him, but today let's focus on his work with a more in-depth analysis.
Rome, 1946. After the Second World War the Italian capital was slowly coming back to life. Photographer Pasquale De Antonis had just been introduced to the world of fashion and had started doing photo shoots for a few Italian magazines.
Born in Teramo in 1908, De Antonis first moved with his family to Pescara, where he opened his first studio and where he met writer Ennio Flaiano and painter Tommaso Cascella. Together with Cascella, De Antonis toured the Abruzzo region taking beautiful neorealist pictures of local villages and traditional celebrations that allowed him to be admitted at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia (Centre for Experimental Cinema) in Rome where he moved in the mid-‘30s and where he later on took over the studio that originally belonged to Futurist photographer Arturo Bragaglia.
The cluttered studio located in one of the buildings flanking the Column of the Immaculate Conception in Piazza di Spagna, soon became a sort of meeting space for artists, writers, painters, directors and show-business people who often hung around the Caffè Greco in Via Condotti.
De Antonis lived the most important period of his life in the aftermath of the war: he became a stage and set photographer for directors such as Luchino Visconti, Giorgio Strehler and Franco Zeffirelli and took beautiful portraits of iconic actors and actresses.
When sophisticated and witty fashion journalist Irene Brin opened with her husband Gaspero del Corso the art gallery L’Obelisco (The Obelisk), De Antonis started frequenting it.
From the late ‘40s on, many articles penned by Irene Brin and published on Italian fashion magazine Bellezza were indeed accompanied by De Antonis’ photographs.
The collaboration between Brin and De Antonis became of vital importance for Italian fashion: models were often photographed at The Obelisk Gallery, among paintings and sculptures, or in the Roman streets and parks, among the ruins or inside museums. It was De Antonis’ idea to dress up in a white fox fur coat by Balzani Antonio Canova’s statue of Paolina Bonaparte at the Borghese Museum and Gallery, an image that turned into an iconic and surrealist vision of art and fashion.
In De Antonis’ pictures, outfits, accessories and the women who modelled them were compared to paintings, drawings and sculptures as it happened with Ivy Nicholson, portrayed in Gattinoni’s dresses at the Villa Giulia National Etruscan Museum, the delicate features of the statues behind her looking remarkably similar to the model’s features.
Creating a blend of art, fashion, cinema, theatre and architectural design De Antonis’ photographs were the perfect synthesis between the glamorous excesses of fashion and Italian neorealism (and please, fashionistas pay attention: neorealism was born in the streets as there were no film studios and no money after the war; we could say that, just a few years ago, when the trend for street style photography started, it had a sort of "neorealist" flavour about it, but it was quickly killed by product placement and fashion designers/big brands literally "using" some of the most notorious faces of the fashion weeks as canvases to advertise their creations - interesting comparison, isn't it?).
The images collected in Turin at the Ersel, celebrate the work of the photographer and Rome’s glamorous times. The exhibition emphasises indeed the importance of De Antonis’ photographs as symbols of the Italian rebirth. His images proved the country was ready to welcome tourists and to lure them with its history and its newborn fashion industry.
Through De Antonis’ work, people were allowed to enter Rome’s dressmaking and tailoring workshops and to access the atelier of Italian designers such as Carosa, Emilio Schuberth, Fernanda Gattinoni, Sorelle Fontana, Maria Antonelli, Gabriella di Robilant, Simonetta Visconti and Alberto Fabiani.
But there was also a social element in De Antonis’ pictures: while at the very beginning aristocratic women posed for him in sumptuous outfits created by the new Italian ateliers, as the years passed, models were chosen from very different backgrounds.
Some of them were selected from the participants of beauty contests, others were young and beautiful “caterinette” (dressmakers) working for various Italian ateliers, but there were also female artists such as sculptress Maria Grazia Mariani, who posed for De Antonis in haute couture dresses along the Appia Antica, one of the most important and ancient Roman roads (last image in this post).
Despite living in a glamorous world, De Antonis disliked mundane and frivolously banal lifestyles, while he loved art, classical music and books. When Flaiano collaborated to the screenplay for Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita, he took inspiration from his friend and created his perfect antithesis with the loud and superficial photographer Paparazzo, whose name soon became the definition of a category of photographers pursuing celebrities rather than art.
One of De Antonis’ last fashion photo shoots was done in 1968 at The Obelisk Gallery during a catwalk-performance in honour of the Rome premiere of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odissey. Models were portrayed walking around the gallery, wearing Marucelli’s futuristic dresses paired with space helmets.
As the ‘60s morphed into the ‘70s and Italian fashion became more prêt-a-porter-focused, while the role of the fashion photographer radically changed, De Antonis abandoned the world of fashion to return to stage photography and kept on working until his death in 2001.
Introducing an exhibition of abstract photography by De Antonis at The Obelisk Gallery in 1957, poet Leonardo Sinisgalli described him as “a photographer of divas, goddesses, the rich and famous.” But De Antonis was more than simply that. He was a visionary artist who turned the frivolous message of fashion into one of the highest forms of art.
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