Tag Archives: tradition

A jewel once you say so. A conversation between Christoph Zellweger and Manuel Castro Caldas , 1999

(Zellweger is a contemptory jewelry artist and Caldas is an art historian, curator, critic of contemporary art, art director. This interview was also taken from klimt02)

Manuel Castro Caldas – Looking at your work in retrospect, the first idea that comes to mind is that you belong to a specific family of contemporary jewellers, whose authors position themselves very bluntly within the tradition of jewellery as a craft, while questioning certain of its basic principles and premises: value and worth, function and aesthetics, what is jewellery, what it once was, what can it be tomorrow…. Do you feel that you’re part of this family?

Christoph Zellweger – Definitely…!

mcc – What about tradition? You make works of jewellery and I am thinking, for example, of the critical posture that led some painters to not make paintings…

cz – You can not make a painting without reference to painting, not jewellery either without reference to jewellery and relating the jewellery itself to the body. But you can reject, be critical with one’s own tradition. It’s just that at certain times, rejection is an option. Radical rejection of what came before is a creative option.

mcc – Do you feel this is still possible now?

cz – Things have changed. Twenty years ago there was a discussion going on among some contemporary jewellery artists in Holland and Germany about whether gold should even be used anymore, because gold was in the midst of a political crossfire in conjunction with the South African system of apartheid. Naturally that was a question of ethics, etc., but it also had to do with jewellery itself and it had a lasting effect on our self-understanding and the way we continue to use non-precious materials now. Today we are moved by very different topics, although, again, this involves ethics and political postulates. Currently, more jewellery makers are thinking about the body, which is being altered and manipulated more and more for medical and aesthetic reasons.

mcc – Some of your recent work addresses that question. You use expanded polystyrene as a material for jewellery, you form body parts or you chrome-plate bone-shaped pieces made of gold. In all of your work, I see this recurring idea of hidden materials, things that are not exactly what they seem to be at first glance.

cz – Now since CNN and Dolly, it really is not so easy to say anymore what is what, what is real. Manipulation is all around us. It has become a serious question, whether you should spend a huge amount of money on gold jewellery with lots of diamonds, or whether you should have your nose straightened or fat suctioned out or have your hip joints renovated for preventive reasons… I think people accept that now that the body does not have to stay as it is and are willing to also invest in improving their bodies, in cultivating their appearance, the way they used to do especially through the medium of jewellery. A more perfect body increases status?

mcc – Do you see a certain aesthetic appeal in the implanting of silicone cushions or metal parts in the body, rather like the jewel within?

cz – These parts themselves are often quite beautiful. Through an uncle, who is a casualty surgeon, I obtained a number of second-hand models. They are made with great precision and skill; they really are exquisite objects made of special high-grade steel alloys to be inserted in the body. But in order for it to be jewellery, there has to be a conscious intention about it. My works are not intended to be inserted into the body, and I have nothing to do with plastic surgery either. Yet I relate my work to the body, to the parts and shapes of the body, to whatever in our society is becoming technically possible, imaginable, feasible, and of course also to the aesthetics of these implants. Years ago, the jewellery artist Peter Skubic was already experimenting with objects under the skin. Currently an American sculptor is implanting arched steel forms directly under the skin…

mcc – We’ve come a long way since Otto Künzli’s “gold makes you blind”, that famous piece where a golden ball was hidden in a rubber bracelet.(1)

cz – That was a crucial, an important piece. He rendered the issue of value visible by hiding the actual precious material. Of course the gold is still there, but it is not the visible material value that is enticing, it’s rather the elaboration of the theme that is attractive and has been implemented in a wonderfully aesthetic way. I do see an analogy here to the steel implants, where value and beauty are hidden in the body.

mcc – Your work seems to deny ‘mere’ form, but one would not call it conceptual either, in the strict sense of the word. Your pieces show that they’re made with the utmost care, incorporating a great deal of care and attention to detail, to the craft. However, you’re also not a technician…

cz – The challenge is to implement the ideas in such a way that more is created than is actually visible. I am interested in a kind of ambiguity; … nothing can really be seen in only one way and no other. … I am also interested in crossing the borders to other disciplines. The borders between design, fashion and politics, art and philosophy are not static. There is movement at the margins, the boundaries are constantly being shifted, torn down and rebuilt. These boundaries interest me because something is happening there. Jewellery can be very much oriented to function and design, very expressive and personal, but it may also be conceptual – an idea. Jewellery touches on the whole spectrum; it can be anything – for the person who wears it or possesses it.

mcc – In many aspects, you seem to approach the question of meaning and significance like an anthropologist. It has to do with use. What do you see is the role of the body? How does the jewel work as a sign on the body? Why and when and how do people wear it – and is that important?

cz – It is important. I have some kind of a potential wearer in mind, someone with a certain attitude, who wants to get something out of the piece. But it’s never related to status, it relates to something much more personal. You wear the jewel or you hold the object and you behave different, you change your attitude… The object generates this tension, for yourself – but also for others.

mcc – Why do you need this ‘powerful’ object in the first place? Do you wear it (or make it) because it’s missing in the world? And it’s powerful because it refers to what is missing?

cz – Someone told me a story about this guy who bought a picture and then he hung it the other way around, turned to the wall, because it was too confrontational, too strong. But it had to be there, it was important. I think the oldest jewel must have been a piece that someone just wanted to carry around – close to the body – wanting it as something that was of significance to him or her – something that would give power. It can do so in the most subtle ways.

mcc – I’ve mentioned before that your pieces are very carefully done, that obviously incorporates labour. But they end up looking very economical, very light, in the sense that we don’t see the hard labour hammered into the piece. The craft is respectful of whatever – whatever else – is already there…

cz – If you don’t see the making, then it’s all right. I don’t like when the craft gets in the way… you did it, the work must go beyond the labour…

mcc – Six years ago you worked with Lego blocks and honeycomb in an installation in Austria, now you work with steel and with polystyrene. Does that mean you start again from scratch with each new idea?

cz – Whenever it is required by an idea I try to learn the necessary techniques, whether it be computer manipulated images or cast steel. With the polystyrene works, for example, I had no idea of how to work with this material, but I was fascinated by its qualities. Expanded polystyrene consists of tiny, originally opaque little balls, single, cell-like particles, which are made to expand tremendously through the use of steam and pressure. Finally, they condense into a shape. Cell for cell, they form a fragile body.

mcc – It’s very biological…

cz – It’s very organic, it’s about bodies…

mcc – You mean that you saw the material as metaphoric in itself?

cz – A metaphor where you wouldn’t know exactly everything that it could be a metaphor for… I became aware of this material for the first time in 1986-87, in Asia, where it floats around in even the most remote little stream. It is an universal waste product, an omnipresent product… and it is beautiful.


(1) …’a bangle of black rubber, the interior consisting of a golden ball – like a snake with a small elephant in its body.’
original text, Otto Künzli, 1980 (a photo of this piece can be seen in the blog post about Künzli below)

These photos are from Rome’s southern district of EUR (Esposizione Universale Roma) which began to pop up slowly around 1938, originally dedicated to the projected world’s fair of 1942. As nice as that sounds, this would also have been the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the Fascist era in Italy. Hooray! Mussolini and a team of fascist architects are to thank for the construction, as the plan was to move Rome’s urban expansion south-west to evidentially create a new modern city center. World War II got in the way, the fair never happened, and the project was at a halt uncompleted by 1942– it wasn’t until the 1950’s and 60’s until the original buildings were fully completed.

Let’s try to contextualize with what we’ve established in previous posts. At the time of EUR’s design, 200 or so years had passed since the birth of neoclassicism. Here’s a recap on some of the era’s accomplishments in an effort to better understand how time has transformed visual Italy at this point.

revival of antiquity / antiquity as future

more of the visual past was available

new geometrical image of the city established

symmetry/ ideal ratios

visual results detached from the originals —>degrees of separation 

process of abstraction —> concise way of defining form–>reduction to mere outline —> linear abstraction

and of course, Italian tradition 

By the time EUR’s Rationalist buildings were conceived, Italian artists and architects had basically streamlined the best of what not only neoclassicism summarized from its past, but also from the Futurists (1910-1916) and some of what the Novecento Italiano movement presented as well (1923-1943). Ideally I would like to touch on both of these epochs as well so stay tuned; this bit is merely a note I suppose, and hopefully it will assist future tidbits as I write them.

If it is not so clear already, with this blog I am essentially trying to pull together a visual timeline/a collection of artistic milestones that Italy has created throughout its history… among other things. Please forgive me if it isn’t chronological.

As I try to piece together visual epochs in Italian art history, it has been a bit challenging knowing where to start. As such I feel it necessary to reiterate the question I posed in one of my previous blog entries. How much do I need to know… to know? This question is bound to be reoccurring, and unfortunately there is no answer here. The best one can do in such a situation is close their eyes and pick… somewhere, anywhere– as the solutions are infinite, and quite frankly, there is no wrong path to take…right? I hope so. Doesn’t anything teach you… something?

Let’s start with neoclassicism, shall we? As part of my research proposal I was granted access to use the library at the American Academy in Rome on the top of the Gianicolo. Here would be a fabulous spot in which to digress, as Monte Gianicolo is quite breathtaking as well as the academy itself, but let’s keep going. Finding this book, The Geometries of Silence by Anna Ottani Carina was accidental. Perhaps I should fib a little and pretend that I fully intended to begin with the neoclassic era in my research; either way it suits my interest in piecing back together Italy’s visual lineage, as the neoclassic era by nature, more or less, did exactly that. I must mention that this piece of writing will function as a summary of notes I took on the text in combination with my own feedback, thoughts and questions. Things that I have decided are really important will appear in bold.

Carina, the author, begins to summarize the foundations of the era and credits of course, the revival of antiquity (again!!) that followed the resurrection of buried cities like Pompeii in the mid 18th century. Similar discoveries ultimately led to the neo-revival of living “in the ancient style”. According to Carina, a new geometrical image of the city was created. Because this all happened in Italy, an unattainable perfection of the ancient world burdened Italian artists, in comparison to the dozens of Northern European or non-Italian artists who responded more quote-unquote positively. Carina describes this as the “double valence” of the ancient model—non-Italians embraced reason, history, and the persistence of the classical world, while Piranesi (an Italian!) for example, responded in a more irrational and subconscious manner.

Piranesi was one of the few artists that reacted negatively to the past, and by Carina’s logic, it was because he was an insider. I think the words positive and negative only reference a state of mind—the words can more accurately be described as reactions made by the artists that uniquely lead to manipulations and different interpretations of the visual past. The true question is, in which of these reactions lead to innovation? In which ways was the past fuel for these artists? Carina poses some questions that help to define the way the newly uncovered past could act as contemporary inspiration. Was the past a reassuring or positive myth whose authority served as a guide and a creative stimulus? Or was it a barrier whose presence paralyzed the creative impulse? The answer can perhaps be dictated by the origin of the artist.

In the mid 1770’s artists shared a common notion of ANTIQUITY AS FUTURE whether voluntary or involuntary. For some, the past was once again an intended model for aesthetic renewal, but for those like Piranesi, the weight of the past infiltrated the work in other ways. He saw the past as a burden, a perfection that could not be surpassed. In my opinion, this is where innovation and ultimately modernization struck. Carina states, “antiquity was therefore conceived as the future, in which the past, projected ahead of time, became the model for aesthetic palingenesis.” Like in the Renaissance, artists once again attempted to appropriate history and tradition in contemporary ways. Yet unlike the Renaissance, I believe a duality of accessibility and inaccessibility differentiate the eras and the work that was made. I will attempt to explain.

Archaeological excavations spurred an excitement in Italian and non-Italian artists alike, obviously more so for foreigners (the start of the Grand Tour, sketches of archeological ruins by other European artists, etc). And for the first time in history, these artists were able to see the entire site, the entire foundation, the entire fresco, etc. The visual information available during the Renaissance in comparison was more fragmented, more limited. This created repetition in artists that followed the old style, seen Raphael’s grotesque loggias in the Vatican (1517-1519) for example. His work here with others like Giovanni da Udine, Giulio Romano and Baldassare Peruzzi suggest a maximum stylization of relationships in their surfaces taken from these limited ancient fragments. But 200+ years later during the neoclassic era, more of the visual past was available. This may imply more straightforward replication, a potential for little interpretation or innovation, however within this new accessibility existed an aspect of inaccessibility that in turn led to different results detached from the originals. This is because artists were not actually able to view the uncovered originals of antiquity for a significant amount of time. If they were even granted access to the sights (Pompeii and the Herculaneum or Ercolano) it was extremely limited, and they sure as hell weren’t able to sketch or take note of anything. Artists then literally had to go home to recollect and draw from memory, which in turn, created visual degrees of separations from the original models, especially when artists fabricated the completion of old ruins themselves, based on fantasies or personal aesthetic and ideas. This was true for the uncovered ruins and frescos, as well as vase paintings, according to Carina. More or less unintentional, “rather than a correct interpretation of antiquity, these episodes amounted to a betrayal of it.”


Now let’s talk about what came out of all this or at least try to mark the changes that were being made. It would be far too complicated to talk about what all the foreign artists produced after they came through Rome marveling the ancient ruins. What I am interested in is what changed in Italian art and how it evolved as such. How did Italians interpret their very own visual history as it was being dug up before them? Piranesi is an extreme example, an exception even (he was a genius!). But what was he looking at? Talking about what this man alone produced in the 18th century requires a completely separate piece of writing, but what I will mention is the fact that he was an engraver. By the mid century, Carina notes that artists became interested in recapturing how ancient Roman paintings possessed a concise way of defining form, and artists that were engravers further accentuated these qualities by the nature of the medium. “Selecting the motifs to be engraved meant selecting those elements that, to the people of the 18th century, appeared to be essential. The result of this process of abstraction was that the complexity of the pictorial substance became reduced to its mere outline. And like I said before, access to the original sites and objects was limited, and artists then looked and copied from these engravings of ancient ruins or motifs. Here we have more degrees of separation. What begins to appear is a new minimal visual vocabulary from which to build on– an 18th century abstraction that focused on linear qualities. A combination of a lack of chiaroscuro that eliminated depth and dissociation from nature created more of an anti-realistic artistic language for artists. Carina mentions the fantastical yet knowledgable drawings of decorative painter, Pietro Antonio Novelli, when making this point.

An example of this fragmented process can be seen in various reproductions of engravings copied from Etruscan vases. Some of these copies can be described as “far more advanced in the direction of linear abstraction than any paintings or drawings executed until the 1790’s.” The concise and abbreviated style can seen in the reproductions included in the d’Harcanville catalogue (Collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman Antiquities from the Cabinet of the Honorable Wm. Hamilton 1766-67. The catalogue is a seminal work on Classical antiquities, mostly vases published in the 18th century), for example, may have been copied from Italian artists like Giuseppe Bracci (I am currently trying to find more information on him) and similar artists who first copied these vases, according to Carina. These images implied the work that was to come at the end of the 18th century that was executed in a new “conceptual style” able to “breakdown the perception of the image based on the illusionary optics introduced by the Renaissance.”

 Now we have begun to establish an aesthetic shift and pinpoint some of the qualities found within ancient works that were to be developed, exaggerated or disregarded as the images passed through the eyes of different artists. Another example found within the work of an Italian can be seen in the creations of Felice Giani (1758-1828). Giani was a painter that specialized in decorative work, as he designed interiors while developing a unique ornate vocabulary. He used repetitive techniques, similar to the decorative work of Raphael and his team in the loggias, yet he is noted as someone who reclaimed preeminence or value in designing decorative interiors. Carina mentions that during his time (late 1780’s and onward) decorative painting was competitive. Due to minimal costs, excellence in application, and fast execution, innovation in style developed. And because Italian features were not easy to export (frescos for example were difficult to execute in places like England due to weather, so not only were they not replicated but they also were not frequently seen because they were commissioned by private individuals in residences), new more modern characteristics were unique to Italy. Other factors included an ongoing dialog with the patron, as interior spaces were custom built. The fascination with antiquity as future was a mutual interest valued by both artist and patron, and were rooted in a local Italian tradition.

Like any good neoclassicist, Felice Giani was inspired by the relationship with the models of antiquity and the ways in which they were presented during the Renaissance. He was inspired by Raphael and his contemporaries, yet he further “intended to defend the new criteria of functionality and comfort against any showy or luxurious features”, made able by his concise and communicational strengths. He is described by Carina as being such an innovative artist that he was “able to undermined a hierarchical relationship that had been in force for centuries [painter, designer, decorator, architect, etc]…Giani revolutionized relationships.” This was in part to how he organized and directed his bottega, made up of men of many trades such as quadraturisti, sculptors, stuccoists, carpernters, etc. “Preeminence of the painter over the architect and the quadraturista that constituted the Italian variation of the theme of interior decoration, a variant where the leading role was reserved for painting.” This is important because decorative work has always been considered secondary, and again, the structure of the Italian workshop was unique to the rest of Europe. This is seen in site specificity of frescos (work in situ in Italy) and the much less hierarchical organization of roles; Giani’s workshop primarily dealt with decoration of a space and he did not work with metal, the building of staircases, fireplaces, or any of the interior architecture etc.

I think Giani was worth mentioning for a few reasons.

Reason one: decorators or designers of this era (or really any…) are rarely mentioned in art history. And since the work I do is roughly considered to be a cousin of such frivolous or minor art, I would also like to give this guy come credit for being relatively contemporary.

Reason two: Like I said before, Giani’s style was developed by the limits of his trade, insofar as the work was nonexportable and rooted in local traditions, branding it as specifically Italian.

Reason three: The decorative work of interiors is much less known in Italy in general and as such, great examples remain to be practically unknown. Those that are, tend to “possess particular characteristics and are frequently extraordinary,” states Carina. This I would say is because of the nature of the decorative arts, in combination with the philosophy behind neoclassicism. We can describe it as a summary, much like how the previously mentioned engraving examples were also summaries; definitive and specific reinterpretations that mark what was stylistically coveted by both artist and patron.

So how does Italy choose to summarize itself overtime? This bit aims to find specific attempts. The rest of the book, however, is about non-Italian painters and their respective innovations … but they were indeed, in Italy. What can we learn about Italy and the ways that it had existed in its past and relative present, that influenced innovation of the outsider? Is this important? Surely. But Italy’s inspiration was involuntary, a natural progression of sorts, that valued a traditional past and hand-made production. Carina references what is called a leapfrog syndrome, which occurs when a generation recognizes its cultural models in ancestral precedents rather than its immediate predecessors.  The neoclassic era applies to this, yet couldn’t one argue that Italy’s immediate predecessors are its ancestral precedents, because of Italy’s maintenance of it’s own visualy history? Is there really any distinction?