‘Maniera Moderna’ (Modern Manner), the title of this exhibition of the work of Carlo Mollino, is a quotation from Giorgio Vasari’s The Lives (1550). Vasari introduced the term while praising Leonardo da Vinci’s groundbreaking ability to infuse his figures with ‘movement and breath’. The phrase works as a suitable reference for a show focusing on the photographic aspects of Mollino’s oeuvre, not only because dynamism and turbulence were crucial for this Italian Modernist polymath – ‘architect, interior designer, furniture maker, engineer, photographer, fashion designer, set designer, car designer, patent inventor, novelist, stunt pilot, champion skier, racing-car driver, professor of architecture, author’, as Beatriz Colomina notes in her catalogue essay – but also because Leonardo was among the first artists to describe a camera obscura.
In fact, the exhibition (curated by Chris Dercon with architect Wilfried Kühn and artist and photographer Armin Linke, in collaboration with Museo Casa Mollino and the Mollino Archive at Turin Polytechnic) poses photography as the common denominator of Mollino’s manifold creative pursuits. It encompasses his architectural proposals published in Casabella, Domus and Stile, his sensually designed chairs, and his hundreds of erotic Polaroids (intended for private use only) of un/dressed prostitutes, which made Mollino infamous in the last decade, all shot in the bachelor pads he furnished himself, sealing off natural light to turn his rooms into studio backdrops. As Colomina writes, ‘The architecture of Mollino is not just a set for a photograph. The photograph is itself the site of his architecture.’
As the exhibition elucidates, Mollino had access to a darkroom since childhood, and at age seven was drawing cross-sections of cameras. Besides regularly collaborating with the photographer Riccardo Moncalvo, Mollino published several books of his own photography, as well as producing Messaggio dalla camera oscura (Message from the Darkroom, 1949), an ambitious compendium retracing the history of photography from daguerreotypes to Richard Avedon, via the Surrealists – whose influence on his own works is apparent. Mollino often added a pinch of irreverent irony: if Man Ray paid homage to Ingres with a famed photomontage of the woman–violin (Le Violon d’Ingres, 1924), Mollino imitated Ray’s icon in an untitled photo from around 1948, but replaced the curvaceous f-holes with his initials impressed on the naked buttocks of his model.
Manipulation and distortion are recurring themes in Mollino’s oeuvre, together with juxtaposition, cropping and a kind of ‘proto-Photoshopping’ (for instance, in his use of a photographic enlargement of Michelangelo’s Dying Slave, 1513–16, as a top for the living room table at his Casa Miller, 1938). Kühn translates Mollino’s frequent use of montage and post-production into an exhibition design that reflects the notion of collage and hybridization by displaying all 341 pieces in non-chronological order in a circular loop that draws the viewer’s gaze constantly from one project to the next, and whose opposite ends are marked by contemporary installations by Nairy Baghramian (Tea Room, 2011, inspired by Mollino’s Tè Numero 2, Tea no. 2, 1935) and Simon Starling (Four thousand seven hundred and twenty five, 2007, in which a motion-controlled camera traces the profile of one of Mollino’s wooden chairs).
A further attempt to unsettle the static perception of Mollino’s works comes from Linke’s photographs and videos, which document all of Mollino’s existing architectural projects. In Linke’s works, Alpine sublime, oneiric splendor and everyday routines collide: a plastic children’s playhouse sits in front of the Casa Garelli (1965), or an elegant table stands in the snow among empty bottles at the Furggen cablecar station (1953). As the artist Carol Rama, a longstanding friend of Mollino and fellow outsider, declared in the video interview that opens the show: ‘It’s important to trangress.’ This exhibition certainly transgresses the canon by going beyond the usual readings of Mollino’s work.