The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Giorgio Casali, Photographer Domus 1951-1983

Architecture, Design and Art in Italy (Estorick Collection, London)

Reviewed by Neil Jackson

The cover image of the flyer and catalogue for this exhibition at the Estorick is both timeless and dated. It shows a lady holding, on one finger, a sprung scale from which is suspended a Superleggera chair designed by Gio Ponti.  The chair, which still looks as modern as it did when it was designed in 1957, weighs just 5kg.  The woman, however, in her checked dress – tied at the waist and extending below the knees – and seamed stockings reminds me of my mother, although she was more of a twin-set-and-pearls person.

It was this image of the Superleggera chair which launched Casali’s career.  Ponti had founded the magazine Domus in 1928 and, apart from a six-year hiatus during the war, he edited it until his death in 1978.  And it is through Domus, for which Casali did more than thirty covers, that his best work is known.  Most of these photographs are in black and white, and the deep tones and strong textures bring a richness to the images which the bold, often geometric composition only enhances.  One of the two shots of the Arco lamp (Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, 1962) is arranged so that its inverted bowl breaks the thin vertical line of its arm which – with a black table-top and two Breuer Cesca chairs – divides the picture into an orthogonal grid.  The companion shot turns the lamp through ninety degrees, revealing it as a great arch springing from a block of marble to embrace the couple beneath, their faces turned away so as not to distract. In Centro Fly in Milan (1966) featuring a dress by Krizia against an op-art background, and Libro Chair (Gianni Pareschi and Umberto Orsini, 1970) the model’s face is turned towards us, but the patterns Casali creates ensure that we are not drawn towards it.  The pieces of furniture are included in the exhibition, the Superleggera suspended from the ceiling as if to emphasise its weightlessness.

In other images, Casali uses body parts to attract our attention.  In what might be a still from Mad Men, a man’s suited trouser legs and left hand holding a cigarette direct the eye towards the Lounge Chair (1962) designed by Martin Grierson.  In another supposedly candid (but obviously staged) shot from the 1966 Eurodomus 1 exhibition in Genoa, a pair of disembodied legs in black tights stretch into the frame while in the background two figures, clad in black, appear listless against the almost empty shelves of this unexplained white room.  Casali’s undated Rolleiflex self-portrait (included in the excellent catalogue by Angelo Maggi and Italo Zannier, but not in the exhibition) is a rare use of colour. It shows, against a black background, what appears to be his naked head and torso cut across with broken lines of sunlight from a window blind, suggestive of a mummy or Claude Rains as The Invisible Man. We are once again confronted with pattern and form, rather than distracted by a person.

Casali’s depiction of architecture is often just as abstract.  The view of the dome of Florence Cathedral, seen through the window of an apartment designed by Gae Aulenti (1971), is played off against the white dome of a desk lamp set beside the window, while Angelo Mangiarotti’s exhibition pavilion at the 1963 Sea Fair in Genoa sits low in the frame like a Japanese torii beneath a leaden sky.  Perhaps the most striking architectural images are of Ponti’s Torre Pirelli in Milan (1956), whether as juddering streaks of light set against wet streets in a night-time shot, or as richly textured board-marked concrete and crisp curtain walling in a view of the building’s cavernous interior, where a solitary suited figure stares solemnly out of the window.  The late Robert Elwall (to whom the catalogue is dedicated) observed how Casali had ‘profoundly conditioned the world to interpret Italian architecture…’ (Maggi and Zannier, p.107).  In the same way that Julius Schulman drew out – often through the use of perspective – the lightness and fragility of California architecture (as in his famous 1960 night-time shot of Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House No 22), Casali uses geometry and abstraction to suggest the complexity of much modern Italian architecture; whether the elliptical grand staircase at La Rinascente, Rome (Franco Albini and Franca Helg, 1962) or the cubic Ossario at Cividale del Friuli (Gianni Avon, 1985).  Yet, judging from the selection of previously unseen vintage prints, unconnected with architecture and design, which are included in the exhibition, we should probably acknowledge that, without the patronage of Ponti and Domus, Casali’s work would be less memorable and his influence less lasting.