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Jacopo Benassi. Criminal Self-Portrait

  • Exhibition
  • 27 February 2024 - 2 June 2024
curated by Elena Volpato

The GAM is delighted to present the exhibition Jacopo Benassi. Autoritratto criminale [Jacopo Benassi. Criminal Self-Portrait], which has come about following the arrival in the collection of the work Panorama di La Spezia [Panorama of La Spezia], 2022, acquired for the museum’s collections from the CRT Foundation for Modern and Contemporary Art. The work acquired is a self-portrait in which the artist never appears, as the human presence does not appear. Instead, photographs of plants appear, taken in the dark of night in public gardens, plants that cover, at least partially, a number of panoramas of the Ligurian city painted with vaguely nineteenth-century taste. Overlapping photographs and canvases, held together by big straps, are hung from two plasterboard walls, which Benassi used for a while as a temporary studio while he was preparing an exhibition in La Spezia, his native city.

Starting from that occasion, Benassi’s work has progressively shifted from photography to a space of shadow between photography and paintings, between photography and plaster casts. His photographic work, developed on the basis of the contrast between the underlying darkness and the light of the flash, set off pitilessly on every subject, has momentarily chosen the non-visible part of things as its location of choice and for concealment, with what remains guarded or imprisoned between one frame and the next, between one image and the next, what can only be imagined or desired.

Behind the Panorama di La Spezia installation, used as if it were a screen, there appears Serie di ritratti appesi [Series of Hanging Portraits], 2024, realized for the exhibition, a work that takes the process of cancellation to its extreme consequences, presenting a heavy sandwich of frames hanging in the void, of which we can only see two rear sides. These are photographic portraits of famous characters (Valentino, Nan Goldin, John Wayne, Snow White, Ando Gilardi…), mixed with a few self-portraits, all condemned to invisibility and thereby paradoxically reactivated by Benassi in their capacity to be images, to have new evocative power due to negation. Among the hidden self-portraits there is also the one selected for the communication of the exhibition, in which Jacopo Benassi looks at us from behind the long fringe of a woman’s hair-style and under that fixed gaze we find ourselves contemplating the raw taste of truth that may have a disguise. A truthful disguise and a masked truth is what photography can be, captured at the beginning as evidence of reality and then revealed, in its now long history, to be ready for a thousand twists and turns between reliability and pretence. It is in some way a criminal self-portrait, not only because it could ideally belong to the sad tradition that meant that, until a few decades ago, transvestites actually had their details held on record and were photographed, but also because it presents the typical codes of the identification portraits, the mugshots, that Benassi has employed in that image and in many others, from his early days, thanks to the teachings of Sergio Fregoso and to reading Wanted! by Andò Gilardi, an ABC of the aesthetics of the mugshot.


Thinking about this early origin of his work, it will come as no surprise to find on display, following the artist’s wishes, the large plaster model, which is conserved in the GAM’s Collections, that Leonardo Bistolfi created for the monument to his friend Cesare Lombroso shortly after his death in around 1910. It is there as the testimony of a gaze that knew how to settle pitilessly on certain marginal and deviant aspects of reality with the same determination with which Benassi’s own flash acts. The pieces of wood that hold together Bistolfi’s work, fragile and splintered, resonate with the straps that hold the photos and paintings in the exhibition tightly: symbols of strength and fragility together. Benassi responds in the exhibition to the dark gaze of Bistolfi’s skull with other plaster skulls, scattered around, repeated, deformed, anxious skulls. He has also included them in a video, this too entitled Criminal Self-Portrait, together with countless photos of the plaster death masks that appear in the display cases of the Cesare Lombroso Museum in Turin.

Another portrait in the process of disappearing is added in the exhibition to the ideal dialogue with Ando Gilardi and with the memory of Lombroso, that of the greatest criminal in history, “called to the stage” – writes Elena Volpato – “perhaps to attempt an impossible erasure under a thick layer of glass. Not just any glass, but glass recovered from the studio of a painter from La Spezia, Manlio Argenti, as if in addition to the thickness there was a need for further superimposition, for the interposition of a memory of other painted images, of the distant evocation of other people’s works, to increase the capacity of the glass to create a veil, to blur the unbearable dimension of crime that the portrait of Hitler brings with it, even one taken by Benassi in perfect ‘mugshot style’, of the waxwork in London’s Madame Tussaud’s. In spite of the features of a mask, in spite of its being a representation, in spite of the large number of glass panes placed between the face and us, the well-known effigy continues to emerge. And so we restart the life cycle of the image that continually disappears to reappear, between visual noise and profound silence, between overexposure and erasure. In Benassi, everything that emerges sinks, and everything that sinks, resurfaces”.

We wish to thank the CRT Foundation for Modern and Contemporary Art, the “Cesare Lombroso” Museum of Criminal Anthropology, Augustin Laforêt and Francesca Minini gallery for their precious collaboration.