|Italian designer, architect, photographer, and engineer Carlo Mollino built race cars, flew airplanes, and made very sexy furniture.
With their suggestive curvilinear forms and undulating lines, his mid-century tables and chairs express a sensuality rarely articulated so beautifully in furniture design. The seat of Gaudí Chair, for instance, resembles the sumptuous backside of a woman, as though she might have gingerly sat on wet plaster and left behind the soft imprint of her thighs and derriere. The elegant way the legs of his chairs meet their backs evokes the way in which a woman’s torso joins her legs. There are few hard edges in these pieces—they are soft, organic, shapely forms. The recent discovery of his personal collection featuring over 1000 Polaroids of mostly nude women should come as no surprise for a man who spent his life’s work translating the feminine form into his designs. These Polaroids offer insight into the role of the muse in the eccentric designer’s career.
It’s easy to dismiss this secret obsession as a self-indulgent passion project — or worse, a blatant objectification of women — but there’s a strong sense that the Polaroids function as a collective love letter to the female form, especially when juxtaposed to his own creations. Photography is a voyeuristic medium and his role as director of these scenes certainly raises questions surrounding the implication of women-as-objects to be viewed and consumed. But rather than explicitly regarding women as an objects, the scenes expose the ways in which Mollino copied feminine lines into his furniture designs. Furthermore, Mollino never intended for the prints to be exhibited. These Polaroids were personal, precious mementos of his inspiration, not objects meant to be presented to the public.
Unlike most contemporary connotations of the muse as an intimate lover, artistic partner, or individual object of desire — à la John’s Yoko or Salvador’s Gala — Mollino’s muse seems to be the female form in general. According to Greek tradition as told by Homer, there were nine muses, each reigning over their particular realm of inspiration and personified with an attribute. Despite their individuality, the muses were immortal and unknowable. They were more emblematic of inspiration as a whole, which is precisely how the women appear to have functioned for Mollino. When looked at in this light, his interactions with the women were more closely aligned with the ancient notion of the muse. It was less about an individual connection and more about culling inspiration from an idealized figure. The subjects of this body of work are bodies themselves: anonymous personas that Mollino constructed. Many of the women were photographed only once, and unsurprisingly there is speculation that the models were paid for their services.
“THESE POLAROIDS WHERE PERSONAL, PRECIOUS MEMENTOS OF HIS INSPIRATION,
NOT OBJECTS MEANT TO BE PRESENTED TO THE PUBLIC.”
Carlo Mollino Untitled, 1962-1973 Polaroid
4 1/4 x 3 1/4 Inches, (10.8×8.3cm)
© Museo Casa Torino Mollino.
photography by Robert Mckeever
Courtesy Gagosian Gallery
|The provocative Polaroids were all taken in Mollino’s Villa Zaira, an 18th-century house in the hills above Turin. The refuge was, however, intended to be more than just a private photography studio. It was also a spiritual place where he sought to emulate the Egyptian pharaohs in preparation for his death. Mollino supposedly dedicated one room as a future tomb, much in the way that the Egyptians bejeweled theirs with the finest gold in the belief that it would transfer with them to the afterlife. Inspired by the ancient idea that a boat transported the deceased to the heavens, Mollino furnished the room with a boat-shaped bed in hopes that it would serve this function for his soul.
That Mollino obsessively captured and perfected images of his inspirational-figures in a place and at a time when he was seriously preparing for death brings to mind another attribute of the muse. According to historians Arthur Darby Nock and J. D. Beazley in “Sarcophogi and Symbolism,” the muses played a crucial role in the afterlife for those touched by their gifts.” The authors write, “by learning the gifts of the Muses,…you became mousikos aner, one with the cultivation which ‘made you a human instead of a beast.’ At death you took that with you, and it might … give you hereafter some passport to the heavenly places, and to the music of the spheres of which through the Muses you had heard some echo.” Perhaps Mollino envisioned the Villa Zaira as a place where he might, as Nock and Beazley put it, “dwell with the Muses, and with the souls of just and disciplined and cultivated men made perfect.” It seems appropriate then, that in anticipation of the afterlife, Mollino would spend his final decade dedicated to portraying the very form that shaped so much of his life’s work.