MAURIZIO Anzeri’s exhibition at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art has divided its audience. It opened just recently but already I have met people who love it and others who find it disturbing. One person I know can’t bear to look at it.
There are two elements. The first consists of soft sculptures reminiscent of huge 18th Century periwigs. But it is the second, the pictures on the walls, which people have reacted strongly to.
Each is a black and white photographic portrait with the face either entirely or partially obscured by intricate and colourful embroidery.
There are degrees of oddness on display. In some of the photos, it looks as if the sitter had been prepared for an exotic tribal ritual. In others it’s as if a science fiction alien had dressed up as a human being in rather dated formal attire.
The artist told me: “I started to collect the photographs quite a few years ago but I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do with them.
“It is all part of my fascination, my obsession, with the face. I see it as a landscape.
“Three years ago I was working on a project that involved drawing and embroidery. One day I started to embroider on one of the photographs and it started to develop into a much bigger body of work.”
Maurizio, who is from Loano in northern Italy but has lived in London for 20 years, said he didn’t know any of the people in the photographs. He had bought them in flea markets and most of them dated from the 1930s and 40s.
“They are old photographs and all quite formal. Nowadays you can have about 5,000 portraits made in a minute but what I like about these photographs is that they come from a time when people made a real effort to have their portrait done.
“People didn’t have as many chances in those days to have their photograph taken, so this was a big occasion.”
As with any old photos, there’s an air of sadness about the exhibition. As Maurizio explained, these were the sort of images that once enjoyed pride of place in a living room, either that of the sitter or a close relation.
Mostly they exude health, affection and well-being. They were intended to be reminders of the sitter seen at his or her best.
Yet here they were in flea markets, presumably having run out of people to treasure them.
Maurizio was matter-of-fact, saying: “But that’s what is going to happen to me and to all of us. It is sad but at the end of the day it happens. I like the idea that these photos were once really important for someone but ended up in a cardboard box, stored away somewhere.”
Did he think the people in the photos would be pleased at how they ended up?
“If I was one of them, I would be. I would be able to say, ‘Oh, God, look at me. I’m in an exhibition at the Baltic.’ I never feel this is an act of abuse. I always see it as cherishing the photographs, of doing something with them.”
Occasionally a glimmer of identity shines through the general fog of anonymity.
Maurizio recalled the photo of a woman with a really miserable face that came in a batch from Berlin. Normally, he said, he didn’t go out of his way to learn the identity of the sitter but on this occasion he had lifted the backing paper on the photo and found an inscription.
“I found she was sending the photo to her boyfriend. She was a British nurse and she had written, ‘This is the portrait I promised you a long time ago. I’m really sorry for the sad face but today is the first day of the Second World War’. It was a moment of intimacy between these two people.”
It didn’t, of course, spare her the attention of Maurizio and his expert needle.
Maurizio said he planned each new picture carefully, using tracing paper and drawing extensively on the photograph before starting to sew. He hoped the final result would be viewed as a kind of bespoke tribute to the sitter.
It has always been his habit to give each reworked subject a name, using the real one if it happened to be inscribed on the photo.
So at Baltic you will see Una, Teresa, Scarlett, Lucia, Barbara, Ruben, Tilly and others, a family of forgotten people resurrected for a new life in art galleries.
Maurizio has been championed by art patron Charles Saatchi and also worked with Isabella Blow and Alexander McQueen, two late major figures in fashion who were seduced by his luxuriant soft sculptures.
“I attract a lot of attention from the fashion world because of the nature of the work but I don’t even know how to darn my trousers,” laughed the artist.
“My interest in sewing comes not from fashion but from a couple of fishermen, my father and my grandfather. I grew up watching them stitching their nets.”
In 2012, the embroidered portraits perhaps shouldn’t seem so outlandish given the ubiquity of tattoos and the excesses of Lady Gaga and her ilk.
Make you own mind up about them at Baltic where they are on display until October 2.