Unsung Heroism and Humanity in the Heat and Dust of Italy’s City of Art
Piazza De Duomo, Pietrasanta
Some wear newspaper hats or plastic goggles to shield them from the marble dust, others sport overalls and masks to protect them from the molten bronze, yet despite the layers worn by many of his subjects, there is a humanity in the portraits of artisans by Anglo-Polish photographer Henryk Hetflaisz on show until July 14th at the Piazza del Duomo in Pietrasanta.
A young woman chisels into the leg of a white marble angel twice her size that sill soon bear the name of Damien Hirst; A bearded polisher finishes a horse for Colombian Sculptor, Fernando Botero; Two clay modellers take a break from enlarging a gigantic abstract piece by British artist Helaine Blumenfeld. These (mostly) men and women are the artisans of Pietrasanta, a medieval town in Tuscany that has been luring artists since the time of Michelangelo. Today, the business here is art. A medieval cloister is a fitting location for an exhibition that celebrates the skills of the artisans, passed down through generations. It is this craft that is as much a draw for international artists as the marble mountains of Carrara which give the region its name,
The sight of intense labour depicted with a vivid intensity in Hetflaisz’s portraits, dispels all fantasies of the solitary artist chiselling away in a creative fervour. Almost all the great marble maestri, including Bernini, Canova and Rodin, worked with teams of assistants. The exception was Michelangelo whose refusal to delegate is renowned.
Yet even though there is no secret about sculpture’s collective parentage, mention of it can make artists and artisans defensive. This is why the artisans are, as this show’s introduction proclaims, the “unsung heroes of the art world” and there is indeed an heroic quality to Hetflaisz’s portraits. Although charged with the physical energy of the artisans themselves, one is also touched by the frailty of some of the subjects. Sergio, seen here carving a sculpture by the late Norwegian artist Knut Steen, has since retired. Massimo, shown hammering a chisel into a monolithic piece of marble is clearly mustering all his force.
Hetflaisz, who will soon publish a series of portraits of sculptors, realised that for many artists today the “studio” is the artisans’ workshops of Pietrasanta. He spent much of the past year amongst the artisans in some of the town’s forty plus marble studios, foundries, modelling ateliers and ceramics houses, gaining their trust. It is a trust that comes through in the portraits. For a group of people unused to public exposure, let alone adulation, there is no sense here of any posing for the camera. Far from it. There is an integrity in Hetflaisz's portraits. His subjects are caught up in their moment of craftsmanship as he captures the unique fusion between man and materials.
It would have been interesting to have seen more than one portrait of each artisan as they progressed through the transformative process and one senses at times that a wish to include diverse disciplines and studios has driven the selection of images for this show. However the 50 large format prints are both a lasting tribute to a great tradition of craftsmanship and testimony to Hetflaisz’s own artistry of a medium which in his hands has not lost sight of its craft.
- Henryk Hetflaisz Exhibition of Artisans is part of Homo Faber, June 15th - July 14th 2013