16 November 2019


Margaret Watkins, Domestic Symphony, 1919. © Joseph Mulholland Collection.

Some people regard their work as a sort of remunerative sideshow to a light and festive existence (I want it to be everything).

– Margaret Watkins

“We can still look through your eyes. Thank you.” The narration is as comely and precise as ever when Mark Cousins rounds off his love letter to the greatest voice in filmmaking in The Eyes of Orson Welles (2018). When Canadian-born photographer Margaret Watkins (1884–1969) needed a promotional portrait of herself during her thriving career in modernist photography (her pictures were exhibited all over the world in the 1920s and 30s) and as a transformer of advertising image-making in New York City, it was evidently a picture that was going to be modelled on time and light and through her own discerning eyes.

Here, Watkins portrayed herself like the Finnish artist Helene Schjerfbeck would later do in her famous last series of paintings from the Second World War – the bare essence of a female face, pursed lips, head tilted slightly backwards and seen a little from below; unflattering, uncompromising, but in no way without beauty. “Miss Watkins took this portrait of herself by means of an ingeniously devised mechanism,” she typed at the bottom of the prints that went out to the press. Dismayed by a New York newspaper’s refashioning of her portrait into a flapper temptress in a feature of October 1923, headlined “Feminine Photographer Whose Domestic Symphonies Reveal Beauty of Objects Heretofore Considered Most Prosaic”, she extended her message on the back of these prints: “To ye engraver: Don’t clip prune or place this in an oval. Neither retouch or paint to the semblance of a snake-eyed vamp.”

She called herself “fussy” (Watkins’s mind was continually at work) but it was the fussy particulars of her photography – her fastidiousness, resolution and integrity – and every aspect of how she looked at the world and what she did with it which made her photographic work everything. She was tuned-in to this current world where, as Lynn Dumenil argues in The Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s, “There was not a new woman, but many new women.” Watkins made no concessions to folly: “I can’t brazen my way through a business deal the way so many do, nor have I the cutely kittenish capacity for vamping the office-bond male, and you would be startled to know how much the supposedly soulless and impersonal world of trade is managed by these two extremes. Yet critical folk are keen on my work, both in craftsmanship and originality, and working with the right people I can turn out a corking good job.”

Alfred Stieglitz’s good friend Charles Henry Caffin wrote as early as 1901 that the photograph as a work of art “will record facts, but not as facts”. The “Domestic Symphonies” addressed in that verbose newspaper caption above refer to a number of household pictures – which are anything but household pictures – that Watkins took in 1919 and which could be regarded as her chef-d’oeuvre. This series alone is a testament to her wonderful understanding of photography’s intrinsic nature, to her sheer modernity and keenness in approaching the medium. Watkins described how “It took hours and infinite patience to create a rhythmic whole in line and tone values.” You hear her singing in the wire in these sonorous compositions. She arrayed and transcended the everydayness of her odds and ends (which could have been sampled from anyone’s Manhattan home in the late 1910s) into pure photography. 

When “Domestic Symphonies” and twelve hundred other photographs of hers resurfaced in Glasgow at the beginning of the 1970s, Watkins’s name had long gone faded into absolute obscurity. Her homebound existence at Westbourne Gardens, where she had gradually tapered off for the last forty years of her life and where she was living the art of selfhood as a recluse with a brilliant mind in a Victorian house full of books, and all of her dusty suitcases packed and ready for an expeditious return to New York City (“home”), was altered by mere coincidence one day when she received a phone call from a friendly neighbour who asked her if he and his family could pay her a visit. Many visits to 41 Westbourne Gardens would follow, with sparkling discussions (BBC’s Third Programme was always in the background) and never a dull moment. But there was never a word about her past.

She took bennies to keep her homesickness and the “curdled despair” in check, and jolted down her tempers and her thoughts on life’s vicissitudes on any available piece of paper: “I miss the artistic crowd most desperately. Collectively they may have every falling under the sun, but, in spite of their sins (or because of them) they have a strange gleam of vision, something worth striving after, something a bit beyond the end of their small human noses,” she wrote. “I want to go hooome and I haven’t got any home! I feel like a lost cat on the roof of the world!”

Before long the old lady entrusted her new friend with a sealed treasure chest that was only to be opened after her death: “There were palladium prints and silver gelatine prints. And there was a series so unusual that my attention was riveted on each of the images composed around what turned out to be the kitchen sink and bath in her New York apartment in Jane Street, Greenwich Village,” explains Joseph Mulholland in his foreword to Seduced by Modernity: The Photography of Margaret Watkins by Mary O’Connor and Katherine Tweedie. “For hours I stood there looking and looking – enthralled and totally at loss. I had thought I knew Miss Margaret Watkins.”

Miss Watkins came from Hamilton, Ontario, a city on the outskirts of Toronto. She grew up on King Street East with her Scottish mother Marie and her merchant father Frederick in a house that befittingly was the birthplace of the original female photojournalist Jessie Tarbox Beals. Watkins’s home was a place that would warrant her a happy childhood – until her early teens, when the family disintegrated after Margaret’s father was seriously injured in a bicycling accident on a family trip to Europe in 1897. Both of her parents went into different states of aberration. One of Margaret’s aunts arrived from Glasgow to take care of her while the mother was recuperating in the Hamilton Asylum for the Insane and the father was losing his wits in the course of Dr John Harvey Kellogg’s pious brainwashing at the Battle Creek Sanatorium. Eight months after her father reopened his grand dry goods warehouse in the city, he went bankrupt. For the rest of her life, Margaret Watkins discarded anyone’s attempt to interfere with her capacity “to observe and consider my own impressions”.

In November 1908, at the age of twenty-four, Watkins had had enough of both Hamilton and her family situation, and left. “Some people’s thoughts are so nice and orthodox – like woolly toy dogs on wheels, carefully drawn by the string of inherited opinions, in fact unable to move in any other manner,” she wrote. “People are such sheep – let me be a black sheep, just to relieve the monotony.” Her first station towards excellence was an industrial Utopia in the village of East Aurora (near Hamilton, on the US side of Lake Ontario) where she stayed for a year and a half, both as a housemaid and as a student of book design. 

The Roycroft Arts and Crafts community is described by Marie Via and Marjorie Searl in Head, Heart, and Hand: Elbert Hubbard and the Roycrofters: “What began as a modest printing establishment in 1895 soon evolved into a community of five hundred artists, craftsmen and other workers who were drawn together by Hubbard’s charisma, by the congenial atmosphere, and by a loose allegiance to the social and artistic ideals of the English reformers John Ruskin and William Morris. Once fully developed, the Roycroft flourished for about a dozen years on the strength of Hubbard’s energetic leadership, his wealth, and his ability to attract people of talent to the enterprise.”

The ensuing Utopia was the Sidney Lanier Camp (in Eliot, Maine), a sanctuary for people of all ages who wanted to learn “the art of living”. Watkins stayed there for the next three years, even though her initial judgement was that they were “all mad”, doing the camp’s administrative work and discovering the possibilities of photography. Later, when Watkins had moved to Boston in 1913 to train in a photo studio for a few years, she returned as the official photographer and designer of the community’s outdoor performances of biblical parables. It is some kind of irony that one of modernism’s finest photographers who has ever been recovered from oblivion worked for the clearly antimodernist Sidney Lanier Camp, taking pictures much influenced by the pictorialism of the day.

Pictorialism took a backward stance on life. The pictorialists’ outlandish idea for making photography valuable for upper-class appetites in a time when cameras had become an everyday article was to photograph the daughters of dawn singing the praise of Pan in painterly forests drawn on a fairy-tale past, and so on and so forth.

In her book Clarence H White and His World: The Art and Craft of Photography, 1895–1925, Anne McCauley delineates how “the extent of participation and the increase in institutional structures such as regional and international exhibitions, journals directed to the amateur market, and clubs that took place after the commercialisation of the gelatine dry plate (which simplified the preparation of negatives) signal a watershed change even prior to the development of the Kodak camera in 1888. Like today’s Snapchatters, everyone by the 1890s seemed to be making pictures, but they were doing so in groups – shooting on excursions, comparing works in exhibitions, meeting monthly to hear lectures, and gathering in club darkrooms to share processing tips.”

Margaret Watkins paid one hundred and fifty dollars in 1914 for the first of a string of summer camps organised by the Clarence H White School of Photography, where she eventually would become a demanding but popular and highly estimated teacher herself. The summer schools were based on White’s more modern take on pictorialism, inspired by compositional geometry. The communal spirit of the Arts and Crafts-y gatherings under the trees were not about pre-industrial innocence but rather part of the great teaching from some of the best instructors in the United States (the painter Max Weber was one of the lecturers in 1914). It was with White that Watkins found her true calling in photography. He became her tutor, friend and possibly, at one point or another, her lover.

“Modernist photography developed somewhat differently in Europe,” says Gerry Badger in The Genius of Photography, “but for American modernists the purity of the medium was paramount. Image sharpness and tonal quality were also important, and there was almost a fetish about obtaining the ‘fine’ print, one in which tonal values shone like a jewel.” Watkins cultivated her fetish for making the best possible prints already when she was toiling away in the darkroom of Arthur Jamieson’s portrait studio in Boston. At the White School she became an expert in what different soups and techniques would do to the negatives in the developing process. 

It was also at the White School that Watkins became a quality modernist. As O’Connor and Tweedie write in their book, “Somehow White was able to instil the idea that the design of the image must be structurally sound no matter how common the subject.” Watkins’s early masterpiece Opus I (1914) is a triangular symphony with a trinity of fishing skiffs. One of the two fishermen at the top is simply cut in half (he is not necessary for the composition), and despite the fact that the photographer has employed a slight pictorialist dim to this picture it still shines with the pure light of modernist perception. This is not a photograph of a seaside reality but a glimpse into the actualities of photography.

Her portraits of women, until the early 1920s, were drawn on Renaissance portraiture without further regard to pictorialism’s mimicry of painterly modes. Watkins was an instinctive advocate for womanism and revered the sisterhood of the day. And she celebrated the French 19th-century animalier Rosa Bonheur who rambled the Parisian livestock markets, slaughterhouses and similar areas, off limits for women, in the guise of a gentleman in order to gather fresh imprints for her art: “At a period when all genteel and delicately-reared young females were swooning at mice or embroidering weird beasts with beads and wool work, Rosa Bonheur, in peasants’ blouse and trousers, her hair cut short and neatly parted, was studying first-hand, the cattle and horses in the markets of Paris. Not pretty work, not ladylike, but it made her a master among animal painters.”

The move to Manhattan took place in mid-October 1915. After inheriting a reasonable sum of money in 1917 she was able to move into her personal space at 46 Jane Street in Greenwich Village. From her crestfallen exile in Glasgow only twelve years later she relished the times of yore: “‘Home sweet home’ was not even thus to me, and for the first ten years on my own I perched in rented hall bedrooms or odd corners of other people’s homes. So that it was a joy and delight to have bedroom, bath and living-room (with a discreet ‘kitchen corner’) and an extra room for renting or guests; to haunt junk shops in cellars and old furniture shops in lofts, to pick up fascinating if slightly decrepit odds and ends and to pull the whole thing together and flavour it with a few choice bits from home – well, I had the time of my life.”

That Watkins had the time of her life is evident from the photographs she created in this period. It must be underlined that the decade on Jane Street was the only time in Watkins’s life that she was free to roam in a place that was entirely her own. Modern life is ravishing in The Kitchen Sink from 1919. (“The ‘objects’ are not supposed to have any interest in themselves – merely contributing to the design,” she explained.) Surely, this was the ripper that Walker Evans so much desired in art photography – “the defining of observation full and felt” – a visual chord in the mind.

“Domestic Symphonies” resounded very well with what the Imagists were achieving in their poetry of the 1910s. “An ‘Image’,” Ezra Pound suggested, “is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” They summarised their endeavours in six points (here slightly abbreviated): 1. “To use the language of common speech, but to employ always the exact word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word.” 2. “To create new rhythms.” 3. “To allow absolute freedom in the choice of subject.” 4. “To present an image.” 5. “To produce poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite.” 6. “Finally, most of us believe that concentration is the very essence of poetry.”

“Domestic Symphonies” are embodiments of female ingenuity. They are also made with reference to Watkins’s obsessive darkroom chores (which often continued through the nights) at a point in her life when she had just finished four years in a studio on East 23rd Street owned by the successful portrait photographer Alice Boughton. Watkins addressed this special kind of labour in her “How Art Enriches My Life” speech to the Newark Camera Club when she talked about photography’s “mean, messy, technical side calling for patience, perseverance and a very nice precision. Long before signing a masterpiece you roll up your sleeves, play about in poison – keeping the cyanide out of the soup – and work in icy water till the hand hangs dead on the wrist.”

Alice Boughton was an untidy woman who was annoyingly careless about the technical facets of photography. However, she and Watkins were united in their efforts to create business alliances between female entrepreneurs in the city, and Boughton introduced her acolyte to a host of conspicuous individuals (some of whom she would later portray). One of them was Nina Broderick Price whom Watkins photographed in the publisher’s flourishing art deco home. The picture that is called Portrait of Nina B Price (1925) is in fact void of the sitter. Watkins included a print of this cerebral portrait at the back of Katherine Dreier’s book Modern Art, which was published at the occasion of a show at the Brooklyn Museum in 1926, and her portrait of Katherine Dreier at Home (1926) at the front. Dreier was famous for her participation in the American avant-garde movement and for originating the Société anonyme together with Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp in New Jersey in 1920, yet something drove Watkins to add an ambiguous line on the print: “Does this suggest the habitat of a ‘modern’ artist?”

The American 1920s were roaring with traditional values. “The Progressive reform era (1900–14) that had proceeded World War I gave way in the 1920s to a period of conservatism in which politicians and pundits alike celebrated Big Business as the saviour of American democracy and enterprise,” writes Lynn Dumenil in The Modern Temper. Watkins had her own jeering name for her portrait of the stern-faced H E Vance (1926) – “Babbitt” – one of the pictures she used to send to exhibitions. “The intellectuals had only to read [Sinclair] Lewis’s books [Main Street (1920) and Babbitt (1922)] to realise that the qualities in American life which they most despised and feared were precisely the ones which he put under the microscope for cold-blooded examination. It was George F Babbitt who was the archenemy of the enlightened, and it was the Main Street state of mind which stood in the way of American civilisation,” argued Fredrick Lewis Allen in Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s which came out in 1931.

Despite Watkins’s long-serving occupation at the Clarence H White School, when the post as the head teacher in New York became vacant in 1924 it went not to her but to an undergraduate at the school, Paul Outerbridge. For her remaining years in the city, Watkins continued to stay in the thick of things by turning to advertising photography, and she did it with the same level of artistic fervour and finesse as in her other pictures – she sure applied to what advertiser Earnest Elmo Calkins pronounced in 1928: “The men who produce advertising art are the men represented in the art exhibitions. There is no longer any distinction, and no stigma attaches to art used for business. Artists realise that advertising offers them an opportunity as great as any in the world today, not merely to be well paid for their work, but also to realise their artistic ambitions without sacrifice of their standards or their ideals.”

One of the strongest admirers of her work, particularly the pictures with the immaculate geometry of her surfaces where she isolated groups of singular objects and fragmented them for a whole new vision, was Condé Nast’s Art Director Heyworth Campbell. Between 1924 and 1928, Watkins’s commercial work was seen in magazines all over the United States. “Even the plain businessman, suspicious of ‘art stuff’, perceives that his product is enhanced by fine tone-spacing and the beauty of contrasting textures,” Watkins suggested in her 1926 text “Advertising and Photography”:

“With Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, came a new approach. Soulfulness was taboo, romance derided, anecdote scorned; beauty of subject was superseded by beauty of design, and the relation of ideas gave place to the relation of forms. Weird and surprising things were put upon canvas; stark mechanical objects revealed an unguessed dignity; commonplace articles showed curves and angles which could be repeated with the varying pattern of a fugue. The comprehending photographer saw, paused, and seized his camera! And while the more conservative workers still exhibited photographs beautiful in the accepted sense, strange offerings startled the juries; prints original perhaps, but hardly pretty, and showing an apparent queerness of choice most painful to the orthodox.”

Superb pieces like Design – Curves and Design – Angles (both 1919) were reframed in Watkins’s commercial work. Woodbury’s Facial Soap and Phenix Cheese, or her Untitled (Still Life, Glasses and Pitcher) for the Fostoria Glass Company in 1924, in which she magnified the presence of the glassware with her passion for the intangibility of the shadows (an idea copied by the Neue Sachlichkeit photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch two years later), are all early examples of forward-thinking advertising photography. O’Connor and Tweedie are correct in claiming that “Watkins modernised her form without giving over to the cleanliness of modernity.”

In his reflection on the American 1920s, Fredrick Lewis Allen described how the intellects of a younger generation “looked at Victorianism as half indecent and half funny […] Some of them, in fact, seemed to be persuaded that all periods prior to the coming of modernity had been ridiculous – with the exception of Greek civilisation, Italy at the time of Casanova, France at the time of the great courtesans, and 18th-century England.” Watkins’s nudes and portraits and outdoor pictures with people did grasp these periods. And she made fun of the prissy mannerisms of young Victorian ladies in the jocular Untitled (Verna Skelton Posing for Cutex Advertisement), a great shot from 1924 that sold nail polish. (There is also a very beautiful study for Cutex with a close-up of a missy hand swirling a pearl necklace.) Her commercial photography influenced further personal works, such as her splendid Head and Hand (c 1925) with a woman’s curved hand and a small female head asleep in its tender hold.

In Mexico City in the summer of 1925, on a school field trip with a group of students, Clarence White suffered a heart attack and died at the age of fifty-four. He and Watkins had been working intensely together in creating a portfolio of White’s finest prints for what they hoped in due time would go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Meanwhile, White and Watkins made an agreement that she would buy the forty-four prints for the symbolic sum of ten dollars – partly because the school was in financial trouble, and Watkins had not been salaried for a long time for her teaching there, and partly because she was the one person whose expertise and authority White firmly believed in.

The portfolio was still at the White School at the time of his passing. When these prints resurfaced at the Pictorial Photographers of America’s commemorative exhibition at the Art Center in New York the following year, they had been sold to the Library of Congress by White’s suspicious wife. Once the show ended on May 1, Watkins had the walls stripped of the prints that she considered were in her custody. She lost them in the resulting lawsuit, and she lost her associates and her standing at the Art Center that she had been closely linked to for years and where she had her only solo show in 1923.

In August 1928, Margaret Watkins embarked on a journey for a trimester-long vacation in Glasgow. But never again would she return from her “rest cure” in a Victorian house full of dying aunts and leaking pipes.

Aunt Anna kicked the bucket within a week after Watkins’s arrival at 41 Westbourne Gardens. In a letter to a friend two years later she described the remnants of her mother’s childhood home: “The youngest [Grace] (!) is seventy-seven and has been in bed for five or six years; the next [Jane], eighty, valiant but very tottery and subject to the most shocking insurrections in the interior; the eldest [Louisa/Louie] eighty-six, a human dynamo, loves the movies, tries to manage the whole solar system and is furiously indignant if I suggest that she is perhaps not quite so strong as she was in the good old days.” Watkins realised that she was “the only available detached female relative who could take the job of keeping an eye on them. And a hectic job it has been, much more than I could have foreseen; and I am not just exactly suited by temperament, or temper, to be the honorary curator of an old Ladies’ home! But here you are – needs must!”

There were three escapes from the “aunthill” until all of them were gone. In the fall of 1928, Watkins took her Graflex camera to the humongous Pressa in Cologne, an international fair on recent advancements in graphic design, printing, publishing and advertising which occupied three exhibition halls and forty-two other buildings on a three-kilometre-long stretch by the Rhine. El Lissitzky (who was living in Germany at the time) curated the engrossing interiors for the Soviet Pavilion, which featured a mural photomontage – The Task of the Press is the Education of the Masses – by some avant-garde artists who were still permitted to shine because Stalin wanted to convince the West about the superiority of his first five-year plan. Watkins revelled in the experience, she loved when miracles popped out of ordinary hats.

When she came back to the Westbourne Gardens “sarcophagus” at the beginning of the new year, after a two-month stay in London following Pressa, she was broke and in an ill state of health. What worsened her condition was that her friend Polly had to clear out her true and only home that summer since the building in the Village would soon be dismantled. “All of my connections are broken in New York,” she wrote at the age of forty-six. “It’s the most disheartening problem I’ve ever been up against, and now that Jane St is gone I have no foundations left, how in heaven’s name I’ll ever make a fresh start in NY, I don’t know.” Watkins set up a minimal darkroom on the top floor of the “aunthill” just to keep herself connected to photography and the craft of playing about in poison. She became an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society in London and, locally, a member of the Glasgow and West Scotland Photographic Association, where she was known as an outsider due to her great style of dressing and her strange offerings in photography.

“Have made a good many mistakes, double exposures, forgetting to fix the time, etcetera but the lot that came from the shop today are quite hopeful. It is wiser to do one’s own developing when possible as you can vary the treatment to suit the subject, but I had to know whether I was getting anything or not and have done several things over again to improve composition or to get a better light. I would have had plenty of cash to get home on if I hadn’t spent it on films and developing but having been nearly twenty years at the game it seemed rather foolish to let the whole business slide and when the interest was revived, I decided to go at it for all I was worth and have something to work on during the winter,” Watkins told her aunt Jane in a letter from Paris on September 18, 1931.

She had returned to the Continent that summer to participate in the eighth International Congress of Scientific and Applied Photography in Dresden during the first week of August. Watkins spent some time in the German capital, which the filmmaker Walther Ruttmann had just portrayed in his modern, mechanical and rhythmic Weimar masterpiece Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1928). However, it was at the Paris Colonial Exposition, which filled up the whole Bois de Vincennes, that Watkins began to photograph for real again. France had culled a huge number of indigenes from its twenty-six territories and so had the other “empires”. These people were treated like animals in a zoo, but for Watkins this spectacle was “literally a trip around the world in a day!”

She loved the vivacity around the Seine. She wrote to aunt Jane that the river “keeps me fascinated and I’ve made a whole series of pictures of the life there. There are huge barges for washhouses for the poor; piers with fussy little steamers arriving and departing with holidaymakers: long low coal barges via canal from the Rhine; fishermen in tippy little boats, other fishers hanging over the copings and stone stairs which run right into the water; artists sitting in every likely and unlikely place where they can plant themselves and an easel; a man teasing out the innards of a mattress with a sort of rocker, while his wife puts it all back into the tick; a couple of terriers being scrubbed by their missus; cranes and steam shovels and huge piles of stone and sand for the new docks; half an acre of wine casks rolled together; beggars cooking meals in odd corners, others washing their clothes and most of themselves, and all along the parapets of the bridges, a black beading of heads and shoulders belonging to the gentlemen who are ‘doing nothing, and doing it very well’.”

In Paris she photographed posters, shop windows, tradesfolk in Les Halles, bits and fragments of buildings and the Eiffel Tower from indirect positions, not all that special. She returned to modernity in her Self-Portrait with the Vendôme Column in the background and the photographer hiding behind her big camera while a policeman joins in to complete the deformed picture, which is fully mirrored in the bulbous chromium alloy of a parked car’s headlight.

When Margaret Watkins photographed The Bathroom Window in the comfort of her home in 1923, the windows were closed and the curtains drawn because this world in the Greenwich Village was enough. The windows in the “window scenes” that she photographed in the fall of 1931 during her stay in London are all opened by the photographer to facilitate the possibility to take off and just leave.

In London she used the same kind of template for her photography as in Paris. But these pictures are so much stronger and resolved, and this is the point where Watkins is reimagining herself in her profession as a photographer. She met her colleagues at the Royal Photographic Society and saw an exhibition there on colour photography (colour photography was something that had spurred her interest for some time), and she went to The Annual London Salon of Photography, themed Invention in Design, where a certain number of her North American pictures were included. Her London “street photography” is void of people – a sign of the dispossessed state that she was in – but full of Watkins’s delicious way of looking at things, despite the gloom and a Stairway to Where?

The last trip went on a freighter from London Bridge to Leningrad via the Kiel Canal in August 1933. Watkins was eager to learn more about Soviet avant-garde art and how Stalinism, in relation to the recent market crashes in the United States and in Europe, was carried into effect. Before the train left for Moscow, Watkins sneaked out of her Leningrad company (including the Secretary of the Royal Society of Arts, Peter Le Neve Foster) and “took my first photograph – of statue of Peter the Great on horseback – while the rest of party stayed at hotel for a second huge meal”. 

“In general, the visual and performing arts, with their radical form and content, stunned Watkins, but she was also on the cusp of a fundamental shift in the Soviet art world. In Moscow, she visited the retrospective exhibition Artists of the Russian Federation over Fifteen Years [1917–32], which she ‘assiduously prowled for two half days [and] appreciated to the limit’. The fight against formalism was a subtext of the exhibition. The show had originated in Leningrad a year earlier, and by the time it got to Moscow it had been severely edited. The major emission was the abstract paintings of Malevich, who had an entire room devoted to his work in Leningrad. This was part of Stalin’s dictated shift from constructivism to social realism. In this transitional moment of 1933, photography, too, was in the midst of change from the avant-garde formalism and fragmentation, acute angles, and extreme close-ups,” explain Mary O’Connor and Katherine Tweedie in their biography. “By stripping away individualist markings, the door was opened to selling myths about the new Soviet society.”

Watkins was not anywhere near as gullible as her student Margaret Bourke-White who swallowed the Stalinist propaganda straight off. Watkins returned from the Soviet Union with six hundred pictures which capacity and August Sander-like social critique went over the heads of the censors. One such picture was Street Photographer, Moscow, depicting a poor, knitting woman (looking much older than she probably was), with a camera on a tripod pointing towards a pathetic backdrop that would place the sitter in a world far, far away from the USSR.

In the beginning of her Glasgow days she photographed the west corner of Westbourne Gardens. Park is a wintry, semiabstract picture with a bird’s-eye view from the house that would ground her for the rest of her life. In a letter never posted she confessed that “It would be hopeless to try and sell 41 at present as there is no demand whatever for such houses and I’m told the demand for flats has slackened. I think I ought to keep up my work. If I survive the aunts it means picking up a connection somewhere and piecing out a living with what funds I have and I must retain my health and what wits I have.” Watkins began to wander the Glasgow harbour area – where she really wasn’t welcome – like an undisguised Rosa Bonheur, “to see man in his true perspective as a very small creature, creeping and scurrying about the earth” (another metaphor for her own condition). Among the harbour’s “prehistoric monsters” she especially fancied the Finnieston Crane situated on the Queen’s Dock – from the heights of her pet crane Watkins was “hanging over the rail in a stiff breeze, looking straight down on the squat dome of the tunnel entrance, with little trucks and figures making a quick beetle pattern of light and dark”. The River Clyde became her mental escape route.

“Heaven forbid that I should slump into a fussy old maid stewing about her symptoms,” she wrote. In 1937, when Watkins was living alone in the sixteen-room house, her main project was to find textile and carpet producers for the kaleidoscopic designs that she had generated from her most abstract photographs. When that wasn’t realised, Watkins started an antiques business together with a far-off friend. She had a talent for discovering the greatest paraphernalia at the Barrow’s Market across town and had her bargains shipped to Toronto until the outbreak of the World War II. During the war years, Watkins did something that other Glaswegians were not so keen to do, she opened her home to refugees. For several years after 1945, she had Walter Süsskind (the conductor of the Scottish Orchestra at the time) and other tenants living in the house.

By the mid-1950s, Watkins did not even dare to venture out to her film club any longer, and she loved film. She had become an agoraphobe and the children looked at her building as if it were a ghost house. She lived in a creative torpor together with her many books, one of her few remaining enticements, and spent her days filling diaries and catalogues with memories and notes. The authors of Seduced by Modernity explain that “the multiple revisiting of her past – conducted in annotations on her parents’ letters, in the margins of the books and exhibition catalogues she had bought, and on scraps of newspapers she kept – all indicate a project to make meaning, and to leave an inheritance. At times, we have understood this to mean that she was waiting for biographers to do a further annotation – to write her life and understand her photographs.”

Watkins’s neighbour Joseph Mulholland argues in his foreword to their book how “Margaret Watkins had achieved what I believed she had set out to do. By creating a mystery, she had left me with a legacy and a duty. That duty was to find out as much as I could about her – and see that she was not forgotten. I had started off with a little more than the labels on the backs of these glorious pictures, a birth date and a death date, a lady with a slight North American accent, and a home where room after room was cluttered with an accumulation of some two hundred years of family clothes, papers, and furnishings. During my search, I found reviews of exhibitions where her photographs had won praise and prizes, and I gradually pieced together the bones of her story.”

The Third Eye Centre in Glasgow presented the first Margaret Watkins retrospective in 1981. When the pioneering New York photo space Light Gallery showed Watkins in 1984, she finally began to receive some recognition in the UK as well. She was called “the show’s greatest discovery” when an exhibition produced by the Detroit Institute of Arts – Pictorialism into Modernism – travelled the world between 1996 and 1998. Another book on Margaret Watkins came out in the autumn of 2012 when the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa presented her art for the Canadian public with their Domestic Symphonies show.

In All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, Marshall Berman gives such a beautiful description of modernism’s vacillating nature: “To be modern is to live a life of paradox and contradiction. It is to be overpowered by the immense bureaucratic organisations that have the power to control and often to destroy all communities, values, lives; and yet to be undeterred in our determination to face these forces, to fight to change their world and to make it our own. It is to be both revolutionary and conservative: alive to new possibilities for experience and adventure, frightened by the nihilistic depths to which so many modern adventures lead, longing to create and to hold on to something real even as everything melts.”

In spite of everything melting away in her life, Watkins penned down these words in the summer of 1962: “In 1908, November, I left home to build a life and make a living. (The Quest continues.)” In 1919 she photographed Untitled (Woman Holding Photographic Print), a picture so dynamic that it could have been a clever painting from today of a woman with the looks of former times and a smartphone in her hands. In the mid-1930s she photographed herself climbing a flight of stairs as a shadowy figure crowned with a hat in Untitled (Self-Portrait and Shadows). What looks like an early work by the secretive Vivian Maier – whose photography was unboxed in 2007 – also very much conveys the sorrow of being the last picture Watkins ever took.

To the lost cat on the roof of the world: We can still look through your eyes. Thank you.

Margaret Watkins, Head and Hand, c 1925. © Joseph Mulholland Collection.

This essay is from the forthcoming exhibition catalogue Margaret Watkins: Black Light and is pre-published here courtesy of diChroma Photography in Madrid.

1 October 2019


I was born into a family of wretched good taste and I use wretched good taste as the key to liberate the imagination.

– Piero Fornasetti

Her lips are sweet surprise. Yet it is the eyes that produce the whew and the wonder of this demure and puckish beauty, pure as Milan snow.

A thread in the Portuguese poet-philosopher Fernando Pessoa’s wonderfully pensive work is how a person can be made of multitudinous imaginary characters, or heteronyms as he preferred to call them, and possess them all as a more wholesome individual. The abovementioned Italian songbird Lina Cavalieri was no longer alive when Milanese artist, designer, craftsman Piero Fornasetti (1913–1988) fell in love with a halftone image of her extraordinary face as it appeared in a newspaper article in 1951. His Tema e variazioni series is this image of her visage as it goes through three hundred and sixty transfigurations, which also involves the artist’s many ideas of his own identities – Lina as exceptional versions of himself printed on rather common white plates, twenty-six centimetres in diameter – and outright examples of what John Hooper talks about in his book The Italians, “This very Italian talent for dusting life with a thick layer of stardust.”

From Lina as Fornasetti’s pristine, original halftone-dotted beauty to Piero Fornasetti as Cavalieri, there are as many Lina plates as only a creatively bonkers mind by any chance could come up with: Cavalieri in a knitted balaclava, Lina drinking her morning bowl of coffee, Lina who goes up, up and away as a Montgolfier balloon, Lina who walks like an Egyptian or is peeled like an orange or eaten as a wheel of formaggio, the newly-hatched Lina and Lina as a vanitas skull, Lina as Fantomas or as the tongue-y Albert Einstein or as the Tramp, Lina as the Queen of Hearts, the perplexed Lina, Lina as a flapper, Lina as a broken-plate painting by art market dabbler Julian Schnabel, Lina as the third eye and the give-us-a-wink Lina, Lina as a conqueror of the old world, Lina as the crowning member of a column, the like-a-surgeon Lina or the Wild West Lina with a price on her head, the Ziggy Lina (who played guitar with Weird and Gilly) or Lina wearing her emblematic face as a necklace. The platonic Mrs Fornasetti as the pearl of creation.

Hannah Arendt, in her introduction to Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (published in 1955), argued that “What guides [poetic] thinking is the conviction that although the living is subject to the ruin of the time, the process of decay is at the same time a process of crystallisation, that in the depth of the sea, into which sinks and is dissolved what once was alive, some things ‘suffer a sea-change’ and survive in new crystallised forms and shapes that remain immune to the elements, as though they waited only for the pearl diver who one day will come down to them and bring them up into the world of the living.” Piero Fornasetti was a master of those “sea changes” that set the scene for new formations. Also, he was an artist of an omnivorous disposition – a diver, an astronaut and (much less figuratively) a cyclist who loved the streets of Milan and soaked it all up.

The image of Lina Cavalieri’s face is seen on a Fornasetti vase in the bookshelves in Almodóvar’s recent, autobiographical and numb Pain and Glory (2019), where one can also spot Fornasetti’s raised small sideboard Farfalle (plenty of butterflies on a white background) in Salvador Mallo’s delectable Madrid apartment which has everything that the filmmaker and his alter ego have not. The gallery of this famous face continues to be Fornasetti’s most recognised work – Tema e variazioni is how you went viral in those days – even though it is his least interesting.

One of Fornasetti’s plate designs might reveal how he at times must have felt about this particular creation: here is a floored man fully occupied with keeping the seven plates with Lina’s face spinning on its poles, so as not to fail. However, it would be fair to say that the changing faces of his star vehicle Lina Cavalieri served as a scrapbook to sort out and to measure the mania, the baroque histrionics and the general too-muchery that not only formed this maverick’s design, but even more so perfected it, Italianated it, made it so elegant, so goddamn full of flair.

“The variety of his stylistic registers and particular talents shows Fornasetti to belong to a wave of artistic taste in Europe between 1930 and 1960 that has yet to be fully understood. It was created by artistic as much as literary individuals whose common theme was to resist the formulaic doctrines of modernism, and to counterpoise a neo-baroque or neo-romantic imagination, while at the same time re-evaluating works and movements that had hitherto become neglected,” writes his biographer Patrick Mauriès:

“Visual tricks, imaginary stage and theatre settings, figures borrowed from commedia dell’arte, fantasy landscapes, games, tropes and allusions to literature and art; the loss of reference point and the blurring of identity are the driving forces behind Fornasetti’s art. Concealed one behind the other are his regular stylistic approaches: his taste for series, which incidentally lends him the status of a forerunner of one of the principal themes of contemporary art. It is a procedure by which form seems to arise out of itself in an endless game of features and deviations.”

There is both a reiterative rhythm and an obsessional continuousness in Fornasetti’s tremendous body of work. He was an ancient spirit with a modern (not modernist) temper. (Picasso made five hundred portraits of the great and fragile Dora Maar during the years when he abused her to insanity; On Kawara’s irresistible series of Date Paintings began in 1966, he made as many as three thousand and each took eight hours to paint – “I make love to the days,” as he put it; a third example is of course the king of seriality himself, Andy Warhol.) 

In last year’s very decent biopic from Nils Tavernier, The Ideal Palace, Joseph Ferdinand Cheval’s future wife takes a liking to the unyielding postman and asks him what he thinks about during his daily ten-hour rounds. “Je rêve” is his crisp reply – a few days later. In 1879, the year when their daughter Alice was born, Cheval tripped over a peculiar stone which he brought home on a wheelbarrow, and for the next thirty-three years he built the Palais Idéal for her and later on to her memory (Alice died when she was fifteen). The cross-grained Fornasetti was a dreamer too, of the most elusive dreams. And he called his guiding principle follia pratica, practical madness.

Ettore Sottsass – the man with the red typewriter and, later, the candy-coloured collectibles for yuppies – described him as “a very sophisticated child, a magic child with charms that can transform the world into a place of fantastic memories […] from faraway lands where everything is beautiful, silent, pleasant, noble and even a bit comic, a bit ridiculous, a bit erotic, a bit beguiling”. While the Fornasetti brand is in every way a fantasy world of sparkling love, flowers and pearls and pretty girls, the designs are always pervasive and rigorous statements of beauty, a beauty difficult to pin down without some proper thought, affinity and lust for life.

“The whole of my work is based on design, design as a discipline, as a way of living and organising my own personal existence, as well as a continuous study of things, of their essence. I prefer order, but this doesn’t prevent me admiring what is casual and unexpected,” Piero Fornasetti said during the later years of his life. “What I did was something more than decoration. It was an invitation to the imagination, to think, to escape from those things around us that are too mechanised and inhuman. They were tickets to travel through the realm of the imagination.”

Young Piero became an artist he was ten. The boy was sitting by a lake with his sketchpad one morning in the summertime when the pen began to move in a whole new way, and when it was all done he had drawn a fascinating human figure: “I was amazed, in heaven, dazzled by this miracle, and I am still astonished today when I see this image come bursting all by itself from somewhere deep inside me into the paper.” Drawing, and to understand the world through it, was the very starting point for Fornasetti. He talked about it “as a discipline, as a way of life, as a way of organising one’s existence, and as an uninterrupted study of things, in what makes the essence”: “Whenever someone asks for my advice about how to ‘design’, I always say: go and learn life drawing. That’s the only way to learn how to design. Knowing how to draw, as the Ancients did, makes it possible for you to organise and design an object, a car, a frontispiece or page of a book.”

Just like John Ruskin in the 1800s, Fornasetti argued that the instance of drawing was the best way for people to know how to see or, better, to learn how to really look at the world in a different manner. As a youngster Fornasetti was staying in a room not much bigger than the size of the bed, and all he was doing there from morning to evening was to draw and to have every object in this insufficient space covered with these designs, or “leftover dreams” as he called them, “and thus concealed a message in every work, a little story, sometimes ironic, wordless of course, but audible to those who believe in poetry”.

The furniture that he made together with the multitalented Giovanni Ponti in the 1950s are in every aspect architecturally worked out pieces. The main construction was blueprinted by Ponti and covered and even more so integrated with Fornasetti’s idiosyncratically playful designs, often characterised by ingenious trompe l’oeil effects. When you eat in Italy there is of course the table itself, tavolo, but feminise the word and it describes the meal and all the joys and the beauty surrounding the table. Fornasetti’s work is tavola.

There is a photograph of the designer as a young man in the 1930s – slicked back hair, hands in pocket, a grey three-piece tweed suit, tie and a white shirt, a dark coat. Look closer, everyone – there is a hole in his right-side trouser leg at the knee, and he doesn’t give a flying fuck. Fornasetti’s biographer explains that his outward presence “suggested an essential paradox: there was a concern for form – in every sense of the word – expressed by a refined sense of elegance, codified and slightly out of date, in understated tweeds or cashmere, yet this was simultaneously enhanced or countered with a flamboyant waistcoat or tie, or perhaps an impertinent pocket handkerchief, showing not only particular care for his appearance, but also superb insolence in the face of conformity or the outwardly respectable.”

There are two great photographs of Piero Fornasetti from 1948. By 1930, and at long last, his headstrong father surrendered all further attempts to push his son into a career that he had mapped out for him, and turned around and helped him acquire a studio with a printing press at Via Antonio Bazzini 14. In the first of these photos, Fornasetti is sitting with his back against us, deeply concentrated, in this ascetic studio with rolls and rolls of his designs in the right corner and empty picture frames on the wall in front of him, which do look like American artist Allan McCollum’s Surrogate Paintings (his emblem paintings from the late 1970s). Nothing in this space is embellished and adorned. What took place in his head, however, must have looked like Cecil Beaton’s bedroom fairground.

In 1948 Fornasetti found, what he called, his “gospel” in Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery, a short book in which the author canvasses the idea of becoming one with what you are trying to achieve: “It took me a considerable time before I succeeded in doing what the Master wanted. But – I succeeded. I learned to lose myself so effortlessly in the breathing that I sometimes had the feeling that I myself was not breathing but – strange as this may sound – was being breathed […] I managed to draw the bow and keep it drawn until the moment of release while remaining completely relaxed in body, without my being able to say how it happened. The qualitative difference between these few successful shots and the innumerable failures was so convincing that I was ready to admit that now at last I understood what was meant by drawing the bow ‘spiritually’.”

The other photograph is a portrait by Irving Penn. Fornasetti is standing behind the very chair he is sitting on in the first picture, now with his rough hand resting on the backrest, his head slightly tilted, the curve of the open tweed jacket forms the line between light and total shadow, bow drawn spiritually. This portrait was made between Penn’s legendary fashion photography and the Small Trades series in a skanky room in Paris and his existential Corner Portraits of 1948–49, in which he shoved heroes and plain celebrities into a most narrow corner. It was American Vogue’s brilliant Art Director Alexander Liberman who sent Penn to Italy and France to photograph the cultural names that had gone invisible since the war. Edmonde Charles-Roux at Paris Vogue, who joined him on these journeys, said that “I was extremely surprised by Penn’s attention to, interest in, even admiration for European art world personalities.” Penn and Fornasetti then, what could go wrong? Nothing.

Italian journalist Luigi Barzini reverberated “the great art of being happy” sentiment by Stendhal, and this French author’s undying love for Italy (and especially the Milanese), in his book from 1964, The Italians: “The Italians know that everything in their country is governed by their experience, the product of their industry, imbued with their spirit. They know that there is no need, really, to distinguish or to choose between the smile on the face of a cameriere and Donatello’s San Giorgio […] They are all works of art, the ‘great art of being happy’ and of making other people happy, an art which embraces and inspires all others in Italy, the only art worth learning, but which can never be really mastered, the art of inhabiting the earth.”

Someone who would really dig that quote is the gentleman Director Bo Nilsson at Artipelag, the enormous art space on Värmdö in the Stockholm archipelago (with its almost thirty thousand islands, islets and skerries). And guess what, Fornasetti is pure catnip for this man who has been thinking of Piero Fornasetti ever since he discovered his work in a Paris bookstore thirty years ago. “But what is it, do I understand it? Not really,” Nilsson confides. “I have had a long process in trying to understand what Fornasetti is really about. There have been many books and exhibitions, but not really from the perspective that I fancied, with the questions that I wanted to ask.”

“It became more and more obvious that one day I would have to make my own Fornasetti exhibition. Now is the right time to do it. Fornasetti is getting more and more attention in the world of contemporary art. I’d say that Fornasetti is an artist who is difficult to pin down. He’s unpredictable and that is why this exhibition is called Inside Out Outside In,” Nilsson explains. “We didn’t want to do just another small thing of the image of Fornasetti since he is one of the major designers of the 20th century. We wanted to bring him back to the full scale of his artisanship, of his artistry, everything that he stood for – a real Renaissance man who has been working in so many fields. So, we are trying to bring him back as the artist he started as, and how he developed his different artforms.”

Inside Out Outside In succeeds in doing the full-scale Fornasetti. It is just about the pick of the litter, nearly as far as you can take a Fornasetti show. (Though what is missing in this grand survey is the secluded illustrations of the artist’s innermost sexual desires.) Objects that are not on the walls are on beautiful plywood plinths or in plywood showcases. The walls are either gallery white or painted in flawless hues of blue, grey, yellow and red, or covered with Piero Fornasetti’s wallpaper patterns. A sun disc lamp against the Nuvolette wallpaper, a big sky as a surrealistic burst of angsty cloud puffs, is hardly something that would impress the Japanese kawaii market. His idea of the sun included himself, and the Fornasetti sun amounts to Summerisle’s eerie Helios symbol in the horror masterpiece The Wicker Man (1973) where the heliotherapy goes too far for an unfortunate police sergeant.

The three thousand square metres of exhibition space has always proved to be too much for Artipelag. It is something of a soundstage – with an added “airport corridor” (with sliding doors) that twists and turns into more agreeable compartments – that for unknown reasons has to be filled up for every new show, whatever the material. Last year’s Bloomsbury Spirit for instance, curated by an art critic slash self-professed authority on the Bloomsbury bunch, looked as if it had been scraped together by means of a bizarrely awkward fengshui algorithm. It was a shockingly stultifying, feckless production which would have saved itself a little had it utilised, say, Ari Aster’s dollhouse aesthetics from Hereditary (2018). Inside Out Outside In is on the contrary an almost perfect exhibition. Almost.

Bo Nilsson writes in the catalogue how “Fornasetti imagined history not as accidental or confused but as a carefully organised universe arranged according to scientific principles. For this reason, he thought it rational to organise his own objects in accordance with similar principles. It is not difficult to imagine Piero Fornasetti as a Renaissance prince collecting rare objects in order to satisfy his curiosity about the wonders of the world. These cabinets of curiosities compiled specimens of rare plants, fruits, flowers and animals. Their opposite were artefacts created by man, such as books, letters, music, theatre and art of exceptional beauty. In the course of history, these collections grew as the world opened up as the result of journeys and new experiences.”

Inside Out Outside In as a universe intended to show the full scope of Fornasetti’s artistry spreads these items of fancy as if they ever were intended as museum pieces, and they are not. It is when these wonderful objects are pulled together by their innate forces of attraction that you will ensure the full appreciation of Piero Fornasetti as one of the most special designers of the 20th century – as with the chock-full cabinets in one of the last rooms in the show, replete with his smaller designs, curiosities, the familiar and the sublime. Perhaps at this point you will still not “understand” Fornasetti but you will love him for what he left in this world.

In her book The Artificial Kingdom, Celeste Olalquiaga calls the Age of Wonder “A happy interregnum between theology and science” and “A time when the universe was still – if residually – alive with magic feelings, every creature and thing the source of infinite amazement, the age of wonder indicated in its childlike openness the beginning of a new cultural era. It was a moment when the West perceived the world as an object of contemplation and spectatorial delight while readying its mercantile profitability and intellectual consumption.” A more “compressed” presentation of this show would have turned Artipelag into a Fornasetti-congenial Wunderkammer.

Piero Fornasetti was seventeen when he was admitted to and quickly kicked out of the Accademia di Brera in Milan with a zero for conduct. His idea of artistic education was based on the study of the human body, but the art academy refused to provide the students with anything that would even vaguely relate to the carnal. After the Brera Academy, Fornasetti participated in various evening classes at Castello Sforza where he found his passion for the complex dimensionality in Renaissance art, particularly its architecture.

There were two strong country-specific artistic movements that formed the young man when he grew up. They were both very modern (not modernist), and they were both reconsidering the Italian past with a kind of dreamy accuracy. “I was lucky enough to be interested in culture when the Novecento happened, and to meet some of the movement’s followers, whose ideas I espoused: painting should be tonal, like that of Giotto, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca, and as it has been inherited by Carrà, Sironi and Soffici, and in architecture one should only be rational,” Fornasetti argued. The other group, Pittura metafisica, pronounced the unknown pleasures of profound, enigmatic places, far away from the material world, where time has expired and the kingdom is ruled by imagination.

Patrick Mauriès: “The corollary of this basic rigour was Fornasetti’s definitive rejection of every sort of romantic pathos of 19th-century scapigliatura [bohemianism] such as the soft and sinuous forms of the Art Nouveau or Liberty style that was all the rage in Milan when he was growing up. His artistic approach was unmistakably influenced by the formalism pursued by certain artists to whom he was close in Italy in the 1930s. He was also eager to acknowledge a fundamental debt to two books: Carlo Carrà’s Giotto and Roberto Longhi’s Piero della Francesca. These books both show that the metaphysical experiment during the early decades of the 20th century had its roots in a sort of ‘primitivist’ memory of Italian art, resonating with Quattrocento ‘purism’ and various expressions of a ‘return to order’ that were current in Europe at the time [with] pure lines, dull chromaticism, restrained colour range, the taste for a certain monumentality, shallow spaces, the recourse to classicising gestures and themes, along the lines of Picasso subject matter in the 1920s.”

At the far end of the Inside Out Outside In exhibition is a piece of a stunning quality. It is a painting that thrills with various Quattrocento expressions, with irruptions of modernity, a sedated masterpiece with a lacerating presence that employs a holy union of Renaissance linear perspective, Surrealist weirdness and unadulterated Fornasetti genius. La venditrice di farfalle, painted in 1938, shows a “butterfly saleswoman” behind a counter in a shop that could have been a candy store were it not for all the boxes of pinned up butterflies, the symbol of dead souls, Fascist Italy. A nimble dot in pink and orange in the lower left corner changes the sombre tone, a butterfly takes wings.

“An artist whatever he does, is always drawing his self-portrait,” said Fornasetti who effortlessly switched between different themes and styles with each new painting. His most “traditional” self-portrait is from the same year as the lady and the butterflies – the seated artist with his hand positioned on the chin like Rodin’s Le Penseur, but here in a much more upright position and eyes locked on the viewer as if we are disturbing his privacy. The other hand is holding a paintbrush as a foreboding pendulum, loaded with a dot of rosso corsa. Another great piece in this part of the show is his “Novecento” painting Spiaggia from the 1940s that has the atmospheric touch of the film On the Beach (1959), in which a random Morse transmission turns out to be a Cola bottle lugged in the loop of a roller blind, beeping to a dead world.

But come, let us feast our eyes on a bunch of radishes, Rapanelli, a beautiful little piece from the 1940s in the style of those lusher still life paintings of the 1600s – like Osias Beert the Elder’s Still Life with Cherries (Nationalmuseum in Stockholm) or Giovanna Garzoni’s Cherries in a Dish, a Pod, and a Bumblebee (Galleria Palatina in Florence) ­– however complicated by the calamity that brews in this supposedly decorative work of art as it rather looks like a heart ripped out of a human body. Fornasetti’s work was always about the bewildering of his own shrewdness, schmoozing the incredible with surefooted continuous walks on the wild side. He painted his impossible air vehicles in the high ceiling of his bedroom when he was young. In 1988, when Fornasetti left this world, they flew for real in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

In 1980, this autodidact admitted that in the past “No one could teach me anything in the ateliers I visited. I learned from books. I learned lithography, engraving. I learned all that before schools were started for teaching individual techniques.” Bo Nilsson writes in the Inside Out Outside In catalogue how Fornasetti, in his new studio on Via Antonio Bazzini, “tried out every technique of gravure and printing: lithography, engraving, drypoint, monotype. His assiduous practice of all these techniques quickly gave him the necessary skills, both as an accomplished engraver and printer. He collaborated with the greatest artists of his time, printing artists’ books and lithographs for them, thereby making his living. The Stamperia d’Arte Piero Fornasetti produced work by Fabrizio Clerici, Carlo Carrà, Massimo Campigli, Eugene Berman, Giorgio Di Chirico, Orfeo Tamburi, Marino Marini and Lucio Fontana.”

The Fifth Triennale in 1933 was when this international design exhibition landed in Milan for good. Fornasetti’s printed silk scarves were so insanely out of this world and into this world that they were dismissed by the Triennale’s committee, most likely because its members lacked the capacity to define these intricate and inordinately lovely pieces where technique and design merged with such brilliancy. It was at this Triennale that Gio Ponti discovered the qualities and idiosyncrasies of the twenty-two years younger and just-rejected Piero Fornasetti.

For the latter it was a “decisive moment” in his early career: “Ponti was very excited about my way of using this technique, so much so that he gave me a long list of jobs straight away. We had a great deal of respect for one another, although we always addressed each other formally. That is how we launched into a series of works together in the 1950s. I would decorate all kinds of things from luxury apartments on the liner Andrea Doria, to furnishing fabric or cinema interiors.”

The Seventh Triennale in 1940 presented this new design dyad’s first great synergic work, a swanky bulging glass cabinet; hardware by Ponti, mindware by Fornasetti. The concave midsection has only the coated glossy black lacquer that covers the whole front, while both of the sides are flowing with some of Fornasetti’s signature nature morte motifs: musical instruments, playing cards, a chain, jars, a pipe, a medieval helmet, asparagus, fruits and flowers, a blue butterfly and an angel’s kiss in spring.

When Fornasetti’s series of self-portraits from 1941–45 – Autoritratto – was finally published in 1966, he used a quote by Leonardo da Vinci as the epigram for the book: “The mirror, the mirror above all, is our master.” Most of these ink drawings, executed on damped paper, were made during his three years in exile when he was detained in a Swiss camp a long way from civilisation. Italy joined the war with Nazi Germany and Japan in September 1940, and for a few years Fornasetti managed to evade the warfare business by inventing some major public assignments for himself. Before he was arrested and fled to Switzerland in 1943, Fornasetti created two fantastic interior paintings in Milan and at the University of Padua.

In several of these Autoritratto works presented in the Artipelag show, Fornasetti uncaps the top of his head or opens a door to it so that we can glimpse into this enterprise that is his brain, decorated with floral designs. One of these self-portraits illustrates a male hand that is covering his moustached face with a flower. There are three other series of drawings in this show, all made in the Deitingen camp in 1945. The aesthetics is very Jean Cocteau-y. What Fornasetti was lusting for by the end of the war is pretty obvious here: naked male Bathers, naked male Bricklayers, naked male Athletes. However, what was really going on in that lively brain matter of his was a veritable peep show, still too risqué to be part of the Inside Out Outside In show.

His series of sixty-nine ink and pencil drawings of penises galore – Elogium Mentulae (also 1945) – remains unpublished, though he tried again in 1973 and added a new drawing, which looks very Warholian in style, of a female head with penis earrings. The Praise of the Penis series embraces Leonardo da Vinci’s view that “man is wrong to feel ashamed to name it, much less to display it, always covering and hiding what should be adorned and displayed with due solemnity”, and it is a libidinous exposure of penis-y noses rubbing similar noses or penis-y horns slipping into male mouths, clusters of penises, an elevated plate of penises, blow jobs between men and fornicating fantasy creatures from ancient times. Think of manhood guru Frank T J Mackey in Magnolia (1999) who urges his crowds to pump up this universal, evolutional, anthropological, biological, animal message about respecting the cock.

Fornasetti returned to his precious Milan in 1946 with the intention “to fill the universe with scarves” (he had actually been able to continue his scarf production locally in Switzerland). Bo Nilsson says that it was Fornasetti’s “experiences of the city – from the top, the bottom, the outside, the inside” which “created this complexity that also characterised the Italian cultural heritage. Milan is a paradoxical city, it is both a city with a financial centre, Italy’s strongest power today and since a very long time, but it is also a creative city where owners of small businesses have a phenomenal ability to develop design. At the same time, it is based on its ancient heritage, and none of this has been wrecked, they have just added and added – from antiquity into the Renaissance and Neo-Classical times – so in that way Milan and many other Italian cities act as kinds of archaeological excavations. They are still however modern cities. And this is Piero Fornasetti in a nutshell, he is past and present.”

Gio Ponti loved this Fornasetti-in-nuce. “If ever my life as an architect were one day deserving of a book, the chapter that starts in 1950 could be called ‘The Fornasetti Passion’,” he expressed in an article called “The Fantasy Home” in one of his own magazines, Domus, in May 1952. “What does Fornasetti bring to me? The possibility of having ‘unique’ things, thanks to a process of printing on cloth, with prodigious inventiveness and speed; chair after chair, panel after panel, drape after drape. To which one may add his lightness of touch, whose power to evoke makes such an impression.”

Inside Out Outside In has a generous display of what Ponti and Fornasetti achieved together, like the round table Pesci cavallucci marini e astici (1950), a beauty with lithograph prints of fish under the glass top and seahorse and lobster prints on the legs, or the marbled table Libri (1950s) with trompe l’oeil books thrown on its surface, or the structured cabinet Panoplie (mid-1950s) which is a feast of effects on a creamy base with highly elaborated gold leaf decorations, owned by the man who in 1984 sang “The Power of Love”. Nilsson: “The starting point is architecture and he created chairs, tables, cabinets and everything imaginable. This was made possible by his printing skills, that he had an ability to work directly with the prints on the three-dimensional objects. And everything is done with tremendous craftsmanship.”

There is a 1932 painting in the show depicting the Porto di Genova with a white liner in the background. It is done in a slightly Naïve style, effectively (and thankfully) messed up with black smokestack vapours in front of a jumpy Il Duce sky. In the early 1950s, Ponti and Fornasetti designed the first-class sections of the transatlantic liners the Conte Grande (1950) and the Andrea Doria (1952), which very much functioned as corporate embassies for the country to display Italian design at its finest for the ships’ affluent clientele of international travellers. Inside Out Outside In shows a couple of Fortnasetti’s sketches for a ceiling and two large walls on the Andrea Doria.

These pictures are a little interesting because here in Sweden we have a very special relationship with the Andrea Doria, which in 1956 collided with the Swedish American Line’s ship Gripsholm and sank,” explains Bo Nilsson. “It was a pretty big tragedy and Piero Fornasetti has somehow had an almost psychic ability to understand what was going to happen. If you look at both of these drawings, he has suggested that it is not really easy to go out on the big seas. He has produced great drawings of starry skies for Andrea Doria’s ceiling and around it are huge pictures of fish, pictures of aquariums really, and many of the fishes are actually quite awful so as you should realise that this is more than just a holiday trip. In the past the stars helped us to navigate, nowadays we have modern technology. But as we saw with the Andrea Doria, navigating may not be that easy after all. And what is hiding in these deep waters? Horrendous sea creatures. Piero has the ability to create an image which tells us that nothing is as simple as it seems, we also have to go into our psyche and deal with it accordingly.”

Fornasetti believed that “Salvation is in the imagination” and encouraged the idea to establish “a hundred schools of imagination in Italy”. The Italian places that he overhauled with Ponti were exactly such premises of excellence and imagination, total sceneries. After having decorated Milan’s Cinema Arlecchino in a modern style in 1949, they continued with the Casinò di Sanremo (1950), followed by the Pasticceria Dulciora (1951), a Milan confectionary shop where Fornasetti’s murals were a paean to days of yore and decidedly enough of a treat. They created a handful of spectacular apartment habitats in their hometown, of which the absolutely most complete was the Casa Luciano on Via Giorgio Washington – for Ponti and Fornasetti the place was nothing less than la Casa di Fantasia – and Fornasetti embellished every surface that was his with most clever trompe l’oeil decorations. The painted shelves were crowded with painted books.

Books, books, books, and all kinds of printed matter, these were schools, enjoyments, inspirations and collector’s items (ideally in complete series) for Piero Fornasetti: “I read everything from Abbé Ferdinando Galliani to any magazine, pamphlet, newspaper from any country; in everything there is the sign of the passage of man, and this fascinates me,” he explained. “I have gathered thousands of documents on the so-called decorative arts; it is essential to find, to collect things together so that at the right moment I can find an aesthetic reference to use for my creations, and it gives me a sense of tranquillity, another satisfaction of the ‘collector’.” In 1951, he published the poet Raffaele Carrieri’s Viaggio in Italia, a book that Fornasetti designed with the above-mentioned Eugene Berman’s lithographs.

Marilyn Monroe died on August 5, 1962, the day after Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans show closed in Los Angeles. In a fit of celebrity grief, Warhol picked up a publicity photograph of her from the 1950s, cropped it and converted it without further alteration into a silk-screen template. Fornasetti was ten years ahead of Warhol with his serialisation of Lina Cavalieri’s lovely face – his paragon of female beauty whose countenance was altered for each new plate in a blaze of creativity that mostly looked like a merry riot – whereas Warhol kept his Marilyn(s) unchanged and full of replicated sorrow.

Lina Cavalieri, who was portrayed by Gina Lollobrigida in the 1955 picture show La donna più bella del mondo, encountered death from above when her villa in Venice was shattered in an aerial attack in 1944. Her magic was described by the designer and illustrator Erté in his autobiography Things I Remember in 1975: “Over the years, hundreds of journalists have asked me whom I regarded as the most beautiful woman in the world. Invariably I replied ‘Lina Cavalieri’. Why? She was tall and extremely slender – a rarity among turn-of-the-century prima donnas. Her classically pure features were enhanced by dark hair and eyes and a long swanlike neck. Yet her beauty was not cold. Her expression was full of animation, and she moved with grace and authority. Cavalieri’s most dominant quality however was her extraordinary charm.”

Wherever there was extraordinary charm it was surely picked up by Fornasetti. There are two works on paper from the 1940s (not in the show): Pennelli, an ink drawing of his brushes which is just like a much later piece by Warhol, at that juncture before he originated his silk-screen paintings; and Pennini, a lithograph that zooms in on the beauty of an ordinary consumer product (pen nibs) – and again it is very proto-Warhol. Fornasetti’s Piscibus plates (1955) are quite astonishing pieces with a hand-painted trompe l’oeil fish (of different sorts) on a silk-screened background that mimics Spode’s idyllic Blue Italian. Another item worth mentioning at Artipelag is his pencil holder Piede romano (1960s), which also shows the ironist side of Fornasetti as it alludes to the eighty-metre-high metallic Maxi-Me Hercules that Il Duce was to erect in Rome but which ended with a mere foot.

“I consider myself also the inventor of the tray, because, at a certain point in our civilisation, no one knew how to pass a glass, a message, a poem anymore,” Fornasetti expressed. His trays depict some weird creatures of the deep, and the sun and the moon and the empyreal. However, the most brilliant tray at Artipelag is the one with his widescreen motif Interno Teatro alla Scala (where Cavalieri used to perform) in which a long line of ballerinas is facing us while we are facing the audience. These trays are so good that they shouldn’t pass anything else than the poetry of their own presence.

It is obvious when one walks around in this show that Fornasetti was crazy about screens, screens as room dividers (etc), screens as metaphysical displays and shelters. There is a framed photograph from the 1960s of Piero Fornasetti where his most famous screen forms an existential baseball diamond, hardly wider than in Irving Penn’s Corner Portraits where the angle was fixed at 22.5 degrees. The quiet origin of this work, his pièce de résistance, was the Scaletta screen that he made in 1955, a pictorial game in which some kind of a ladder leans against a wall full of quite impossible stairs.

“This piece is a reconstruction of a work that Fornasetti did as a kind of therapy from 1955 to 1958. And it is a work that looks completely different, and you cannot really understand if it can be associated with what he was doing with Ponti. It is a work called Stanza Metafisica, the metaphysical room. The starting point is a screen that is often found in Italian churches so that it does not get too cold and draughty. They are of Oriental origin and Fornasetti was interested in both the religious and the Oriental, and that is what he was trying to unite in this work. Stanza Metafisica was a room for himself – ‘a room of one’s own’ as Virginia Woolf would have called it – Piero’s own room,” says Bo Nilsson as he sits down on a very red lounge pug in the middle of a very different space.

“And we imagine that he was sitting here, surrounded by a thirty-six-piece screen that he could change according to what he wanted to achieve when he was creating. He sat in this room, he used it as his thought chair. And this is typical of that time – a renewed interest in spirituality existed in art throughout the 1950s – to go back to meditation, to understand oneself however in a slightly different way. This is a reconstruction, with the same wallpaper, because the original work that Piero did is very fragile. Here you can sit and perceive some of this spatiality which is, after all, a deceptive spatiality of a room that does not really exist. Stanza Metafisica is a created room with many different facets, openings and possibilities.”

The spinning plates that Fornasetti’s alter ego juggler kept gyrating on his poles across the decades were bound to drop one day. When Fornasetti’s business finally plummeted, the company was suffering both from managerial issues and the customers’ sudden lack of interest in his designs. “Artists have their highs and lows. It is not only the quality of their own production that is subject to change, but above all the response of their work which depends on the spirit of the time,” clarifies Nilsson. 

“And Fornasetti didn’t want to be mainstream but to stand for himself, in the midst of his own identity. This, of course, resulted in him becoming extra vulnerable, and with the large investments he made in the 60s when he opened stores in Milan and Capri and in several other places, his economic situation worsened. In connection with the recession in the 1970s, it became evident that design was perhaps not the first thing that people acquired. Fornasetti was near bankruptcy. And it also came with the spirit of the times, that minimalism – pure and very simple design – was the priority. In the 80s, he was elevated by the postmodernists, but then forgotten. Now the younger artists are looking at Fornasetti again.”

Early in 1970, Fornasetti was engaged in designing the graphics for an exhibition about competition cars called Bolide Design at the Musée des arts décoratifs in Paris (Fornasetti’s second favourite city), which employed the idea of regarding these speedsters as works of art, pretty much like Roland Barthes did in his collection of essays Mythologies (1957): “I think that cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals; I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object.” Fornasetti found a new outlet for his refinement of sensibility in the Galleria dei Bibliofili, which he co-founded and managed throughout the 1970s. The shows had themes such as The SunThe Hand and Owls, Grand Dukes and Co and were often brimmed with thousands of objects of varied expressions and from different ages, and included Fornasetti, his fellow artists and a younger generation of creators.

“Piero Fornasetti was not an easy character,” writes his son Barnaba (born in 1950) in Practical Madness, the book that was made for the exhibition Piero Fornasetti: La folie pratique at the Musée des arts décoratifs in the spring of 2015. “I only ever lived in the world of Fornasetti: the whole house was filled with the spirit of his designs, his tastes, his collections.” Quite ironically, it is Barnaba Fornasetti’s “postmodern” re-evaluations of his father’s work that are the most suitable as museum pieces in the Inside Out Outside In show, and the presentation is much denser in this room.

Fornasetti’s only child took the leading role in the company in 1982. “I really had to adapt production to a slightly more rigorous method,” he explains in this book. “In the end there was only one artisan left in the workshop, a pensioner from Puglia, who spent his time squabbling with my father, to whom he spoke only one day in two, but who was utterly devoted and had in the course of time acquired a remarkable skill that he was not always prepared to share. I managed to establish a trusting working relationship with him by avoiding the power struggles that Piero always found necessary, and then we began to make an inventory, to classify and restore the archives.”

In his book Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s (written in 1931), Fredrick Lewis Allen unknowingly sums up the pain of living in Sweden today: “You cannot fully enjoy a zoo if you have been led to think of it as the home of an enlightened citizenry.” Fornasetti at Artipelag is like leaving the muddle of a passive-aggressive totalitarian ideology, the mass hysteria and the piecemeal destruction to follow a riverbank of excitements together with the kind Mr Mole in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908):

Never in his life had he seen a river before – this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again. All was a-shake and a-shiver – glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble. The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spellbound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.

Its about the great art of being happy and making other people happy, remember?

Piero Fornasetti, La venditrice di farfalle (The Butterfly Saleslady), 1938. Tempera on panel.

Fornasetti: Inside Out Outside In at Artipelag in Stockholm (Värmdö) through January 26, 2020.