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A factory experience

For many years, perhaps ever since I started painting, I was drawn to the world of manufacturing. Or maybe, before it became a conscious interest of mine, there were distant memories of me as a child, raised amid tall trees and fields with floriculture crops where I would hear the siren on the other side of the wall and voices and footsteps of workers going to and coming from their weaving shifts. For such a long time that wall had been insurmountable and, even later on, it evoked new hindrances as it was essential to give shape and colour to the endless concrete environment around us and to the people inside, who were in that space with feelings and reasons of their own.

Over time I may have become both more daring and cautious. The smoke above the city touched fields and everything else. I told myself it was necessary to delve into people’s hearts under their overalls. I did not lose hope. I went straight for the individuals in the factory, trying to identify a gesture which may reveal their duality: the job they carried out and their conscience in general.

There I was, inside the big factory. Would I trust my eyes, my heart or my mind? Would I lose myself in the rhythm associated with manufacturing the unknown (hard to grasp the relevance of the shape of cogs and wheels within the production system as a whole), shadows, lights, sounds, heat, humidity, blinding shimmer? Was it recognizing an ideological criticism? Would I blend in with the human element present in modern-day factories after all (a former farmer, craftsman, homemaker)?

[…] I could only scrabble about, in an on/off, half-conscious, at times instinctive approximation.

I was in Bicocca unaccompanied for the first time. Despite working several years in “unusual” conditions compared to the traditional way of painting (not in the quiet of the workshop, the silence of the fields, but with the quick interaction among people and things in action), I still felt the awkwardness and respect, perhaps more than any other time. I walked around the huge vulcanization wing looking at puzzling details in the extreme heat, thick air and with a fair amount of noise, among a few workers in greyish-white overalls and machines whose clenched teeth clasped large pneumatic tyres.

Sometimes I glanced over at the worker or any other part of the machine. What did I want? Those who, without paying attention to me, would see me walking back and forth in the wing, stopping then going back and forth again, were certainly wondering – or at least I thought so – and it made me freeze.

I could perhaps address one or the other, ask any question, but what for? (Outside, on the street or at the club it would be different.) To depict factory work as a whole? To describe the meaning of such well-coordinated work? Anything was possible and extremely vague. I jotted down a few sketches stooped among lorry tyres, I cut out some paper, glued it, jotted down some more.

I went back to the vulcanizers more than any other wing; there I sensed, better than anywhere else, the relationship between impressive industrial machinery and human beings as the essential live element that wasn’t just being used for its craftsmanship.

[…] Castellani’s suggestion posed no conditions (did I want to walk around some of Pirelli’s factories, to draw, paint or whichever technique I preferred?). I wasn’t being asked to illustrate this or that; I could get my motivation freely for the work. […]

The idea for a painting was still far away. However, I felt I was reaching a first milestone. It is how these torch-fired enamels were produced, with bright colours and dense, shiny matter. What got caught up in the cluster of uncertainty, of faint clarity, of unresolved contradictions? My journey through the large factory had only just begun.

December 1961-February 1962

 

Ernesto Treccani spent a few days in Pirelli’s Bicocca factories moving between workrooms and laboratories, taking notes, talking with workers and technicians, following an itinerary driven all in all only by his own artistic instinct. The short diary the painter put together about those days, almost like image captions, confirms that encounters such as this are tricky and that a slow and laborious retrieval of information inside the factory is easier done outside. However, Treccani’s enamels published in these pages in their actual size also show that the contact between the artist and the factory world was not necessarily destined for failure. The value of the artist’s work is the clearest evidence of how worthwhile the experience was.

 

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