‘As a child I wanted to be an archaeologist... today I realise that in fact I’m an archaeologist of the contemporary’. This was how my short interview with Fabrizio Cotognini ended. His spontaneity and humility made me smile, his unawareness that the most intimate nature of his work is already clearly summarised in these few words. Defining Fabrizio solely as an artist would be reductive. The expression ‘nomadic thinker’ suits him better given his constant searching for something and his interests and studies that span various disciplines: sociology, philosophy, history, and classical and contemporary art.
Fabrizio incorporates the context of classical art into his work in an original way. Not as a starting point or a priori source, but as an approach to reflecting on contemporary society.
‘Do you know it’s been proven that we focus our attention on an image for a maximum of four seconds?’, he asked me. Sociologists and anthropologists inform us that we are each subjected to 20,000 images every day. On the theme of dependency on images and their consequent depletion of meaning, Fabrizio quotes the contemporary philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek (Ljubljana, 1949), whose texts and thinking he has enthusiastically studied. On the other hand, Gillo Dorfles (Trieste, 1910 – Milan, 2018) also reflected at length on this same theme in his Horror Pleni. La (in)civiltà del rumore, arguing how much the overabundance of visual input assails and overloads our minds, undermining our ability to internalise and reflect. We need to make ourselves stop and have the courage to select the stories we really want to hear. We need to devote ourselves to thought and imagination so that this imaginative power can rebalance our lives.
Based on these premises and assumptions, recreating of a sort of alphabet of images in his work, Fabrizio tries to restore a collective imagination representative of contemporary society, thus giving the image the significance it held in ancient history. He is fascinated by the iconographic repertoire of the past and is excited by fantastic animals, alchemical and mysteriosophical secrets, ancient herbariums, and the symbols and myths of the classical and medieval world that conceal wonderful tales. He reveals a sort of Wunderkammer of images and stories, disassembling them while in reality assembling them, analysing them and integrating them with the impressions that have most affected him in his day-to-day life, reallocating them to a timeless and amoral context. For example, his fantastic animals not only derive from suggestions found in classical art, but also from Réveils et prodiges: le gothique fantastique by Jurigis Baltrušaitis (1960) and Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings (1957). He is fascinated and affected by the imaginative and symbolic power of these creatures and the tacit underlying equilibriums. In his eyes, these horribly jumbled, enraged animals embody a sublime beauty, a terrible beauty. In addition to animals, his most recurring subjects are flowers and plants exhumed from ancient herbariums, historical clothing, tarot cards, and myths and legends evoked according to his usual principle of drawing on their underlying meaning and their perfect and imperturbable beauty.
The distinctive feature of Fabrizio’s work is that among its many subjects there are references to images from both the temporary world and from his own personal memory, impressions and ‘obsessions’. To cite one example of such a transposition, in the second work of the series Le bugie [The Lies], devoted to the twelve undeciphered secrets in Massimiliano Palombara’s Alchemy Gate, Fabrizio depicts a veiled Islamic woman, which for him is the closest and most present-day visual parallel for the Black Widow, the subject and title of the second secret. The reference in his work to recent history and to a repertoire of figures from our contemporary world is also evident in his inclusion of soldiers, whose uniforms identify them with the National Socialist regimes of the last century, and the presence of weapons similar to those we recognise from recent world conflicts, whose images are shown on television programmes and newscasts. For Fabrizio, these subjects represent a method of drawing attention to the power of images in the sphere of propaganda; they embody all the fascination he feels for the way regimes attempt to recreate and reformulate a language of symbols and formulas aimed at creating a collective identity and indoctrinating the masses.
Having analysed the main themes in his work from an aesthetic point of view, we can continue by stating that his particular style is attributable to two expedients: obscuration and the addition of densely written margin notes.
His obscuration technique is never a desecrating or censuring gesture but stems from the need to conceal the superfluous so that the story he wants to tell emerges more clearly. He eliminates to improve comprehensibility. The gesture is violent but never the result of a sudden decision. Before altering his subjects he reflects, hesitates, seeks courage. Let’s remember that he works mainly on original historical prints, towards which he feels an almost sacred respect and an awareness that he is intervening and modifying the work of his masters and his models. Yet, like any well-trained artist, he knows that composition is fundamental, and therefore each part he removes is compensated by the insertion of new elements. By obscuring – or ‘concealing’ as others define it – he seeks to direct viewers’ attention on elements of interest to them. His additions are meant to universalise the content of the narrative and also to make it contemporary and more meaningful. To balance the composition, Fabrizio makes plentiful and skilful use of hand-made drawings, while the insertion of marginal notes so densely written they remain indecipherable is evidence of the fact that his interventions are never casual but the result of extensive research. The device of the notes also results from his philosophical studies.
During his years of art school education, directed by his mentor and teacher Giorgio Marangoni, he developed an interest in the visual poetry movement, and, among other things, he became absorbed by the theme of the written word in art, pondering the question – actually an ongoing debate since Renaissance times – whether the written word or the image is the more noble form. He has concluded that perhaps it is simply a combination of the two.
Through study he has internalised and contemplated these concepts, reinterpreting them in his very particular and original way. Through study he has found the courage to ‘obscure’ the great masters of the past, teaching us that sometimes a combination of research and daring bring about the best results. It is this audacity that has led him to attain a new and very personal beauty in his work, which resides in the content, choice of materials, composition and careful consideration of colour.
His art has been influenced not only by academic study but also by his time at goldsmithing school, which enabled him to develop a particular expertise in the choice and processing of his materials. Fabrizio works exclusively on precious supports that are beautiful to the touch, including original historical prints and Arabel paper. This line of study also fostered his interest in the theme of real and imitation. Indeed it is very difficult to discern where his intervention in the form of drawing or margin notes begins and where the original print ends.
Although he began by using only black and white, over the years he has integrated primary colours (red, blue, yellow) and gold leaf into his work. Initially these additions were found above all in the drawings, made in coloured pencil, but gradually his range of colours has expanded to include green and orange, and he has also introduced glossy coloured paper inserts, as if creating theatrical scenes with lights and shades of colour. His experimentation is never sated or complete. His very life is pervaded by art, a passion also shared by his wife, Laura Paoletti, a sympathetic artist who addresses intimate themes.