15 Jul, 2009

Massimo Vitali snaps the good life

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

His crowded Italian beach scenes are a critique of conformism, but they’re also full of holiday spirit. I should know – I was there

I came across Massimo Vitali‘s photograph Cefalù 2008 in an art gallery in Amsterdam recently. It immediately caught my eye, not just for its dreamlike, bleached-out vision of bathers in the sea at an Italian resort, but for more personal reasons. Vitali photographs Italian beaches from a raised podium that gives his shots an epic sweep and enables him to capture the essence of holiday crowds. His art is about pleasure, hedonism and conformism. It’s an art in which I recognised myself – almost literally.

As it happens, I was actually part of the crowd on the beach at Cefalù in Sicily in the summer of 2008. We didn’t see a man on a raised platform with a camera, and I don’t seem to be in the picture. Even if I were, I’d be indistinguishable from all the other people in the pale blue sea. But it must have been taken within weeks of our being there.

Now, if it wasn’t for this extreme proximity to my own experience, I’d probably find it easier to see Vitali’s photographs as what his website claims they are: critiques of consumer society, studies of conformism. There is undoubtedly a cynicism to his vision of people enjoying long, hot summer days. The light is so bright it is empty and pallid. The crowds are photographed at such a distance that no one is in focus as an individual. You can see in this a bleak riposte to one of the greatest photographs of all time, Weegee’s Crowd at Coney Island, 1940. Weegee’s picture is a celebration of the people, a democratic image. Vitali’s photographs depict similar scenes but without the eye contact and the individual details that make the Weegee picture so humane. Vitali’s crowd is not a democracy so much as a banalocracy. Perhaps it is very specifically Berlusconi’s Italy we’re seeing.

But, as I say, I was part of that crowd. I was lost in that hedonist moment. And it was fun. A lot of the time, the things we say about art are leaden attempts to deny its pleasure. I’m sure that Vitali’s collectors would like to be reassured that there’s a serious point to his images, but I’m happy to enjoy them as panoramas of the good life.

In fact, I’m so excited by Vitali’s pictures, I’m off to the beach for a few days. Back 23 July.

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