Pietro Consagra. Ornamenti, Milano, 10 Corso Como

Pietro Consagra, Maschera repertorio PC/1, 1969. Photo Ugo Mulas © Ugo Mulas Heirs. All rights reserved
Pietro Consagra, Maschera repertorio PC/4. Photo Ugo Mulas © Ugo Mulas Heirs. All rights reserved

Pietro Consagra. Ornamenti
21st February - 5th April 2024
Milano, 10 Corso Como
Curated by Alessio de' Navasques

In the form-function dichotomy, jewelry design remains a sporadic episode within the larger story of an artist’s creative development; one arising out of special occasions or chance encounters with goldsmiths. The challenge has always been to bring art into everyday life, through continuous experimenting with the decorative and imaginative qualities of jewelry. Against this backdrop, the series on display constitutes a one-off both in terms of the output of Pietro Consagra himself and in terms of the history of artist-designed jewelry. The conceptual and political symbolism of the mask is expressed through the arrangement of the shapes on the wearer’s face.

Internationally renowned as the master of Italian abstractionism, Consagra – one of the founders of the Forma 1 group – designed and made pieces of jewelry throughout his career: from his first necklace, made in 1947 using sheet brass, which (as he himself claimed) served almost as a wearable manifesto for abstract art, through to his collaborations with Mario Masenza and the brothers Massimo and Danilo Fumanti. The search for the frontal dimension was not perceived by Consagra as a limitation, but as a field of experimentation, which for him encompassed everything from the miniaturized space of jewelry to the far larger scale of architecture. It was in the vibrant milieu of 1960s Milan that Consagra first encountered Giancarlo Montebello. Together, alongside the more traditional pieces featuring motifs and designs similar to those of sculpture, they created a series of conceptual ornaments that, while more challenging to wear, were aligned with the sense of freedom and stylistic innovation that marked out those years.

Within the creative forge that was GEM Montebello – a pioneering project for the design and production of jewelry by Italian and international artists, in multiples and limited editions – Consagra created ornaments for the face and body that transcended any purely aesthetic purpose. These included subtle interweavings of gold, silver, and stones, crown-masks, and bridles, all of which gave a new, fantastical appearance to the face and alluded to women’s revolt against the stereotypes assigned to them by the male-dominated society of the time, on the crest of a provocation that also had its playful side. The ornaments ended with a rod at mouth height, which looked almost like a bit but was both suspended and mobile; moreover, without forcing the point, it betrayed an ironic, sensual vein.

For the first time at 10 Corso Como, the entire jewelry series has been brought together: the two Maschere (Masks”) in silver and red gold, one with turquoise spheres, the other with spheres of amethyst and chalcedony; and Morso (Bit”)  in red gold and coral spheres; as well as Ornamento per sopracciglio (Eyebrow Ornament”) and Ornamento per ombelico (Navel Ornament”) with the two-piece detachable silver Cache-sexe. Alongside contemporary documents, essays, and publications from the Pietro Consagra Archive in Milan, the GEM Montebello catalog box compiles, like a deck of cards, rare photos by Ugo Mulas, the Milanese photographer whose black-and-white images captured Benedetta Barzini wearing” the jewels. These shots soon became iconic; so much so, in fact, that they caught the eye of Consuelo Crespi – Vogue USA’s fashion editor – and were then published in Vogue Italia’s January 1970 issue, shown here.

In an exhibition design that makes its way through thematic islands, we come to the 1968 sculpture Spessori in prospettiva (Thicknesses in Perspective”), a type of Inventari (Inventories”) in which Consagra physically projected frontal images in an extension that resulted in a visual shift. These works foreshadow the buildings of La Città Frontale (The Frontal City”), devised by Consagra in the same year, as a utopian reflection that starts from the relationship between architecture, masculinity, and power, to design – in a new urban conception – freer and more natural human relationships. The Spessori also reappeared in the Ornamento per sopracciglio, in the form of movable rods that terminated in a star, a circle, a square, a triangle, and a hexagon, veiling the eyes but not compromising the ability to see – in fact, actually providing a symbolic indication of a change in the woman’s perspective.

The two versions of the Cache-sexe mark the end of the exhibition route: one put together by Montebello and the other (probably a prototype) encapsulating more explicitly how even a body ornament can conceal an idea of female liberation, through an object that gives pleasure with no requirement for male input. At the dawn of the feminist movement – prior to the founding in 1970 of Rivolta femminile, in which Carla Lonzi, the artist’s partner at the time, was one of the early proponents of self-awareness and the affirmation of sexual difference – the design of these one-way jewels” reflected a political coexistence and encounter” between the two, as Consagra himself declared. (Gioielli a senso unico” in Gioielli d’Artista”, 1995, p.84)

The mystique of the jeweled mask, archetypal enigma, became at once the symbol and the core of the seemingly irreducible contradiction in the male-female relationship: An awareness of the reality that flows between people, and which for me is indispensable in removing the dead spots of a culture that moves forward on male consciousness alone,” as Lonzi wrote in Vai Pure (1980, p. 11), responding to Consagra.