The Artist as Exposer of Meaning

Written by  Wolfram Schütte
Michelangelo Antonioni, symbol and interpreter of modernism.
As a Swiss critic once said, Michelangelo Antonioni is probably "the ONLY creator OF modern cinema" because he never attempted to analyse social and psychological developments in the West on the basis of a vanished social order. This is perhaps the reason why an artist who so attentively describes the phenomena to our spirit to identify the "precariousness OF feelings" and so anti-romantic, spiritually and intellectual so in step with the times, became for his contemporaries one of the most enigmatic of directors.

Antonioni's works echo the words of Rimbaud, "Il faut être absolument moderne" - the goal of modernism remains a compass in a world which has reached a state of alienation, materialisation and demystification. A cold social environment to which men "must adapt". There is no way back: in the utterly up-to-date world of Antonioni's cinema, the existential present is what matters.

Antonioni's work belongs to a period when profound social, political and technological changes were at their height. He analyses the social changes, confusion and conflicts in interpersonal relationships both erotic and communicative. In Antonioni the landscape, the atmosphere and space are means of expression which complement the human body or the actors' presence. Nostalgia and utopianism are alien to Antonioni. His work is masculine, metropolitan and intellectual, which nevertheless ascribes a keener awareness of disintegration to women. Among these Monica Vitti plays a special part. Without her central presence in the Italian films from L'Avventura (1959) through to Il deserto rosso and once again in The mystery of Oberwald (1979), Antonioni's work would be unimaginable. The young Vitti had an emotional involvement with Antonioni, and this relationship lent a particular intensity to the Italian trilogy, L'avventura, La notte (1960) and L'eclisse (1962): the paradigmatic story of a love affair during its gradual death, seen and experienced through the soul of a woman mediated by the director.

Abandoning black and white for colour with Il deserto rosso, Antonioni also changes perspective. Now men are the medium through which the world - not only in Italy - is explored. The crisis in the Italian cinema industry and the globalisation of cinematic production led Antonioni to range over every aspect of modern life. First he focused his attention on "swinging London" of the 1960s (Blow-up, 1966), then on the flower people and the student protest movements against the Vietnam war (Zabriskie Point, 1970) and the Cultural Revolution in Mao's China (Chung Kuo, 1972). Finally, in The Passenger (Professione: reporter, 1975) he explores the dark world of arms sales to liberation movements in Africa and describes a powerless reporter's attempts to escape from his own identity.

Antonioni's work is remarkably consistent, and such consistency acts as a stimulus to radical self-examination. Identificazione di una donna (1982), the director's last film, is a meditation on his own profession and its obsessions, on the mutual attraction and revulsion of the sexes, and the renunciation of man in his search for the ideal woman. The episodic film Al di là delle nuvole, drawn from the director's own short stories, was produced in 1995 by Antonioni in collaboration with Wim Wenders, and consists of a series of philosophic reflections on art and identity.
In Hommage à Antonioni (1980), Roland Barthes wrote that "his art consists OF always scrupulously leaving meaning OPEN. IN this way, IN an era LIKE ours, he perfectly fulfils the artist's task: that of being neither dogmatic nor indeterminate".