The fertile clash between Real and Unreal

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I began to reflect on the causes of the depletion of the meaning of the European Landscape Convention, precisely when, due to the lockdown following the pandemic, we were denied the daily possibility of ‘cultivating the perception’ of our landscapes, for example of my city, Florence. Moving through its narrow streets and crossing its squares had become, in our minds, a dazzling but impossible mirage. I was reminded of the words of Rosario Assunto who admonished us to consider “the landscape as the privileged space of dialogue between Man and Nature, where, in order to be able to contemplate it, one must live it” (1973).

But within that dark nightmare, produced by the “modern plague”, all our activities, our work, our social time, our free time, have been locked up inside our homes.

It is then, I think, that an extraordinary spark was set off in our minds, which helped us to ‘see’ what was not visible, just like the landscape. Our ‘imagination’ worked at an incessant pace, every hour, every day, as never before.

The Triumph of Death, oil on canvas, Peter Bruegel the Elder, 1562

We felt the need for the same light, with which Jan Vermeer illuminates the girl at the window, to return to shape our bodies, trapped in our dwellings. We felt the same fear of loss of identity that Munch depicts in “The Kiss”, with raw, cold lucidity. We have felt ‘naked at the window’ in the impossible search for affection and sex, as the expressionist Kirchner Brauner conveys in one of his masterpiece.

We looked out onto the balconies for courage, through words and song, with faces veiled by a deep sadness, just as Edouard Manet was able to communicate in his famous Impressionist work.

Rene Magritte, Perspective: Manet's Balcony, 1850

We also realised that the ‘functional space’ of our cities was detestable in comparison with the preferable ‘flexible public space’, more adaptable to our needs for movement and leisure.  In other words, we made full use of our imagination; indeed, to put it in the terms used by Bachelard, of our ‘imaginary’.

In the early part of the twentieth century, at the end of the 1930s, the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard formulated some principles of his “theory of the imagination”, in which he tried to analyse, in their inner structure, the products of the imaginative faculty of each individual, namely myths, dreams, artistic conceptions, poetic visions. According to Bachelard, these products of the imaginative faculty constitute the ‘imaginary’ of each individual.

Giorgio de Chirico, Piazza d'Italia, 1952

In 1957, Bachelard completed his research on aesthetic production, publishing it in his famous book “The Poetics of Space”; in this text, Bachelard asserted that “Space” also plays a role in “the systematization of réverie and material imagination. For example, the memory of the country of birth, of the domestic hearth and the nostalgia for places experienced, are the elements that constitute the baggage of a phenomenology of experience for each individual

Bachelard states that “there is thus a relationship between matter and images that he defines as ‘regular affiliation’, that is, a continuous cross-reference between the two spheres. The faculty of imagination produces images, giving life to the world of the imaginary, through a strong connection between matter and poetics. For the poet, the way to access knowledge of the elements is through reverie, which is produced by material imagination” (La poétique de la Reverie, 1960).

Moreover, the French philosopher reveals to us, in this splendid book, that “…imagination, unlike fantasy, invention and creativity, also makes us think of something that already exists but which, at the moment, is not among us”.  For example, when the urban geographer Edward W Soja defined the concept of “post-metropolis” (2000), he wanted to point out that the element of rupture in the concept of landscape had already occurred, but that its force was not yet such, or at least we were not yet in a position to see the changes clearly from a sufficiently distant perspective.

Here is a case in which we had to resort to our “imagination”, so that this “vision” could be perceived in our mind, as today, long after having had that mental vision, we can well see and evaluate it historically. Personally, I consider it highly symbolic that the publication of this book by Soja took place in the same year in which the European Landscape Convention was written in Florence (2000), in which Rosario Assunto was unable to participate, having died in 1994.

Indeed, in this regard, I have always wondered what he would have said and proposed and whether, with him present, the Convention would have been written in the same way. The European Landscape Convention was born at a time when it was perceived that the illusions about a possible other model of development (Florence and Genoa World Forums) were coming to an end, whether consciously or not

René Magritte, The human condition, 1933

The signing of the Florence Charter (from which the CEP originated) represented an extreme and desperate attempt to reopen a “process of resistance” to the progressive extension of a global market strategy, accompanied by a voracious, intense and unstoppable demand for the consumption of agricultural land. The metropolis city, generated by settlement expansion and the centralisation of all energy, technological and material use flows, has made it increasingly difficult for us to overcome the sense of disorientation and precariousness that we have experienced, living in an increasingly anonymous and anthropised space.

So, what to do if the events of the last twenty years have “in fact” exceeded the ultimate goal of the extraordinary invention that was the Florence Charter? During these reflections, I was reminded of the very harsh controversy between De Chirico and Breton on the identity and “purity” of Surrealism.

© Gabriele Basilico, Metropoli, 2020

De Chirico’s philosophical thought, which gave rise to his “Metaphysical Art”, considers objects “not as empty abstractions… but in their concrete form”, as do images and poetry. Philosophical knowledge, by denying the real, creates a relationship with the unreal, only to escape from it without affirming the real but confusing it with the unreal. Invention is born of the dream, the creator ‘takes up this hallucination, and as it were traces it, translates it, puts it within the reach of the unbelieving’.

Well, I believe that what is missing today, in order to affirm the “centrality” of the landscape in every act of planning and design, is precisely a different method of comparison between the Real (what surrounds us in urban and territorial space) and the Unreal (what resides in our individual and collective imagination). As De Chirico maintained, “design invention is born from the artist’s Dream”, which, precisely in confused and difficult times such as those we are living through, must show itself to be “resilient” towards what homologates reality and a producer of fertile design action for new urban and territorial landscapes. Citizens need this, consciously or unconsciously, because such projects are the most advanced synthesis of what De Chirico called the fertile “clash between the Real and the Unreal”, nourishing in their imagination, the reappearance (le Révenant) of the image of Beauty of the infinite Garden, from which we all come from.

Giorgio De Chirico, The Returner, 1918