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Italy’s Arte Fiera marks photography’s newly acquired role in contemporary art

by Laura Leonelli

Bruno Munari used to say: A tree is a seed, exploding in slow motion. His words, which point to patience and determination as nature's creative force, are a marvelous introduction to the section devoted to photography in Arte Fiera – the contemporary arts fair in Bologna. For the past three years, the section has been orchestrated by Fabio Castelli, refined collector and director of MIA Photo Fair.

Three years that summarize and celebrate in style the four decades of this Bolognese exhibition, for the twenty galleries in all, some Italian, some international, have provided an ample overview of the history of photography and its protagonists in a series of reflections on beauty and allusions to topical events, from the early 1900s to the present.

“In 2014, photography received its first invitation into the world of contemporary art – Castelli recalls – and the fact that such a time-proven and weighty arts fair has opened its doors to ‘us’ is a major achievement in itself. Today, many of the visitors see photography as a way of approaching contemporary visuals, also thanks to many authors' approachable, affordable price points.”

Since all Italian soil was long anything but fertile, the seed has borne fruit, as proven by the tempestuous whirl of roots and foliage in Irene Kung's splendid photographs, presented by Galleria Contrasto of Milan, together with the work of Alex Webb, Sebastião Salgado, Vincent Munier, Glauco Cambi, Mario Giacomelli and Gianni Berengo Gardin.

Nature also prevails in the rarefied winter images of Mario Daniele – pastorally spare thanks to the most sophisticated of computer techniques, and presented with Edoardo Romagnoli's multiple moons by Riccardo Costantini's Turinese gallery.

The journey continues earthwards, from Romagnoli's moons to the rocky, dramatic gravitas of Thierry Konarzewski's Relics, of the Little Birds Gallery in Paris, a homage to Ulysses' visage and sea voyages: an intense theme, that of the wandering soul – echoed in the design of Arte Fiera's new pavilion and transformed into the tragedy of emigration by the artists of Maria Livia Brunelli's gallery in Ferrara.

The latter presents three distinct visions: Silvia Camporesi's newly multiethnic town centers, Stefano Scheda's denunciation of the violence and war that haunts so many migrants in search of safer “waters,” and Mustafa Sabbagh's interpretation of the “migrant” identity of each of us by means of masks and that most natural of masks, the night.

Then back to the light and Joel Meyerowitz's magnificent still lives in the manner of Giorgio Morandi; Meyerowitz is the guest of honor of the Damiani gallery in Bologna.

A step further on and we are swept away by the intensity of Vivian Maier, the most startling of recent discoveries, in the spotlight again thanks to the Milanese gallery of Valeria Bella, who also presents photographs by Luigi Ghirri, Mario Dondero, Giovanni Chiaramonte, Enzo Sellerio and Nino Migliori.

Italy and its architecture come to the fore again with Nicolò Quirico's Palazzi di Parole [literally “Word Buildings”] of the Costantini Art Gallery di Milano, and Carlo Orta's Palazzi del Potere [“Mansions of the Powerful” or “Corridors of Power”], presented by Romberg Photo of Latina.

Then it's time to gaze on the power of elegance, incarnated by the unique career of Gian Paolo Barbieri and his gorgeous photographs, which single-handedly tell the tale of Italian fashion. Barbieri is the star attraction of 29 Arts in Progress of London. On show, a selection of twenty unpublished Polaroids from the past thirty years, which, juxtaposed, reconstruct an ideal world of traveling and encounters, films and books, echoes of classical sculpture, powerful sea impressions and delicate orchid petals. The pinnacle of them all Audrey Hepburn, seed and bloom of taste, embodiment of grace.

(Arte Fiera 40, Bologna, National Art Gallery, up to March 28th, 2016)