Meet our Fall 2020 Fellow: Carlotta Vacchelli

Carlotta at the inauguration of her exhibition “La funzione-Pazienza. L’influenza di Andrea Pazienza nel fumetto italiano” at the Centro Fumetto “Andrea Pazienza,” Ausut 21, 2020.
  • What made you become interested in Art History?

My passion for Art History started when I visited the Tate Modern as a teenager, and it never abandoned me. I still clearly remember the aesthetic shock I perceived when I saw their collection: a sense that all these inexplicably, uncannily beautiful masterpieces were somehow talking to me, and asking me to understand them. George Braque stated that “art is made to disturb.” I believe that this feeling is what made me start to interrogate art. I began studying the modern and contemporary period, which was closer to my sensibility and interests, before taking art history classes on early periods at the University of Pavia and at Indiana University. My scholarly attention for art history and art is kept alive and is directly connected to my interest in comics and graphic novels, which, in many respects, represents the most popular and direct continuation of the figurative tradition in contemporary times.

  • What has it been like, as a young scholar, to transition to remote research in your field of interest?

Even in these times of social isolation and travel limitation, fortunately, I have many sources available in my main field of studies, Italian comics and graphic novels, analyzed in a transnational context, which embraces visual and figurative arts, as well as literature. Because of the pandemic, Indiana University’s library made available online a monumental bibliographical database, and I can rely on that, as well as many other online research databases, such as JSTOR, or Google Scholar. I am in Italy, at the moment, and it is not impossible to visit libraries and museums here, despite the limitations, and I can request interlibrary loans, or article scans. I also rely on many online museum archives, as well as art documentaries available on video platforms.

In my hometown, Cremona, where I moved back after the COVID outbreak, I have established a strong collaboration with the Comics Center “Andrea Pazienza,” where I do most of my research, especially on their 1970’s and ’80’s comic magazine collection. I am about to visit “Frigolandia,” Frigidaire and Il Male magazines’ main archives, located in Giano dell’Umbria. This visit is central for my current CIMA project on Mario Schifano. My study, in fact, among other aspects, examines Schifano’s influence on the underground Italian comic magazines of the 1970’s and ‘80’s and, particularly, his cooperation with Frigidaire. Naturally, I wish it would have been possible to stick to the original pre-COVID plan, and be in New York right now, doing my research there, collaborating with my peers, and working on the Schifano exhibition under the guidance of CIMA’s president, director, and the exhibition’s main curator. Still, I am convinced that COVID must not stop research in humanities. It is all scholars’ duty, right, and necessity to keep trying advance their field of study, to keep questioning reality, history, and culture, especially in times of crisis. It is essential that the academic community keep sharing research, knowledge, and network online.

  • Have positive outcomes or new unexpected things that arose from ‘going remote’ surprised you?

I was able to rely on the vast amount of cultural materials made available online by different academic or public institutions as well as a number of webinars, online conferences, video lectures, and recordings of festivals meetings and interviews. Furthermore, I had the chance to organize a small exhibition on the themes of my dissertation, based on the influence of iconic comics artist and painter Andrea Pazienza on the current generation of Italian illustrators, as well as on the resonances of his work in literature, music, cinema, and television. It was very meaningful to me to organize this exhibition precisely in the Comics Center “Andrea Pazienza” in Cremona. This exhibition ran from the end of August through early September, and was also part of the 2020 annual Cremona cultural festival. Had I been stuck in the US in June and July, rather than in Italy, I would have had to postpone this project, as I probably could not have organized it remotely.

  • Are there many (and if so which ones) drawbacks to having to go fully remote for your research?

Going fully remote would mean to miss the chance to come in touch directly with Schifano’s works, and therefore not being able to appreciate their materiality. To be fully understood, a work of art must be seen in its original size and different materials, possibly in the context of an exhibition that investigates the different phases in the artist’s career, artistic stream, and cultural milieu. The aesthetic power emanating from a work of art is something that an art scholar must see for real, and not just on books or on the internet. Although my project on Schifano focuses on the thematic and visual aspects, rather than the materials employed, nonetheless this will be a missed opportunity. I have no doubts that I will learn a lot thanks to the committee’s feedback on my project, and the remote meetings with CIMA’s organization, but I would certainly miss the chance to learn on the field. Naturally, I can still visit different collections, museums, and galleries holding Schifano’s pieces here in Italy.

  • Where did you spend the height of the COVID pandemic and what helped you ‘cope’?

Because I was in Europe at the time of the pandemic outbreak, coordinating an Indiana University Program abroad, once the program was suspended, as a non-US citizen I could not reenter the US at the time, and I therefore spent the height of the COVID pandemic in my family house in Cremona, which unfortunately was one of the areas with the highest number of cases and fatalities in Italy. During the lockdown, I dedicated my time to studying, reading, and writing my dissertation, or researching for future studies, and this helped me cope a lot. I would also video-call with friends, or meet with them online to study together. Finally, I was very busy assisting my professors with our online journal, Simultanea. A Journal of Italian Media and Pop Culture: we hosted a video-conference on Italian pop culture, and prepared our second issue.

  • What is your project’s goal?

My goal is to define the relationship between Schifano’s early production and the auteur Italian comics of the 1970s and ‘80s, either as a direct source or as an inspiration mediated by Schifano’s collaboration with Frigidaire. The thorough mapping and comparative analysis of this unexplored aspect in Schifano’s production will enable me to achieve the following objectives:

  1. Identify the reception of Schifano’s early body of work in Italian auteur comics.
  2. Identify the continuity between Schifano’s early body of work and his production coinciding or belonging with his period of activity at Frigidaire.
  3. Assessing the impact of Schifano’s production on Frigidaire’s aesthetics, as well as evaluating its impact on other auteur comics magazines.
  4. Propose auteur comics of the ‘70s and ‘80s as some of the first recipients and propagators of Schifano’s aesthetics, and illustrate the most recent outcomes of this influence.
  • How do you envision CIMA assisting you with your remote research fellowship?

I am still in the early phase of my research: I am reviewing art history and comics studies bibliography, as well as comics periodicals, documentaries, and other sources. It would be fundamental to my research to be able to zoom with CIMA organization and the members of the committee every so often – biweekly or even once a month – to discuss my project and receive feedback, or to review together the early drafts of my study. It would be fruitful to organize together an online conference on Mario Schifano, as well.