Roberto Greco’s shots will be the fil rouge that will accompany the audience at the 2017 edition of Smell Festival through the Museo internazionale e biblioteca della musica in Bologna which will house his exhibition Distilling Life: The Image of Smell. His works have a strong visual impact; they are real canvases where the oil paint has been replaced by freeze-frames, almost as if a revival of classic still-lifes but where perfume vials are the focal points. Roberto agreed to tell us his story and to describe his approach to photograph, art, and perfume. Finally, within the topic of “roots”, Roberto gave us his olfactory memory, a snapshot that is not part of any specific collection, yet remains deep within his creative soul.
It is difficult to look at one your works and to consider it just a photograph. The word that comes to mind is synesthesia, or a sensorial experience that leads to a contamination of distinct, yet simultaneous, perceptions. Seeing a smell with your eyes, and smelling an image. What was the creative path behind your creations?
For me, synesthesia is a natural, obviously unconscious method of creating, taking me beyond the touchable element: be it an object, like a perfume bottle, words, like a title, or, obviously, a smell; everything becomes a mental image of colors, shapes, and textures, that I use in my composition.
I need this to give substance to the immaterial.
There is clearly an influence of the Baroque Pronkstilleven in your works, of the Flemish still-lifes, but also Caravaggio and Cristoforo Munari: the golden light that shrouds the objects against a dark background, well-defined colors that lend a dramatic theatricality, a hyper-realistic attention for the details. Where does your love for this type of pictorial representation come from, and how did you come upon the intuition to meld these two apparently different worlds of art, like painting and perfume?
Photography has never triggered the same enthusiasm in me as painting. I could even say that I know little about the art of photography because my interest in it is completely relative. For my 14th birthday, I asked for a camera to immortalize and halt everything around me. I wanted to stop things to observe them because I was too stealthy.
Baroque art is a brutal form of painting. When, for example, you are in front of some of Caravaggio’s works, you understand that he is not cheating you, he is telling you like it is. I find this radicalism of sensuality and poetry magical. The disturbing realism in this art consists of pleasant emanations, but also not: flowers, fruit, skin, and animals. That is why I do not find it at all surprising to be successful at introducing perfume into this esthetic.
Each of us has an olfactive memory. Smells remain indelibly impressed in our real and imaginary memories. You make them the focal points of your works, returning them as icons with highly evocative power. Tell us about your personal relationship with perfume.
Without being an aficionado of perfume, my mother has always had a relatively close relationship with smells. From spraying a mandarin peal in front of a candle flame, or putting two drops of her perfume on my pillow to help me get over her absence, she has always instilled the power of smells.
But it was when I was 14 years old when I started studying horticulture that I confronted other types of smells. That of humus, of the damp greenhouses, of opulent white flowers and more disturbing ones like narcissus and chrysanthemums, without going into the details of that of putrefaction!
Years ago, I discovered the series Incense by Comme des Garçons. It was the first time that I was impressed by such a poetic concept: capture and recreate the smells of various holy places in the world in a perfume. Then there was Serge Lutens, who gave me the chills with his universe: olfactory, visual and narrative, all at the same time.
You live in Paris but you were born in Switzerland to Italian parents. Where are Roberto Greco’s roots?
Just like any son of Italian immigrants, my roots are there, specifically in the Salento area, where whenever possible we went to visit with the rest of the family. The relationship with that land and its smells is also strongly present and important in my memories. I think it is because I was not in contact with it every day, only a few months each year, so they are even more strongly imprinted in my mind. Like the smell of the fires in the fields. The smell of the soil, the olive trees, the sea, and the herbs served in the dishes. The smell of incense from the church, of the storms that lent a metallic odor to the entire town. The smell of my grandmother’s gas stove, and even the talcum powder she used.