in the details: Mochi at work on a nature scene.
By David Brickman
Gallery, through Oct. 1
extraordinary exhibit of the work of Italian-born artist-
illustrator Ugo Mochi is at the Opalka Gallery by a stroke
of geographic fate. All the works on view belong to the late
artist’s daughter, Jeanne Mochi Tartaglia, a Capital Region
resident who keeps a tight leash on the fragile, cut-paper
material. Fortunately for us, the fascinating product of a
life of fruitful obsession didn’t need to travel far to allow
an appropriate venue to create this nicely constructed look
back at a very unusual talent.
Mochi (pronounced mo’-kee) worked exclusively in cut paper,
concentrating mainly on zoological themes in his more than
60-year career. Adding significant forays into equine, nautical
and industrial subjects, he never varied his technique, merely
getting better and better at it as the decades rolled by.
(It is interesting to note that, as rare as the medium of
cut paper has become in this century, Mochi’s is one of two
major exhibitions currently on view in our area in that medium—the
other is Kara Walker: Narratives of a Negress at the
Williams College Museum of Art.)
The exhibition opens with a late series of giraffes, and it
is the perfect entry into appreciating both Mochi’s stupendous
mastery of the medium he employed and his remarkable dedication
to naturalism. The series consists of five nearly identical
vertical compositions, each illustrating a different characteristic
pattern of the animal’s markings (spotted, reticulated, leafy
and so on).
Aside from the large figure of a lone giraffe, each panel
features landscape elements with plant forms, establishing
a sense of scale, context and distance (another Mochi hallmark),
as well as a carefully lettered scroll identifying the type
of marking depicted. While it is nothing short of astonishing
to get up close and see how Mochi accomplishes all this accurate
detail with a single, continuous sheet of cut paper, there’s
a twist. In order to render the isolated patches of a giraffe’s
markings, he had to reverse his normal habit of cutting black
paper to create the image—instead, he has cut white paper
and mounted it to a black background, in effect outlining
the black forms in white relief.
Topping off this tour de force is a sixth panel, showing a
group of giraffes running across the savannah, accompanied
by a nearby herd of zebras (another Mochi favorite, for obvious
reasons). As though underscoring the rarity of his own ability,
Mochi has made one of the giraffes an albino—after all, the
paper was white, no?—a fitting gesture that points to Mochi’s
uniqueness. He was past 80 and, unbelievably, still at the
top of his form.
If you think that after this the rest of the exhibition might
be a letdown, think again. Not far from the giraffe series
is the earliest piece in the show, a self-portrait created
when the artist was in his early 20s. A profile view, decorated
with an elaborate border featuring elephants, buffalo, gazelles,
birds, cats and monkeys, it both looks back toward the modest
source of Mochi’s technique in Victorian portraiture and foreshadows
the unexpectable heights to which he would carry it.
Some of the other early works in the show are even simpler
silhouettes in the traditional mode, though they also add
a Mochi touch with painstakingly copied signatures of their
subjects and extremely detailed cut-paper borders in gold.
They’re good, but they barely hint at the greatness to come.
More intriguing is a larger study from 1920 of a draft horse,
its bulk, strength and harnesses all clearly apparent in the
three-quarter view. Adding to the scene are two other horses
in the distance; a man swinging a shovel is seen through the
draft horse’s legs, dwarfed by the horse’s stolid majesty.
Mochi was primarily an illustrator, in that his work was done
to tell a particular story, often on commission. In addition
to books, and didactic panels created for the American Museum
of Natural History in New York, Mochi’s work was reproduced
on an extensive line of kitchenware in the period before World
War II, and he designed elaborate wrought-iron gates for the
Chicago Zoo in 1930 (they were never built).
A number of series in the show represent commissioned work
done in the ’50s, including a Wild West saga, and large studies
of African animals. Some of these incorporate surprisingly
subtle areas of shading, employing cut lines of varying breadth
similar to an engraver’s gouged line. By this point in his
career, it seems Mochi could handle any subject or treatment
with cut paper: roiling river rapids; wispy clouds; a ship’s
rigging; a stormy night sky; the hulking, watchful form of
a giant horned ibex at rest; or a tiny dragonfly’s wing.
Throughout the exhibition, ably curated by Sage associate
professor of illustration and graphic design Matthew McElligott,
Mochi’s facility and style amaze the viewer. Whatever he chooses
to represent, his sinuous line, gracious sense of composition
and material mastery will hold your interest long after the
subject has become routine.
A handsome catalog has been produced for the show, with an
informative and well-written essay by McElligott. Also included
are a film strip and slide show (both on computer) and miniature
cuts Mochi produced as lantern slides, as well as pencil sketches
and many of his books. Among the facts derived from the documentary
footage on the computer is that Mochi was born a nobleman
and that he firmly believed in enjoying each day as it comes—moment
by moment, cut by cut.