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"Inside the inferno": T. J. Clark on Pasolini

Daniel Ward interviews art historian T. J. Clark about Pier Paolo Pasolini, neorealism, the influence of the Communist Party on post-war Italian culture and the recently published collection of Pasolini writing on painting, Heretical Aesthetics.

T. J. Clark and Dan Ward10 August 2023

"Inside the inferno": T. J. Clark on Pasolini

Daniel Ward: I feel I can only begin speaking with you about film, and Pasolini in particular, by asking about some closing lines from your book Farewell to an Idea. In the conclusion, just before you cite Pasolini’s poem ‘The Ashes of Gramsci’, you mention the importance of post-war Italian modernism to you and how a poster of a Rossellini film was hung for a long time on your bedroom wall. Could you explain this importance, and what the significance of those works and that period are?

T. J. Clark: Well, back in the 1960s, cinema was the art as far as a lot of us were concerned. We were fixated on Cahiers du Cinéma and Movie (the English equivalent), as well as later on Screen. And if you were on the Left, I guess you were looking for a cinema that was ‘popular’, but also determined to present a class society – or try to – with all its tensions and contradictions. I can remember seeing the first one or two neorealist films I came across – I know that one of them was Rossellini’s Paisá – and thinking “Wow, this is it!” Paisá was the touchstone, and then (seen a bit later) La Terra Trema and Rome Open City and Bicycle Thieves. But I think the Italian films I actually saw first, in the very late 50s and early 60s, were films in which directors were looking for a way beyond neorealism. Fellini in Notte di Cabiria. Antonioni’s Il Grido. Antonioni was massive for us. The trilogy he made between 1960-62, and then Red Desert (1964). For us back then, these seemed the way forward – towards some strange new way of making movies...

So I think the interest in neorealism was to some extent retrospective. We wondered who Antonioni was, and what on earth could his early films be like – where did he emerge from? And the same with Visconti and Fellini, that whole constellation. Rossellini too, still very active in the 1960s in his own strange way, La Prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV (1966) and the films for TV. 

I can’t remember how quickly it happened, but we were soon back looking at the neorealist moment of the late 40s and early 50s. And it was astonishing. Unlike any other cinema I’d seen. The movies were about working-class life, as I’ve said. But again, that didn’t mean that they were ‘popular’ in any straightforward way. If the measure was box office, Fellini and Rossellini and co were way behind American cinema, which flooded into Italy after the war. But neorealism was in some sense in competition with Hollywood: it presented another model of what cinema might have to offer a working-class audience. And of course, the other thing to say is that it was directly inflected by Marxism and the Partito Communista Italiano (PCI). Not many of the filmmakers were actual party members. But there were Communist directors like Giuseppe De Santis – very much a Marxist, decidedly a Party intellectual – arguing that neorealism was all very well in its immediate ‘partisan’ moment, but that the challenge now was to blend it with something that would compete with the glamor and eroticism of American movies. Hence his Bitter Rice (1949), which tremendously appealed to a generation of Marxist intellectuals. There is a wonderful moment where Italo Calvino writes about it. He goes to the set of Bitter Rice on the Po, and is completely dazzled by Silvana Mangano, of course, but he also thinks this is truly a serious attempt to make a genuinely ‘mass cinema’ with class struggle at its centre. So neorealism was all these things; plus of course the myth of Italy at a turning point, Italy after fascism, Italy at the end of the war – cinema and the partisans, cinema and the Resistance. Paisá (1946) is the icon of that.

The icons and imagery of those films is significant and carefully referential, I think. Many works in that period centre on ideas of a pre-industrial Italy (rural life, peasants, the church, the family) and its transformation under capitalism. Where do these image references come from, was there any direct dialogue between painting and film at that time? 

There was an interesting back and forth, now I understand more about painting and filmmaking in Italy. Neorealism had its painterly equivalents. They weren’t anything like as successful as the films. But as Calvino once said, ‘neorealist’ is a very inadequate word for the character of that post-war moment in Italian culture. After all, who in the end could be less qualified as ‘realist’ (of any kind) than Visconti or Fellini, and come to that, Pasolini too? They were all the strangest of mavericks. Maybe we could say that ‘neorealism’ is a name for that short-lived post-war moment in which some kind of documentary imperative seemed essential. In post-1945 Italy there was actually a real struggle for the whole political and class direction of Italy. So there was a documentary, ‘agit-prop’ imperative, for immediate political reasons, but into it were sucked all kinds of very strange personalities and attitudes to style.

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They were all aware too, I think, that early cinema (to the extent it had been a proletarian art), had certainly not been exclusively, or even mainly, ‘realist’. It had been a cinema of the fantastic just as much – the cinema of Méliès on the one side, and Lumière on the other. Cinema has always been pulled to-and-fro between the two poles.

You once described Pasolini, along with James Ensor and Andrei Platonov, as one of the strangest artists to appear out of a socialist or anarchist milieu. How would you characterise this strangeness? 

Well, he’s just a fantastical character altogether! His sexuality, obviously, was strange and dangerous. His attitude to the sacred and religion is bizarre. I quote in the preface one of his newspaper articles about Accattone (1961), in which he writes “…religiosity lies not in the need for personal salvation…not in the fatality that determines the entire story … It is found in [the film’s] very mode of seeing the world, in the technical sacrality of seeing itself.” I mean – these are bewildering statements from someone who was (or wanted to be, mostly…) a fully paid up member of the Communist party!

But maybe, on second thoughts, ‘bizarre’ is not the right word. Because, of course, the PCI (or any form of Left politics in Italy) was continually trying to come to terms with – negotiate, outflank, however you want to call it – Italian Catholicism. They knew they were in a struggle with a still dominant, hegemonic ideology. Nonetheless, let’s say that Pasolini’s strategies in relationship to Catholicism were unique! But again, even that won’t quite do … As usual, there’s nothing new under the sun. I’m a tremendous admirer of The Gospel According to St Matthew (1964), an extraordinary attempt to try and remake Jesus Christ as proletarian revolutionary. But of course Rossellini had done the same thing, or tried to with The Flowers of St. Francis (1950). The relationship in that earlier film between the Franciscan text and the cinematic image is spell-binding. All the way through (from the first unforgettable images of the brothers trudging through the rain) Rossellini is saying “What do we think St Francis was, or is? Can we reimagine him as a real historical character?” “What would a Franciscan cinema be like?” I think Pasolini looked hard at The Flowers.

So that’s what I meant really by Pasolini’s strangeness. Of course he was an outrage to the Marxism of his time. Much attacked as a ‘bad Marxist’, and disowned by the party – not only because of his sexuality.

His ‘bad’ Marxism is something you mention in your preface to this new collection, (Heretical Aesthetics). That is, Pasolini’s obligation to be bad so Marxism could be remade outside of the party. This takes many forms in his life and work, his sexuality most infamously, but also through his focus on criminals and that terrible category of the ‘lumpen’ or sub-proletariat. Did that go against the prevailing politics of the time, and the PCI? What does this ‘badness’ make possible?

Well, the party didn’t know what to make of it. He was refusing the idea that there was an ‘advanced’ working-class and a distinct and discardable lumpen. This issue actually threads its way through a lot of Italian cinema from this moment – films go on struggling with that priggish, orthodox division. That’s one of the things I admire about the end of Rocco and His Brothers (1960) by Visconti. There in the end, after the brothers’ agony in Milan, is the Party member, the good brother, the upstanding family man who adjusts to industrial society -- and in the final minutes you see him going off to his home in the suburb. In a sense Visconti is saying that that is the ending. Aren’t the other brothers, the maladjusted brothers, all portrayed as crazed – as killers? But where does the movie leave you – dramatically, aesthetically? On the good brother’s side? 

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Ultimately what I admire in all this period is the moviemakers’ sheer energy – and their closeness to their subject matter. That’s what everyone admired about Pasolini at the time, though obviously many of them didn’t know what the hell to make of him. But it’s interesting that Fellini called on him for Nights of Cabiria (1957) – such a great film, about the lumpen-proletariat of the Rome outskirts, with the speech and landscape of the city edge captured unforgettably. Pasolini was brought in as scriptwriter and ‘dialogue consultant’ for Cabiria, because Fellini knew he was the one who understood the dialect and relished the whole way of life. 

To turn to his writing on art and painting, how does he come to the subject? And how does this open his work – and his idea of ‘seeing’ – to us differently (if at all)? 

He cares deeply about painting and painters. Some of his closest collaborators and friends, particularly in the 1950s, were painters from Friuli and the Po valley, whose ‘localness’ he championed. Toti Scialoja, Renzo Vespignani, Federico De Rocco and Giuseppe Zigaina. They weren’t famous … Pasolini later did become friends with painters who were – Renato Guttuso and Carlo Levi, for example. (Well, again – Levi will no doubt live on for his memoir Christ Stopped at Eboli rather than his murals … But if you’ve seen his wall paintings in Matera – an enormous unrolling mural sequence of peasant and proletarian life – you’ll know how strong a painter he was).

These painters, some of them directly (clumsily) ‘neorealist’, mattered deeply to Pasolini. Painting was his way to cinema. As a very young man he was taught by the great art historian Roberto Longhi, whom he always looked back to as his prime visual teacher. He’s capable all the time of evoking Longhi’s lessons. At the time of the La Ricotta (1962) trial, when he’s almost imprisoned for blasphemy, he writes an article in defence of the film. He mentions wanting to create an effect in the movie that would be “even more dear to the eyes of an apprentice in the studio of Masaccio.” This is partly provocation, but partly deadly serious. For this is Pasolini’s world. There are the famous moments, of course, in The Gospel According to St. Matthew where suddenly characters are wearing Piero della Francesca hats. This is endearing – but in fact the debt to the past of Italian art is much deeper, more pervasive – it goes way beyond citation. 

Pasolini believed profoundly, I think, that one of the strengths of Italian cinema, and Italian visual art of the 20th century, was that it was – it could be (more than any other national cinema) – in continuity with it long visual past. 

What are his art historical concerns (if we can call them that), is there a continuity with his writing and films?

Very much so. He is all the time talking about how shall we give form to common life, to the life of the majority. He realises quickly we won’t be able to do it unless we somehow or other mobilise the full resources of visual art – really put our inheritance to use. That is a constant theme. 

There is a moment in the book, very well translated by Alessandro Giammei and Ara H Merjian … a long poem about Picasso written at the time of a huge Picasso show in Rome organised by the PCI. We’ve never had the poem before in English. The exhibition is a celebration of Communism’s most famous artist – I think it was put on in 1953 or ’54. The poem is an interesting companion piece to Pasolini’s great ode ‘The Ashes of Gramsci’ … in a way it could be called ‘The Ashes of Picasso’. He’s looking in particular at the strange cartoonish (and, I agree with him, pretty bad) big paintings that Picasso made in the early 1950s, murals called War and Peace – attempts to redo Guernica – done in a bizarre pseudo-childish style. And Pasolini just hates them. “Absent from [all] this is the people”, he says, “the people whose buzzing voices fall silent in these canvases, in these galleries…” Think of this, coming from a Communist in ’53, as a judgment on the centrepieces of the Party’s great celebration of its comrade. I think it speaks to Pasolini’s ‘realism’.

Dispersed throughout his writing on film and cinema is a concern over how to adequately write about the medium (a concern I’d note is similar to your own about visual art). How does Pasolini write on visual art and painting?

He writes very straightforwardly, and to some extent commonsensically, about painting. Whereas when he starts to talk about film, and about the ‘sacral’ or sacred dimension to Accattone, for example, he starts immediately to talk about camera angle and depth of focus – he talks technically, he talks about style. Again, I think that’s partly provocation, saying “Well, what do I mean by the sacral? I think I mean f/32 at such-and-such a shutter-speed. And a tracking shot moving just this fast, just this far…” Plunging his readers into a technical world. But he’s not at all technical when he talks about painting. He writes about art from the point of view of an enthusiast, a filmmaker with a strong interest in painting, but never as an art historian or theorist.

He doesn’t write ekphrasis, he doesn’t write poems describing pictures. He doesn’t really describe pictures at all. But description – this is an old familiar song I’m singing, as you know! –is a very difficult business. It is fiercely difficult, and that’s why the discipline of art history tends to avoid it – it is so much easier to find a text, or a context, to do the job for you (or appear to). Pasolini is interested in pictures and their intentions, and what they come out of – the relationship they have to their local circumstance. 

In the Anglophone world I sometimes wonder if we have a strange image of Pasolini – one largely shorn of his poetry, criticism and novels (with much still untranslated). I wonder if there is a commonsensical side to him we’re missing? 

I think there is, all the way through. His is a cinema, and a kind of story-telling, that continually gravitates back to the stuff of the world. This basic ‘realism’ – all the time in a life-and-death struggle with deliberate deviance, broken taboo, extremism, provocation, ‘the wild dogs in the cellar’. After all – what kind of cinema is it, in which The Gospel According to St. Matthew coexists with Saló, or the 120 days of Sodom (1975)!?

Can I go back finally to Pasolini’s subject-matter? His gallery of ‘types’. His determination to look again at the working class from a Marxist point of view, but discard so many of the ‘Marxist’ assumptions and distinctions … Is it possible to portray ‘the peasantry’ without either nostalgia or condescension? How can the violence and deprivation of proletarian life be put on the screen without the frame of a coming (political) ‘redemption’?

Yes, I think these are Pasolini’s concerns. ‘Concerns’, I realize, is a very weak word! He’s often tortured, agonized by them ... He wants to create a new kind of proletarian hero – one we’ll be afraid of, one who’ll scramble all our categories. And he wants to present us with a Jesus who is through and through a ‘peasant’. He thinks Christ was a peasant revolutionary. But how to reinvent and revalorize these categories – ‘the peasant’, the proletarian – without falling back into cliché? Look again at The Gospel According to St. Matthew. Obviously – flagrantly – it’s stylised, it's unapologetically heroicising – that gallery of rugged faces, the disciples and the mass of the people listening to the parables, the splendour of Matera’s cave cliffs, Christ’s craggy face against the sun … and so on.

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Nevertheless, in Pasolini’s work as a whole I’d still say that his strength derives from the pressure he puts on the categories and stereotypes of ‘the lower classes’ – the damage he was prepared to do to them. Accattone is the key here. Its insolence and pessimism never goes away. It’s there in The Gospel too.

One last question (a slightly unfair one to ask I’ll admit). At the end of your preface, you juxtapose the image world Pasolini held onto against the one we now inhabit – our world of sterile and infantile consumer dreams and iPhone mirrors. What lessons, visual or political, might be found by returning to Pasolini and to that post-war moment of Italian culture? What does Pasolini’s strange language of utopia – with its sacred, criminal and erotic character – offer to us?

You yourself offered a possible answer (after the recording stopped). You said that Pasolini’s argument with Picasso had stayed in your mind, and particularly the way he recoiled from Picasso’s attempt at a (maybe comic) vision of the future – in his mural Peace. Let’s just settle for Pasolini’s own words, then:

…La via d’uscita


verso l’eterno non è in quest’ amore

volute e premature. Nel restare

dentro l’inferno con marmorea


volontà di capirlo, è da cercare

la salvezza…

…The way out towards eternity does not lie in this wished-for, premature [realm of] love. We shall stay inside the inferno with an unflinching will to understand it, and seek salvation there…


T.J. Clark taught for many years at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His FollowersFarewell to an Idea, a history of modernism; and Heaven on Earth: Painting and the Life to Come.

Daniel Ward is an artist and writer. He is currently a PhD student in the History of Art department at UCL.
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