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Siren City: Photographs of Naples by Johnnie Shand Kydd

Three boys, Mappatella beach, 2000, Silver gelatin print, 96.5 x 96.5 cm

Exhibition preview

SIREN CITY: Photographs of Naples by Johnnie Shand Kydd will be on display at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art from Wednesday, June 30 to Sunday, September 12, 2010.

It is the first time that these 50 or so works have been exhibited in the UK following their debut in Madre, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Naples.

Johnnie Shand Kydd is probably best known for his portraits of his artist friends, especially the YBAs (Young British Artists) such as Tracy Emin and Damien Hirst, before they became famous, many of which can be seen in the National Portrait Gallery.

In 2000 he was invited to spend three months in Naples, a city he had never visited before, known as the Siren City because of the legend of the siren Parthenope who, having failed to seduce Ulysses with the beauty of her song, threw herself into the sea and was washed ashore at the place that was to become Naples.

Talking about Naples, Shand Kydd says: “In time I developed a relationship with the city something akin to a drug habit, returning again and again over the next eight years. It is not by accident that Naples is known as the Siren City and I had fallen hook, line and sinker under the spell of her seduction.”

He finds it a very sexy city where northern European reserve has no place but which also has a darker side, not only because of corruption and criminality but also through the paganism that is inherent in the city. He also observes that while Naples is tough, dirty, noisy and anarchic, it is a city that never fails to make you laugh.

“Another gift for the photographer is the theatricality of the city which uses every street and piazza as its stage. Privacy is an utterly foreign concept here with every door open for those outside to glimpse in and those inside to gaze out. There is no barrier to speak of between the public and the private.

“I decided early on to always when possible ask my subject’s permission before taking a picture. Perhaps the price of this is a loss of spontaneity but the unexpected prize usually turned out to be a wonderfully theatrical swagger. Soldiers would strike a pose and old ladies reach for their fans with an odd mixture of pride and innocence which reminds me of much nineteenth-century photography when the camera still retained a whiff of the magical.”

This is epitomised in Cadets outside Café Gambrinus, an elegant café near the Royal Palace where Oscar Wilde whiled away the time during his stay in the city after his release from prison. Shand Kydd says “I have always thought that the Neapolitan responds to the camera lens in a very unique way. There is no coyness. These cadets know that they look splendid and respond to the camera accordingly.”

The photographer found Father, daughter and dog, Via dei Tribunali “the ultimate Neapolitan cliché, but too good to resist”.

Girl on a swing shows a makeshift swing set up in a square with two boats bearing the names ‘Napoli’ and ‘Roma’ on their sides. Shand Kydd loved the way that even a child’s swing illustrates the centuries-old competition between the Italian states and noted the feather in the hair of the girl, a typically Neapolitan theatrical touch.

Boys retrieving ball from balcony reflects how football and religion spar for pre-eminence in the city. Goal posts are painted on anything regardless of architectural importance. Images reflecting the religious aspect of Neapolitan life include Easter procession, Procida which shows six children with a Noah’s ark, inside which are live pheasants, ducklings and song birds. Procida is the least famous of the three islands in the bay of Naples, the others being Capri and Ischia.

The beach plays a prominent role in Neapolitan life. Mappatella beach depicts the most popular beach on the waterfront of the city. (‘Mappatella’ means the bag in which all beach and picnic equipment is carried.) As Shand Kydd observes, “at weekends in high summer, this beach defies belief. Thousands of Neapolitans flock to this tiny space to waste away the hours.”

Girl with hoola hoop, Piazza Vittoria depicts a scene on another packed beach on the waterfront at exactly midday as she stands directly inside the shadow cast by the hoola hoop. Three boys, Mappatella beach reminds the photographer of the gestures to be found in the works of Italian old masters. “The body language of these three boys is exactly what you would find in a painting by Caravaggio”.

It is a tradition for newly-weds to head for the waterfront for their wedding photographs and it is not uncommon to see five or six couples simultaneously going through their paces in a complex choreography whereby they never quite get in each other’s way.

In Bride putting on stockings, Piazza Vittoria, the bride had just been standing with her groom in the shallow water and is being helped back into her stockings. “Pure Fellini!” is how Shand Kydd describes it. In Stockings for sale, street stall off Via Toledo, with its stockings and funeral notices, Shand Kydd saw a perfect image of those age-old bedfellows, sex and death.

Shand Kydd observes: “While we in the north have been taught to worship at the altar of heritage, the Neapolitan exhibits as little respect for the beauty of his surroundings as he does for any form of official authority. No building is too grand or beautiful to escape being vandalised or structurally brutalised.”

For example Defaced sculpture on fountain, Piazza Mercato shows a Renaissance sculpture that has been both disfigured and enhanced. Paint has transformed the face of the statue into an image of intense grief. The square in which the fountain stands was once the traditional place of execution in the city, and the head of this statue no longer exists, having been smashed and removed.

Amongst some of the more exotic aspects of Neapolitan culture evoked in Shand Kydd’s pictures is Patricia playing Lotto. Patricia is a ‘femminiello’ and Shand Kydd explains “A femminiello is not a transsexual but a man who has breast surgery but nothing further. They usually make their living by prostitution but also play an important role in local society, often being used as babysitters.

“Lotto is an extremely ancient and complex ritual based on numbers which has been a passion in the city for centuries. The femminielli have traditionally presided over the lotto though this is now becoming rarer. His/her role is almost shamanistic, acting as a conduit between the spiritual and corporal worlds.”

Influenced by neo-realist filmmakers such as Luchino Visconti, Shand Kydd set out to be honest about the city and to avoid the Naples usually depicted in lifestyle photographs. The results are gritty, real, humorous and affectionate portraits of people and objects entirely at home in their setting and without stereotypes. Siren City is a fitting tribute by an accomplished photographer to the Naples he has grown to love.

View all the above images in our Siren City Gallery

Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, 39a Canonbury Square, London, N1 2AN

Telephone: +44 (0)20 7704 9522