Pescare Essay / by Kevin Pontuti

Richness in Austerity and Cleansing with Blood: the Roots of Visual Imagery in Kevin Pontuti’s Pescare

By Sarah Diebel, PhD

May 15, 2017

Pescare, 2016, film still by Kevin Pontuti

Pescare, 2016, film still by Kevin Pontuti

In Kevin Pontuti’s Pescare, a rich visual poem that maintains a patient focus on the starkly repetitive motion of a woman gutting fish, the long tradition of still life painting is captivatingly brought to animation.  The contradiction inherent in that thought is mediated by the length of the film maker’s gaze which lingers on a simple action, and allows the viewer to regard at length the details of texture, color, light, and mood.  The last frames of the film finally resolve the scene into true still life, when the woman, in whose work we have become absorbed, leaves the scene and the viewer is left alone to contemplate- in Baroque lighting- the fish, their viscera, the knife, the stone slab, the silence, and the sudden absence of human presence. The film, in essence, fulfills an absent action that precedes and follows the scenes we see in paintings (Figure 1), and by doing so deepens the possibilities for both meaning and ambiguity.  

Fig 1. Goya, Still Life with Golden Bream, 1808

Fig 1. Goya, Still Life with Golden Bream, 1808

In Pontuti’s austere light the silver-skinned fish gleam in the darkness, but the image is unlike the plump, intact bream in Goya’s painting, which are presented straightforwardly, in a matter of fact pile.  Pontuti’s animated “still life” shows us not only fish, but also their preparation.  But the real focus is on the hands performing the action.  Those hands progress from clean to increasingly bloody as the work continues. The viewer is spared neither the gore nor the woman’s mild distaste of her task.  Painters have not typically turned their attention to the bloody process of evisceration, but rather to the before and after states, as in Goya or in the still lives of Pieter Claesz (Figures 2 and 3), where elegantly dissected fish have been gently poached and are offered invitingly with capers and lemon. 

Fig 2. Peter Claesz, Still Life with Fish, 17th century

Fig 2. Peter Claesz, Still Life with Fish, 17th century

Fig 3. Pieter Claesz, Still Life with Herring, Wine and Bread, 17th Century

Fig 3. Pieter Claesz, Still Life with Herring, Wine and Bread, 17th Century

Knives are present in these scenes too, but only for the pleasant task of consuming the feast, and there is no echo of the visceral and violent action of gutting fish. Pontuti’s consideration, though, ends with the gutted fish without suggesting the sensual pleasures of cooking or consuming. This abrupt conclusion removes the woman’s action from the realm of mundane activity, and suggests that the patient act itself is the purpose, and is the justification for the camera to focus our attention on it.  The bloody hands, then, take on greater significance, suggesting guilt, vengence and patient penance at the same time.

In Pescare’s dark, confined setting with its stark, Baroque light the woman’s long red hair balances the dark red viscera that stains her hands. This austere mingling of blood and beauty in the cell-like setting suggests the Christian balance of sin and salvation.  And the fish the woman manipulates can, ironically, also suggest both states. This is borne out in the imagery of art where, for instance, at the very bottom of the extraordinary Garden of Earthly Delights (Figure 4) by Hieronymous Bosch, a strange

Fig 4. Hieronymous Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights (det.), 1510

Fig 4. Hieronymous Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights (det.), 1510

vision of wanton and sinful humanity, lies an enormous fish with a huge, cloudy eye that stares out at the viewer.  The cloudiness in the eye means this fish is no longer fresh. It is already physically corrupting just as the earthly sinners surrounding it and caressing it are morally corrupt.  But balancing this image of corruption is a much longer and stronger salvific tradition of the fish in Christian imagery (Figure 5). Linked with the very name of Christ and with his earliest miracles, the fish in Christian iconography and imagery is a symbol of hope and redemption. 

Fig 5. Early Christian Fish mosaic (c. 3rd century AD)

Fig 5. Early Christian Fish mosaic (c. 3rd century AD)

In Pescare, the fish that are flashing in the darkness, and that are the focus of penitential action are also the vehicle of salvation, but it is a salvation gained only through the intense contemplation of her past.  In this way Pontuti’s image of the woman at work also links to the earlier tradition of painting, though it veers in a darker direction. In the Baroque tradition of genre scenes, market and kitchen maids were popular fare, and while some are portrayed straightforwardly, as in Adriaen van Ostade’s Fishwife (Figure 6), in many an underlying theme is the freshness and availability of the young woman, who is shown as equally delectable as her wares, and as equally available to the buyer (or the viewer).

Fig 6. Adriaen van Ostade, The Fishwife, 1673

Fig 6. Adriaen van Ostade, The Fishwife, 1673

In a painting like Vincenzo Campi’s The Fruit Seller (Figure 7), the blushing round cheeks of the girl reflect the soft, flesh-toned skin of the peaches that fill her lap, and the abundance of perfectly ripe fruit hints at the Biblical temptation and its consequences for all mankind.  This link between the sensuous enjoyment of foodstuffs, and the potential (perhaps probable) enjoyment of the maid who serves them, can be made more apparent in works like Vincenzo Campi’s The Cheese Eaters (Figure 8), where the mound of fresh cheese is, in effect, a surrogate for the girl’s rosy cheeks and bulging breasts. 

Fig 7. Vincenzo Campi, The Fruit Seller, c.1580

Fig 7. Vincenzo Campi, The Fruit Seller, c.1580

Fig 8. Vincenzo Campi, The Cheese Eaters, c.1580

Fig 8. Vincenzo Campi, The Cheese Eaters, c.1580

Here also, the uncouth nature of the men, who shovel the cheese toward their mouths in large, greedy spoonfuls, suggests a brutishness in their nature, and in the nature of their intentions toward the girl.  

In Pescare the woman’s preoccupation with the fish and her task offers a similar potential to suggest her past availability to men.  Here, though, the lightness of the genre scenes is replaced with a stark austerity that addresses the woman’s own feelings in a way the genre scenes never do.  In the Baroque paintings, targeted toward the male viewer, the girls are always outwardly cheerful and inviting. In Pontuti’s scene it is the woman’s inner life that matters, and it is not her availability to men, but her exploitation by men, that is revealed through her task. And in her revulsion, and yet in her steadiness in completing that task, her feelings and her fortitude are revealed.  Exploitation and abuse by the powerful is certainly addressed in the earlier visual tradition, as in an extraordinary print after Pieter Breugel, title Big Fish Eat Little Fish (Figure 9).  Here a monstrously large fish lies on shore while a small man with a huge knife slices open its belly.

Fig 9. Pieter van der Heyden, after Pieter Bruegel, Big Fish Eat Little Fish, 1557

Fig 9. Pieter van der Heyden, after Pieter Bruegel, Big Fish Eat Little Fish, 1557

It disgorges smaller fish from both mouth and gut, and in turn those disgorged fish give up still smaller fish.  Bruegel’s moral is a sobering one, suggesting all humanity are prepared to prey upon those in a weaker or lower condition than themselves.  In the act of gutting the fish, opening it to the light, this exploitation is revealed. But in Bruegel’s print the image we are left to contemplate is the grossness of human nature and human failure, while in Pescare, the scene has a resolution, though a bloody one, that is both revealing of the woman’s past, and empowering for her future. She addresses her past and her bloody task with directness.  And in that increasingly matter-of-fact approach, she resembles the Judith of Artemisia Gentilleschi (Figure 10), who calmly but determinedly slices off the head of Holofernes.  Pescare’s exploration and resolution of the sins of the past is quieter in tone, but no less deeply conveyed.  

Fig 10. Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Holofernes, c.1612

Fig 10. Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and Holofernes, c.1612

Sarah Diebel is a writer, art historian and professor at University of Wisconsin—Stout. She received her Ph D from Rutgers University and specializes in Italian Renaissance Studies.