Valentina: the shape of time

Paper myths may get old, but they never die. And sometimes they return!

Nico Zardo

Comic strips generally speak the language of adventure. And comic strips and adventure have their roots in literal genres that are traditionally identified with the masculine. But the character of Valentina, created by Guido Crepax in the 1960s, can rightly be considered one of the most successful exceptions to this rule. Valentina, whose character is inspired by the American actress of the 1920s Louise Brooks, is born on the pages of the magazine Linus, like a secondary character of “Neutron”, a science fiction series based in the jet-set environment of Milan. But her adventures as a photographer who moves around flaunting her statuary figure with a natural flair, and her interacting between a dream-like dimension and one where the reader can recognize his or her own world, quickly conquer for her the favors of an audience that goes beyond the limits of the comic strip.


IN DESCRIBING THE CHARACTER, ORESTE DEL BUONO SAID ABOUT HER: “…Valentina is not an edifying angel: …she tries to free herself from the shackles of prejudice and inhibitions, she does not know moralisms and hypocrisies…Valentina is not a perpetual fiancée: she deliberately does not go after men, even though life is full of occasions... to waste them would be the worst of sins. Valentina is not a seduced adventurer: rather, she could be defined an adventurous seducer…”


THE INNOVATIVE DRIVE OF THE STORIES OF VALENTINA GETS ITS STRENGTH FROM THE TRANSGRESSIVE CHARM OF THE CHARACTER, but also from scanning the comic strips on the page and from the graphic sign with which the author produces them. The division of the plate, that alternates general views with strong details and particulars, gives rhythm to the story, increasing its expressive strength. With this form of communication, very near to the narrative styles present in the films of Antonioni and Godard – big hits with the young generation of the time – Crepax sets his own language that clearly distinguishes his comic strips from the traditional ones. In order to understand and review the complex motivations that have made Valentina an icon of our times, some months ago, the Triennale of Milan dedicated her an exhibit organized by Caterina Crepax and Massimo Gallerani.


THE PORTRAIT THAT EMERGES IS THAT OF AN AUTHOR WHO HAS SPENT HIS LIFE DRAWING and confessed that “the pencil is my psychoanalyst. It helps me to express what I want to, and sometimes also what I don’t want to”. Born in 1933 in Milan, he graduated in architecture (1958) and began drawing record and book covers. He collaborated with publishing houses such as Mondadori, Garzanti, Sugar, illustrating covers for periodicals and books. Following the success of Valentina, whose adventures exceed national confines and are translated into several languages, the activity of the Milan artist expands: he works for advertisement campaigns (inventing the character “Terry” for Terital), designs games (soldiers and battle fields) “Aleksandr Nevskij – The Battle of the Ice” and “The Battle of Pavia”, TV show theme songs, theater set designs (with producer Luigi Squarzina), and collaborates in the screenplay of Tinto Brass’ film “Col Cuore in Gola” (I Am What I Am).


IN THE 1980S, CREPAX DEDICATES HIMSELF TO TRANSCRIBING WORKS OF EROTICISM INTO COMIC STRIPS and to revising the classics of literature in an erotic key: “Emmanuelle”, “Justine”, “The Turn of the Screw”, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, “Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde” and “Histoire d’O”, the latter already illustrated in 1975 for a luxurious edition by Franco Maria Ricci. For the Cepim chain “Un Uomo un’ Avventura”, he designs “The Man of Pskov” and “The man from Harlem”. Besides working on the adventures of Valentina, in the last twenty years, the artist – who passed away in July 2003 – re-interpreted in the form of comic strips such classical works as “Dracula” by Bram Stoker, “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley and “The Trial” by Franz Kafka. With this varied production (and we may certainly have forgotten something!) we could think that Guido Crepax was always traveling the world contacting people with whom he collaborated. Actually, the author rarely and unwillingly left the studio in Milan where he worked – drawing and listening to classical music or jazz – and his family, to which he was very attached. Those rare times when he had to be away, he couldn’t wait to get back home and pick up his pen. For Valentina, time has stopped with the last story written by Crepax in 1995, at the character’s virtual age of 53. Today, she would be 67… but she doesn’t look it.



The exhibition at the Triennale of Milan, organized by Caterina Crepax and Massimo Gallerani, reviews the 30-year career of Guido Crepax, taking as reference points elements such as the family and the home, affectionate witnesses to his work, together with the passage of time that has marked the various phases of his career. Valentina, whom we can consider Crepax’ alter ego, accompanies the visitor through “rooms” that represent different ways of understanding and living time, and tells herself through clear-cut poster photos, rigorously in black & white. We start with the origins of the character, a comic strip woman that grows old with her author (in the last story of 1995, Valentina is 53 years old) and continues in real time in the Milan of the 1960s where Valentina works as a fashion photographer and participates, as an emancipated woman, in the life of a city whose habits and customs are changing very quickly. In the next room, called “Oltre il tempo” (Beyond Time) we go from the “underground” – that proposes the “dark side of the author” – and the meeting with Baba Yaga, Valentina’s antagonist, to the space for the science fiction stories with trailers and quotes from films such as “2001: A Space Odissey” and “Star Wars”. At the center of the exhibition, Guido Crepax’ studio has been recreated with his desk, the Thonet chair and the case of the violoncello that belonged to his father Gilberto, First Violoncello at the Scala Theater. In an adjacent room we find the pictorial and musical quotes present in stories dedicated to the works of Henry Moore and Vassili Kandinsky and to the musical genres – classical and jazz – most beloved by the author. Subsequently, with “il tempo della storia”, we face the theme of Valentina’s political passion through the reconstruction of the Russian Revolution (“Viva Trotsky”) and the powerful sixteenth-century fresco “La calata di Mac Similiano”, metaphor on the Vietnam War. And finally, “il tempo dei giochi” illustrates reconstructions of battlefields and soldiers that Crepax reinvented on the basis of accurate historical research.

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