Maria Mulas: Portraits Of The Late 20th Century At Palazzo Reale In Milan

Miuccia Prada, Gianni Versace and Krizia

Last week I visited the Palazzo Reale in Milan on the occasion of a Richard Avedon retrospective, which I will write about in the next weeks. The rooms preceding the retrospective are currently hosting a gallery of portraits taken by photographer Maria Mulas; since photography is my biggest passion, I had already read about this exhibit and was really looking forward to seeing it. The portraits taken by the photographer represent a tribute to great figures in fashion, film, and culture while also including prominent figures from the world of publishing and design.

Maria Mulas started working for her brother, renowned photographer Ugo Mulas, but very soon she developed her own career independently. Taking part in the most important events of the Milanese cultural life in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s brought her into contact with artists, critics, gallery owners, fashion designers, writers, actors and other famous personalities who became the subjects of her portraits.

Her pictures reveal the humanity of her subjects, as they are predominantly shot in an intimate and private dimension; these are the people who characterized Italian cultural life in the last decades of the 20th century and helped make Milan a city of innovation and experimentation.

Maria Mulas was able to listen to the spirit of Milan and helped define the city’s identity on the level of genius and creativity. Her portraits make prominent figures in fashion, film, and literature look more familiar and authentic, thanks to the kindness, sympathy, and selflessness of the photographer, who was able to make her subjects feel at ease. As Domenico Piraina, director of Palazzo Reale, expressed it, “Photography is an eternal presence.”

Maria Mulas: Self-portrait – Milan, 1981
Maria Mulas: Self-Portrait – Milan, 1979
Maria Mulas by Lorenzo Barbieri Hermitte – Milan, 2022

Maria Mulas has always worked as a photographer in the city of Milan, where she arrived in the 1950s (she is originally from Manerba del Garda, a small town in the province of Brescia). The photographer’s series of shots represents a veritable archive of personalities who have intertwined their paths with Milan, playing an important role in its artistic and economic development.

This exhibition dedicated to Maria Mulas was previously hosted by the Slovak National Museum in Bratislava last summer. The approximately 100 shots that also get to be seen during the Palazzo Reale exhibition were taken between 1970 and 2000 and fully highlight the cosmopolitan essence of Milan. It is like a love letter to the city of Milan through the various prominent personalities who have been part of its artistic and cultural scene. Moreover, Palazzo Reale had already dedicated an exhibition to her in 1998 entitled “Mirages.”

The very high number of portraits taken by Maria Mulas were shot in the studio or during various openings; the photographer had the opportunity to enter the studios of architects and designers and photograph the people inside, portraying prominent figures such as Gae Aulenti and Gio Ponti in their everyday living and working spaces.

Gillo Dorfles – Milan, 1985
Gio Ponti – Milan, 1975
Bruno Munari – Milan, 1980

The exhibition itinerary also includes a couple of installations, such as Maria Mulas’s rolls of film. She practiced portrait techniques using her daughters as subjects. Her daughter Patrizia Zappa Mulas recalls that she always saw her coming home with her bag full of rolls of film, including new ones to use with her Leika. “The rolls of film were the measure of my mother’s mood,” she explains. “When she took pictures, she would look inside herself.”

I consider what Maria Mulas stated about the portrait also understood as self-portrait very profound and interesting: “Portraiture is a separate chapter of photography. There is someone looking at you and looking at his or herself, at the front. There is a play of mirrors. And the final image, the one that emerges, after discarding all the other shots, is something that aspires to be the best of the subject but also a reflection of an idea. You end up describing something about yourself in each portrait. Every portrait is also a self-portrait.”

Rolls of film by Maria Mulas
Giulio Einaudi – Milan, 1991
Inge Feltrinelli and writer Günter Grass – Piedmont, 1992
Alberto Moravia – Roma, 1985

Maria Mulas had the opportunity to take many portraits of important publishers and writers in Milan, which was considered the most important place in Italy for the publishing world. She was also able to attend some parties organized by writers and publishers in Piedmont thanks to her friendship and collaboration with the publisher Inge Feltrinelli.

The photographer also had the opportunity to portray all the fashion designers who were emerging in the Milan of the 1970s, who later had international success and made the city the capital of fashion. Maria Mulas was friends with many of the designers; she therefore had the chance to portray them in their homes and studios and also attend their fashion shows.

Miuccia Prada – Milan, 1981
Krizia – Milan, 1985
Enrico Coveri and Marisa Berenson – Milan, 1984
Giorgio Armani – Milan, 1977

Maria Mulas would also take pictures in international locations, portraying mostly film personalities in Rome such as Marcello Mastroianni and Federico Fellini, while in Milan she portrayed theater and music personalities such as Dario Fo and Ornella Vanoni. She was in fact sent to photograph plenty of artists in their studios scattered around the world, including a number of contemporary art personalities such as Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, and Keith Haring (whose major retrospective dedicated to him at Monza’s Villa Reale, near Milan, I invite you to visit) and Beat Generation writers such as Allen Ginsberg.

Alberto Sordi – Milan, 1985
Sophia Loren – Milan, 1970s
Marcello Mastroianni, 1978
Federico Fellini – Milan, 1980s

I lingered for a long time looking at Maria Mulas’s portraits in the halls of Palazzo Reale and thought about how exciting it must have been to experience the period from the 1970s to the1990s through a whirlwind of meetings, reportages, parties and literary presentations. Milan was a particularly major player in the artistic and cultural scene; it is my native city, and having been born in the ’90s, I always thought that I would have enjoyed to experience the city in the earlier years, when it was called the “Milano da Bere” (from the ’80s advertising slogan that depicted Milanese social life in that decade, which could be translated as Swinging Milano).

The exhibition curator Andrea Tomasetig wrote a lengthy tribute to Maria Mulas, parts of which I quote below: “What is the secret behind the charm her portraits carry with them? The naturalness, the way the characters are; unposed and extremely loose. Maria was perfectly at ease and put her subjects at ease. She was part of that world, where she gathered respect, warmth, affection and in turn related with empathy to those she photographed. This is her secret, which does not mean simplicity at all, but it means having a natural ability to see into things and what lies behind them, combined with a cultivated professional skill and the quality of the relationships woven, which led her to always be in the right place at the right time. In doing so, she captured the profound, true soul of Milan, which is an unposed city, but dynamic, busy, the city of arts, professions and of the most advanced level of entrepreneurship. It is no coincidence that it boasts the reputation as the capital of design, fashion and publishing. […] The selection made immediately privileges important names of the second half of the 20th Century, but the deeper meaning is not characterized by the individual personalities, but by the whole, reminding us of an extraordinary era in the fields of interior design, fashion, publishing, graphics, film and many other disciplines, including the well-known “lifestyle”. A period that closes a century, the 20th Century, which was extraordinary for Italian arts and culture, still to come into focus in all its aspects and second only to the Renaissance. […] This gallery reminds us that the period between the ’70s and the ’90s, captured at its peak with its protagonists, is behind us and that Maria Mulas was its visual memory.”

Virna Lisi – Rome, 1968
Silvana Mangano – Rome, 1984
Jorge Luis Borges – Milan, 1985
Claes Oldenburg and Keith Haring by Maria Mulas – 1980s
Andy Warhol – Milan, 1987

“Maria Mulas: Portraits in the Late 1900s” can be visited at Palazzo Reale in Milan until January 8, 2023.

All pictures are my own.

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