by David Alexander
adopted from the upcoming book
The History of 20th Century Silhouettes


The 20th Century produced one of the finest artists to work in silhouette: Ugo Mochi. He took
the idea of the silhouette in new and original directions, beyond the arena of the simple profile. His illustrations adorned the pages of
Women’s Home Companion, Collier’s, and American. He sold works to the Duke and Duchess of York, Windsor Castle, and ex-King Manuel of Portugal. Mochi is represented in public and private collections including The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Berlin Museum of Natural History.


His most impressive accomplishment was the series of 14 panels created for the American Museum of Natural History.

View the AMNH Panels


Early Life

Ugo Mochi (pronounced "Mokey") was born in Florence, Italy, March 11, 1889 into an aristocratic family whose title went back to 1639. As a child he cut small animals from paper, later described by one writer as "quite mature" for a six-year-old. Two years later his family began his formal training at the studio of a painter. Acceptance to the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence followed at age ten. Like so many other artists who sought to romanticize their backgrounds, interviews of Mochi in the 1930s had him running away from home at age 15, "because he [his guardian] wanted me to give up art. Since I was 10 I study at the Academia di Belli Arti in Florence. No, I would not give it up. So I go to Berlin."


In a profile written thirty years later by his longtime friend Alton Toby, no mention is made of this episode. Instead we have the more likely scenario of Mochi winning a scholarship from the Art Academy in Berlin at the age of twenty-one.

Mochi related another story to early interviewers: One afternoon at Berlinís Thiergarten Zoo Mochi was studying and modeling a lion, a common practice of both students and masters. Nearby, another artist was doing the same, and the two exchanged friendly criticism.

"When I left that evening," Mochi remembered, "I say, ĎWill you give me your name; I would like to see you again. You have been so friendly.í Then he handed me his card, August Gaul, and I nearly drop dead. Gaul was then the greatest German sculptor of animals and unequaled even today." Mochi would study under Gaul at the Berlin Academy as well as Koch and Meyerheim, supporting himself by singing in cafés in the evening. Singing was Mochiís second love and he was good at it.

In London during a 1922 concert tour, he was invited to show his cut paper work. Completely out of their experience, the patrons were amazed and delighted to the extent that they bought. Mochi saw an opportunity and abandoned both singing and sculpting to pursue his new profession of silhouette artist.He immigrated to the United States about 1928 with a large roll of black paper a yard wide that would last him a lifetime, a small homemade device to cut the paper, and a tremendous amount of skill, his talent buoyed by limitless self-confidence.



The Art of Outline

Mochi took the idea of silhouette to new levels, beyond the arena of the simple profile. Tall, dark, and graceful Mochi called his work a form of "carving" and expressed definite opinions on his art.

"It is most difficult to acquire the, how shall I say? the Ďdepthí of a subject in composition in silhouette," he told an interviewer in 1933.

"For years I study. I look long at olive trees, all gray and silver, and watch the sunlight. Ah, yes, I am verí lazy, but I see after I look long that it is perspective that give it this quality. Perspective, and absolute faith to the subject."

"You cannot do silhouettes in fantasy. Ah, no, you must be faithful. It is, the art, a, what you call, paradox. It is always that you must be simple, and then, if you are simple, you will stimulate the imagination of the observer."

Mochiís classical art education paid off in many ways. He knew himself and his principle influences, saying in one interview that his two artistic masters had been Mantegna, the master of bitter, passionate composition, and Albrecht Dürer, whose engravings and woodcuts brought to flower the finest tradition in medieval realism.

Mochi had his own opinion of both himself and others who worked in silhouette. To another interviewer in the 1930s he commented, "One must have a thorough knowledge of anatomy and a good perception of depth for silhouette work. Otherwise they resemble those childish picture cards, snipped out by some fool who doesnít know what he is trying to do."

"What I wanted was a transparence. There is no light in sculpture, so I turned to silhouette cutting as a profession and an art, and I believe I am the only man doing this work today. The tradition is limited; only a few eighteen-century cutters, and their work is merely charming! Thatís the best you can say for it, and then many dilettante have played with it. Most of the productions are terrible."

Mochiís technique differed from every other silhouette artist and was, as best I can determine, unique to him. For producing such masterworks, his technique was simplicity itself. Mochi would draw a non-detailed composition of a piece of thin tissue paper and then place that over black paper. To cut the paper Mochi used a device of his own construction, a thin blade fixed to a handle, often described as a lithographerís knife, a small, half-moon shaped blade sharpened on the narrow side.

"I use a special tool. I make it myself; very sharp steel point and a handle like a pencil. For me it is a pencil. I think maybe I have a special talent, a feeling you might say that lets me control it, to express my ideas as though I were sketching black on white."

Laying the black paper with the tissue guide onto a thick glass-topped table, Mochi would cut or carve the black paper, repeatedly lifting and replacing his sketch/guide as he went. The result, which he called "black plastic," would be one piece of paper, completely connected, that would be carefully mounted on white paper.

While the public often used the term "silhouette" to describe Mochiís art, a term he used himself early in his career, he had a different view later on. "I do not cut silhouettes," Mr. Mochi told this writer forcefully during a phone conversation a few years before his death. "I do the ĎArt of Outline.í "


The Shapes of Nature


Mochiís lifelong love of animals lead to a successful career illustrating books about animals, the first being a childrenís book, African Shadows, published by Robert O. Bal. in 1933. This book was selected by the Literary Guild for its junior membership.



Mochi explains some of his artistic philosophy in the Foreword directed towards his young readers:

 You may wonder why it is done this way [in silhouette] instead of some way which would show the different colors of the animals, the tawny markings of the lion and the stripes on the zebra. You may wonder how it is possible to make a picture of an egret (a bird which is all white) out of black paper. Even though the read bird is pure white and the silhouette is black, the silhouette could be a picture of nothing but an egret.

Every animal has an individual beauty which is its own and which makes it look exactly like no other animal. The strong, proud lion, who can be both fierce and playful, the tall giraffe, who seems very awkward to most people because of his strange shape, but who is really very graceful, the lithe and slender antelopes and gazelles, the buffaloes, the birds---all are beautiful and each is different from every other even when their colors are the same.The unchanging thing which make the appearance of every animal (and everything, for that matter) different from every other, is its shape.


     
Mochi created what I consider the most impressive accomplishment of any silhouette artist in history. In late 1965 Mochi was approached by the American Museum of Natural History to create a series of panels to decorate their new cafeteria. In early 1966 Mochi submitted a sample panel for the Museumís approval. It was two feet wide and eight feet tall cut from a single piece of paper! Sandwiched between clear and translucent plastic and back lit the effect is stunning.

On February 24, 1966 Walter Meister, then Assistant Director and Controller of the Museum, sent Mochi a letter, ordering 13 more panels with the conditions that preliminary sketches required approval and that the project would be completed by February 28, 1967. Mochi would be paid $1,000 per panel: a total of $14,000 for the project. (By comparison, at that time a home could be purchased in Southern California for that amount.)

Mochi spent untold hours researching the forms and creating the designs for these masterworks. While it is impossible to determine the time he must have spent laboring over this crowing achievement, it is clear that the project almost killed him half way through.

From Mochiís friend, Alton Tobey:

[Mochi] was involved in cutting out the blossoms of the flowering tree in the background of one panel. Each one of the myriad of blooms would be different, he decided. Day after day the tedious task continued, rendering him edgy and exhausted. (Mochi would have been nearly 80 at this time. DA.) One evening, unable to sleep, he went upstairs to continue the work. They found him lying there in the morning. Subsequent diagnosis indicated a stroke. Mochiís friends and family were distraught. What irony, his masterwork would never be finished. It seemed as though the gods conspired to chastise this presumptuous mortal. However, Mochi tenaciously began to improve, and he finished the work. In 1969, at the completion, the museum honored him with a great reception."

    

The reception celebrating the installing of the panels was held on the 11 of December, 1969, almost three years after their due date. The fourteen panels are 2 feet wide and 8 feet high, each cut from a single piece of paper, representing a variety of animals and their habitats. Words fail to convey the effect on the viewer.

The panels were the last big project Mochi worked on. He died in 1977 having contributed to silhouette history as no other artist ever had.

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