‘I have tried to work with images that everyone sees or has seen, developing and making their essence, their germinal and primary possibilities emerge, looking is the first action, then there is lingering’ Mario Schifano
‘It is as though I were working on excavated finds. The past for me is exactly this, “finds”, but not to be thrown away; they can be recovered, and that’s why I work around them’ Mario Schifano
Executed in 1963, Grande particolare di paesaggio italiano a colori (Big detail of an Italian landscape in colour) is a monumental landscape painting by Mario Schifano that dates from the peak of his fame. One of the largest of a series of so-called Paesaggi italiani (Italian landscapes) that he began in 1963, this triptych-like work boldly marks Schifano’s radical turn away from his earlier monochrome works and Pop-like images of Esso and Coco-Cola logos, to a blatant embrace of figuration, and the classical tradition of landscape painting. Included in Tutto Schifano, an important one-man exhibition held at the Galleria Odyssia in Rome in 1963, Grande particolare di paesaggio italiano a colori heralded this radical new direction in Schifano’s artistic practice. Often regarded as the enfant terrible of post-war Italian art, Schifano constantly sought to defy critical opinion and confound expectation, maintaining his inimitability amidst the prevailing tendencies of the avant-garde. In an era when painting was coming to be regarded as obsolete and his contemporaries were shunning all signs of subjective expression to create neutral, objective and depersonalised works, Schifano in these landscapes defiantly embraced figuration and the medium of painting as a way of exploring the very nature of pictorial representation itself. Grande particolare di paesaggio italiano a colori is a painting filled with polarities. Seemingly declaratory yet persistently enigmatic, it is an image that is at once vigorously gestural yet strikingly empty, incomplete yet replete with colour and form, an encapsulation of the bold irreverence, deft tactility and painterly materiality that characterises Schifano’s work.
Schifano had first burst onto the Italian art scene with his striking monochromatic works of the early 1960s. Attracting the attention of critics, as well as the famed gallerist, Ileana Sonnabend, Schifano’s work was included in the seminal 1962 exhibition, ‘New Realists’, alongside the likes of Yves Klein, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein at the Sidney Janis Gallery, New York. Yet, it was at this time that he made a decisive turn around in his practice, rejecting the austere, reduced aesthetic of his monochromes and embracing figuration. While he used the signs and symbols of the urban metropolis to create Pop-like images of contemporary society, Schifano also began to produce a sequence of works reinvestigating themes from art history, in particular the landscape, a rarely seen subject in post-war painting. Among these were his Paesaggi italiani (many of which he later called Paesaggi anemici ‘anemic landscapes’) and the En plein air paintings, in which Schifano both invoked and explored the concept and tradition of landscape painting from the vantage point of the dynamic, multi-faceted and rapidly changing post-war era.
Schifano executed these large landscape paintings using an array of unorthodox materials. Composed of three pieces of ubiquitous brown parcel paper adhered onto canvas, Grande particolare di paesaggio italiano a colori is painted using enamel, a slick, durable, quick-drying industrial paint that was most commonly used for painting houses. Taking these unconventional, industrial artistic materials, Schifano overturned convention, emphasising the materiality of the painting and the means of its construction. Against the raw, unprepared surface, the gestural, roughly applied swathes of paint take on a powerful vitality. Using the unorthodox and ordinary materials that would come to define Arte Povera and the vigorous, slip-shod drips and brushstrokes of Art Informel, together with the subject matter of classical landscape painting, Schifano has created here a powerful, post-modern fusion of various styles, subjects and ideas.
Within Schifano’s series of landscape paintings, Grande particolare di paesaggio italiano a colori is one of a group of works that, as the title suggests, examined details of landscapes. In the present work, Schifano has depicted a detail of a landscape within a round-edged frame, a fragmentary image of a larger whole. Yet, while a ‘detail’ should give the viewer a more precise, more informative image, here, the image is unfinished, roughly rendered with planes of flat, interlocking colour, the very antithesis of this concept. This paradoxical notion reveals the central idea behind Schifano’s landscape painting: the subject of this work is not the depiction of the landscape itself but rather it depicts, as Claire Gilman has written, ‘the act and fact of viewing itself; the material means by which we see’ (C. Gilman, ‘Mario Schifano: Beyond the Monochrome’, in Mario Schifano 1960-67, exh. cat., London, 2014, p. 15).
Surrounded by the brown paper surface, this framed detail becomes a ‘picture within a picture’, revealing and asserting the inherent artifice of painting. Schifano has broken down the various aspects of a landscape painting and depicted it in its constituent parts. Text becomes image as Schifano has emblazoned the title across the top of the work in stencilled, industrial lettering. As Maurizio Calvesi has written, ‘Schifano’s practice is like a comprehensive reportage with its clear captions: sea, car crash, detail of a landscape, propaganda… Schifano’s emblematic words now give a title to the reality we encounter…. Away from the psychological and intellectual convolutions of a discourse, a word becomes like an image independent of the traditional pictorial context, and uniquely associated with a more advanced and continuous process of selective perception and immediate conceptual validation’ (M. Calvesi, in Mario Schifano - Una collezione ‘60/’70, Milan, 1990, pp. 34-35). Likewise, the paint drips and splashes down the surface, shunning its representational, descriptive function and instead revelling in and declaring its inherent materiality, the picture’s frame barely able to contain its visceral physicality. These composite parts no longer create a legible, illusionistic image, but instead show the processes behind representation. As the critic, Alberto Boatto, a great supporter of Schifano’s work wrote, what dominated Schifano’s work was, ‘the visual aspect, not the descriptive representation of an image but its immediate perception that comes to be restored on the canvas like a limpid vision’ (A. Boatto, quoted in C. Gilman, op. cit., p. 13). The viewer is left to assemble these parts, composing the image that is implied by the title. This aspect dominated Schifano’s landscape series, a number of which, like Warhol’s 1962 Do It Yourself series – works that Schifano may have seen during his time spent in New York at around this time – are blank canvases composed of stencilled text that describes the various components of the landscape, or denotes its colours.
By taking the landscape – a genre inextricably linked to reality – Schifano appeared to adopt all the values that his previous monochromes had so blatantly rejected. Yet, it has been argued that these two series are more linked than they first appear. The round edged frames and blocks of opaque colour that dominate his monochrome works could be, it has been argued, regarded not as negated spaces or replete entities, but instead seen as images of potential, openings that were subsequently filled by Schifano’s landscapes. ‘The [monochrome] paintings became “screens”’, Achille Bonito Oliva has written, ‘points of departure for him, spaces of negated events in which, some years later, numbers and letters, fragments of the signs of a consumer society…began to appear’ (A. Bonito Oliva, Mario Schifano per Esempio, exh. cat., 1998, p. 206). By taking painting back to its most elemental form, Schifano subsequently built upon this as he continued to explore and deconstruct the nature of painting, representation and perception. Blurring the distinctions between painting, object and image, Grande particolare di paesaggio italiano a colori triumphantly exemplifies this new phase in Schifano’s practice, a work that takes a subject from the past and makes it undoubtedly of the present.