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Dawn of a Nation: Artistic rebellion in post-war Italy

In the late 1950s, Italy became ‘a battlefield of the avant-garde’. Arturo Galansino, director of Florence’s Palazzo Strozzi, and curator Luca Massimo Barbero discuss a new exhibition that explores the nation’s art across a tumultuous 10-year period

‘No fashionable art collection is today complete without works by modern Italian artists,’ says Arturo Galansino, the director of Palazzo Strozzi, a 16th-century Florentine palace-turned-museum. ‘But this hasn’t always been the case.’

In 1959, the Italian artist Alberto Burri exhibited his Sacchi  series at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome. Consisting of a collage of burlap sacks mounted on stretchers, the series caused such outrage that a Communist senator launched a parliamentary inquest into how Palma Bucarelli, the gallery’s first female director, could have justified using public funds for its acquisition. (Unbeknown to the politician, the Sacchi  had in fact been loaned by the artist.)

Alberto Burri (Città di Castello 1915-Nice 1995), Sacco e bianco (Sack and White), 1953. Oil, plaster render, different fabrics, hessian mounted on canvas, string. 149 x 249.5 cm. Paris, Centre Pompidou, Musée national dart moderneCentre de création industrielle. Photo © Centre Pompidou, MNAMCCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais  Jacqueline Hyde. Alberto Burri by SIAE 2018

Alberto Burri (Città di Castello 1915-Nice 1995), Sacco e bianco (Sack and White), 1953. Oil, plaster render, different fabrics, hessian mounted on canvas, string. 149 x 249.5 cm. Paris, Centre Pompidou, Musée national d'art moderne/Centre de création industrielle. Photo © Centre Pompidou, MNAMCCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Jacqueline Hyde. Alberto Burri by SIAE 2018

Bucarelli was again summoned to parliament in 1971 when she exhibited a can of excrement by the artist Piero Manzoni, from his now-infamous Merda d’artista  series.

Both Burri and Manzoni were working between 1958 and 1968, a period now dubbed Italy’s ‘miracle years,’ explains Luca Massimo Barbero, curator of Dawn of a Nation, the first Italian show to examine the relationship between art and politics in this decade. Until then, Italy was struggling to recover from the damage wrought by fascism and the Second World War. But starting in 1958, the country  ‘experienced a great rebirth that saw the mass production of refrigerators and motor cars; new financial markets; and a revolution in cinema, literature, and of course, art.’

Piero Manzoni (Soncino 1933-Milan 1963), Merda d’artista (Artist’s Shit), May 1961. Tin can and printed paper. 4.8 x 6.4 cm. Milan, Fondazione Piero Manzoni. Photo Agostino Osio © Fondazione Piero Manzoni, Milano by SIAE 2017

Piero Manzoni (Soncino 1933-Milan 1963), Merda d’artista (Artist’s Shit), May 1961. Tin can and printed paper. 4.8 x 6.4 cm. Milan, Fondazione Piero Manzoni. Photo Agostino Osio © Fondazione Piero Manzoni, Milano by SIAE 2017

Piero Manzoni (Soncino 1933-Milan 1963), Achrome, 1961. Rabbit fur, wood, sphere. 45.5 cm; base 46.9 × 46.9 × 46.9 cm. Herning, HEART Herning Museum of Contemporary Art, 315 A. © Fondazione Piero Manzoni, Milano by SIAE 2018

Piero Manzoni (Soncino 1933-Milan 1963), Achrome, 1961. Rabbit fur, wood, sphere. 45.5 cm; base: 46.9 × 46.9 × 46.9 cm. Herning, HEART Herning Museum of Contemporary Art, 315 A. © Fondazione Piero Manzoni, Milano by SIAE 2018

Historically, periods of rapid industrialisation had been cause for anxiety among artists. But for Burri, Manzoni and their peers, the changes underway became something to celebrate. ‘In a country which had been culturally destroyed, these technologies were reasons to be happy,’ Barbero explains. Reflecting their willingness to embrace the new, artists began experimenting with abstract forms, bold colours and conceptual practices. By 1959, says the curator, ‘Italy was a battlefield of the avant-garde.’ 

‘In a country which had been culturally destroyed, these technologies were reasons to be happy’

But the Italian public found this new approach to art as confusing as had their offended politicians. Italy’s submissions to the Venice Biennale were branded ‘disgusting’ by art critics, while dealers in Milan, Rome and Turin lamented a dearth of interested collectors.

Salvatore Scarpitta (New York (1919-2007), Senza titolo (Untitled), 1958. Canvas straps and mixed media. 66 x 81 cm. Milan, private collection. Photo Matteo Zarbo. Salvatore Scarpitta by SIAE 2018

Salvatore Scarpitta (New York (1919-2007), Senza titolo (Untitled), 1958. Canvas straps and mixed media. 66 x 81 cm. Milan, private collection. Photo Matteo Zarbo. Salvatore Scarpitta by SIAE 2018

Eventually, however, the work began to achieve resonance, chiefly among architects. ‘It makes sense when you realise that Fontana’s slashes, Pistoletto’s reflective surfaces and Manzoni’s spherical sculptures are partly about examining space,’ explains Barbero, who has just finished compiling a catalogue raisonné of drawings by Lucio Fontana. Recent years have seen a reassessment of the pivotal role these artists played in forming a contemporary Italian aesthetic. 

Lucio Fontana (Rosario, Santa Fe 1899-Varese 1968), Concetto Spaziale, New York 10 (Spatial Concept, New York 10), 1962. Torn and scratched copper. 234 x 282 cm. Milan, Fondazione Lucio Fontana, 62 ME 18-19-20. © Fondazione Lucio Fontana, Milano, by SIAE 2018

Lucio Fontana (Rosario, Santa Fe 1899-Varese 1968), Concetto Spaziale, New York 10 (Spatial Concept, New York 10), 1962. Torn and scratched copper. 234 x 282 cm. Milan, Fondazione Lucio Fontana, 62 ME 18-19-20. © Fondazione Lucio Fontana, Milano, by SIAE 2018

For Barbero, the Palazzo Strozzi exhibition — which examines the Informal Art, Pop Art, Monochromatic Painting, Conceptual Art and Arte Povera movements — is about telling this story. ‘We want to make the public rethink their ideas about this art, and trace its different trajectories and geographies within Italy.’

The exhibition opens with a series of videos exploring how a new sense of ‘nationhood’ took form in the 1950s. These videos are set in dialogue with Renato Guttuso’s 1951-55 painting The Battle of Ponte dell’Ammiraglio, which shows Garibaldi and his troops riding on Palermo in 1860 in the name of Italian unification. Originally hung in the headquarters of the Italian Communist Party, it reflects the Party’s preference for figurative art and its distrust of abstraction.

Renato Guttuso (Bagheria 1911-Rome 1987), La battaglia di Ponte dell’Ammiraglio (The Battle of Ponte dell’Ammiraglio), 1955. Oil on canvas. 300 x 500 cm. Rome, Galleria Nazionale dArte Moderna e Contemporanea, inv. pr. 892. Courtesy of the Ministero dei Beni e le Attività Culturali e Ambientali e del Turismo. Renato Guttuso by SIAE 2018

Renato Guttuso (Bagheria 1911-Rome 1987), La battaglia di Ponte dell’Ammiraglio (The Battle of Ponte dell’Ammiraglio), 1955. Oil on canvas. 300 x 500 cm. Rome, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, inv. pr. 892. Courtesy of the Ministero dei Beni e le Attività Culturali e Ambientali e del Turismo. Renato Guttuso by SIAE 2018

From here the show goes on to highlight the revolutionary work of Italian post-war artists Ettore Colla, Giulio Turcato, Salvatore Scarpitta, Alighiero Boetti and Agostino Bonalumi, among others.

Curating such a diverse exhibition was far from easy. ‘Until relatively recently, Italian institutions shunned these artists,’ explains Galansino. ‘What’s more, you don’t get tax breaks in Italy for bequeathing art to national collections, so the majority of these works are in private hands.’

This goes some way to explaining today’s buoyant market for modern Italian masterpieces. ‘The recent re-evaluation of these artists has seen markets boom, first in Europe but also now in America and Asia,’ Galansino explains. ‘The historical hostility towards these artists means that the best examples of their work still come up for sale.’

Dawn of a Nation: From Guttuso to Fontana and Schifano is at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence until 22 July. To view all lots in our  Milan Modern and Contemporary Art sale on 11 April, see below