Mario Schifano, 1967. Photo Ugo Mulas © Ugo Mulas Heirs. All rights reserved. Artwork © Mario Schifano, DACS 2019

Mario Schifano: Pop star, rock star, ‘brilliant genius’

A guide to the pioneer of Italian Pop art who counted Cy Twombly, Jean-Luc Godard and members of the Rolling Stones among his friends

Mario Schifano (1934-1998) is sometimes referred to as ‘Italy’s Andy Warhol’, though the moniker tends to narrow the focus onto his Pop art. The truth is it is difficult to define Schifano by any one movement.

Schifano led a colourful life, and his social circle included Cy Twombly, the French film-maker, Jean-Luc Godard and members of the Rolling Stones. (In the late 1960s, Marianne Faithfull left her then-boyfriend, Mick Jagger, for him.) A weakness for illegal drugs, meanwhile, earned Schifano six separate prison sentences.

In recent years, he has been the subject of a major retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome, and had works included in The World Goes Pop, a 2015 exhibition at Tate Modern of Pop art from around the globe.

The market for Schifano’s work has also been on a marked rise, and his auction record has been broken three times since November 2015.

Schifano’s Monocromi — the dawn of an exciting, new talent

Born in Libya — at the time an Italian colony — Schifano moved with his family to Rome at a young age. He was self-taught as an artist, his first job actually being as a ceramics restorer.

His early paintings owed a debt to Art Informel, though by 1960 he’d moved on to the works with which he made his name: a series known as Monocromi  (‘Monochromes’), each canvas consisting of an energetic field of a single colour.

Mario Schifano (1934-1998), Non misterioso, executed in 1961. Enamel on paper laid down on canvas. 39⅜ x 51⅛ in (100 x 130 cm). Estimate £300,000-500,000. Offered in Thinking Italian on 4 October at Christie’s in London

Mario Schifano (1934-1998), Non misterioso, executed in 1961. Enamel on paper laid down on canvas. 39⅜ x 51⅛ in (100 x 130 cm). Estimate: £300,000-500,000. Offered in Thinking Italian on 4 October at Christie’s in London

‘These were powerful expressions that announced a new talent had arrived,’ says Stefano Amoretti, Associate Specialist in Post-War & Contemporary Art at Christie’s. ‘They manage to be both beautiful in colour and tactile, in the way you can see dried drips of paint all over the surface’.

The leading art-dealer Ileana Sonnabend was such a fan of the Monochromes that she held two exhibitions of them at her Paris gallery in quick succession. She was left furious in 1963 when Schifano announced he’d paint no more of these works, cutting off all ties with him.

Coca-Cola, Esso and Italian Pop art

Schifano’s reputation grew swiftly. The writer Goffredo Parise described him as ‘a prince, a true Ahmed from One Thousand and One Nights... an extremely handsome, immediately brilliant genius... who painted with fulminant speed’.

Benefitting from Marshall Plan economic aid, Rome in the early 1960s had become a fast-living city of conspicuous consumption. This was the age of la dolce vita. Schifano joined a group of artists known as the Piazza del Popolo school, who responded to the changing streets around them — to the abundance of advertising posters, above all.

Mario Schifano (1934-1998), Grande particolare di paesaggio italiano a colori, executed in 1963. Enamel on paper laid down on canvas, in three parts. Overall 78⅓ x 118⅛ in (199.5 x 300 cm). Sold for £485,000 on 6 October 2016 at Christie’s in London. Artwork © Mario Schifano, DACS 2019

Mario Schifano (1934-1998), Grande particolare di paesaggio italiano a colori, executed in 1963. Enamel on paper laid down on canvas, in three parts. Overall: 78⅓ x 118⅛ in (199.5 x 300 cm). Sold for £485,000 on 6 October 2016 at Christie’s in London. Artwork: © Mario Schifano, DACS 2019

He painted two sets of canvases, in which the corporate logos of Coca-Cola and Esso were respectively adapted and reworked. These have become arguably the most famous works of all Italian Pop art.

He tended to isolate sections of each logo rather than depict it in full; he also used loose painterly swirls rather than seeking to copy the slick mechanical execution of the original signs. ‘In doing this, he was, in a sense, deconstructing and undercutting the commercialisation of Italian culture,’ says Amoretti.

Schifano’s choice of titles for these works — many of which included the word ‘propaganda’ — certainly supports such a view.

The rock-star lifestyle, the Stones and New York

Schifano brought a rock’n’roll spirit to the art world — and not just because he created and briefly managed his own group, The Stars of Mario Schifano. He drove around Rome in a Rolls Royce and had countless girlfriends, the best-known of whom was the model-cum-actress, Anita Pallenberg, later the lover of both Brian Jones and Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones.

The artist’s connection to the English rockers went further than that, though: Richards and Mick Jagger gave cameo performances in a film he directed, Umano non Umano (1968); and he was even the inspiration for a Rolling Stones song, Monkey Man, on the album Let It Bleed.

Schifano was also infamous for the parties he threw at his lavish Roman apartment. One exasperated neighbour, the professor Mario Praz, described him as ‘a complete savage’ who had ‘shady people come and go’, creating ‘constant noise’ and ‘riding around the apartment on bicycles’.

In the mid 1960s Praz found peace when Schifano moved for the best part of a year to New York. He shared a flat there with the poet Frank O’Hara and hung out with the likes of Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns.

Schifano was one of very few Europeans to show alongside Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and others in The New Realists, a landmark Pop art exhibition at Sidney Janis Gallery in Manhattan in 1963. Leonardo (below), a uniquely Italian iteration of Pop art, was made the year before. 

Mario Schifano (1934-1998), Leonardo, executed in 1963. Enamel and paper laid down on two attached canvases. Overall 78¾ x 78¾  in (200 x 200  cm). Sold for $511,500 on 15 November 2016 at Christie’s in New York. Artwork © Mario Schifano, DACS 2019

Mario Schifano (1934-1998), Leonardo, executed in 1963. Enamel and paper laid down on two attached canvases. Overall: 78¾ x 78¾ in (200 x 200 cm). Sold for $511,500 on 15 November 2016 at Christie’s in New York. Artwork: © Mario Schifano, DACS 2019

From Pop art to landscapes and the rise of Arte Povera

As had earlier been the case with his Monochromes, Schifano soon chose to move on from his Pop work, too: this time to become a landscape painter.

Not that his paintings in this genre could ever be mistaken for a Constable or a Corot. He approached them in an avant-garde fashion, using many unorthodox materials, such as parcel paper (which he adhered to his canvases) and enamel paint (which he applied to that paper, even though it’s typically used for industrial purposes).

Mario Schifano (1934-1998), Paesaggio anemico III, executed in 1965. Enamel and graphite on two joined canvases. Overall 78¾ x 86¼ in (200 x 219 cm). Estimate £350,000-500,000. Offered in Thinking Italian on 4 October at Christie’s in London

Mario Schifano (1934-1998), Paesaggio anemico III, executed in 1965. Enamel and graphite on two joined canvases. Overall: 78¾ x 86¼ in (200 x 219 cm). Estimate: £350,000-500,000. Offered in Thinking Italian on 4 October at Christie’s in London

Schifano was fond, too, of covering certain works in a sheet of Perspex. With his adoption of everyday materials, he anticipated the rise of the Arte Povera movement.

He often left large sections of his landscapes unfinished, meaning that much of the parcel paper is visible. Was this his way of stressing that, no matter how convincing the artist, landscape paintings are ultimately just representations of reality rather than reality itself?

Mario Schifano (1934-1998), Particolare di propaganda, 1964.  Enamel, oil and pencil on canvas. 140.7 x 180 cm. Sold for €634,000 on 3-4 April 2019 at Christie’s in Milan. Artwork © Mario Schifano, DACS 2019

Mario Schifano (1934-1998), Particolare di propaganda, 1964.  Enamel, oil and pencil on canvas. 140.7 x 180 cm. Sold for €634,000 on 3-4 April 2019 at Christie’s in Milan. Artwork: © Mario Schifano, DACS 2019

Certainly, in his political outlook, he insisted people shouldn’t take things at face value. In the late 1960s, Schifano become increasingly engaged in left-wing politics and donated large amounts of money to anti-government groups across Italy.

The market for works by Schifano

He continued to work, intermittently, up until his death in 1998, aged 63. In the late 1980s, he was invited to design the leaders’ jerseys for the Tour de France, for example. 

It’s fair to say Schifano’s output in that one decade — the 1960s — is richer than most artists manage in a whole career. He embraced elements of gestural abstraction, Pop art, Conceptualism, Arte Povera, landscape painting and geometric abstraction.

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The top 10 prices for Schifano at auction have all been for works he made in the 1960s. In 2015, Cleopatra’s Dream set a new auction record for the artist when it sold at Christie’s New York for $893,000.

‘He may have been somewhat forgotten in the latter part of his career and in the period after his death,’ says Amoretti, ‘but Schifano had once been a major figure, so the rise in his prices of late shouldn’t come as a shock.’

In recent years, works by Italian post-war artists, such as Lucio Fontana and Alberto Burri, have fetched several millions at auction. They both came of age in the 1950s — a decade before Schifano — and Amoretti says, ‘It’ll be interesting to see if his market can now follow some kind of similar trajectory’.