"Volpi paints volpis," Willys de Castro used to say simply and admiringly of his friend, an artist whose career creatively discoursed with Brazil's avant-garde movements of the 1950s and 1960s but who remained singularly, and authentically, true to his popular roots. The son of working-class Italian immigrants, Volpi trained as a bookbinder and painter-decorator before embarking on a career as an artist. Self-taught, he worked through the 1930s in the company of São Paulo's Grupo Santa Helena, a loose affiliation of modern-minded artists whose paintings emphasized proletarian themes treated with a subdued, pictorial realism. His work began to shed its figurative elements by the mid-1940s, entering into new dialogue with São Paulo's concretistas, led by Waldemar Cordeiro, whose constructivist geometries found a suggestive point of departure in Volpi's compositional simplicity and use of primary colors. In his classic paintings from the next two decades, Volpi cultivated an intuitive and idiosyncratic abstraction in which he transformed everyday motifs --facades, flags, arches, sails-- into schematic and essential geometries. His practice both anticipated and coexisted with the Neo-Concrete movement of the 1960s, and his iconic abstractions rank among the landmarks of modern Brazilian art.
As curator Olívio Tavares de Araújo has remarked, Volpi's work "is born figurative, becomes abstract, again figurative, but this time passing on to conceive the same figuration in another way." His signature flags, as in the present Bandeirinhas estructuradas, epitomize this formal evolution: starting with a popular, ubiquitous motif, he transforms it, mutatis mutandis, into a stylized abstraction in which the component parts participate in an all-over geometric pattern. The lingering evocation of the original forms nods to their pre-history--signally, as the handmade paper decorations traditionally strung during the annual Festa de São João. Yet Volpi reimagines the colorful feast flags as a modular, modern grid, in which the pentagonal flags are visually balanced, as for example in the present work, by rows of serial triangles that challenge the distinctions between positive and negative space. Removed from nationalist and sentimental clich, his abstracted flags project modernist values of color and form, elegantly calibrated in the purity and reductive essence of his mature oeuvre.
A superb colorist, Volpi achieved a profuse quality of space and tone through his use of the traditional egg tempera technique, in which he allowed the brushstrokes to remain clearly visible on the canvas. "Here the brushwork brings materiality to the surface," Lucrecia Zappi has observed. "Rather than exploring color as an optical phenomenon, it stands out as a natural element. To this end, tempera becomes essential in his work, allowing the pigment to breathe. That ancient medium projects Volpi into the past, creating a continuity between the tradition of Giotto's skies and Paolo Uccello's Renaissance standards and the new spatiality of modernism." Volpi traveled to France and Italy for six months in 1950, reportedly visiting Giotto's magnificent fresco cycle at the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua eighteen times during his stay. His taste for the brilliant colors and surface decorations of medieval art is beautifully translated and distilled in Bandeirinhas estruturadas, in which the tonal grid of a richly saturated, deep blue field is inscribed with rows of black, white, and red flags. The geometry of the grid is subtly offset by the irregular color patterning and subtle tonality of his pigments, which inflect his surface with a material richness and expressiveness suggestive of a space beyond the picture plane.
Abby McEwen, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, College Park
1) Olívio Tavares de Araújo, quoted in Claudia Laudanno, "Alfredo Volpi," Art Nexus 6, no. 65 (July-September 2007): 127.
2) Lucrecia Zappi, "Alfredo Volpi: Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo," Artforum International 45, no. 2 (October 2006): 273.