Fausto Melotti: The Fabulist Architect
Behind the seemingly intuitive character of Fausto Melotti’s sculptures rests a deep conception of art as a rigorous exercise of order and harmony. Corte d’onore (1972), La danza (1972), Sette fiori (1979) and La bisarca dei prostituti (1983) express Melotti’s most
lyrical voice, while affirming the artist’s belief in art as a ‘geometric feeling’. Executed during the second half of the artist’s career, they unite the rigour of his early abstract works with the narrative, symbolic dimension of his post-war sculptures. Melotti had begun his
career as an abstract artist in the 1930s in Milan. The horror of the Second World War, however, turned him away from the idealised abstraction he had previously practiced: in the post-war years Melotti resorted to clay, working on his teatrini, small enclosed ‘stage
sets’ on which objects, small characters, small pieces of cloth and iron are placed, creating symbolic, narrative scenes. During the 1960s and 1970s, Melotti merged the two poles of his art – the abstract and the narrative – into a series of gracefully precise, yet
surprisingly playful metal sculptures, such as the ones in this collection.
Finely assembled and playful, Melotti’s sculptures first appear like fantastical constructions (Sette fiori; La bisarca dei prostituti, for example) or miniature stage sets (such as Corte d’onore). Their narrative power rests on a subtle balance between representation and abstraction. Like fragile constructions improvised by a storyteller with relentless fantasy, they are formed by a series of abstract elements: grids, squares, lines and circles, which the viewer is invited to interpret and sew together in his own narrative. The geometry that permeates Melotti’s sculptures stresses their value as abstract constructions, echoing the context of the artist’s early formation in the 1930s, within Milan’s circle of Rationalist architects. As a young artist Melotti befriended the architect Gino Pollini and the rationalist Gruppo 7, absorbing ideas about order, rhythm and proportions. Resonating with his background as an electrotechnical engineer, who had studied Maths and Physics, these principles must have struck Melotti as familiar and in tune with his sensibility. Soon Melotti would translate the Rationalist aesthetics in his artistic work; in 1935 he presented eighteen abstract sculptures at the influential Galleria Il Milione, declaring: ‘Art is an angelic, geometric feeling. It addresses the intellect, not the senses’ (F. Melotti, ‘Texts and Aphorisms’, pp. 37-42, in Fausto Melotti, exh. cat., New York, 2008, p. 37). Melotti’s sculptures from the 1970s and 80s – such as the ones in this collection – depart considerably from the artist’s early, rigorously abstract works. Permeated with lyrical meaning and playful narratives, they betray the passion of a fabulist, the artist’s enjoyment in transforming geometry into fabulous, whimsical mirages in front of the viewer. Yet, in their graceful geometric constructions, these late works continue Melotti’s belief in art as an intellectual exercise, as a geometrically composed expression. In 1971 Melotti praised rigour of form as the sine qua non of meaning, explaining: ‘the modulation of the sign, of planes, the modulation of the colour, of the sound, of the word generate the life of the phrase, of art. The concept is in the phrase. The concept without the support of the modulation of the phrase (…) doesn’t find the strength to move out of the limbo in which in the end it remains, abandoned’ (quoted in J. de Sanna, ‘Enchanted Lyricist’, pp. 9-27, in Fausto Melotti: Anti-sculpture, exh. cat., New York, 1994, p. 26).
Since his early career, Melotti had found his ‘modulation’ principle in music: ‘There is a musical space structured in the building of the harmony’, he once wrote (quoted in ‘Antologia di scritti editi e inediti di Fausto Melotti’, pp. 87-95, in Fausto Melotti: L’acrobata invisibile, exh. cat., Milan, 1987, p. 88). In La danza, for example, the repetitions and variations of the various elements evoke a musical, ordering concept which played an important role in Melotti’s art: the principle of the ‘contrapposto’, that is the art of combining a given melody to others. Also evoking music, La corte d’onore seems to be visually constructed like a chorus with the leading voices placed in the foreground, while the others, accompanying them in the background, add their different timbres to the melody. Music had been a constant presence in Melotti’s family, in which all members played at least one instrument and Melotti himself trained as an organist in his youth. In 1973, receiving the prestigious Rembrandt Prize, Melotti stressed the rational, musically-inspired structure of
his delicate sculptures: ‘I have tried to give more and more emphasis to the counterpoint scansion using the forms of canon, imitation and variation which always need to be presented in their exact number and must not be wrongly confused with the infinite possibilities
of a kaleidoscope’ (ibid., p. 40). Although joyous and playful, Melotti’s sculptures also assert themselves as rational architectures, in which the geometry of music is called to order the elements of the artist’s fantastic inventions.
Delicately constructed, aerial and symbolic, Melotti’s sculptures challenge the tradition of sculpture. Dematerialised to the point of appearing as dainty assemblages of metal threads, they stand in space like aerial drawings. Corte d’onore evokes the heavy, ceremonial court of a princely palace, yet of the pompous architecture only a few lines delimiting the space remain. Similarly, the simplicity of Sette fiori is reminiscent of a child’s drawing, in which a half-moon shape forms the body of a boat on wheels on which
seven flowers stand. Eschewing any sense of mass and resorting to metal strings in order to delimit the idea, Melotti’s works integrate space in sculpture, like black lines would integrate the white page. Melotti himself acknowledged this process: ‘I use metal because it brings me close to drawing: with metal I can draw in space’ (F. Melotti, quoted in Melotti, exh. cat., Rome, 1983, p. 10). Refusing traditional sculpture’s heavy presence and promise of durability, Melotti’s sculptures thus also embrace fragility: gold, steel and brass are thinned down to strings, meshes and thin sheets, deprived of their heaviness, they are celebrated in the beauty of their trembling presence. In dialogue with the welded sculptures of Picasso, the cage-like constructions of Alberto Giacometti and the mobile sculptures of Alexander Calder, Melotti’s works presented in sculpture new notions of construction, symbolism and movement in a way that enriched the redefinition of sculpture’s boundaries in the Twentieth Century. Through his works, therefore, Melotti introduced to the modern discourse on sculpture a perspective that was both animated by the magic of fables and imbued with Italian Renaissance
principles of harmony, geometry and musical structure.
An artist for whom we have both always shared great passion and admiration. Melotti is "music", but not only that: he is a sculptor who "adds" to the space (I would like to say to the air) substance and brings to life a magical world governed by virtuosity, poetry, the extraordinary freshness of ideas and forms. His oeuvre reveals a sensibility, a sophistication and an eclecticism that are rare in a single artist. But, above all, Melotti is music: a music that can enter you without a sound, apart from the tinkling of its "brasses" when a breath of air comes in through the window, or from an open balcony. Melotti marked the beginning of a game between the two of us:
we split a sort of "primacy of possession" of the work. The work is not so much that of who chose it first, as of who was the quickest
to make it "his", in other words, of who was first to comprehend its value in the deepest way. Consequently La danza (The Dance), a
monumental work, was won by the other one of us, who succeeded in grasping its deepest implications. More reflective and silent
than me, he is very clever at this: a lunge, few words, and the "primacy" is his. The dance is one of the most significant works by Melotti in the collection, not only for its size, but also for the beauty and harmony of its composition. Every "little window" is a step of the dance, but what is interesting to note is that, on one hand, the stylised figures are always in pairs, while on the other, in the whirl of the movement, the two figures merge into one, in an embrace as poetic as it is sublime. This is the "discovery" that earned him the primacy. Melotti does the rest: great elegance – essentiality in the forms that unfold in the air – poetry, and always, again, music.
A sculpture that crosses the living room at home, placed on a long sixteenth century table, and which converses nonchalantly with the works of Fontana, Manzoni, Lo Savio, Twombly and others. So light and sophisticated, that it seems to irradiate the whole context with light.