‘My painting... is an irreducible presence that refuses to be converted into any other form of expression. It is a presence both immanent and active. This is what it stands for: to exist so as to signify and to exist so as to paint. My painting is a reality which is part of myself, a reality that I cannot reveal in words... I can only say this: painting for me is a freedom attained, constantly consolidated, vigilantly guarded so as to draw from it the power to paint more’ (A. BURRI)
‘I see beauty and that is all. And beauty is beauty and that is all, whether it is a beautiful sacco or whether it is a beautiful legno, ferro or anything else… I am sure that every picture that I make, whatever the material, is perfect as far as I am concerned. Perfect in form and space. Form and space: these are the essential qualities that really count’ (A. BURRI)
A magnificent and groundbreaking combination of material and rich pigment, Alberto Burri’s Sacco belongs to the artist’s breakthrough series, the Sacchi: a rare and highly celebrated group of works that not only launched his career but have now come to define his oeuvre. The godfather of post-war Italian art, Burri’s use of burlap sacking, a humble, quotidian material, was revelatory. With these works, Burri invented an entirely new form of painting: using unorthodox materials, he created works that were self-defining, autonomous and based solely on their own inherent materiality, no longer representations of reality, but incarnations of life. In an era that had undergone unimaginable destruction and catastrophe, Burri found that traditional means of picture making were no longer able to embody the sentiment of the times. Just as humanity had endured unspeakable violence, so Burri pushed painting to its limits, traumatising and deconstructing its very constitution to leave only its constituent parts. In this way, the Sacchi can be regarded as icons of post-war art; elegiac and monumental, they heralded a new direction for painting in the latter half of the 20th Century, opening the door to a new understanding and conception of art. With an almost Baroque sense of drama, grandeur and monumentality, Sacco was executed in 1953, a breakthrough year in Burri’s life and career, during which his work began to receive international critical acclaim.
Though the first Sacco was executed in 1950, the origins of this revelatory series date back to Burri’s internment as a Prisoner of War in Hereford, Texas. Serving as a medic in the Italian army, Burri was captured by the British forces while fighting in Tunisia in March 1943. Due to an agreement between the Allies, he, along with other Italian POWs, was taken to America, where he would remain captive for the duration of the war, until he was repatriated in January 1946. It was while here that Burri first took up painting as a pastime. Despairing of his situation, Burri found in art an escape from reality. When the art supplies ran out, he started using burlap sacking – a material so ubiquitous during wartime, that it has become indelibly connected to war, used for sandbags, tents, camouflage netting, as well as sacks for grain and foodstuffs – as the support for his painting, stretching it and covering it with a ground layer to use as a makeshift canvas.
When, in 1946, Burri returned to Italy, and embarked on a career as an artist, leaving behind his former life as a doctor, this inherent interest in the material components and structure of a painting became the abiding concern of his artistic practice. Shunning paint, the brush and canvas, he instead turned to industrial materials: tar, oil and, crucially, burlap sacks, the latter a material that was almost omnipresent in the war ravaged country. A country devastated by invasion, civil war and Allied bombardment, Italy was reliant upon aid from the United States. Thanks to the Marshall Plan, sacks filled with grain, sugar and other essentials, filled the many ruined Italian cities, and it was these that Burri turned to in his earliest works. Reconstituting these burlap pieces as an artistic material, Burri first integrated sacking into his work as collaged pieces in oil paintings – SZ I of 1949 (Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri, Città di Castello, Italy) being one of the first – and a year later, in 1950, extended this concept, inaugurating the Sacchi with the first Sacco constructed entirely from burlap. Evoking the reality of contemporary Italy in its destitute, poverty-stricken form, these works had an immediate and intense impact, radical not just in their formal construction, but in their iconographic meaning and symbolism in the immediate aftermath of all out war.
Sacco and the majority of the Sacchi are composed from burlap fragments that Burri received in an agreement with the owner of a flourmill in Città di Castello, the Umbrian town in which he was born and had grown up. Transporting these pieces to his Roman studio, Burri then chose pieces at random to use as the sole protagonists of his work. When in 1954, the American critic, Milton Gendel visited Burri in his studio, he recalled that, in the midst of the white-washed, ascetic and minimal space, there was, ‘an island of the heap of rags and scraps that Burri consults like a reference library of shapes and textures as he works’ (M. Gendel, ‘Burri Makes a Picture’, ArtNews, December 1954). With some burlap pieces rougher or more fine, worn, sun-bleached or stained than others, Burri could exploit the textural and aesthetic differences of this highly evocative material. He methodically tore, stretched or ripped the burlap fragments, fraying their edges or pulling at their seams, and by turn, stitched, tacked or glued the varying pieces together to create the richly textured patchwork effect that makes the Sacchi so distinctive. In the present work, a thick, dark brown piece of burlap dominates, held together in the centre with a thick, rope like line that weaves its way through the composition. In a number of the fissures and holes of this piece, Burri – so adept and dextrous at sewing that one of his Roman neighbours named him ‘The Tailor’ – has patched a lighter, more loosely woven piece of fabric, creating amorphously shaped forms throughout the surface. Holes are also left visible, stitches evident and tensions in the warp and weft exaggerated, highlighting the utilitarian function and degradation of this material. Lined with thick black fabric, the patchwork composition is lent a physical sense of depth, the dark shadows conjured by the holes and breaks just visible against the dark background fabric. On top of this carefully constructed collage of burlap, Burri subsequently added planes of monochrome colour; painting parts of the sacking itself in dramatic tones of black and red. Working continuously from the front and back of the work, Burri gradually built up a composite of paint and material, every part of the work’s construction laid bare.
In creating a painting from burlap sacking, Burri broke decisively and radically with traditional modes of art making. With the Sacchi, he rejected the standard construction of a painting, breaking down the conventional and hitherto undisputed relationship between the support and the image. No longer was paint the primary medium, and the brush the tool with which to create some form of image – be it representational or abstract. Instead, the support and construction of the work of art itself became the sole protagonists. As Cesare Brandi, the first critic to write a monograph on Burri, wrote: ‘the Sacco is really nothing but the canvas on which painters have painted from time immemorial… Up to this point the warp and woof of the canvas had only been a rhythmic texture in the painting. Burri took a step further: he established the texture of the canvas as the painting itself. An unpainted painting, in it’s pre-natal state’ (E. Braun, Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting, exh. cat., New York, 2015-2016, p. 45). With a work such as Sacco, Burri conceived an entirely new mode of picture making, one that was based entirely on the physical properties of materials and pigment. ‘I could achieve that same shade of brown’, Burri explained his motives behind using sacking, ‘but it wouldn’t be the same because it wouldn’t contain everything I want it to contain. It has to comply as a surface, as a material and idea, which would be impossible using paint’ (Burri, quoted in B. Cora & C. Sarteanesi, Alberto Burri, Catalogo Generale, Città di Castello, 2016, p. 37).
Yet, although radically original in their construction, Burri by no means devolved himself from nor denied the history of painting. He still referred to his works as ‘paintings’, and, with their balanced, carefully composed compositions, they resonate with the same, often lyrical, sometimes sensuous, and always arresting beauty as the great art of the past. Throughout his career, Burri strove above all for a sense of compositional balance in his material constructions, declaring that this was the most important aspect of his work. ‘Painting should be decorative’, he explained, ‘in other words it should follow the rules of composition and proportion… Balance of the shapes placed in the space… at least this… balance that can be pulled terribly one way or the other, but it is always in balance…’ (Burri, quoted in ibid., p. 34). Never constructed haphazardly nor arbitrarily according, the Sacchi were created over long spans of time, each piece of burlap, every tear, stitch or stroke of paint added with the upmost consideration. This instinctive sense of compositional and spatial balance is perfectly exemplified in the present work. The rectangular composition is structured with a series of horizontal lines, created both by lines in the sacking, and the areas of paint that Burri added. The piece of rope that runs vertically down the centre of the canvas acts in dialogue with the horizontal emphasis, uniting a composition that is itself a construction of decaying, worn materials that are being stretched and strained to their extreme. Every aspect of this Sacco – the material, the pigment, the threads, stitches and frays – exists in a perfect equilibrium, creating the absorbing power and visual beauty that defines this work. A dramatic, deftly composed Caravaggesque-theatre of colour and materials, Sacco resonates with a sensuous visual power.
It is often suggested that Burri’s groundbreaking Sacchi are evocative of the art of the early Italian Renaissance. Though Burri never acknowledged this influence publicly, his use of searing vermillion, velvety black and the natural browns and ochre tones of the burlap pieces – all of which are present in Sacco – are evocative of Umbrian and Tuscan Trecento and Quattrocento altarpieces and art works. Burri, who was born and raised in Umbria, was familiar with many of these sites; ‘I have Umbria inside me’, he once declared, ‘because I breathed it. That’s the point’ (Burri, quoted in B. Cora, ibid., p. 35). Surrounded by some of Piero della Francesca’s greatest works – the frescoes of Arezzo, Assisi, Sansepolcro – as well as the painting of Raphael and Luca Signorelli, he was from a young age immersed in the unrivalled compositional proportion, sumptuous colour and visual harmony of these Quattrocento works (see. E. Braun, op. cit., p. 41). Later in his life, these works once more played a pivotal role in Burri’s artistic development. In 1948, shortly after his return to Italy, at the very beginning of his artistic career, Burri had embarked on a trip to Paris, and subsequently travelled the length of Italy, journeying from Sicily to Venice and admiring the plethora of churches and the Renaissance masterpieces housed within. His companion on the trip, the British art student, Sandra Blow, remembered how familiar Burri was with the frescoes they visited and recalled how he had noted all the ‘abstract elements in Renaissance frescoes’, and ‘the nature of space-creating compositional structures’ (S. Blow, quoted in Braun, ibid., p. 41). His interest in the surface and the textural, physical qualities of materials is reminiscent of these time worn artefacts and fresco paintings; works that have become cracked, faded and worn over the millennia that have passed since their creation. This deep knowledge of these Renaissance works can be seen to have informed Burri’s ability to create, from a selection of unorthodox materials, works such as Sacco, which exude an often majestic monumentality and a powerful sense of compositional structure and harmony. His perceptive eye enabled him to transform what could have been assemblage-like composites of material into a new form of contemporary painting.
In the context of the post-war era however, Sacco and the rest of this series take on a deeply evocative power, with the damaged, visceral materials, gaping, wound-like holes, lacerations and stitches, and the redolent, searing red pigment all serving as powerful reminders of the violence and horror that the world, and Burri himself, had just endured in the Second World War. ‘Every patch in the sacking’, the critic Herbert Read wrote of Burri’s work, ‘every gaping wound-like hole, the charred edges and rugged cicatrices, reveal the raw sensibility of an artist outraged by the hypocrisy of a society that presumes to speak of beauty, tradition, humanism, justice and other fine virtues, and is at the same time willing to contemplate the mass destruction of the human race’ (H. Read, quoted in M. Duranti, Alberto Burri, Form and Matter, exh. cat., London, 2012, p. 5). Unlike other European post-war artists such as Lucio Fontana, Jean Dubuffet or Wols, Burri had experienced war at first hand, witnessing the carnage more viscerally and physically than most as a medic. Though he actively rejected the idea that his art was a form of catharsis from the traumas he had endured – ‘Contrary to what so many have hypothesized and written’, he stated, ‘I never had ‘flashbacks’ of any type [with images] of gauze, blood, wounds or the like’ (Burri, quoted in Braun, op. cit., p. 33) – Burri’s wartime experiences undoubtedly informed the radical materialism of his art. Burri’s material surfaces have been equated to corporeal membranes, the stretched, taught, and ruptured burlap sacking in the present work evocative of a skin that seems alive with the fissures and blemishes that mark its tormented surface. The gaping, yawn-like hole in the lower left of the composition, where the pieces of sacking hang open, and drips of blood red paint mark the black crevice revealed behind, is wound-like.
Yet, perhaps most importantly, Burri has salvaged these lowly, surplus pieces of sacking and has revived them, stitching and patching them together in an act that is at once healing and redemptive. Exalting the visual and artistic possibilities of these discarded materials, Burri created works of a new raw and elemental beauty, turning destruction into creation. As James Johnson Sweeney wrote, ‘Burri transforms rags into a metaphor for bleeding flesh, breathes life into the inanimate materials which he employs, making them live and bleed; then heals the wounds with the same evocative ability and the same sensibility with which he first inflicted them. What for the Cubists would have been reduced to the partial distillation of a painted composition, to a Merzbild for Schwitters, in Burri’s hands becomes a living organism: flesh and blood… The picture is human flesh; the artist is a surgeon’ (J. Johnson Sweeney, quoted in M. Gale & R. Miracco, Beyond Painting: Burri, Fontana, Manzoni, exh. cat., London, 2005-2006, p. 32).
Sacco was executed in 1953, a time that saw Burri rise to international acclaim and fame. It was this year that he met the influential director of the Guggenheim museum in New York, James Johnson Sweeney, who would become one of his leading champions, inviting him to show in a group exhibition at the Guggenheim: ‘Younger European Painters’, held in December 1953. It was also during this year that a group of the Sacchi were shown for the first time in the USA, appearing first in Chicago before travelling to the Stable Gallery in New York later in the year. The Sacchi had an immediate and groundbreaking influence on Burri’s contemporaries, both European and American. The now legendary and much documented encounters between Rauschenberg and Burri took place in the spring of 1953. These meetings would have a huge importance for Rauschenberg’s development as an artist. Having travelled around North Africa with Cy Twombly, Rauschenberg paid several visits to Burri’s Roman studio, where he saw the artist’s monumental Sacchi hanging. On his return to the US later in the year, Rauschenberg began to make his own collages that integrated fabric components, and the following year, he began what have become his career-defining works, the Combines. Burri’s pioneering deconstruction of the concept of a painting, and the new embrace of all forms of materials influenced a generation, paving the way for younger artists, Salvatore Scarpitta and Piero Manzoni, and later, the protagonists of Arte Povera.