‘I could achieve that same shade of brown, 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’
‘I have chosen humble materials to show that they can still be useful. The poverty of the material is not a symbol; it is a pretext for painting’
At once otherworldly and yet insistently earthbound, Alberto Burri’s Sacco is a rare, early example of the artist’s famed Sacchi, the iconic series that he began in 1950. Comprising a groundbreaking combination of burlap sacking and pigment, this work, executed in 1953, is one of the first to include gold leaf in its composition; this opulent material redolent with symbolic meaning and creating a rich visual contrast with the textured sacking. Held in the legendary collection of cosmetics magnate, Helena Rubinstein, and included in her international 1953 exhibition, Twenty Imaginary Views of the American Scene by Twenty Young Italian Artists, Sacco was Burri’s answer to Rubinstein’s request for contemporary Italian artists to, in her words, ‘portray, entirely from the imagination, what appealed to them most about the American scene’ (H. Rubenstein, quoted in E. Braun, Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting, exh. cat., New York, 2015-2016 p. 109). Titled Jazz by Burri for the show, Sacco can therefore be seen to embody the artist’s impression of America in the years immediately following the war, offering a fascinating and rarely seen glimpse into the artist’s mind in his seminal early years as an artist.
With its highly textured, multifaceted surface, punctuated by a suture-like seam that runs down the centre, as well as tears, holes and accumulations of paint, Sacco has a wealth of visual associations. Burri’s title, Jazz, invokes myriad interpretations: the gold leaf reflecting light with a playful lyricism reminiscent perhaps of the lilting notes of jazz music, or perhaps serving as a symbol of the newly ascendant position that America had assumed in the post-war period, the country standing golden and beacon-like while the rest of Europe picked through the ruins of war. The surface as a whole appears like an image of the earth seen from the above, as if an aerial view of a war-torn landscape riven with blackened craters, trenches and debris. Yet within this scene of seeming destitution, Burri has conceived a work of compelling beauty and an almost Baroque grandeur. The three central holes open onto velvety black pools of darkness, drawing the eye into their seemingly infinite depths, while the gold leaf shimmers, exotic and ornate, a striking contrast to the sacking, which has been stretched taut, worn through and ripped open in places. The solitary spot of red paint looks viscous, catching the light and glimmering with an undeniable corporeality. With this assemblage of materials, Burri not only inaugurated a new form of material realism, but captured the zeitgeist of post-war Italy, the tears and punctures, stitches and openings a visual reflection of the existential angst that defined this period.
While Burri would later create work from wood, iron, plastic and vinavil, it is burlap sacking that is the material perhaps best associated with the artist. During his internment as a prisoner of war in Texas, Burri took up painting as a past time. Once the art supplies ran out, he began salvaging burlap sacks – a commonplace material there, used for food storage, tents, camouflage and more – from the camp to use as canvas. Returning to his native Italy in 1946, Burri found a country ravaged by invasion, civil war and Allied bombardment. He left behind his career as a doctor and instead dedicated himself to his art.
Burri’s inherent interest in the material components and the structure of a painting became the abiding concern of his artistic practice. After a couple of years of experimentation, working with oil paint, as well as pumice stone and black tar – ‘I was starting to feel the need to use a different material’, he recalled of this time (Burri, quoted in S. Zorzi, Alberto Burri. His Thoughts. His Words. A Life Story, London, p. 25) – he once again turned to the all-purpose burlap as a material for his work. Thanks to the Marshall Plan, sacks filled with grain, sugar and other essentials, filled the many ruined Italian cities. This time, however, he would no longer use sack cloth as a surface over which to apply paint, but instead, the sacking became the entire sum of the work: the support and subject in its entirety.
In creating a painting from burlap sacking, Burri decisively broke with traditional modes of art making. While he was not the first to incorporate sack cloth into his art – Miró, Klee, Léger, Picasso, among others, had created works using this material as a support – Burri’s practice was groundbreaking in that the sacking was the primary component of his art work. No longer was Burri using paint to imitate reality, but instead, he was creating art from reality: ‘I could achieve that same shade of brown’, he explained, ‘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).
Although with his use of burlap Burri overturned centuries-long conventions of picture making, his practice was indelibly wedded to the universal principles of painting: compositional balance, the relationship between space and form and the power of expression, qualities which have underpinned artmaking for centuries. With its combination of shimmering gold, earthy browns, jet black and searing red, all of which coexist in a perfect pictorial harmony, Sacco can be regarded in the context of Tuscan and Umbrian Trecento and Quattrocento art. The composition evokes the dramatic palette of the altarpieces of Cimabue and Giotto, or the frescoes of Piero della Francesca in Arezzo, Assisi and Sansepolcro, sites that the artist had visited on numerous occasions from his home in Città di Castello. While Burri never outwardly acknowledged an influence of the past, many of the Sacchi evoke the unrivalled compositional proportion, sumptuous colour and visual harmony of these early Renaissance works, qualities that Burri valued above all others in his own practice.
Similarly, the tactile surfaces and the imposing physicality of many of these early masterpieces were of interest to Burri, an artist with an innate understanding of the material constitution of a painting. On the altarpieces of Cimabue and Giotto, gilding illuminates the sumptuously coloured surfaces, with rows of punched holes or incised lines puncturing the support to add a tactile, decorative element. In addition, these centuries-old art works have succumbed in places to the passage of time, with cracks lining the flattened images or peeling passages of paint. Likely of great interest to the artist, Burri’s works feature the same richly textured surfaces, each one created with a host of different techniques, as he stitched, glued, painted, ripped and later burnt his materials.
Sacco also calls to mind the work of Burri’s contemporary, Lucio Fontana. Together considered to be the godfathers of post-war Italian art, these two pioneers, working in Rome and Milan respectively, created distinct yet undeniably related practices as they forged new directions for art making at this time. Both artists opened up the picture plane to incorporate real time and space, undermining the sacred, inviolable nature of the canvas to create revelatory new art forms. While Burri’s art was earthbound, focusing on a new form of material abstraction that exalted the unadulterated power of the material, Fontana looked skywards, to space, the cosmos and the infinite in the pursuit of his Spatialist aims. It is often suggested that Burri’s sutures, tears and seams were an important influence for Fontana. With its single, vertical seam running down the centre of the composition, Sacco can be likened to Fontana’s iconic tagli or ‘cuts’, which he began several years after Burri had created the present work. Similarly, the gaping, amorphously shaped black holes that yawn open in the centre of the present work prefigure the visceral, fist-like punctures that rent open the surface of the artist’s famed Fine di Dio series of 1963-64.
Yet, while the Sacco revels in the stark physicality of its component parts – the mottled texture of the burlap overpainted in parts by plumes of vaporous paint, the delicacy of the gold leaf and the intense opaque black pigment – when regarded as a whole, these composite parts take on an ethereal, otherworldly quality. The materials are both self-declaring, with a powerful physical presence that emphasises their utilitarian nature, but at the same time, their reappropriation into a pictorial form allows them to transcend their original function and embody an arresting artistic beauty. As Marcia E. Vetrocq described, ‘the more determinedly Burri scavenged among the low and seemingly inexpressive materials of modern life, the greater seemed his power to transform those substances into organised expressions of feeling and value, expressions that were centred on an object that, for all its transgressions, insisted on being included within an enlarged category of “painting”’ (M.E. Vetrocq, ‘Painting and Beyond: Recovery and Regeneration, 1943-1952’, in The Italian Metamorphosis, 1943-1968, exh. cat., New York, 1994-1995, p. 26). In creating art from the ephemera of everyday life, Burri not only invented a new form of art making, but created a new type of beauty, one that perfectly befit and reflected the fragility, endurance and indomitable spirit of mankind in the post-war era.