A guide to Alberto Burri: ‘Artist, poet, and creator of the new’

A profile of the Italian artist who inspired Arte Povera and ‘changed art’ with his use of unconventional materials — illustrated with lots offered at Christie’s

Who was Alberto Burri?

According to Mariolina Bassetti, chairman, Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s, Alberto Burri (1915-1995) ‘was an artist, poet, and a creator of the new, who loved discovering new forms in diverse materials’.

Gallery director Luigi Mazzoleni says, ‘Burri was one of the most important artistic figures of the Italian post-war period,’ whose works had ‘a fundamental influence, not just on artists of the time, but on younger artists today’. 

Burri’s artistic innovations helped set the stage for Italy’s radical Arte Povera — or ‘poor art’ — movement, led by artists including Alighiero Boetti, Michelangelo Pistoletto and Jannis Kounellis. In the late 1960s and ’70s, in particular, these artists and others used everyday materials as a challenge to the commercialised contemporary gallery system.

Burri’s art was characterised by the daring experimentation that came to define the group. ‘He burst onto the Italian and global art scene, offering a highly personal interpretation of Art Informel,’ explains Mazzoleni.

Alberto Burri (1915-1995), Bianco, 1954. Oil, pumice stone, gold, vinavil on Cellotex. 42 x 39.5 cm. Sold for €490,000 on 4 April 2019 at Christie’s in Milan

What was Burri’s background?

Burri had demonstrated a passion for drawing since he was a young boy, and he spent a short time studying with a geometer. He continued to paint throughout his years at medical school, admiring the work of Piero della Francesca and other Renaissance artists.

Dr. Alberto Burri graduated in the summer of 1940, just a few months before Italy entered the Second World War. In October of the same year he was called up to serve as a medic in the Italian army, and toured the Balkans and North Africa. On 8 May 1943, he was captured by Allied forces and interned in a prisoner of war camp in Texas.

His fellow PoWs included academics, architects, and the artist Dino Gambetti, and Burri was motivated to pick up his paintbrushes once again. His earliest works depicted a view of the desert from the interior of the prison camp. ‘Burri had always had an artistic vein,’ comments Bassetti, ‘but it was only in the sobering silence of the prison that he recognised it. A doctor is, after all, a creator of hope.’

Alberto Burri (1915-1995), Sacco, 1953. 33⅞ x 39⅜ in (86 x 100 cm). Sold for £7,546,250 on 6 October 2017 at Christie’s in London. Artwork: © Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri, Città di Castello / DACS 2018

How did he work?

With resources sparse, Burri’s early methods were necessarily unconventional, and he recycled materials including industrial and commercial canvas. Sackcloth was readily available, and Burri continued using the material following his release in 1946 and return to Rome. He also began experimenting with bark, corrugated cardboard, sheet metal and crushed stone.

His first Sacco of 1949 was made with a jute sack, which he brought back with him from the PoW camp in Texas. The material had a strong symbolic value and the work became the first in a series of abstract collage constructions made from torn cloth, roughly stitched together and stretched across the canvas surface.

In the 1950s, Burri’s methods became more dramatic. ‘Fire became the protagonist which defined Burri’s forms,’ explains Mazzoleni. ‘Using a blowtorch, he modified the surface of plastic to create the Combustioni — a process he would repeat in the Legni series, before turning, near the end of the decade, towards an almost traditional use of fire in Ferri, his assemblages of sheets of metalwork.’

Alberto Burri (1915-1995), Combustione, 1960. Plastic, oil and combustion on canvas

Alberto Burri (1915-1995), Combustione, 1960. Plastic, oil and combustion on canvas. 2⅞ x 5¼ in (7.3 x 13.2 cm). Sold for £299,250 on 4 October 2019 at Christie’s in London. Artwork: © Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri, Città di Castello / DACS 2019

What did these violent processes represent?

It depends who you ask. Early commentators were keen to suggest that the patchwork surfaces of the Sacchi series stood as a metaphor for living flesh, violated during warfare — the stitching recalling Burri’s practice as a doctor. Others suggested the hardship of life in post-war Italy prompted the artist to repurpose sacks originally used to deliver relief supplies.

The Trauma of Painting, the Guggenheim’s 2015 retrospective, associated Burri’s work with an ambiguous distress — leaving viewers to decide whether this ‘trauma’ relates to the rips, burns and half-patched holes of the canvas surface, or to the artist’s own experience of the Second World War and its aftermath. The trauma might also belong to European pictorial tradition — shaken and reconfigured by Burri’s avant-garde approach.

‘From his early exhibitions, Burri was labelled the artist of wounds,’ explained Guggenheim curator Emily Braun. ‘He’s attacking the supports and surfaces, the very structure of what a canvas is, and in that way Burri draws the viewer in. We feel these materials as if were feeling these textures in our own body.’ 

For Bassetti, Burri’s art represents a very physical form of creative destruction: ‘He used fire to penetrate material, to go through it and transform it. It was a violent act comparable to birth.’

Alberto Burri (1915-1995), Rosso Combustione Plastica, 1957. Plastic, acrylic, fabric and combustion on canvas. 49¼ x 34⅝ in (125 x 88 cm). Sold for $4,951,500 on 15 November 2016 at Christie’s in New York. Artwork: © Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri, Città di Castello / DACS 2018

What did the the man himself say?

If there was a profound metaphorical meaning to his burnt and sutured canvases, Burri kept quiet about it, insisting that his choice of material responded to purely formal concerns. Neutral titles, such as Composition, emphasised a concern with construction rather than metaphor, and, in 1994, Burri vehemently stated, ‘Form and Space! Form and Space! The end. There is nothing else. Form and space!’

How was this unconventional work first received?

‘People didn’t really understand him, and when the visionary Palma Bucarelli, director of Rome’s Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, supported Burri, it was met with front-page scandal,’ says Bassetti. ‘Bucarelli hosted a major exhibition of Burri’s work in 1959, which was so controversial that it prompted a government investigation.’

Burri was still causing scandal a decade later. In the last room of Burri’s exhibition at the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Turin in the early 1970s, there was a notebook in which visitors could write their thoughts on the show. ‘When newspapers published excerpts of these comments, which were divided between the artist’s supporters and those scandalised by his work, the whole thing turned into a major attraction,’ says Mazzoleni.

The reception wasn’t all bad, however. Critics were particularly favourable in America — the place where Burri had first started painting, almost by chance, as a distraction from his imprisonment.

Where can one see Burri’s work today?

In Burri’s native Italy, the Fondazione Albizzini di Città di Castello should be a priority. Beyond gallery walls, the Grande Cretto Bianco di Gibellina in Sicily, which was reduced to a pile of rubble when it was the epicentre of an earthquake in 1968, is also well worth seeing. When the mayor of the town asked artists to create commemorative installations, Burri refused, proposing instead to compress the remains of the old city and cover them with iron and cement — creating the Grande Cretto Bianco, or Great White Crack, a monumental work of land art.

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How does the art world feel about Burri now?

‘Burri changed art,’ says Bassetti. ‘He was the precursor of Italian contemporary art, directly influencing Arte Povera and the young artists who followed him. For me, the entire generation of artists that followed Burri looked to him as a master — we even see something of Burri in Damien Hirst’s works, when he adds butterfly wings to the canvas.’

All the best museums in the world, from the Guggenheim in New York to the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome and the Tate in London, have at least one work by Burri in their permanent collections. Celebrations around his centenary in 2015 attracted further attention, which has resulted in a strong demand for his work.

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