A guide to Arte Povera

Mariolina Bassetti, Global Chairman of Post-War and Contemporary Art, shines a light on the provocative Sixties movement which championed the idea that art could be made from anything — including horses. Illustrated with works offered at Christie’s

Jannis Kounellis, Untitled (12 Horses), L'Attico di via Beccaria, January 1969

Jannis Kounellis (1936-2017), Untitled (12 Horses), L’Attico di via Beccaria, January 1969. Artwork: © Jannis Kounellis, DACS 2023. Photo: Claudio Abate

Arte Povera — translated as ‘poor art’ — describes the work of a group of young Italian artists active during the late 1960s. Based predominantly in Turin and Rome, they rejected the principals of figurative art and classicism, creating works from everyday materials including jute, wood, coal and even fire.

The term was coined by Italian art critic Germano Celant, who organised the first, groundbreaking Arte Povera exhibition in 1967. His pioneering efforts created a collective identity for the artists whose materials, though ‘poor’, were use to make conceptually rich works that sought to provoke change.

With his gestural cuts to the canvas, Lucio Fontana (1899-1968), the founder of Spatialism, opened doors for the next generation of artists to explore new ways of transforming their art. Alberto Burri (1915-1995) predates Arte Povera but could be considered the father of the movement, having first explored the use of unconventional materials such as fire, jute, wood and iron at the end of the 1940s.

Jannis Kounellis (1936-2017), Senza titolo, 1985-95. Iron, lead, burlap sacks and copper (gas cylinder). 213.4 x 375.9 x 12.7 cm (total). Offered in the 20th/21st Century Milan Online Sale, 23 November to 5 December 2023 at Christie’s Online

Who were the key figures of Arte Povera?

The movement’s central protagonists were Giovanni Anselmo (b. 1934), Alighiero Boetti (1940-1994), Jannis Kounellis (1936-2017), Mario Merz (1925-2003), Pino Pascali (1936-1968) and Giuseppe Penone (b. 1947).

Anselmo explored his place in the vastness of nature, and the laws that govern the universe, in a series of works that employ a wide variety of organic and inorganic materials.

Boetti’s many masterpieces were produced in a variety of materials and stem from his insistence that art is not what is represented, but the idea behind it.

Kounellis created installations with raw materials such as coal, stones and wool, and his work rarely comes to market. Merz’s ‘continuous’ drawings explored the idea of organic creation, while his signature igloos examine our relationship to nature.

Pascali’s playful works transformed materials such as hay, cans, brushes and fake fur. Penone is best-known for his iconic tree sculptures, which have taken over galleries across the world.

Mario Merz (1925-2003), Senza titolo, 1976. Pencil, pastel, watercolour, wax and snail on paper. 50 x 70 cm. Offered in the 20th/21st Century Milan Online Sale, 23 November to 5 December 2023 at Christie’s Online

Another acknowledged leading figure of the movement is Michelangelo Pistoletto (b. 1933), whose now iconic mirror paintings played with the representation of reality by inviting the viewer to enter the work. Leaning man, 1966 represents the artist’s dealer Gian Enzo Sperone. As with its companion work, Standing Man (1962, 1982) at Tate Modern, it requires the viewer’s participation to complete the portrait.

Other proponents of the movement as it took hold in the 1960s include Luciano Fabro (1936-2007), whose conceptual sculptures are highly sought after, and Giulio Paolini (b. 1940), acclaimed for his minimal and conceptual works subverting classical materials such as canvas and plaster.

What brought Arte Povera to the public’s attention?

In 1968 art dealer Fabio Sargentini invited artist Pino Pascali to exhibit in his Rome gallery, L’Attico. Tragically, Pascali was killed in a motorcycle accident before the exhibition was staged, and Kounellis was asked to take his place.

Kounellis’s show was daringly unconventional, consisting of a dozen live horses tethered to the gallery walls. Hugely popular with critics and the public alike, Untitled (12 Horses) became legendary, encapsulating the idea that art could be made from anything and didn’t have to be commercially viable. The exhibition is widely regarded as marking the birth of Arte Povera.

How did the ideas of Arte Povera influence other artists?

At the end of the 1960s a number of major international exhibitions took place outside Italy. One of the most important was Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form (Works — Concepts — Processes — Situations — Information) curated by Harald Szeemann in 1969. The show opened a dialogue between Boetti, Kounellis, Anselmo, Merz and Pascali, and American artists such as Bruce Nauman, Richard Long, Sol Lewitt and Walter de Maria, demonstrating the similarity in thinking between the two groups.

How has the market grown for Arte Povera?

The market for Arte Povera has grown steadily since 2003, although a breakthrough moment came in February 2014 at Christie’s in London with Eyes Wide Open: An Italian Vision, one of the most significant collections of Arte Povera works ever offered at auction, which saw 15 artist records set in a single night.

What should a collector consider when seeking to acquire Arte Povera?

There are a number of factors that can affect the value of Arte Povera works, from date of execution to material and ease of conservation. As with other movements, the form of works is varied — collectors can choose from works on paper, editions, sculptures or flat art, starting from around £5,000 and rising into the millions for the most important pieces.

Some Arte Povera works can be fragile, although they should not be dismissed if they are not in perfect condition. Few Arte Povera artists sought to make long-term investment pieces, and the condition of works in this category matters less than in others because the ideas behind them were so important.

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Are there any Arte Povera artists the market is yet to discover?

Works by Gilberto Zorio (b. 1944) remain attractively priced. His Untitled (1967), sold for £281,000 at Christie’s in 2016, is a masterpiece of both the artist and the movement.

Women artists associated with Arte Povera include Carol Rama (1918-2015), who produced paintings that explored sexual identity such as Mucca Pizza (Mad Cow), 1999, while Giosetta Fioroni (b. 1932) worked in aluminium enamel paint, veering from Arte Povera to adopt the Pop aesthetic promoted by the Piazza del Popolo school (known as the Pop artists of Rome).

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