Mario Schifano: Pop star, rock star, ‘brilliant genius’

An introduction to the pioneer of Italian Pop art who counted Cy Twombly, Jean-Luc Godard and members of the Rolling Stones among his friends

Mario Schifano in 1967, photographed by Ugo Mulas

Mario Schifano, 1967. Photo: Ugo Mulas © Ugo Mulas Heirs. All rights reserved. Artwork: © Mario Schifano, DACS 2023

Mario Schifano (1934-1998) is sometimes referred to as ‘Italy’s Andy Warhol’, though the moniker tends to narrow the focus onto his Pop art. The truth is it is difficult to define Schifano by any one movement.

Schifano led a colourful life, and his social circle included Cy Twombly, the French film-maker, Jean-Luc Godard and members of the Rolling Stones. (In the late 1960s, Marianne Faithfull left her then-boyfriend, Mick Jagger, for him.) A weakness for drugs, meanwhile, earned Schifano six separate prison sentences.

In recent years, he has been the subject of a major retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome, and had works included in The World Goes Pop, at Tate Modern and the Center for Modern Italian Art in New York.

Schifano’s Monocromi — the dawn of an exciting, new talent

Born in Libya — at the time an Italian colony — Schifano moved with his family to Rome at a young age. He was self-taught as an artist, his first job actually being as a ceramics restorer.

His early paintings owed a debt to Art Informel, though by 1960 he’d moved on to the works with which he made his name: a series known as Monocromi (‘Monochromes’), each canvas consisting of an energetic field of a single colour.

Mario Schifano (1934-1998), Senza Titolo, 1961. Enamel on paper laid down on canvas. 85 x 72 cm. Sold for €176,400 on 31 May 2023 at Christie’s Online

The leading art-dealer Ileana Sonnabend was such a fan of the Monochromes that she held two exhibitions of them at her Paris gallery in quick succession. She was left furious in 1963 when Schifano announced he’d paint no more of these works, cutting off all ties with him.

Coca-Cola, Esso and Italian Pop art

Schifano’s reputation grew swiftly. The writer Goffredo Parise described him as ‘a prince, a true Ahmed from One Thousand and One Nights... an extremely handsome, immediately brilliant genius... who painted with fulminant speed’.

Benefitting from Marshall Plan economic aid, Rome in the early 1960s had become a fast-living city of conspicuous consumption. This was the age of la dolce vita. Schifano joined a group of artists known as the Piazza del Popolo school, who responded to the changing streets around them — to the abundance of advertising posters, above all.

Mario Schifano (1934-1998), Senza titolo, 1964-65. Enamel, spray paint and graphite on canvas. 100.3 x 77.2 cm. Estimate: €15,000-20,000. Offered in the 20th/21st Century Milan Online Sale, 23 November to 5 December 2023 at Christie’s Online

He painted two sets of canvases, in which the corporate logos of Coca-Cola and Esso were respectively adapted and reworked. These have become arguably the most famous works of all Italian Pop art.

He tended to isolate sections of each logo rather than depict it in full; he also used loose painterly swirls rather than seeking to copy the slick mechanical execution of the original signs. In doing this, he was, in a sense, deconstructing and undercutting the commercialisation of Italian culture.

Schifano’s choice of titles for these works — many of which included the word ‘propaganda’ — certainly supports such a view.

The rock-star lifestyle, the Stones and New York

Schifano brought a rock’n’roll spirit to the art world — and not just because he created and briefly managed his own group, The Stars of Mario Schifano. He drove around Rome in a Rolls Royce and had countless girlfriends, the best-known of whom was the model and actress, Anita Pallenberg, later the lover of both Brian Jones and Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones.

The artist’s connection to the English rockers went further than that, though: Richards and Mick Jagger gave cameo performances in a film he directed, Umano non Umano (1968); and he was even the inspiration for a Rolling Stones song, Monkey Man, on the album Let It Bleed.

Schifano was also infamous for the parties he threw at his lavish Roman apartment. One exasperated neighbour, the professor Mario Praz, described him as ‘a complete savage’ who had ‘shady people come and go’, creating ‘constant noise’ and ‘riding around the apartment on bicycles’.

‘A prince, a true Ahmed from One Thousand and One Nights... an extremely handsome, immediately brilliant genius... who painted with fulminant speed’

In the mid 1960s Praz found peace when Schifano moved for the best part of a year to New York. He shared a flat there with the poet Frank O’Hara and hung out with the likes of Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns.

Schifano was one of very few Europeans to show alongside Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and others in The New Realists, a landmark Pop art exhibition at Sidney Janis Gallery in Manhattan in 1962. Leonardo,  a uniquely Italian iteration of Pop art, was made the year after. 

From Pop art to landscapes and the rise of Arte Povera

As had earlier been the case with his Monochromes, Schifano soon chose to move on from his Pop work, too: this time to become a landscape painter.

Not that his paintings in this genre could ever be mistaken for a Constable or a Corot. He approached them in an avant-garde fashion, using many unorthodox materials, such as parcel paper (which he adhered to his canvases) and enamel paint (which he applied to that paper, even though it’s typically used for industrial purposes).

Mario Schifano (1934-1998), Senza titolo. Enamel and grease pencil on canvas. 147 x 220 cm. Estimate: €30,000-50,000. Offered in the 20th/21st Century Milan Online Sale, 23 November to 5 December 2023 at Christie’s Online

Schifano was fond, too, of covering certain works in a sheet of Perspex. With his adoption of everyday materials, he anticipated the rise of the Arte Povera movement.

He often left large sections of his landscapes unfinished, meaning that much of the parcel paper is visible. Was this his way of stressing that, no matter how convincing the artist, landscape paintings are ultimately just representations of reality rather than reality itself?

Certainly, in his political outlook, he insisted people shouldn’t take things at face value. In the late 1960s, Schifano become increasingly engaged in left-wing politics and donated large amounts of money to anti-government groups across Italy.

The market for works by Schifano

He continued to work, intermittently, up until his death in 1998, aged 63. In the late 1980s, he was invited to design the leaders’ jerseys for the Tour de France, for example.

It’s fair to say Schifano’s output in that one decade — the 1960s — is richer than most artists manage in a whole career. He embraced elements of gestural abstraction, Pop art, Conceptualism, Arte Povera, landscape painting and geometric abstraction.

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The top 10 prices for Schifano at auction have all been for works he made in the 1960s, with the current record standing at €2.3 million. In 2022, La stanza dei Disegni (1962) sold at Christie’s in Paris for €1,302,000, the second-highest price achieved at auction.

He may have been somewhat forgotten in the latter part of his career and in the period after his death, but Schifano had once been a major figure, so the rise in his prices of late shouldn’t come as a surprise.

In recent years, works by Italian post-war artists, such as Lucio Fontana and Alberto Burri have fetched several millions at auction. They both came of age in the 1950s — a decade before Schifano — it will be interesting to see if his market will follow a similar trajectory.

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