Fausto Melotti in his studio in Milan. Courtesy Fondazione Fausto Melotti

Collecting guide: Fausto Melotti

‘He tells a story in the simplest of ways,’ says Christie’s specialist Giulia Centonze of the shy Italian sculptor, who also revelled in design, mathematics, music and poetry

Who was Fausto Melotti?

Fausto Melotti was one of the most inventive artists of the 20th century,’ says Christie’s specialist Giulia Centonze. ‘He is a household name in Italy, where he played a central role in the country’s cultural renaissance in the mid-20th century, but he is less well known internationally.’

In recognition of his work as an artist, he won the 1974 Rembrandt Prize and was posthumously awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 1986.

One explanation of his low profile abroad is the sheer diversity of his output. Melotti was a polymath with a compulsion to experiment, and his muscular intellect led him to create an endless variety of artworks, from figurative drawings and pure geometric sculptures to lyrical cadences in brass and gold. These works were informed by folk tales, music, architecture, the ancient world and mathematical symmetry.

Melotti was also a designer, a poet and a writer, contributing essays to Gio Ponti’s architecture magazine Domus, and publishing the poetry anthology Linee (meaning ‘lines’), for which he won the Diano Marina Prize in 1975.

Centonze notes that, for all his whimsical brilliance, he was a reserved individual who kept out of the spotlight — unlike his contemporary Lucio Fontana (1899-1968), a master showman.

‘Melotti was shy and serious-minded and rarely travelled,’ she says. Aside from a brief spell in Rome during the Second World War, he lived most of his life in Milan.

Fausto Melotti (1901-1986), Portacandela (candle holder). Polychrome glazed ceramic. 9.1 x 8.3 x 8.3 cm. Sold for €2,375 on 6 May, Online
Fausto Melotti (1901-1986), Portacandela (candle holder). Polychrome glazed ceramic. 9.1 x 8.3 x 8.3 cm. Sold for €2,375 on 6 May, Online
Fausto Melotti (1901-1986), Portacandela (candle holder). Polychrome glazed ceramic. 8.5 x 8.5 x 8.5 cm. Sold for €2,375 on 6 May, Online
Fausto Melotti (1901-1986), Portacandela (candle holder). Polychrome glazed ceramic. 8.5 x 8.5 x 8.5 cm. Sold for €2,375 on 6 May, Online

Melotti’s early life

Born in Rovereto in 1901, Melotti studied physics and mathematics at the University of Pisa and graduated with a degree in electrotechnical engineering from the Polytechnic University of Milan. In 1928 he enrolled at the Accademia delle Belle Arte di Brera, where he trained under the Symbolist sculptor Adolfo Wildt (1868-1931). There he met Fontana, and they remained friends for the rest of their lives.

Milan in the 1920s was the centre of Italy’s avant-garde and an intoxicating place for a young artist. It was here in 1909 that Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944) founded the revolutionary Futurist movement, publishing a scandalous manifesto that declared war on the old order with the words ‘we want to deliver Italy from its gangrene of professors, archaeologists, tourist guides and antiquaries’.

‘Many Milanese artists were inspired by the Futurists,’ says Centonze. ‘Their provocative actions and celebration of modernism were exciting. There was so much potential.’

Together with his cousin Carlo Belli (1903-1991) — the future theorist of Italian abstract art — Melotti became part of a lively group of young artists, musicians and architects including Gino Pollini (1903-1991), Luciano Baldessari (1896-1982) and Adalberto Libera (1903-1963).

The northern metropolis was also becoming the centre of fashion, furniture and product design, with figures such as Ponti transforming the way Italians lived and thought about design.

Melotti embraced this thrilling new world and began experimenting with abstraction, creating geometric works that reflected the sense of order in the universe.

The pursuit of purity

‘There are two extremes to Melotti’s practice in the 1920s and 30s,’ explains Centonze. ‘On the one hand, he is still a figurative artist, making marble busts and drawings that look like illustrations for fairy tales; and on the other, he is producing these cool, minimal sculptures with grids and lines that hark back to his education in maths and physics.’

To further his interest in geometric sculpture, Melotti joined the Abstraction-Création movement founded in Paris in 1931 by Auguste Herbin (1882-1960) and Georges Vantongerloo (1886-1965). He also befriended a circle of Rationalist architects in Milan known as Gruppo 7, who, like Melotti, were keen to find a middle way between classicism and hard-edged modernism.

His friendship with Gruppo 7 and Gio Ponti, who promoted Melotti’s genius in Domus, inspired the artist to branch out into furniture and product design, creating a series of objects for the home such as the table pictured below, offered online at Christie’s until 6 May.

Fausto Melotti (1901-1986), Table, c. 1950. Glazed ceramic, brass and crystal. 76.5 x 154 x 45 cm (base). Sold for €93,750 on 6 May, Online

Fausto Melotti (1901-1986), Table, c. 1950. Glazed ceramic, brass and crystal. 76.5 x 154 x 45 cm (base). Sold for €93,750 on 6 May, Online

‘As far as we are aware, this is the only dining table he ever made,’ says Centonze. ‘It has this amazing Baroque aesthetic, advocating the idea of decoration in modern design — something that was considered very provocative at the time.’

The table was one of a number of objects given to the present owner’s family by Melotti. ‘It is one of the great delights of visiting houses in Milan,’ says the specialist. ‘You find all these wonderful treasures from artists like Fontana, Melotti and Ponti. They were so experimental, and often gave their designs away as gifts to friends.’

Melotti’s crisis of creativity

This creative period came to a crashing halt in the 1940s with the outbreak of the Second World War, and the horrors Melotti witnessed had a profound impact on his work. ‘I must confess that the war has caused me great inner pain and sickness,’ he wrote. ‘One cannot make abstract art, one cannot even think about it, when the soul is full not of desperation, but of figures of desperation.’

In 1943 his studio in Milan was bombed and much of his work destroyed. The mathematical order and harmony he had applied to geometric abstraction did not reflect reality as he saw it, and he turned to ceramics, making sombre little figures and stage sets which he called teatrini.

Fausto Melotti (1901-1986), I gessetti, 1959. 18¼ x 12¾ x 5⅛ in (46.3 x 32.4 x 13 cm). Sold for £320,750 on 2 October 2018 at Christie’s in London

Fausto Melotti (1901-1986), I gessetti, 1959. 18¼ x 12¾ x 5⅛ in (46.3 x 32.4 x 13 cm). Sold for £320,750 on 2 October 2018 at Christie’s in London

A new freedom

It was not until the late 1960s that Melotti returned to abstraction, merging the two sides of his practice in a series of light, threadlike, almost dematerialised constructions he called ‘anti-sculpture’.

His 1973 work Il viaggio della luna (‘Journey to the Moon’) is an exuberant example of this final phase. A delicate construction of gold and brass shapes and fine wires, it features a line of playful forms queuing beside a ladder to the moon. This metaphysical dream world offers a perfect balance between geometry and representation, abstraction and narrative.

The influence of music

In his acceptance speech for the Rembrandt Prize, Melotti stated that it was his love of music that had helped him return to sculpture: ‘Music has called me back, disciplining with its laws, distinctions and digressions in a balanced discourse.’

Melotti was an accomplished pianist, and the titles of his sculptures — including words such as ‘variations’, ‘sequence’, ‘counterpoint’ and ‘scale’ — often allude to musical theory. Some of his later works look like three-dimensional renderings of avant-garde scores, with looping curls, arabesques and repeated patterns. He once described his sculptures as ‘a musical space structured in the building of harmony’.

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The market for Melotti

According to Centonze, the market for Melotti’s sculpture has risen considerably since his death in 1986. In 2015, Christie’s sold Il viaggio della luna for the record price of €606,000.

The specialist believes it is the poetry in Melotti’s work that attracts collectors. ‘He tells a story in the simplest of ways,’ she says. ‘There is a purity in his art. It is born out of the beauty of mathematical equations, the clarity of design and the courageous spirit of the human mind.’