Why Burri, and why now?
This year marks the centenary of the birth of Alberto Burri (1915-1995), the Italian medic who began to produce unconventional masterpieces as a prisoner of war in America’s Camp Howze.
According to gallery director Luigi Mazzoleni, who hosts Alberto Burri at his London gallery until 30 November, ‘[He] 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.’
Currently the subject of a major retrospective at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, the artist became one of the leading members of Italy’s radical Arte Povera, or ‘poor art’ movement, joining members including Lucio Fontana, Michelangelo Pistoletto and Jannis Kounellis.
How important was Burri in the development of Arte Povera?
Though it developed during a period of economic and political instability, Arte Povera, coined by Italian critic and curator Germano Celant in 1967, came to define a new form of art without restraint. Its members rejected ‘rich’ traditional mediums such as oil paint and bronze in favour of unconventional processes, working with ‘everyday’ materials including soil, rags and twigs.
According to Mazzoleni, 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.’ For Mariolina Bassetti, Head of Modern and Contemporary Art for Christie’s Italy, ‘he was an artist, poet, and a creator of the new, who loved discovering new forms in diverse materials’.
And yet one could argue that this artistic revolution had its origins in medicine and a prisoner of war camp...
‘Since he was a young boy, Burri had cultivated a passion for drawing — to the point where he was sent to the geometer Ottaviani for lessons, though they quickly proved too academic,’ explains Mazzoleni. ‘He continued to paint throughout his years at medical school, admiring the work of Piero della Francesca and Renaissance artists.’
Dr. Alberto Burri graduated in the summer of 1940, just a few months before Italy entered the Second World War. On 12 October that year, he was called up to serve as a medic in the Italian army, and toured the Balkans and Northern Africa. There, on 8 May 1943, he was captured by Allied forces and interned in Camp Howze, a prisoner of war camp in Gainesville, Texas
Motivated by his fellow prisoners — who included academics, architects, and the artist Gambetti — Burri began to paint, his earliest works depicting a view of the desert from the interior of the prison camp. ‘Burri had always had an artistic vein,’ comments Bassetti, ‘it was only in the sobering silence of the prison that he recognised it. A doctor is, after all, a creator of hope.’
How did Burri work?
With resources remaining sparse, Burri’s early methods were necessarily unconventional: ‘He recycled materials, including industrial and commercial canvas,’ comments Mazzoleni. Sackcloth was readily available, and Burri continued to use the material in Rome following his release in 1946, also experimenting with bark, corrugated cardboard, sheet metal and crushed stone.
Alberto Burri, Sacco e Rosso, 1956. Burlap and oil on canvas. 100 x 86 cm. Courtesy Mazzoleni, © Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Collezione Burri, Città di Castello. This work is on show at Alberto Burri at Gallery Mazzoleni, London, until 30 November
‘His first Sacco of 1949 was made with a jute sack, which he brought back with him from the prisoner of war camp in Texas — a material which held strong symbolic value,’ explains Mazzoleni. The work became one of several Sacchi, a group of abstract collage constructions made from torn cloth, roughly stitched together and stretched across the canvas surface.
By the 1950s, Burri’s methods became more dramatic: ‘Fire became the protagonist which defined Burri’s forms,’ continues 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), Rosso Plastica M1, 1961. Signed, titled and dated ‘ROSSO PLASTICA M.1 BURRI 61’ (on the reverse). Plastic, acrylic and combustion on canvas. 46 x 52 ¼in. (117 x 132.5cm.) Sold for: £3,442,500 in The Italian Sale on 16 October 2015 at Christie’s London
Did these violent processes represent a kind of emotional catharsis?
VIDEOThe Italian Sale 2015: Alberto BurriWatch video
It depends who you ask. Early commentators were keen to suggest that the Sacchi’s patchwork surfaces stood as a metaphor for living flesh, violated during warfare — the stitching linked to Burri’s practice as a physician. Others suggested the hardship of life in post-war Italy prompted the artist to repurpose sacks originally used to deliver relief supplies.
Entitled The Trauma of Painting, the Guggenheim’s current retrospective associates Burri’s work with an ambiguous distress — we are left 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,’ explains 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.’
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 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 supported Burri, it was met with front-page scandal,’ says Bassetti. The director of Rome’s Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderne, Bucarelli proved a strong advocate of Burri’s untraditional practice, hosting a major exhibition of work in 1959 which was so controversial 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 where visitors could write their thoughts on the show,’ recalls Mazzoleni. ‘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.’
It wasn’t all bad, however: ‘As demonstrated by the writings of John J. Sweeney, Cesari Brandi and Giulio Carlo Argan, Burri’s work did achieve critical acclaim,’ Mazzoleni adds. ‘Curiously, critics were particularly favourable in America — the place where he first started painting, almost by chance, as a distraction from his imprisonment.’
View of the exhibition, Alberto Burrí, 16 October to 1 December, 1963. Photographer, Hickey & Robertson. MS82: Hickey And Robertson Photonegative Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Archives
Though murmurs from his Italian critics rumbled on, in 1953 Sweeney selected Burri to feature in the Younger European Painters exhibition at New York’s Guggenheim alongside artists including Pierre Soulages and Karel Appel.
Where can I see Burri’s work today?
The Guggenheim exhibition, which represents the artist’s first retrospective in almost 40 years, is the obvious start, with an extensive solo show at Mazzoleni offering an excellent introduction to the artist’s work for those based in London. In Burri’s native Italy, Bassetti advises, the Fondazione Albizzini di Città di Castello ‘is an absolute must’.
Work in progress at Cretto di Gibellina, Courtesy Comune di Gibellina, Assessore Giuseppe Zummo
Alberto Burri visiting the Cretto di Gibellina. Courtesy Comune di Gibellina, Assessore Giuseppe Zummo
Beyond gallery walls, Mazzoleni recommends the Grande Cretto Bianco di Gibellina in Sicily: ‘The town of Gibellina was reduced to a pile of rubble when it was the epicentre of a terrible earthquake in 1968. When the mayor 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 Biano, or Great White Crack, a monumental work of land art.’
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 master — we even see something of Burri in Damien Hirst’s works, when he adds butterfly wings to the canvas.’
‘At the moment 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,’ comments Mazzoleni. ‘Undoubtedly the celebrations around his centenary will attract more attention to the master resulting in a strong demand for his work.’
‘Today, Burri’s market is flourishing,’ concludes Bassetti. ‘Along with Manzoni and Fontana, he is one of Italy’s most cited artists.’
Main image at top: Alberto Burri. Photo © Ferninando Scianna/Magnum Photos. © DACS 2015
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