‘There can be no poetry after Auschwitz’, the philosopher and composer Theodor Adorno had famously warned, and yet throughout Europe and Japan in the 1950s — especially in those areas most devastated by war, it seems — disparate groups of artists developed an entirely new approach to painting rooted in the idea of destruction as a creative process.
Almost simultaneously and often ignorant of one another and their work, theirs was an attempt to break wholly with the ideological traditions of the past and, through a variety of destructive processes, create something honest, positive and true: to build a new art that, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, would serve as a kind of alchemical act of transformative redemption, regeneration and healing.
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Ranging from the elemental material and spatial practices of artists like Alberto Burri and Lucio Fontana (1899-1968) in Italy or Antoni Tàpies and Manolo Millares in Spain, to the urban poetics of the French ‘Nouveau Realists’ or the performative paintings of the Gutai group in Japan, these artists were all making work that in one way or another was distinguished by its violent assault on the traditional, two-dimensional plane of the canvas — ripping, burning, tearing, cutting, puncturing, disrupting and even destroying it, and all the formalist ideas it entailed.
Lucio Fontana (1899-1968), Concetto spaziale, 1964-1965. Ink on paper. 19.3/4 x 23.1/2in. (50.2 x 59.8cm.) Estimate: £35,000-50,000. This work is offered in the Post-war and Contemporary Art Day Auction on 12 February at Christie’s London
‘I make a hole in the canvas in order to leave behind the old pictorial formulae,’ Lucio Fontana said, ‘and I escape, symbolically, but also materially, from the prison of the flat surface.’ Fontana’s destructive puncturing of the canvas was ultimately, therefore, an act of liberation.
Shozo Shimamoto (1928-2013), Palazzo Ducale 18, 2008. Enamel and broken glass on canvas. 62.3/8 x 72.1/4in. (158.5 x 183.3cm.) Estimate: £50,000-70,000. This work is offered in the Post-war and Contemporary Art Day Auction on 12 February at Christie’s London
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Like the gesture of Fontana’s spatialist assaults on the canvas, the destructive approach of the Gutai group in Japan was also largely performative. There, in the 1950s, artists like Saburo Murakami were kicking and punching their way through the back of a canvas to create poignant and temporary works that showed their wounds.
Shozo Shimamoto (1928-2013), too, was literally bombarding the surfaces of his works with such a violent array of pigment and glass that they visually recalled the firestorms that had devastated Japanese cities during the war.
Kazuo Shiraga (1924-2008), Hatsu, 2007. Watercolour, gouache, ink and oil on paper. 42.3/4 x 30.1/8in. (108.5 x 76.5cm.) Estimate: £20,000-25,000. This work is offered in the Post-war and Contemporary Art Day Auction on 12 February at Christie’s London
In contrast, Kazuo Shiraga (1924-2008) who set up his own group ‘Zero-kai’ (Zero society) and wanted to make an absolute, clean break with all the traditions of the past, set about literally turning the practice of painting on its head by painting pictures using his feet.
In contrast to the implicit violence of the Gutai painters, Antoni Tàpies adopted a profoundly more traditional, Eastern, meditative approach to the creation of his work. Like the Gutai artists, however, Tàpies’ unique approach to painting and the often wall-like appearance of many of his pictures had been borne out of the trauma of the Spanish Civil War that he had experienced directly as a child.
The image-plastered walls of Paris and Rome in the early 1950s served as the ground zero for artists who anticipated Pop Art
At this time, Tàpies’ own house in Barcelona, along with his grandfather’s bookstore, had been destroyed by bombing while the scratched, scarred, pitted and graffitied walls of the besieged city all around him graphically articulated what he later described as ‘the dramatic sufferings of adults and all the cruel fantasies of those of my own age, who seemed abandoned to their own impulses in the midst of so many catastrophes.’
It was the image-plastered walls of Paris and Rome in the early 1950s that served as the ground zero from which the affichists and Nouveau Réalistes made their ‘décollage’ pictures — works that anticipated Pop Art.
Mimmo Rotella (1918-2006), Sirena, 1960. Décollage on canvas. 28⅜ x 16⅞in. (72 x 43cm.) Estimate: £12,000-18,000. This work is offered in the Post-war and Contemporary Art Day Auction on 12 February at Christie’s London
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Created by mounting heavily encrusted layers of street posters on canvas and tearing strips off these to reveal an abstract pattern of multiple-layered imagery coming through from beneath, artists like Mimmo Rotella (1918-2006) and Jacques Villeglé transformed the decay and detritus of the urban landscape into affecting portraits of the multiplicity and transience of the mass-media age.
Meanwhile, for fellow Nouveau Réaliste Yves Klein (1928-1962), all material, whatever its nature, was mere ephemera. For this self-professed champion of the void and immateriality, his fire paintings were, he said, the ‘ashes of his art’, serving largely as signposts on the path he advocated from the world of matter to a spiritual and physical transcendence. Klein used fire as a purifying element — a destructive but also purging force that not only destroyed the picture plane but also created it anew.
Yves Klein (1928-1962), L’Eau et le Feu (F 122), 1961. Charred cardboard on board. 16⅛ x 8½in. (41 x 21.8cm) Estimate: £200,00-300,000. This work is offered in the Post-war and Contemporary Art Day Auction on 12 February at Christie’s London
The artist had seen the sinister fire-burned shadows of human beings created by the atomic blast in Hiroshima during his 15-month stay in Japan between 1952 and 1953. In fire paintings such as L’Eau et le Feu (F122), these tragic forms of human disintegration find a positive echo whereby the shadowy embers of Klein’s fire not only burn into and disrupt the flat plane of the picture but, in so doing, transform it into a hopeful image of living, immaterial spirit invigorating the material world.
Main image at top: Lucio Fontana creating Buchi, 1964. Photo Ugo Mulas © Ugo Mulas Heirs. All rights reserved. © Lucio Fontana/SIAE/DACS, London 2016
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