‘For a long time I have wanted to explore how fire consumes, to understand the nature of combustion, and how everything lives and dies in combustion to form a perfect unity’
(A. Burri quoted in E. Braun, Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting, exh. cat., New York, 2015, p. 182)
A dramatic, multi-faceted, collage-like surface composed of charred paper, wood, paint and glue, Alberto Burri’s Combustione belongs to a radical series of the same name that the artist had begun in 1954. Executed in 1957, Combustione dates from just a few years after Burri had begun his initial explorations into the aesthetic and visual possibilities of setting fire to the very materials that constituted his works, a practice that he would continue to explore for many years to come. With this iconoclastic act, Burri harnessed the destructive power of fire and used it as a new and elemental means of artistic creation, significantly redefining the traditional boundaries of painting. In Combustione, two amorphous white cavities radiate from the darkness that surrounds them, their glowing surfaces scarred with residual fragments of burnt, cindered paper that have affixed themselves onto the glue-encrusted top of the composition. Myriad textural facets constitute this dynamic, densely layered work, lending it a particularly tactile quality, while the raw materials that constitute the composition exude an expressive power, intensified by the remnants left from the fiery destruction out of which it was created.
One of the earliest European artists to consistently use fire in his artistic production, Burri first began to utilize the process of burning in 1954. At first he used paper, igniting a piece that he held in his hand and allowing the charred black pieces to fall into chance arrangements onto the glue-coated surface below. It is this technique that has been used in the creation of the present Combustione. Although chance dictated how the materials burnt and where they landed upon the waiting canvas, Burri’s process was in fact carefully controlled. He entered into an intimate dialogue with the flame, guiding and manipulating this destructive force to create the different, and in the present work, arresting, visual effects and textures achieved by burning, singeing and charring materials. In his own words, ‘Nothing is left to chance. What I do here is the most controlled and controllable type of painting… You need to control the material and this is achieved by mastering the technique’ (Burri quoted in E. Braun, Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting, exh. cat., New York, 2015, p. 211).
A combination of different materials and processes, the multi-faceted surface of Combustione is in many ways reminiscent of a collage. The medium of collage had a long tradition within 20th Century art. From the Cubists’ radical papier-collés, in which found papers and everyday ephemera were pasted to the canvas in witty arrangements that highlighted the inherent artificiality of painting, to the Dadaists’ satirical collages, collage had been used in various ways by different artists over time. Burri took these innovative developments a step further by focusing entirely on the constituent materials themselves, relishing the raw physical, tactile qualities that they possessed. As James Johnson Sweeney described in an essay accompanying an exhibition of the artist in 1958:
‘Burri also speaks the language of collage. But with a vast difference from any of [his] predecessors. His expression is primarily sensual… in its approach to surface textures, colours and psychological associations in contradistinction to any primary cerebral, witty, or literary interest. Nevertheless this sensuality in Burri’s approach does not in any way preclude an elegance or intellectual organisation in the final product. As a matter of fact these are both striking characteristics of all that is most characteristic of Burri… This ability to play unselfconsciously with his medium, combined with an unashamed, natural sensuality – both controlled and refined by an intellectual ideal for his work, a delicate sensibility, and a technician’s competence and conscience – has made it possible for Alberto Burri to give one of the most individual and refreshing expressions of the past ten years and at the same time one directly in line with the soundest traditions’ (J. Johnson Sweeney, ‘Paintings by Alberto Burri’, in Burri 1915-1995, Retrospektive, exh. cat., Rome, Munich & Brussels, 1996-97, p. 270).
Based entirely on its own inherent materiality, Burri’s work no longer refers to nor reflects the external world, but instead relates entirely to itself, an autonomous, self-defining work. Reduced to monochrome components, Combustione revels in its own inherent materiality, possessing, in Burri’s words, an ‘irreducible presence that refuses to be turned into any other form of expression’ (Burri, quoted in Braun, op. cit., p. 36). Burri’s work heralded a new approach towards picture making, one that was based only on the physical, three-dimensional constitution of the painting, its materials, colours and processes, rather than the abstract combination of form and line on a two-dimensional picture plane. ‘The object that Burri puts together with extraneous strange materials is not figuration or representation’, the critic Guilio Carlo Argan wrote. ‘It is a picture or, better yet, the fiction of a picture, a sort of reversed trompe l’oeil in which the picture no longer imitates reality but reality imitates a picture’ (G. C. Argan, quoted in E. Braun, ibid., p. 44).