Otherworldly, monumental and profoundly universal, Concetto spaziale,La fine di Dio (FD 24) is one of Lucio Fontana’s rare and career-defining series La fine di Dio. A complex and all-encompassing body of work, La fine di Dio is a group of thirty-eight, ovoid-shaped paintings of identical size and varying monochrome colour that Fontana executed over an eighteen-month period, from the beginning of 1963 through 1964, for three different exhibitions held consecutively in Zurich, Milan and Paris. Widely regarded as Fontana’s magnum opus, this series emerged as the aesthetic and conceptual zenith of the artist’s movement, Spatialism; serving as the ultimate culmination of his career-long desire to create an art form that could transcend the earthbound nature of matter and embody an infinite, immaterial and spiritual dimension. As such, it was with La fine di Dio that Fontana gained ultimate artistic freedom, triumphantly concluding his career-long interrogation of matter and material, space and light, to create a new form of art that perfectly befit the dawn of the new Space Age. Here, Fontana succeeded in unifying the relationship between time, gesture and eternity, conveying the constant transmutation of material into space, as well as the existential angst of man existing within the vast and
unknowable void of space.
Neither painting nor sculpture, simultaneously a three-dimensional object and an immaterial, transcendent portal that invokes the fourth dimension and the boundless, unknowable depths of the universe, Concetto spaziale, La Fine di Dio is, like the rest of the series, a holistic object which, with its archetypal, regenerative and mystical ovoid or egg shaped form, also serves to embody the unknowable, unfathomable entity of the universe. A perfect, unending form that embodies birth, evolution, death and resurrection, it therefore serves to represent the beginning, end and entirety of existence itself. With the addition of the seemingly comprehensible yet insistently elusive title, ‘The End of God’, a statement at once shockingly iconoclastic, deeply profound and poetic, Fontana pronounced in one exultant body of work, the end of the centuries long evolution of Western painting and the beginning of a new era of art and thought. ‘For me’, he wrote, ‘La fine di Dio signify the infinite, something inconceivable, the end of figurative representation, the beginning of nothing’ (Fontana, quoted in E.Crispolti, Lucio Fontana: catalogo generale, vol. 1, Milan, 1986, p. 73).
Occupying a supreme position within Fontana’s oeuvre, La Fine di Dio also stands as a timeless and singular expression of the post-war era, encapsulating the complex, contradictory and multivalent sentiments of an epoch defined by convulsive change, pioneering progress, conflict and existentialist crisis. As man conquered the earth’s atmosphere and reached the hitherto inconceivable realm of space, and scientific and technological discoveries changed the face of human thought and understanding, so Fontana created a strange, enigmatic and prophetic object that reflected the unknowable, visionary spirit of the times, and indeed, foreshadowed man’s physical experience of it. Composed of seemingly sparkling, constellation-like trails of buchi, interspersed with larger, primal punctures that penetrate the canvas with a visceral urgency, Concetto spaziale, La fine di Dio (FD 24) is perhaps the most lyrically and deliberately composed work of this series. Unlike other works of the group, the variously formed buchi create a deeply poetic topography, spread amidst the oval plane with arrhythmic harmony and a graceful beauty unique within this series. Clustered
in tight formations, drifting in delicate, celestial single-line streams, or splitting the surface in violent, visceral ruptures rent open by Fontana’s hands, these emancipatory and revolutionary gestures evoke both earthly and astral planes, their placement seemingly created not by the artist but by time and space itself. Indeed, the compositional beauty of the surface surpasses any sense of the violence that bore its creation; it is no longer solely an object but appears like a timeless, mysterious sign from another world or a relic from another time. Around the perimeter of this galaxy-like orb runs a single oval outline that charts round the myriad materializing and dissolving buchi, which appear ever expanding, just like the universe itself.
Fontana had first painted Concetto spaziale, La fine di Dio – at 178 cm high it is the height of the artist himself, and of the average male of the time, thus creating a revelatory, wholly immersive experience for the viewer – with his principal hue of bright, fresh pink monochrome oil paint, before covering this base with otherworldly copper-hued lustrini (‘glitter’), thereby creating an ever-changing and constant array of celestial reflections across the expansive plane. This rare combination of pink oil paint and copper lustrini lends this work a particular and unique effect. At once inherently earthbound – appearing like a piece of primeval matter emitted from the birth of the earth, its riven, shimmering surface like swelling volcanic magma, or a primordial landscape imprinted with man’s first gestures – it is at the same time insistently cosmological. Sprinkled with what could be lunar dust or the dissolving matter of an asteroid trial, this work is a cosmic splendour; an abstract evocation of far-of, constellation-filled galaxies, undiscovered planets, and elliptical orbits enlivened and invigorated with a subtle, yet alluring iridescent brilliance.
While works from this renowned series are today housed in museum collections across the world, including the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofa in Madrid, and the Museum of Contemporary in Tokyo, Concetto spaziale, La fine di Dio has a distinguished provenance, having remained largely unseen since 1963. Following its creation, this work entered the legendary collection of Philippe Dotrémont, a Belgian businessman who was devoted to 20th Century art, amassing a collection that
encompassed masterpieces by the leading masters of modern and post-war art; including Matisse, Kandinsky and Léger, as well as Rothko and Still.
The genesis of La Fine di Dio series dates to January 1963. ‘I’m incubating a series of paintings’, Fontana wrote to Enrico Crispolti,
referring to this group for the first time, ‘that I would like to call the End of God’. ‘If you happen to be in Milan, come and see me’, he continued, clearly aware of the significance of this new body of work, ‘I’d like to discuss them with you, and if we agree, you could write a critical essay on them’ (Fontana to E. Crispolti, 17 January 1963, in E. Crispolti, ed., Lucio Fontana: Fine di Dio, Florence, 2017). The inspiration, Fontana explained in an interview of the same year, had supposedly come from a commission to illustrate the Bible, but instead of ‘visualising old things’, Fontana came up with these new spatial concepts (P. Gottschaller, Lucio Fontana: The Artist’s Materials, Los Angeles, 2012, p. 107). Anticipating his large egg-shaped canvases however, Fontana had already begun a small series of pen and ink drawings with the inscription ‘la fnedidio’ in as early as 1960 (see for example 60-61 DSP 116). Indeed, as with the majority of his defining cycles of work, Fontana conceived the initial concept on paper, creating what Luca Massimo Barbero has described as ‘diagrams of thought’, studies that served as, ‘a storage space of ideas, where Fontana works on the sign’ (L. Massimo
Barbero, ‘The Oils. Pattern, Form and Frame: The Lexicon of the Fine di Dio’, in E. Crispolti, ed., op. cit., p. 72). These insightful pages see the artist eagerly experimenting with the oval format, filling these embryo like forms with tangled webs of lines that can be now be recognised as overriding placement of holes.
By the beginning of the 1960s, Fontana had already mastered Spatialism, the innovative movement he had founded in 1947. Interplanetary travel and the galactic accomplishments of the era fascinated the artist, as did technological innovations and Einstein’s
concept of a space-time continuum: a fourth dimension of limitless, unfathomable space. In the face of these explosive developments, the destiny of painting, particularly the fate of the brushstroke was, in the eyes of Fontana and his colleagues, outmoded, antiquated and archaic. Fontana understood that the artist, like the scientist, had to compete with a vision of the world exclusively comprised of time, matter, energy and above all, the pervasive void of deep space. Faced with this reality, Fontana called for artists to embrace this revolutionary stage of man’s evolution and produce a new, spatial art that expressed the extraordinary developments of science and space travel. ‘I assure you’, Fontana had stated in 1949, ‘that on the moon they will not be painting, but they will be making Spatial art’ (Fontana, quoted in S. Petersen, Space-Age Aesthetics: Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein, and the Postwar European Avant-Garde, Pennsylvania, 2009, p. 6).
It was with the buchi and subsequently the tagli that Fontana realised these conceptual aims. By perforating and penetrating through the previously inviolable surface of the canvas itself, Fontana succeeded in incorporating real space into his artwork, integrating slithers of darkness that served as philosophical metaphors for the infinite cosmic realm in which the earth had been found to exist. This for Fontana represented the final frontier in art: his incisions transformed the two-dimensional surface of the canvas into a multi-dimensional object that could exist within the limitless parameters of space and time: a Spatial concept.
Yet, by the early 1960s, as the post-war era was dramatically unfolding, man’s relationship with these radical innovations was changing. With Yuri Gagarin’s first voyage into space in April of 1961, the concept of space changed from being an intangible, unimaginable, near fantastical concept to something suddenly much more real and comprehensible. From seeking to embody the wondrous enigma and idealistic fascination for the cosmos, Fontana began to focus on the real, physical experience of this new realm and the existential questions that this advancement threw up. ‘Space is no longer an abstraction’, he explained, but has become a dimension which man can even inhabit, violating it with jets, with Sputniks, with space ships. It is a human dimension that can generate physiological pain, a terror in the mind, and I, in my most recent canvases, am trying to give form to this sensation’
(Fontana, quoted in L. Massimo Barbero, Lucio Fontana: Venice/New York, exh. cat., Venice & New York, 2006-2007, p. 24).
Embracing material once more in the Olii, a cycle defined by lavish, thick monochrome oil painted surfaces that are rent open with visceral, oozing, corporeal ruptures, Fontana then began a series of sculptures known as the Nature, primordial balls of clay incised with slashes or holes, in which he once again harnessed the full potential of tangible artistic matter in order to express the existential angst that accompanied space travel. It was not however, until the conception of La Fine di Dio in 1963 that Fontana succeeded in placing matter and concept into a perfect, transcendental equilibrium, while at the same time, conveying man’s own experience in space.
By April of 1963, Fontana had, as he wrote to his friend Jef Verheyen, finished his ‘series of “oval” paintings with the title The End of God, to show them in Zurich…’ (Fontana to J. Verheyen, 5 April 1963, in E. Crispolti, ed., op. cit., p. 30). The first of these were shown among examples of Fontana’s earlier work at the Gimpel Hanover Galerie, Zurich at the end of May. A month later, an exhibition dedicated solely to this new body of work was held at Beatrice Monti della Corte’s Galleria dell’Ariete in Milan.
With the exhibition titled ‘Lucio Fontana: Le Ova (The Eggs)’, from the very beginning of their creation, La Fine di Dio became equated to the form of the egg, one of the single most universal symbols of life itself. An iconic symbol in the iconographical lexicon of the world’s greatest ancient civilizations, the primordial and cosmic eggs occupy central roles in the cosmogony of the Ancient Egyptians, Chinese, the Greek Orphic tradition, Hinduism. In addition, this form holds a deeply symbolic meaning in both Judaism and Christianity, serving as a symbol of the Resurrection. A form without end that represents the eternal cycle of birth, life and death and rebirth, an embryo of new form and potential, as well as the embodiment of both the organic worlds of nature, life and matter and that of the more mystical and unknown realms of space, infinity and the spirit.
While many have disputed whether the metaphorical allusions were purposefully intended by the artist in this series, Fontana was fascinated by the symbolism of the oval in the cosmological theories of the birth and formation of the universe and there is no doubt he
would have been well-aware of the powerful, universal meaning of the form that he had chosen, as well as by its formal characteristics. It has been stated that Fontana made his first oval in Adolfo Wildt’s class at the Brera Academy, Milan, in which he made his students sculpt a perfect egg in marble (P. Gottschaller, op. cit., p. 109). And, he was also well-aware of Brancusi’s perfectly formed, flawless work, Le nouveau né, describing the sculptor’s “egg” as ‘truly something colossal’ (Fontana, quoted in E. Crispolti & R. Siligato, eds., Lucio Fontana, exh. cat., Rome, 1998, p. 251). In purely formal, artistic terms, the form of the ovoid was of great importance to Fontana. Denoting wholeness and totality, it is a metaphysical symbol of perfection, complete and without end, and as such, simultaneously serves to be exactly the opposite: an aesthetic non-form. It was paradoxically through using this form – the signifier of everything and thus simultaneously of nothing – that Fontana arrived at his ultimate artistic goal with La Fine di Dio: to ‘represent nothingness’. In this formal context therefore, La Fine di Dio serve as the final, triumphant union of Fontana’s exploration into matter, a series in which material, the gesture, space, time come together in holistic union, which also took the shape of an oval, the shape of the universe and therefore all of life, existence, death and nothingness itself.
When, in February 1964, Fontana exhibited a selection from the now enlarged group of Fine di Dio, he ensured a change in their title, now presenting them as ‘Les Oeufs céleste’ (‘The Astral Eggs’). Like man evolving from his inhabitation of earth into space, so the works in this exhibition had a far stronger sense of cosmic mystery than their earlier predecessors. Moving away from the elemental colours and primeval gestures of the early works, these later Fine di Dio are marked by an increase in buchi, their surfaces almost covered with smaller, more refined, constellation-like marks. Just as the cosmos had been revealed to be an ever-expanding, unquantifiable concept, so Fontana appeared to echo this in these astral eggs, adding to their surfaces and thereby intensifying the sense of the transmutation of matter into spirit, body into soul. So enamoured of these later, more astral Fine di Dio was Fontana,
that he even returned to several of the earlier works, adding further punctures to them and in some cases even resurfacing them with golden brown pigment and glitter, to further the stellar effect of their surfaces.
It is to this group that the present Concetto spaziale, La fine di Dio belongs. Featuring in an important group of photographs of 1963, which show Fontana admiring the present work and two others in the basement of his Milan studio, this work appears in the images in its initial state, before the artist added the sparkling lustrini that now defines its richly coloured, cosmic surface. Unlike others that are grouped within the ‘Les Oeufs céleste’ however, the present work is not so heavily strewn with buchi that it loses its innate structure. Indeed, it serves as a bridge between these two groups; a work in which the muted pink carnal pigment is vitalised with the radiance of Fontana’s lustrini, encapsulating man’s move from earth to space.
DEATH AND TRANSCENDENCE:
It was not until March 1964, the month following Iris Clert’s Paris exhibition, that La Fine di Dio were finally exhibited with this title, the phrase that Fontana had used in private since the moment of their conception on paper as early as 1960. By turning to this powerful statement, Fontana was not only rejecting the purely formalist approach that critics had been taking in regards to these works, but according to Enrico Crispolti, it was with this provocative title that the artist could truly invoke the meaning and conceptual intent of this iconic series.
Just as he believed that art would become extinct and irrelevant in this new world of cosmic adventure, so too, a belief in God was for Fontana an idea that would have no place in this new conception of the universe. In the face of the vastness of the universe, he believed that all earthbound thought, beliefs, traditions and practices, including the idea of a Christian God, would become redundant. This concept, as well as the title he chose, echoes Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous statement of 1882, ‘God is dead’, a refection on the supremacy of the part of Enlightenment thought that rejected religion in favour of rationalism and science. Just under a century later, Fontana was imparting this same idea: hailing the end of a society that placed its beliefs in an earthly conception of a deity and instead calling for a new faith in the infinite.
As he explained to Carla Lonzi: ‘God is nothing… I do not believe in gods on earth, it is inadmissible, there can be prophets, but not gods, God is invisible, God is inconceivable, therefore, today an artist cannot represent God on a chair with the world in his palm and a beard… It is in this, that religions must adapt themselves to the discoveries of science. The Pope too is outdated in his conception of modern discoveries, because the universe proves that it is in itself infinite, and that the infinite is nothingness and that eternity does not exist on earth... Eternity, faced by nothingness, by time…does not exist, because now and forty or fifty thousand years in the future, neither the doors of the Gates of Saint Peter, nor the Pope will exist. This is what man must stop believing – man must forget his ambition to immortalise his being in material forms made of marble and bronze…’ (Fontana, quoted in C. Lonzi, ‘Milan, 10 October 1967: Carla Lonzi interviews Lucio Fontana,’, edited by P. Campiglio, reproduced in Lucio Fontana: Sedici sculture/ Sixteen sculptures, 1937-1967, exh. cat, Milan &
London, 2007, pp. 31-32).
Instead, Fontana offered a new form of faith in the infinite; in Crispolti’s words: ‘God turns into the absolute infinity of space’ (E. Crispolti, op. cit., p. 73). It was with the holes carved into the canvas, gestures that affirmed a mystic belief in the future, that Fontana succeeded in invoking the same eternal, intangible and mysterious presence of a higher form for the believers of the future.
Yet, Fontana also realised that the new era of spatial consciousness, carried, like birth itself, the inevitability of death. Just as all earthbound objects, ideas and art would be one day rendered extinct within the infinite dimension of space, so too would man expire. It was therefore with Concetto spaziale, La fine di Dio and this series, which were designed to be the very last material works of art made by man, that Fontana succeeded in creating truly spatial objects in every sense. Appearing like a wondrous astral artefact, this work embodies a transcendent transformation of matter into spirit, opening the gates of man’s mind to conceive of a future, previously unimagined world. At the same time it is a portentous object that signifies art and man’s eventual demise and therefore, their ultimate liberation. ‘When man realises that he is nothing, nothingness itself, that he is pure spirit, he will no longer have materialistic ambitions…[he] will become like God, he will become spirit. This is the end of the world and the liberation of matter, of man’ (Fontana, quoted in E. Crispolti, op. cit., p. 81).