‘[the] Baroque was a leap ahead…it represented space with a magnificence that is still unsurpassed and added the notion of time to the plastic arts. The figures seemed to abandon the flat surface and continue the represented movements in space’
‘We abandon the practice of all the forms of known art, we commence the development of an art based on the unity of time and space’
Sumptuous in its rich materiality and dynamic in its expression of vigorous movement, Lucio Fontana’s Madonna con bambino e putti is one of a series of glazed ceramic sculptures that combines elements of figuration with the dominant ideas of Spatialism, the radical movement that the artist had founded in 1947. Taking one of the most iconic subjects of the history of art: the Madonna and Child, Fontana has radically reimagined this maternal scene, depicting a near-abstract, flamboyantly gestural vision of this religious subject. Clothed in deep, opulent blue, the figure of the Virgin sits enthroned, the just discernable, gilded figure of Christ seated on her lap. Below her, in a separate piece of this bipartite sculpture, a pair of golden, airborne putti holds a piece of pink, swirling ribbon, flanking the Madonna above them.
Executed in 1956, Madonna con bambino e putti dates from one of the most experimental and innovative periods of Fontana’s long and prolific career. Regarding himself primarily as a sculptor, Fontana had, since his earliest days as an artist, been interested in the medium of sculpture. Having worked in a variety of different sculptural modes, both figurative and abstract, Fontana returned to Milan in 1947 with a radically new artistic outlook. Believing that traditional modes of painting and sculpture were outmoded, unable to reflect the modern epoch, Fontana called for a reformation of the visual arts. He wanted art to come out of its frame and off its plinth and embody the dynamic concepts of movement, colour, time and space, freed from the conventional artistic categories of painting, sculpture and architecture. These ideas coalesced to become what Fontana called Spatialism. ‘Man is tired of the forms of painting and sculpture’, he declared in the Manifesto Blanco, a tract penned by a group of avant-garde artists in 1946. ‘The oppressive repetitions show that these arts have stagnated in values that are extraneous to our civilization, and have no possibility of development in the future…we abandon the practice of all the forms of known art, we commence the development of an art based on the unity of time and space’ (Manifesto Blanco, 1946, in E. Crispolti and R. Siligato (eds.), Lucio Fontana, exh. cat., Rome, 1998, p. 116).
Central to the initial conception and development of Spatialism was the Baroque. Fontana was fascinated by the way in which the art of this style embodied an unprecedented expression of movement. He was in awe of the grandeur and the dramatic and exaggerated gestural abandonment that characterised the depiction of figures in the art of this period. This pictorial or sculptural depiction of movement of matter through space also introduced the concept of time; and it was these ideas that would become central to Fontana’s Spatialism. In 1946, the artist had declared, ‘[the] Baroque was a leap ahead…it represented space with a magnificence that is still unsurpassed and added the notion of time to the plastic arts. The figures seemed to abandon the flat surface and continue the represented movements in space’ (ibid., p. 115). Not only is the religious subject of Madonna con bambino e putti immediately indicative of the powerful presence the Baroque had in Fontana’s practice at this time, but the execution of this sculpture demonstrates how the artist used the central tenets of this style to forge his own abstract, spatial art. Vigorously modelled into a bold, multifaceted relief of undulating peaks and troughs, Madonna con bambino e putti has a swirling material exuberance. Gestures and movements continue through space, a dynamic, vital and unequivocally modern exposition of this traditional religious subject.