Executed in 1948, Testa di Medusa is a large and imposing sculpture that combines the Art Deco aspects of Fontana's pre-War works with the budding Spatialism that was gaining momentum during this time. Despite its title, the Medusa appears more like a Sun than a Gorgon. The tendrils that snake their way from her head do not appear overtly snake-like but rather are reminiscent of licks of flame. And yet the sculpture clearly echoes, but on a vast scale, the Medusa heads that had featured in the art of Italy since the days of the ancients. Roman mosaics and frescoes exist that are decorated by the forebear of this head, hinting at the idea that Fontana was deliberately creating a sculpture that is Spatial, the product of a scientific age, yet is resolutely classical. Yet Fontana has certainly chosen to improve on the originals: those earlier mosaics are static in comparison to this work which, in its three-dimensionality, in the stretching forms that spiral from the head and in the reflections on the gleaming tesserae, is filled with life and movement. Indeed, the viewer is forced to wonder if there is not some degree of knowing irony in the depiction by the arch-Spatialist, a man who introduced so much movement and action in his work, of a monster who was considered able to petrify anyone foolish enough to look at her, to render them still, to capture them in stone.
Fontana had spent most of the Second World War in Argentina, and there had sown the seeds of the Spatial Movement of which he would become the most famous protagonist. Already in 1946, two years before Testa di Medusa was created, a manifesto had been written, under his guidance, by some of his followers in Buenos Aires. 'We live in the mechanical age,' they had declared. 'Painted canvas and upright plaster no longer have a reason to exist' (from B. Arias, H. Cazeneuve, M. Fridman, The Manifesto Blanco, Buenos Aires, 1946). The following year, Fontana had returned to Italy, and there began truly to grasp the implications and potential of the beliefs that he had consolidated during the War years. He sought to create an art that was pertinent to the age of flight, the age of impending space travel, an age in which rockets had been used to attack cities and had attained speeds hitherto inconceivable. Thus, looking at Fontana's works during the critical two years following his return to Italy, the seeds of Spatialism can be seen truly to have germinated.
Already a decade earlier, Fontana-- as ceramicist and sculptor-- had created an array of polychrome mosaic sculptors, including a portrait bust of his wife, Teresita. These were marked by a similar sense of Byzantine opulence combined with a refined, Art Deco aesthetic. However, the Spatialism that had hatched in the intervening years clearly informs Testa di Medusa. Here, the serpentine fronds that spiral out from the bulk of the head, reminiscent in part of pictures of the Milky Way and in part of anthropomorphic images of the Sun, serve both a decorative purpose and a Spatial one. They stretch into the immediate space of the sculptor, introducing a deeper dialogue between the sculpture and its surroundings than was evident in the mosaic works of the 1930s. Indeed, aside from the figurative content of Testa di Medusa, this sculpture is more reminiscent of some of the abstract Spatial works that were becoming more and more central to Fontana's work during this period, not least the abstract form that hung in his first great environment of 1948-49, which was lit by ultraviolet light and hung in a room that was otherwise pitch dark. It is in the context of a bridge between the earlier, especially pre-War sculptures and these and revolutionary experimental works that Testa di Medusa should be seen.
The relationship between Testa di Medusa and Fontana's environments is all the more evident when the scale of the work is considered. For this is a vast object, the height of a man and as wide again, invading and occupying space in a bold manner, demanding attention. This rams home the Spatial aspect of the sculpture, as does the mosaic, which itself creates intriguing plays of light. The gold glitters ceaselessly, insisting on the fact that light itself is one of the media in the work, and hinting at the extent that the interplay between light and space would come to feature in Fontana's works from this period onwards. He has deliberately created a variegated surface on the head, which itself is depicted enough in the round as to mean that the various reflective elements point in a wide range of directions, allowing light to be cast by reflections in any number of ways. Even the movement of the viewer before this work creates plays of shadow and reflection that add the sense that the sculpture is at once classical and timeless, and yet that the effect of viewing it is ephemeral and ever-changing. This tension between the art of a moment and the art of an eternity is one that Fontana would come to explore a great deal in the coming years. It is therefore fascinating to find to what degree the superficially Art Deco Testa di Medusa condenses and reflects so many of the concerns that led to the large-scale Concetti spaziali, the environments and architectural projects, that began at precisely this moment and which Fontana considered the true embodiments of his Spatialism.
At the same time, this play of light, the presence of this almost decadent mosaic-work on a sculpture created in the Atomic Age, adds a distinctly Baroque air to a work that appears itself to encapsulate so many of the qualities and properties declared obsolete in art by the various Spatial manifestoes. While Fontana often created works that are infused with a monolithic sheen, a futuristic simplicity perfectly suited to the age of science for which they were created, he was nonetheless constantly drawn to the Baroque, a legacy of his own earlier works as a professional sculptor. Testa di Medusa hints at the strong the union of the Baroque and Spatialism-- an incongruous union in concept-- that would reappear throughout the decades, resulting in some of his most celebrated expressions of Spatialism. The lure of the Baroque was clearly strong for Fontana. In it lay many of his roots as a sculptor and to it he owed many of his earlier critical successes, and he was therefore loath to part from it. This adds a breadth and richness to his post-War oeuvre, which incorporates the monolithic, the Informel and the Baroque and yet which retains a strong and distinct central thread.