The art of Salvo: ‘You need to take on Raphael!’

In November 2023 a new auction record was set for the Italian artist when The Morning (1994) realised more than three times its high estimate, at around $1.1 million. Jessica Lack discovers why Salvo’s hallucinogenic, otherworldly landscapes, ‘exploding with colour’, are now in such high demand

The Italian artist Salvo in Turin in 1974

Salvo in Turin, 1974. As a child he was captivated by a self-portrait by Raphael. ‘That’s when I started wanting to make paintings myself. It was a sentiment of emulation’. Photo: Paolo Pellion di Persano

In 1972, Salvatore Mangione, better known as Salvo, exhibited a marble slab engraved with the word ‘Idiota’ (idiot). It was to become something of an existential moment in the career of the artist, signalling a transition from conceptualism to painting. ‘Idiot’ was a reference to a famous jibe made by Marcel Duchamp — ‘bête comme une peintre’ (‘dumb as a painter’).

At the time, the artist’s decision looked like career suicide. Painting had been in a prolonged death-rattle since Niki de Saint Phalle shot one in 1962. Undeterred, Salvo took Wittgenstein’s directive — ‘Don’t think, but look’ — to heart, and announced his conversion with a painting of himself as St George slaying a dragon.

Salvo (1947-2015), Untitled, 1989. Oil on canvas. 200 x 150 cm. Estimate: €100,000-150,000. Offered in the 20th/21st Century Milan Online Sale until 4 June 2024 at Christie’s Online

Born in Leonforte in Sicily in 1947, Salvo moved with his family to Turin in 1956. The first painting he recalled seeing as a child was a self-portrait by the High Renaissance painter Raphael. ‘That’s when I started wanting to make paintings myself. It was a sentiment of emulation,’ he once explained. At school his talent was spotted and encouraged, and by the age of 16 he was exhibiting charcoal sketches inspired by Leonardo da Vinci at Turin’s Società Promotrice delle Belle Arti.

The embrace of Arte Povera

Things changed in the late 1960s, when he met a group of avant-garde artists seeking the profound in humble materials. Michelangelo Pistoletto, Mario Merz, Alighiero Boetti and Giuseppe Penone were the pioneers of Arte Povera (‘poor art’), a movement that emerged in Turin in reaction to modern art’s celebration of fast-paced industry and technology. They found poetry in the commonplace: a lightbulb, a piece of wire, a coil of rope or a cube of soil. Salvo immediately embraced the movement’s subversive conceptualism and moved into Boetti’s studio.

Salvo (1947-2015), Tricolori, 1971. Engraved white marble slab. 35 x 55 cm. Sold for €22,880 on 27 November 2007 at Christie’s in Milan

Many of Salvo’s early works were self-referential, presenting the artist at the centre of his own universe. There were photographs of him posing as Salvator Mundi with a thin halo around his head, and marble slabs bearing his name in the colours of the Italian flag. In 1970 he travelled to Munich for a performance piece in which he planned to bless the city three times, but was stopped at the border for possessing marijuana.

Throughout this period, Salvo had a growing sense that art was an activity and not a theory, and that by embracing conceptualism he was somehow sitting on the sidelines. Wearying of the white-cube aesthetic and ‘all that black and white’, he said that his wake-up call came in 1973 with the death of Picasso: ‘I was one of the first to say: “That’s enough! You need to take on Raphael!”’

From conceptualism back to the canvas

He moved backwards through time, tracing the history of art from the Italian Renaissance with paintings of saints in Tiepolo pinks, fresco mauves and pastel greens. Critics decried his chromatic impudence: who was he to take on Piero della Francesca?

By the early 1980s, Salvo had settled on painting simplified landscapes and strange, otherworldly ruins that echoed classical capriccios. Certain buildings, such as the church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti in Palermo, became a recurring theme. Like his hero Giorgio Morandi, he was not afraid to paint the same subject repeatedly: nocturnal city streets, snowy scenes and palm-fringed shorelines — all embodying an aching temporal stillness.

René Magritte once said of the Surrealist Giorgio de Chirico that he offered a ‘new vision through which the spectator recognises his own isolation and hears the silence of the world’. The same could be said of Salvo’s landscapes; however, his colours are out of this world, glowing like a giant jukebox.

‘Each subject taken to its greatest tension, to its extreme freedom of colour’

Over the years, Salvo’s palette has been compared to that of Raphael, Delacroix, the Pre-Raphaelites, Odilon Redon and Edvard Munch; psychedelia and colour television have also been suggested as influences. He had read Aldous Huxley’s mescaline-fuelled The Doors of Perception and embraced the writer’s argument that to take the drug was to see the world as Vermeer saw it. His spectrum was never based on the accidental whirlings of the historical kaleidoscope, but represented a precise path to knowledge.

To convey this heightened illumination, Salvo only painted by electric light. The process, he said, ‘began by fear. I’m always more cautious when working on my first paintings, but by the 15th I explode with colour and I’ve reached the end, each subject taken to its greatest tension, to its extreme freedom of colour, but when it reaches its peak it dies and I have to reinvent something again.’

The importance of place: Iceland, Germany, Egypt, Oman, Sicily

Salvo’s theories were documented in On Painting, a 238-point manifesto he published in 1986, inspired by Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, in which he tried to identify the relationship between art and reality. Many of his observations came from his travels; in another time he would have been an explorer. He journeyed to Afghanistan with his friend Boetti (on a dollar and a water flask). He visited the Middle East, North Africa, China and Thailand with his wife Cristina Tuarivoli, and he tried to record each adventure. ‘Experience is evanescent and elusive, so I try to catch it by the tail,’ he said.

By 2013, Salvo’s health was deteriorating, and he embarked on a series of paintings of places that were important to him: Iceland, Germany, Egypt, Oman and Sicily. One of the last works he made was, unusually, of a single burning candle, titled There are future days. On his death, a marble slab he had engraved 45 years previously with the words ‘Salvo is alive’ was turned over to reveal the words ‘Salvo is dead’. He remained always, as he had argued back in 1973, ‘Salvo the conceptualist, just as before I was already Salvo the painter’.

Demand for Salvo in Asia and Italy

According to Christie’s senior specialist Elena Zaccarelli, it was only after the artist’s death that his paintings began attracting attention at auction. ‘It was about five years ago that Asian collectors started buying his landscapes,’ she says. ‘They appreciate those silent scenes and that intensity of colour. Also, there is a direct line from Salvo to younger painters such as Nicolas Party and Jonathan Monk, who are very popular currently.’

Salvo (1947-2015), Il Mattino (The Morning), 1994. Oil on canvas. 205 x 327 cm. Sold for HK$8,694,000 on 28 November 2023 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Recently, Zaccarelli has noted a dramatic rise in the Italian market, too, with collectors drawn to Salvo’s mastery of art history. ‘He also painted recognisable places such as the Gulf of Policastro in Calabria, and Monte Viso, and that is very appealing to Italian collectors,’ the specialist explains. ‘They know these places and have taken vacations there.’

In 2023, an auction record for a work by Salvo was set at Christie’s in Hong Kong, with The Morning (1994) selling for HK$8,694,000 — more than three times the high estimate, and equivalent to about US$1.1 million. In May 2024, three paintings will be offered in the 20th and 21st Century Art sales in Hong Kong: Bosnia Herzegovina (2003), The Valley (2007) and An Evening (2004). Two further works — Winter (2000) and Untitled (1989) — will be offered in the 20th/21st Century Milan Online Sale, until 4 June 2024.

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When, in the early 2000s, he was asked what he looked to for inspiration, Salvo recalled a painting he had made as a young boy of a row of low houses against a wall. ‘I have been trying to repaint that picture all my life,’ he said.

The 20th/21st Century: Milan Online Sale is open for bidding until 4 June 2024. Dedicated to paintings, sculpture, works on paper and multiples, the sale features works by Italian and international masters, including Lucio Fontana, Alighiero Boetti, Luigi Ontani, William Kentridge, Robert Motherwell and Pablo Atchugarry. Highlights are on view until 26 May at Palazzo Clerici in Milan

Salvo. Arrivare in tempo, the largest exhibition dedicated to the artist since his death in 2015, opens on 1 November 2024 at the Pinacoteca Agnelli in Turin

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