Arte Povera and its impact in Europe
Following is an excerpt from a lecture by Giorgio Guglielmino, Italian ambassador to Bangladesh, who is an art critic and collector. Presented at Dhaka University's Faculty of Fine Arts on 15th of February, the lecture was particularly focused on the theme 'The Movement of Arte Povera and the Contemporary Art Scene in Europe in the 1970s.'
Recasting art in our time
Europe, especially Italy, in the 1960s was re-emerging as an industrial power after the Second World War. This was a period of expansion of wealth yet at the same time a period of very sharp social and economic contrasts. There was a very large immigration of people from the south, which was the poorest part of Italy, towards the industrial north. There was an increasing number of people travelling to the north and working in the factories in poor and bad conditions. At the same time other international events were dominating the headlines of the newspapers and on the television. The main event of the time was the Vietnam War, with all that came with it – a certain idea of the USA, a certain political agenda of the students, all these aspects of a society in flux poured into the Italian movement called Arte Povera, which in Italian locution means Poor Art.
The name Poor Art has two very different connotations. First off, poor has a technical meaning in the sense that the artists decided to avoid using 'rich materials' such as oil colours or canvases essential for painting, or stones and other traditional materials needed for sculpture.
Especially the sculptors, as most of the artists worked in this medium, distanced themselves from traditional, noble materials avoiding bronze, marble, ceramics and anything that had an aura of the golden age of sculpture. They started using what they thought were 'poor materials' like iron or coal, or anything that was related to the working class.
In fact, for most artists, poor also meant a relationship with the lower class. They had the idea that by using materials which were part of everyday life or had some connection to the workers their artistic language would be radically different from the arts of the earlier generations. Also the fact that the division between painting and sculpture was trashed to ensure an aesthetic framework which allowed for a wider plain for artistic practices. It helped bring into play both subject matters and materials which gave rise to a new language of art.
Today, in retrospect, this idea of aligning with the working class seems very naïve, because the working class people employed in factories did hardly understand the form of art which the Art Povera artists brought into view, nor did they appreciate this connection of high concepts and low materials, as they might have preferred to hang decorative paintings and reproductions in their houses. Yet this very intellectually-inclined group of artists tried to conjoin art, which was sort of an elitist area, with the lowly materials to be in synchrony with the lower classes.
Question arises whether, even to some extent, they did manage to achieve what they wanted. But one can reassuringly declare that they achieved to produce some of the most interesting and unique artworks that we have seen in Europe over the last five to six decades.
The main feature of the Arte Povera was that they went very much beyond the point where they were able to revert the age-old relationship that the viewer had with art. It is one of the primary achievements of the movement that the art work is independent even of the artist.
Revisiting sites of transcreation
Janis Kounellis 'Untitled', 1971
An installation by artist Janis Kounellis, born in Greece but who went to study in Italy and made it her home, aligned with the group of radical artists and had severed ties with traditional materials with the intensity of a revolutionary. This installation was made with around 20 propane torches which are used for metal welding. The torches were spread out all over the floor of the gallery and were actually burning. The object used were very familiar to any factory worker, but in an unfamiliar setting – for example, in a gallery – they generated meanings that only the well-versed could unravel. The torches dominate this foreign environment so that the viewers are powerless – you cannot go wherever you want, as the space is rendered hostile and dangerous. You are not exactly a prisoner, but your movements are restricted. Something you cannot see from the image but can try to imagine is that each burner makes quite a lot of noise creating a very powerful sonic sensation. And at the same time you have the sensation of the heat which they were producing! This is a very good example to demonstrate the changed role of the spectator, who could no longer have the opportunity to gaze idly at a picture, the work of art made them act in certain ways.
Giovanni Anselmo 'Torsion', 1968
The concept of energy, which is recurrent in Arte Povera, is succinctly captured in a piece by the artist Giovanni Anselmo titled Torsion. It is made of some very basic materials – a block of concrete, a piece of cloth and a wooden bar. This work needs to be installed very carefully. First you place it away from the wall. You wet the cloth, and then with the wooden bar you start turning and turning the cloth as much as possible. And of course, after you have performed this act of torsion to the cloth, if you let go of the wooden bar it starts whirling around with a very powerful force. Therefore, to avoid the bar from spinning out of control a lot of people have to carefully move the piece next to a wall so that the bar is kept in place by the wall. I once saw this piece installed and what was interesting is that the work left two or three marks on the wall before the group of people managed to properly install the work, these marks were like bruises on the wall.
Again, this is a piece in which you can see something living inside; it leaves you with the feeling that this is a living organism. If it were not for the wall it would start spinning, it would not care about you, if you are close to it; it will hit you and throw you probably meters away.
Mario Merz 'Giap's Igloo', 1968
An artist famous for employing form to elicit a certain ambiguity is Mario Merz who used the igloo in many of his works. One piece in particular, Giap's Igloo is a very politically fraught work. It is made of sand bags piled up to create an igloo and on its surface a phrase is written in neon. It is a quotation about military strength from General Giap, who was one of the Vietnamese officers fighting against the Americans during the Vietnam War. The quotation translates as, 'If the enemy gains territory he loses force, if the enemy retreats he gains strength.'
Merz is very personally engaged with the idea of the form of the igloo, because it is a place that protects you, it is a place of meditation and if you stand or sit in the middle of the igloo, which is something that he did many times during his exhibitions, the body is at the same distance from each point of the construction. So the artist must be at an equal distance from everyone, he cannot choose to be closer to a certain category of people and further from another, he must be at the central point of the society. Society is also the igloo which is also his house. And what is on the outside of his house is what is happening in the society.
Michelangelo Pistaletto 'Anselmo, Zorio, Penone', 1973
Michelangelo Pistaletto 'Untitled (mirror painting)', 1971
Returning to the idea that the work of art is in control and the viewer playing a part according to what an art piece dictates, here are a couple of pieces by Michelangelo Pistoletto which are part of a series of mirror paintings. He took a full length mirror and on its surface reproduced a photographic image of three artists from the Arte Povera movement. The man on the left is Anselmo, who made the Torsion piece. Imagine yourself in front of the work of art. You are reflected in it and have in a sense entered the work of art. Your presence adds something to the work, not the other way around. The work of art is in full control and has full power over the situation. You stand close to the piece and you become acquainted with three important figures of the Arte Povera because you are at the same time with them inside the work.
In the second piece by him, the man and the woman with the purse are part of the art work and are painted on the surface of the mirror. The other three people that you see are the people who are actually viewing the work and in that exact moment they become part of it.
It's a completely different way of thinking about art. You can like this approach to art or not, that is beside the point, but what is significant is that the artists did not start their works with a piece of paper or a piece of clay or marble. They started with an idea. They had a concept – which is at the core of the so called conceptualism which is the biggest revolution in the world of art in the last century – and then they tried to fit the concept into some form of presentation.
Giulio Paolini 'Young Man Looking at Lorenzo Lotto', 1967
Giulio Paolini is a very peculiar artist of the movement because he never produced any work of art made by his hands. He never made any drawings, nor any sculptures – always using images and readymade objects.
It is essential in this case to know and to reflect on the title of the work which is Young Man Looking at Lorenzo Lotto. Lorenzo Lotto was a painter born in the middle of the 15th century. What Paolini did in this work was to take a photograph of a detail of one painting by Lorenzo Lotto. A photo not of the main character that was depicted but of a secondary character positioned on the side of the painting of a big family.
The key to the piece is in the title. And again it is important that the painting is not titled Lorenzo Lotto Looking at the Young Man. It carries the sense as if the work of art is looking at the spectator, not the other way around.
Giovanni Anselmo 'To Enter the Work', 1971
Another work which is brought to life through its title is a photograph made by Giovanni Anselmo. It is a conceptual piece but if one fails to unlock the motivation behind it, it is not easy to appreciate. This piece is titled To Enter the Work. The artist went to the countryside with his camera with the objective to take a shot of a barren landscape that he wanted to recreate in a work. He put his camera on a tripod and pointed it to a part of the field. But at the last moment he decided to change his plans of portraying the bare landscape and put the camera on time delay so that he had several seconds to 'enter the art work' and he ran into the frame of the shot – thus the title. He had decided to run into his artwork to become a part of it. To me the idea of entering this field of vision which the artist envisaged as an unpeopeld landscape at the outset and later changed his mind and foist his own self into it seems very, very artistically potent.
Alighierro Boetti 'Avere Fame Di Vento', 1988; 'Le cose nascono dalla necessita e dal caso', 1988
Alighierro Boetti is a very special artist, who started out doing the same kind of things as did the artists of Arte Povera. Then at a certain point of time he started making totally different choices. He moved from the industrial town of Torino to Rome and completely opened himself up to the idea of happiness and joy, of luck that was not expected. He noticed that the idea of bringing art to the poor did not work, that they did not understand it and only the well-versed, or the elite with their eyes on culture were buying the Arte Povera works. He withdrew himself from the Arte Povera movement and devised ways to involve people in his work.
He made thousands of embroideries of different sizes for which he conceived the idea, composed sentences and phrases and then he went to Afghanistan where he had women working for him, at a certain point he was employing about 200 women. When the war with the Soviet Union started he moved the production hub to Pakistan where he had his more recent works made.
This particular large embroidery, like most of his works, is made of short phrases which are read from bottom to top. In the first 16 squares the inscription reads 'Avere Fame di Vento' or 'To be hungry of the wind'. He generally puts phrases with no particular social implications, but which resonate with mortal desire to fathom the depth of their existential reality. Another phrase reads 'Il certo e l'incerto' meaning 'What is certain and what is uncertain.' In the smaller tapestry is says 'Things happen from the necessity and by chance.'
Unlike any other artists who usually use assistants to execute large-scale work, Boetti was using people who were professional craftsmen. He produced thousands of embroideries. You can see after viewing so many works of the Arte Povera which are loaded in a way, that Boetti brings a breath of fresh air to the art scene at large.
Mario Merz 'Fibonacci Series', 1994
The last image is by Mario Merz. This is a piece made with neon numbers on a chimney. The numbers are not random but are a series that he used throughout his career. It is a series called Fibonacci after the Italian mathematician who introduced the use of Arabic numbers to Europe in the 12th century. Each number is the sum of the two previous numbers. 1 plus 1 is 2, 1 plus 2 is 3, 2 plus 3 is 5, 5 plus 3 is 8 and so on. Merz produced works with numbers going up to millions. The sequence of Fibonacci was originally conceived to explain the growth of population starting from a couple of rabbits. It is a sequence which explains the growth of a lot of things in nature.
I decided to end this presentation with this work because I agree with Mario Merz who thought that in the history of art you have a sort of Fibonacci series as each work of art and each movement, which was as divergent as the population of this earth, is the product of what came before. Therefore, in the history of art there is nothing that can be invented without knowing and studying what came before you. And even if one wants to create the most original piece in the history of art one will always return to the Fibonacci code and the work that you will conceive in maybe 10 years time is not by chance but comes from the thousands of years of art history that came before. It is only through the past that one is able to move forward and, once ahead, one can never really hark back to the past anymore.
Tàpies and the art of material spirituality
Today, many an abstract artwork passes for what is indiscriminately referred to as 'transcendental' in relation to their 'seductive tactile surface'. Yet, most fall short of the standard set by Antoni Tàpies's oeuvres, which gave 'surface painting' a whole new meaning 1940s onward. His heavily build up painterly plain inscribed with extrusions: marks and incised letters and that recurring mysterious sign – a cross which could also be read as the letter T – referring simultaneously to himself and his wife, simply had no forbears in the art world, nor are they comparable now to the surfeit of works that followed showing little understanding of 'eternity', a concept to which Tàpies's work aspires.
With his death at the age of 88, curtains fell on a long, influential career of one of the most famous Spaniards in the art arena after Velazquez and Picasso. A self-taught artist, his cardboard works anticipated the movement of Arte Povera. His tempered surfaces were distinguishable for the marks, splattered substances and stains organized in an informal manner but invested with a higher goal – the transcendental understanding of time and matter and its relationship to the politics of human emancipation.
Often gauzed with rags and other scraps of everyday use and encrusted with marble dust, his paintings and sculptures negotiated the 'real' in the most off hand manner, but encoded it with a surreal narrative that had once flown from the domain of Miro, who was Tàpies's early preoccupation.
According to William Grimes, he told the French dealer and art critic Michel Tapié (no relation) in 1969. 'My first works of 1945 already had something of the graffiti of the streets and a whole world of protest — repressed, clandestine, but full of life — a life which was also found on the walls of my country.'
This sense of belonging easily conflated with the sense of the eternal, in his realm. Nn the BBC arts program “Omnibus” in 1990 he said, 'In our world, in which religious images are losing their meaning, in which our customs are getting more and more secular, we are losing our sense of the eternal.'
His legacy is comparable to only with that of the other European modern masters, of whose ilk there were only a few who could keep negotiating with the changing time, and Tàpies, certainly occupied a special niche among them for his capacity to align the mundane with the sacred.
Note: The artist's quotes along with some key tropes have been lifted from the article Antoni Tàpies, Spanish Abstract Painter, Dies at 88, By William Grimes, published in February 6, 2012 in the New York Time.
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