Dispatch: “Novecento Arte e Storia in Italia”

Curated by Maurizio Calvesi, the exhibition “Novecento Arte e Storia in Italia,” shown at the Scuderie Papali al Quirinale and Mercati Traianei in Rome, surveyed the major Italian artistic movements of the past century. Calvesi demonstrates the strong link between the avant-garde movements of the beginning of the century—especially Futurism but also Metaphysical Painting, Repelle à l’ordre, and Expressionism—and the successive innovations that followed: Abstraction, Arte Povera, Conceptual Classicism, Transavanguardia, and New Media.

Fabrizio Plessi, Mediterranea II, 1991/2000. Video installation and jars, dimensions variable.

Calvesi’s aim was not to organize an anthology of the best Italian 20th-century artists or to state judgments or establish priorities, but to make visitors understand through the work of some of the best artists the seminal changes in 20th-century art. The show was divided into non-chronological, thematic sections; sculpture was represented in each of the eight sections. Works by 40 sculptors were included in the exhibition, giving an exhaustive survey of sculpture in Italy in the 20th century.

Section I, “At the Beginning of the Century,” provides an introduction; we find Il Prigioniero (The Prisoner, 1915) by Adolfo Wild, an example of strong middle-European Expressionism; La fanciulla (Young Lady, 1913) modeled by Arturo Martini in typical “Liberty” style; and La signora dal cappello nero (1913) by Roberto Melli, an indication of a new sense of realism.

Eliseo Mattiacci, Microcosmo, 2000. Steel, cast iron, and various metals, dimensions variable.

Section II, “From Futurism to the Eminence of Matter,” is the key to the show. Futurismo, with its surpassing of classic form, representation of dynamism in space, birth of abstract form, and use of new materials, is considered the original avant-garde. In this section, classic examples of Futurism faced contemporary works. We start with Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913) and Cavallo + Case (1915), made with painted wood, cardboard, and metal. Both are very good examples of the break with tradition, focusing the viewer’s attention on the use of untraditional materials. This links Boccioni with Alberto Burri and, in some respects, with Lucio Fontana, especially the terra-cotta and bronze Concetto-Spaziale, Natura (Spatial Concept, Nature), as well as with Ettore Colla, who assembled ready-made found iron pieces, and Pino Pascali, who, in an anarchist reaction to “the system,” used unusual materials to represent usual objects, such as Ponte di liane (Liane Bridge, 1968), made with steel-wool, and Il cannone (Cannon, 1963), made by assembling found pieces of wood and iron. Many contemporary artists are included in this section: Jannis Kounellis, with carrello d’acciaio con pietre (steel trolley with stones), who in his works combines the sacred power of matter with aesthetic beauty; Gilberto Zorio, with Pelli con resistenza (Leather with Neon), who searches for a physical and alchemical interaction between space and matter; Luciano Fabro, with Italia fascista (Fascist Italy); and Michelangelo Pistoletto, with Venere degli stracci (Venus of the Rags), who pits humble matter against noble ideas, chaos against order, primitive against cultivated language. Of course, for all these artists the ideas that support their work run deeper than a mere choice of materials. Coming 50 years after Futurism, they take for granted the use of any material and have gone far beyond Futurism’s experiments.

Fausto MelottiAngoscia, 1961. Polychromed terra cotta, 52.5 x 32.5 x 10 cm.

In Section III, “Between Matter and Form,” we find only Leoncillo Leonardi’s San Sebastiano made in painted terra cotta, a dramatic abstract form that retains the memory of a wounded human body.

Section IV explores “Abstraction.” With his compenetrazioni irridescenti (multi-color compenetrations), Giacomo Balla became the first abstract painter; in 1915 Boccioni made Cavallo + Case, the first abstract sculpture. Many sculptors are included in this section: Fausto Melotti who considered sculpture a way to modulate more than to model forms—”sculpture as a drawing in the air”; Umberto Mastroianni and Mirko Basaldella, who created bronze and iron sculptures that resemble tribal totems; Pietro Consagra, with his “not modeled but constructed” sculptures in wood, iron, and steel; Giò Pomodoro, with his monumental bronze and marble abstract forms gently moved by an inner mythic breath, and his brother Arnaldo Pomodoro whose broken bronze spheres and columns contain the secret of his personal archaic alphabet; and Nunzio (Nunzio di Stefano) with one of his latest works: two tall hollow columns of carved burnt oak.

Section V, “Classicism between Metaphysics, Tradition and Concept,” begins with De Chirico’s early Metaphysical compositions (1911), continues through the Rapelle à l’ordre in the ’20s, and concludes with the recent rediscovery of classicism by contemporary artists who use its language to create conceptual works. In this section we find many sculptors of the past, including Arturo Martini, Alberto Viani, Giacomo Manzù, Marino Marini, Emilio Greco, and many contemporary artists for whom the use of classical icons is a metaphor to drive spectators into another story, including Giulio Paolini, with Mimesis (1976); Claudio Parmeggiani, with A lume spento (With Light Out, 1985); Vettor Pisani, with Venere di cioccolato (Chocolate Venus, 1970); and Luigi Ontani, with Ibridolo=Ermestetica= Sansebastiansagittario (Hybridism= Ermesaesthetics=Saint Sebastian Harrow-head, 1994). Only Giuliano Vangi’s figures, Ragazza con vestito azzurro (Girl with Blue Dress, 1992) and Il nodo (The Knot, 1993), are in tune with the classical idea of sculpture.

Pietro Consagra, Incontro Incantata, 1957. Wood, 160 x 146 x 12 cm.

In Section VI, “Expressionism—Against Novecento— New Narratives), we find works by sculptors also present in other sections and three new ones: Antonietta Raphael Mafai, Pericle Fazzini, and the contemporary artist Mimmo Paladino, whose 1995 bronze of a crocodile on top of a sleeping man serves as a memento of our ancestral memory and common identity.

Section VII, “Indications for New Communication—Images and Installations,” and Section VII, “The immaterial Image,” were located at the Mercati Traianei and showed installations by contemporary artists: Mario Ceroli’s Maestrale (Mistral, 1992), a huge epic glass wave; Eliseo Mattiacci’s Microcosmo (Microcosm, 2000), a view of a universe saturated by cosmic energy; and Giuseppe Uncini’s Ombra di due parallelopipedi (Shadows of Two Parallelepipeds, 1973). For Uncini, shadow is reality: “If objects are static, then they are less interesting than their shadows which are always changing.” Fabio Mauri’s Muro Occidentale o del Pianto (Western Wall—Crying Wall, 1993) is a strong example of how his work fully engages with topical problems of our society; Mario Merz’s Igloo Ticino (1990)—the igloo is an icon in Merz’s vocabulary— is made from granite plates. Fabrizio Plessi’s Mediterranea II (1991/2000) was reconceived for this special place. In the back, six TV screens showed water falling from old jars, while actual old jars, on shelves and on the floor, filled the entire space. The sight and the noise of water falling, a usual theme in Plessi’s work, bring us back to a primi- tive rite of purification. The exhibition ends with video works by the young artists Chiara Dynys, Grazia Toderi, and Studio Azzurro.