Mimmo Rotella: the poster boy of Italian Pop art

Ripping posters from city walls, Mimmo Rotella created a new form of art. It’s now highly valuable

Alastair Smart

12/12/2017

The works are renowned for their rich, ripped texture, evoking a sense of injured beauty. They might be considered metaphors for the fall and rise of post-war Italy

When Mimmo Rotella’s Untitled – a patchwork of film posters, featuring Sophia Loren, Rock Hudson and other stars – sold for £1.1 million at Phillips auction house in 2016, there was much excitement about Italian Pop art finally gaining recognition on the international market. The million-pound (and million-euro) barrier had been broken for the first time.

According to traditional art history, Pop had – broadly speaking – been as American as the Coca-Cola bottles silkscreened by Andy Warhol. Now, however, it was being appreciated for having been a movement of truly global reach – with Italy one of its most vibrant hubs.

Figures such as Rotella, Tano Festa, Giosetta Fioroni, Mario Schifano and Franco Angeli – who embraced mass culture with the same gusto as their American counterparts – are now better known and increasingly lucrative (work by all five setting artist-records at auction in the past two years).

Mimmo Rotella
(Catanzaro 1918 – Milano 2006)
The Escape, 1959
décollage on canvas, 29 x 38 cm
Intesa Sanpaolo Collection

In truth, though, Rotella was much more than just a Pop artist. Born in 1918, in the southern Italian region of Calabria, he had artistic aspirations from a young age. These were interrupted by military service in the Second World War. He returned to painting after 1945 but, in his own words, “was not satisfied”; oil on canvas seemed utterly passé. “Something new had to be unearthed.”

In 1952, he hit upon the practice with which he’d make his name: décollage. Roaming around Rome’s Piazza del Popolo late at night, he was struck by the sheer number of advertising posters. Bankrupt at the end of the War, Italy was by the 1950s a country on the rise economically – thanks to Marshall Plan aid – with a fast-growing consumer society. Removing posters illicitly from the streets (décollage being the French word for “lift-off” or “become unstuck”), Rotella took them back to his studio; tore them, often into shreds, and glued them in abstract arrangements to canvases.

These works are renowned for their rich, ripped texture, evoking a sense of injured beauty at the same time. Made through a combination of destruction and reconstruction, they might be considered metaphors for the fall and rise of Italy itself in the previous decade. 

In purely artistic terms, however, the décollage pieces should be considered in light of the advances being made around the same time by some of Rotella’s compatriots. 

The US art historian Harold Rosenberg wrote that, for a number of artists after the War, “the canvas began to appear as an arena in which to act”, becoming the place “not for a picture but an event”. He was referring specifically to America’s Abstract Expressionist painters such as Jackson Pollock, who flicked, flung, splattered and splashed paint at his canvases.

However, it was in Italy that artists entered the “arena” with greatest aggression: Alberto Burri, for instance, blow-torched his canvases with fire; Lucio Fontana slashed his with knives. As for the all-shredding Rotella, he introduced elements of the street.

His rips and tears mark the distance between now and then; there’s almost the sense of archaeological revelation to them.

Initially, like that of Burri and Fontana, his work was abstract. Only later (from around 1958) did he start to incorporate recognisable subjects, once he turned to posters of film stars. Examples include With a Smile, featuring Cary Grant, part of the Tate gallery’s collection in London; the record-breaking Untitled; as well as numerous works featuring Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor.

In the case of 1962’s Mythology in Black and Red, owned by Intesa Sanpaolo, the thickets of paper are so elaborately layered that it’s not quite possible to tell which stars we’re looking at. The work forms part of the bank’s stellar collection of modern and contemporary Italian art and also features in 101/900, a new publication cataloguing 101 of Intesa Sanpaolo’s best works from the 20th century.

How to explain, though, the rise in Rotella’s popularity – more than 60 years after he began the practice of décollage and more than a decade after his death (in 2006, aged 87)? Well, it’s for perhaps two reasons, above all: one cultural and one art-historical.

Mario Schifano
(Homs 1934 – Roma 1998)
Last Autumn, 1964
enamel and graphite on canvas, 179 x 140 cm
Intesa Sanpaolo Collection

Tano Festa
(Roma 1938-1988)
Michelangelo according to tano festa, 1967
enamel on canvas, 100 x 80.6 cm
Intesa Sanpaolo Collection
Gallerie d’Italia – Piazza Scala, Milan

Mimmo Rotella
(Catanzaro 1918 – Milano 2006)
Mythology in Black and Red, 1962
décollage on canvas, 135 x 98 cm
Intesa Sanpaolo Collection

First, there’s surely a nostalgia factor at work. The 1950s and early 1960s are widely regarded as a golden age of cinema – both in Hollywood and Italy. The likes of Marcello Mastroianni and Audrey Hepburn exuded a glamour and mystery that seems lacking in today’s over-exposed film stars. There’s undoubtedly a sense of harking back to better times through Rotella’s imagery. His rips and tears mark the distance between now and then; there’s almost a sense of archaeological revelation to them.

As for the art-historical explanation why Rotella is in favour, his work has benefited from a jump in prices for pretty much all Italian art from the second half of the 20th century. Until recently, this was a critically acclaimed but commercially untapped market. Nowadays, Burris and Fontanas regularly sell for several millions.

More specifically, there’s an understanding that Rotella acted, in many ways, as a bridge between Burri and Fontana’s ground-breaking experiments and the Pop art movement that followed them. One might even call him the poster boy of Italian, late 20th-century art.

Franco Angeli
(Roma 1935-1988)
Unum, 1966
mixed media on polyester canvas, 50 x 140 cm
Intesa Sanpaolo Collection
COVER

Giosetta Fioroni
(Roma 1932)
Detail from the Birth of Venus, 1965
oil on canvas, 100 x 200 cm
Gallerie d’Italia – Piazza Scala, Milan

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