Alberto Burri: a stitch in time

An Italian abstract artist is finally receiving the recognition he deserves a century after his birth. Alastair Smart assesses the legacy of Alberto Burri, several of whose works are owned by Intesa Sanpaolo.

Alastair Smart


Alberto Burri’s move to the US was by no means a conventional one for an artist in the mid-20th century. He wasn’t attracted by the promise, energy and bright lights of New York City, the art world’s new capital.
Rather, he was sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Hereford, Texas, in 1944, after being captured by Allied Forces in North Africa, where he’d been serving in the Italian army medical corps. Until this point in life – his late twenties – he’d barely picked up a brush (Burri was a doctor by profession). However, out of boredom during his Texan internment, he took up painting, often on burlap sacks from the mess hall when conventional canvas ran out.

His first works depict the desert view from the interior of his camp.

By the time of his return to Italy, in 1946, Burri had fallen out of love with medicine and embarked in earnest on an artistic career – one of the most important of the 20th century. Only now, two decades after his death, however, is its significance being finally and fully appreciated.

Abandoning not just figurative painting but also the old-school medium of oil on canvas, he led the way in pushing beyond traditional boundaries, by using unorthodox materials and techniques.

He was a pioneer of what has been called "the deconstruction of painting".

Even so, Burri has never been a star name. In the UK, just two of the Umbrian’s pieces are in public collections: Ciclo II: Il Nero e l’Oro at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow and another at the Tate Gallery that has spent most of its life in storage. Even those vaguely familiar with his work have tended to lump Burri together with the (later) Arte Povera movement, which he inspired but was never part of.

Over the past couple of years, however, recognition has started to grow. A major 2015 retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in October was followed by a major sale at Sotheby’s in London. Then, just last month, a Burri achieved a record price at auction when Sacco e Rosso sold for £9.1million.


ALBERTO BURRI (Città di Castello, Perugia, 1915 – Nice, 1995)
Rosso Nero, 1953
oil, enamel, canvas, pumice sand on canvas, 98,8 x 85,2 cm
Intesa Sanpaolo Collection
Gallerie d’Italia – Piazza Scala, Milan

So who exactly was Alberto Burri; how influential was he; and why is he suddenly all the rage?

His best-known series are his Sacchi, abstract collage constructions made from cloth that he tore, painted, stitched and stretched across a canvas. More dramatically, he also deployed fire – specifically a blowtorch – to create his so-called Combustioni series.

Many interpret the rips, tears and singe marks of his practice in terms of his wartime experience, as if he’d been inspired by the gaping wounds, sutures and burns of the soldiers he treated. The title of the Guggenheim show, The Trauma of Painting, certainly alluded to this. Burri himself, though, rejected such an interpretation, always rejecting symbolism and insisting that “painting for me is just a freedom attained”.

The fact is, however, that whatever their origins, these works are more often than not beautiful: somehow achieving a unity and a harmony one wouldn’t have thought possible. Rosso Nero, from 1953, is a gorgeous example, its formal elegance and array of reds belying the rough, instant assemblages of its cloth.

This is one of several Burris owned by Intesa Sanpaolo, forming part of its stellar collection of modern and contemporary Italian art, and featuring in 101/900, a new publication cataloguing 101 of the bank’s best works from last century.

Burri’s influence has been felt far and wide. Most obviously, among the Arte Povera artists of the late Sixties, through his use of humble, everyday materials (he transformed his surfaces with tar, tree branches, thread, cardboard, melted plastic, ground pumice and scrap iron).

What's more, Burri set the stage for Process Art and Neo-Dadaism, not to mention – in his assaults on the picture plane – the likes of Yves Klein and Niki de Saint Phalle.

And then, of course, there’s Robert Rauschenberg. The American, whose famous “combine” paintings used found objects and other sculptural elements, openly admitted his debt to Burri. Pivotally for his career, he even visited the Italian’s studio in Rome, twice, in 1953.

Perhaps part of the reason for the current rise of Burri’s star is a simple question of dates. The centenary of his birth last year threw attention on him, as anniversaries so often do.

Burri has also benefited from the recent rise in demand and prices for post-War Italian art, which seems to have soared as collectors (particularly in the US) realise this is a critically important but commercially untapped market.


ALBERTO BURRI (Città di Castello, Perugia, 1915 – Nice, 1995)
Bianco Nero, 1971
acrivinilico on cellotex, 75 x 100 cm
Intesa Sanpaolo Collection
Gallerie d’Italia – Piazza Scala, Milan

But more than all this, so audacious was Burri's output that perhaps it's only now, with the benefit of hindsight and decades of digestion, that we can see quite how influential he was.

He wasn’t one to shout about his achievements, and his work isn’t instantly gratifying. But it rewards those who are patient with it; even if acquiring that patience demands years.

His genius was to take a literal canvas and treat it like a metaphorical one: on which he could create anything he fancied artistically.


Cover photo:
ALBERTO BURRI (Città di Castello, Perugia, 1915 – Nice, 1995)
Sabbia, 1952
mixed technique, 90 x 108,5 cm
Intesa Sanpaolo Collection
Gallerie d’Italia – Piazza Scala, Milan

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