Italian Pop art: ripe for rediscovery

After being ignored for decades, Italian Pop artists – such as Enrico Baj and Giosetta Fioroni – are gaining recognition outside their homeland. Their work, says Alastair Smart, exemplifies the cultural confidence of the Sixties

30/08/2016

Pop was a movement of truly global reach. And Italy, it turns out, was one of the most vibrant centres

If one were asked to list all the art movements associated with Italy in the past 500 years, it’s not likely that Pop art would figure too highly – if, indeed, figure at all.

It’s a movement traditionally deemed Anglo-Saxon, synonymous with the UK and, above all, the US, with subject matter that ostensibly couldn’t be more American (from the Campbell’s soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles of Andy Warhol to the star-spangled banners of Jasper Johns).

In the past year or two, however, there has been a growing awareness of how narrow a view of Pop art that is. As 2015’s Tate Modern exhibition The World Goes Pop revealed, it was actually a movement of truly global reach. And Italy, it turns out, was one of the most vibrant centres.

It was the Sixties and the country was enjoying la dolce vita; with the help of Marshall Aid from Washington, Italy was basking in its so-called Economic Miracle, per capita income growing faster than in any other European nation. A consumer society developed, as did a renewed cultural confidence, exemplified by a booming cinema industry that gave us directors like Fellini and Visconti.

It was in such a context of vitality that Pop artists appeared in Milan and Rome, deploying radiantly bright colours and drawing for subject matter not so much on the common household goods of their American peers as on specifically Italian cultural references.

Tano Festa, for instance, found endless fascination in Michelangelo, notably his David and Creation of Man.

(As well as celebrating these masterpieces of his nation’s culture, Festa was also questioning their use as icons of consumerism, reproductions of which were lapped up by myriad tourists.)

 

Photo: Tano Festa (Roma 1938-1988)
Michelangelo, 1967
enamel on canvas, 81 x 65 cm
Intesa Sanpaolo Collection, Gallerie d’Italia – Piazza Scala, Milano


After being ignored for decades, Italy’s Pop artists are finally now gaining recognition outside their homeland. At an auction at Phillips in February, one of their number, Mimmo Rotella, unprecedentedly broke the million-pound barrier (his film-poster collage featuring shredded images of Sophia Loren and other stars fetching £1.1m). Further records are expected to be broken when Christie’s hosts its sale of modern Italian art in October.

Photo: Mimmo Rotella (Catanzaro 1918 – Milano 2006), Mythology in Black and Red, 1962, décollage on canvas, 135 x 98 cm, Intesa Sanpaolo Collection, Gallerie d’Italia – Piazza Scala, Milano
All of which begs two questions: why was Italian Pop sidelined for so long and why the sudden interest in it now?

With regard to the former, the most obvious point is that it was a struggle for any Pop artist outside the US (and UK) to build a reputation – because it was in the US that the master narrative of late-20th century art history was written.

In her seminal book Pop Art, the American critic Lucy Lippard barely gave Italy a look-in, saying simply that it “lagged behind” in every respect. Pop, the argument goes, was a predominantly American movement, born in explicit rejection of the (also American) Abstract Expressionist movement that preceded it. A pan-global take just didn’t suit the story being told.

Photo:
Lucio Fontana (Rosario di Santa Fé 1899 – Comabbio,
Spatial Concept, 1951
acrylic on paper pasted on canvas, 68 x 70 cm
Intesa Sanpaolo Collection, Gallerie d’Italia – Piazza Scala, Milano
Photo:
Alberto Burri (Città di Castello, Perugia 1915 – Nice 1995)
Red Black, 1953
oil, enamel, canvas, pumice sand on canvas, 98,8 x 85,2 cm
Intesa Sanpaolo Collection, Gallerie d’Italia – Piazza Scala, Milano

As it happens, there isn’t an easy place to be found for Pop in the history of purely Italian art either. Here a direct line is usually drawn from the Fifties abstractionists, Alberto Burri and Lucio Fontana – who slashed, burned and sullied their canvases – to the Arte Povera artists of the late Sixties, who rejected painting altogether and embraced humble, everyday materials such as wood and wax. The vividly coloured, figurative images of Pop rather complicate this line and so were, to a large extent, forgotten.

Yet, this has meant artists of the calibre of Enrico Baj and Giosetta Fioroni have been neglected. (Works by both, including a schizophrenic riff by the latter on Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, form part of Intesa Sanpaolo’s stellar collection of modern and contemporary Italian art – and also feature in 101/900, a new publication cataloguing 101 of the bank’s best works from the 20th century.)

And so to the second question: why the interest in Italian Pop now?
Photo:
Enrico Baj (Milano 1924 – Vergiate, Varese 2003)
Buste de femme au chapeau, 1969
acrylic and collage on canvas 146 x 114 cm
Intesa Sanpaolo Collection, Gallerie d’Italia – Piazza Scala, Milano


In small part, you might argue that, as the art world becomes truly international (every week there seeming to be a fair or biennial opening somewhere), a greater international perspective on art has developed.
More telling, however, is surely the fact that all Italian post-war art has experienced a surge in popularity – and prices – recently. Collectors have realised that this is a critically important, but commercially untapped, market. First, prices for Fontana, Burri and their Arte Povera protégés soared (Fontana’s painting, La Fine di Dio, sold for £15.9 million last autumn); and now it appears all art from this period is ripe for (re)discovery.
It may have taken half a century, but for the likes of Baj, Fioroni and Festa, finally, it seems, their reputations are about to go Pop.

Cover Photo:
Giosetta Fioroni (Roma 1932)
Detail from the Birth of Venus, 1965
oil on canvas, 100 x 200 cm
Intesa Sanpaolo Collection, Gallerie d’Italia – Piazza Scala, Milano
Focus: From Pop to Arte Povera

US POP

A movement rooted in the affluence of consumerist America in the post-wWar years, US Pop celebrated popular and commercial culture: with subject matter ranging from washing powder and road signs to soup cans and comic strips. It turned the commonplace into icons. If its embrace of low culture was radical, more traditional was the return to representational imagery it marked, after years in which Abstract Expressionism ruled the art world.

 

ITALIAN POP

1964’s Venice Biennale, featuring work by the likes of Jasper Johns, Jim Dine and Robert Rauschenberg, was the first time many Europeans had had a proper look at American Pop. The Italian Pop artists it inspired, however, didn’t simply create a localised version of the same movement: there weren’t too many images of olive oil bottles or Baci chocolate boxes. What’s notable about Italian pop is the way it was inspired not just by the everyday but by the pillars of Italian high culture: with bold adaptations of the Mona Lisa and Michelangelo’s David, for example.

 

ARTE POVERA

A movement of the late-Sixties and early-Seventies, its literal translation of “poor art” reflects the aesthetic of its artists. They rejected the marble sculptures and oil paintings of their great Italian forebears for work in everyday or organic materials like slate, wax, wood or felt. Arte Povera is often considered a reaction against the rampant consumerism that Italy’s post-War Economic Miracle had fostered.



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