Renato Birolli was born in Verona in 1905. He studied at the Cignaroli academy in Verona from which he was expelled for “lack of discipline and excessive singing”. Birolli decided to move to Milan in 1927. He took various jobs besides undertaking diverse fresco and graphite decorations in Milan and Pavia. In 1929 he began to work as a proof corrector for “L’Ambrosiano” and so came into contact with Carlo Carrà and Edoardo Persico, the director of the Milione gallery.
He now began his career as a painter, and later joined various art groups. This was a five-year period in which he frequented such artists as Manzù and Sassu, and when he further developed the “ingenuous” style he used for his urban landscapes of 1930-31. In the Galleria del Milione in 1932 he exhibited Arlecchino (1931), San Zeno pescatore (1931), and La sposa (1932), works in which he showed his intention of recuperating a figurative language based on a kind of primary spontaneity, even while distancing himself from improvisation and technical virtuosity.
Birolli was always in search of a theoretical underpinning to his painting, something that was helped by his activity as a journalist, and his ideas were expounded in his “Taccuini”, Notebooks, from 1936 onwards. In the meanwhile his participation in the 1932 “10 pittori” show held at the Galleria d’Arte in Rome had given him the opportunity to get to know Mafai and Mazzacurati and to come into contact with the Scuola Romana group. In 1935 he broke off his relationship with Persico and renewed his friendship with the critic Sandro Bini. In the following year Birolli went to Paris for the first time where he discovered the painting of Van Gogh, Cézanne and, more generally, all the stimuli that Paris could offer.
1938 was the year that marked a turning point. He became the prime mover of the Milanese movement “Corrente”, and became involved with cultural activities promoted by the magazine of the same name. He exhibited in group and solo shows held, from 1940 onwards, at the Bottega di Corrente gallery, which in a few years was to change its name to Galleria della Spiga, under the sponsorship of Alberto Della Ragione. During this period he became friends with Guttuso, Migneco, and he began to frequent the Hermetic poets. After 1936-37 when he had concerned himself with such challenging themes as Il caos (1936), and Eden, (1937), Birolli turned to subjects inspired to the marginalized humanity, as in his paintings Zingari (1938) and I saltimbanchi (1938). Colour maintained its dominant role in his compositions which were increasingly clear and structurally strong. In 1937 and 1938 Birolli was a political detainee.
The war broke out and, some years later, he began to disagree with “Corrente”. In the meanwhile the artist took part in various resistance activities and joined the communist party. A great number of drawings date from this period, known as “Italia 44”, inspired by the people and activities of farming life; these were to be exhibited in May-June 1945 at the Galleria Santa Radegonda in Milan.
In 1946 Birolli began to frequent Santomaso, Vedova, and Marchiori; on October the first of the same year he signed the Manifesto della Nuova Secessione artistica which marked the foundation of the “Fronte nuovo dell’arte”, the first exhibition of which took place at the Galleria della Spiga in 1947. From 1947 to 1949 he often went to France, to Paris and Brittany. The paintings from this period marked his definitive abandonment of the Van Gogh-inspired Expressionism that had characterised his “Corrente” period; he now began to deal with post-Cubist themes derived from post-1930s Picasso. His greatly reduced colour range bordered on monochrome, something unusual in his work, as can be seen in Gabbia e vaso di fiori (1948), Donna bretone (1949), and Pesca in Adriatico (1950).
In about 1950, there began to be formed the “Gruppo degli Otto”, the subject of a famous monograph by Lionello Venturi published in 1952; the group was involved in a mutual search for a supranational art. Thanks to his friend Afro, Birolli came into contact with Catherine Viviano in whose gallery in New York he held three solo shows in 1951, 1955, and 1958. From 1950-51 onwards the nature and characters of the places chosen by the artist for his portraits became the exclusive source of inspiration for his paintings. The Porto Buso and Fossa Seiore series, or the "Incendio alle Cinque Terre" and "Vendemmia alle Cinque Terre" series by now fully demonstrated his “abstract-concrete” aims in which the evocative power of colour and the search for a formal balance of the abstract elements had a predominant role.
In the final works from 1958 there was a definitive rarefaction of the objective referents; the compositions were rigorously structured and had such musically-inspired titles as Canto italiano (1958), Ricerca del vero canto (1958), and Bianco in contrasto (1959). Birolli’s works, found in many public and private collections in Italy and abroad, were greatly admired and entered such collections as those of Della Ragione, Jesi, Mondadori, Boschi, and Cavellini. He died in Milan in 1959.