Within the frame of an exhibiting activity that for over fifty years has promoted and deepened unpublished or little-known aspects of the protagonists of twentieth-century Italian art, on 19 December 2020 Galleria dello Scudo is to present a survey limited to the 1950s, a crucial decade for abstract painting in Italy after World War II, witnessing experiences which, on the international scene, reveal very peculiar stylistic prerogatives, born in a context of deep and articulated theoretical and critical commitment.
The gaze focuses on the work of six authors – Afro, Piero Dorazio, Antonio Sanfilippo, Toti Scialoja, Tancredi, and Emilio Vedova – highlighting the elements that characterize their language in a well-defined step of their path. The results of their research were, moreover, a topic of interest on the part of European and overseas artists, critics and collectors, who recognized specific distinctive traits in each of them. The path is divided into the various protagonists, according to a chronological order.
Afro: the poetics of “abstract-concrete”
Cesare Brandi writes about the change Afro brought about in his painting at the beginning of the 1950s: “In the sudden upheaval of his painting subjects, Afro had identified his new formal principle, which is neither the Venetian colour nor even the expressionist dynamism of the brushstroke... Afro overturns the position of the painting, from backdrop to screen: the canvas is suddenly transparent, as if the light came out boasting those rays that the sun throws from the clouds at sunset.” The canvases of this period show a new pictorial temperament. The colour is spread on the canvas in an increasingly less imposing way, till becoming almost diaphanous in the works of the mid-decade. The light, filtered through the colour transparency, moves from an unknown endogenous source, instead of coming from outside. Afro gives life to complex creations focused on the use of colour ranges dialoguing not always explicitly with a relatively autonomous graphic sign – creations being also rich in different passages, suspended between declaring a real or imaginative referent and hiding their origins.
The three works now on display attest to the appreciation of the artist by American collectors. Giardino d’infanzia (1951), exhibited in 1952 by Catherine Viviano, soon entered the collection of Lee A. Ault, art collector and entrepreneur in the publishing sector, owner of the publishing house Quadrangle Press, to whom we owe the publication of monographs dedicated to Rufino Tamayo, Joan Mirò, or to La Fontaine’s fairy tales illustrated by Alexander Calder. The small canvas for L’ottomana I (1952) was sold by Irene Brin and Gasparo del Corso, owners of Galleria dell’Obelisco, to the spouses Samuel J. and Audrey Levin, who would then donate works by international masters from the 20th century to the Saint Louis Art Museum. Doppia figura (1954) was bought in 1955 by Stanley J. Seeger Jr., son of a Dallas oil tycoon and himself at the helm of an entrepreneurial empire; Seeger Jr. long kept the painting in his personal collection.
Emilio Vedova: Immagine del tempo and Dal Diario del Brasile, 1951-1954
In the early 1950s, Emilio Vedova gave his language a profound change, leading him to conceive new cycles of works born from suggestions reported during trips abroad, meetings and experiences, after four years of “black geometries”.
The use of monochrome compositions, dominated by strong and dynamic intertwining, joins together the series of paintings that the artist presented under the title Immagine del tempo, in his debut at the first edition of the São Paulo Biennale in Brazil in 1951. The paintings from the early 1950s appear also in other exhibitions; this is the case of the painting now exhibited in Verona, shown in public for the first time on the occasion of the Peintres d’aujourd’hui, France-Italie / Pittori d’oggi, Francia-Italia exhibition held at Palazzo Belle Arti in Parco del Valentino, Turin, in that same 1951.
The search for a new spatial depth would mature shortly thereafter, as evidenced by the large canvas Dal Diario del Brasile (Spazio inquieto) (1954), among the works sent the same year to the XXVII Venice Biennale, where it was purchased by architect Graziano Gasparini for his home in Caracas.
Gasparini had been the Venezuelan commissioner for Venice Biennale; indeed, thanks to his intervention, the South American country was the first to have its own permanent pavilion within the Biennale. After graduating from the Faculty of Architecture in Venice, from 1945 to 1947 Gasparini had taken part in the renovation of the Biennale pavilions, occupied during the war by Nazi troops. In 1948, when the task was completed, he left for South America, finally arriving in Venezuela in the days of Pérez Jiménez’s coup d’état. He would remain there all his life, becoming a university professor and, since 1974, director of the institute for the Patrimonio Histórico, Artístico y Ambiental of the Consejo Nacional de la Cultura.
Dal Diario del Brasile (Spazio inquieto) is a central work in Vedova’s painting of the decade. Chosen by the author to illustrate one of his writings – Infinite altre porte – published in the magazine Arti visive in November 1954, it would also be reproduced by Piero Dorazio in the essay on contemporary Italian painting in The World of Abstract Art, published in 1957 by George Wittenborn in New York, in which he dedicates some interesting considerations to his friend Vedova: “Emilio Vedova creates images of surprising and vertiginous movement. His strong personality seized on the style of futurist dynamism as something readily adaptable; he altered it, and in-creased in volume, number, and directions those linee di forza that made objective forms burst out into pure rhythm and expressive colour. His recent works, mainly in black and white, often introduce calligraphic elements. Vedova builds them directly on the surfaces, with horizontal or vertical lines, into sensations that are unexpected and explosive.”
Toti Scialoja: Impronte and all-over colour
In some paintings made between September 1957 and the first months of the following year, like the three from 1958 now on display – Agnus n. 1, Terzo Agnello and Bilancia – Toti Scialoja gives the moulding technique its first formulation. The matter is dense and packed, spread in frequent and frantic overlapping, sometimes enchanted by itself and its own chromatic luxuriance.
This is the moment in which Scialoja’s painting can reveal limited tangents with the informal European climate, beside evoking less radical experiences related to American abstract expressionism.
Some passages in his Giornale di pittura reveal information on the technical methods used by the artist. He loved to prepare the canvas on the ground. He took a sheet of light and oiled paper, on which the colour would adhere without being absorbed. The artist crumpled this ductile and thin sheet tightly, quickly, as if it were a handkerchief. He laid it down again, on the ground, smoothed its coarsest lines and filled it with rapid brushstrokes. Then he overturned it on the canvas, pressing, beating, shouting, one two three five times: until the colour ran out and the fragile support subsided. The Impronte created by Scialoja at the end of the 1950s are dominated by surfaces saturated with colour, spread up to the edge of the canvas, in an all-over eliminating any distinction between image and background.
Piero Dorazio’s and Antonio Sanfilippo’s “Sign”
“Dorazio is one of the few Italian artists who has been able to carry out a straight path with his painting, destined to reach the goal without going through dangerous or equivocal sideways. Ever since his first works, he had glimpsed the possibility of creating his own well-ordered and homogeneous micro-cosmos, where the atmosphere aroused by an extremely refined yet tenacious fabric allowed him to highlight his skills as a meticulous lover of ‘linearity’.” These are the introductory words of the monographic text by Gillo Dorfles published in the magazine Le Arti in June 1966, in which Piero Dorazio is acknowledged an informal phase born to a fleeting attraction for some aspects of action painting, soon overtaken by the decisive turning towards a new form of rigor and constructive precision. Sospetto di forma (1958) is the revealing testimony of this change, albeit limited to a short chronological context, which anticipates the Reticoli from the early 1960s and the subsequent season ready to open up to a lexicon comparable to a certain U.S. “post-painterly abstraction”. In those years, the compositions are entrusted to that set of determinism and chance deriving from the action of an artist who still paints with a brush soaked in colour, without resorting to photographic projections, materic collages, found objects, or elements of industrial origin.
The paintings by Piero Dorazio and Antonio Sanfilippo, exhibited on this occasion at Galleria dello Scudo, are echoes of the season in which their work reaches a leading position, both in Italy and abroad. Though measuring themselves with the authors who animated with them the Roman avant-garde of the immediate post-war period, they have now got a respectable presence thanks to the originality of their works, leading them to be part of that “heroic generation” who reformed the art from the second half of the 20th century starting from individual instances and drives, and not from proclamations and manifestos.
“Sanfilippo’s work must [...] be framed within a wide international painting movement, of which he is one of the protagonists thanks to his personal and very characteristic language and technique. Sanfilippo is not a properly ‘calligraphic’ painter of ideograms like Capogrossi, nor does he fall into the expressionist taste, like Vedova, nor is he an ‘action painter’ like Pollock. He has a very light hand and works with the highest precision, like a ‘foilist’. He never loses sight of the ultimate goal of painting, which is not aesthetics but poetry.”
The profile Dorazio traces of Sanfilippo and of his work in 1992, just over a decade after his death, outlines with great precision the identifying element common to their pictorial language in the 1950s. In this phase, the “sign” builds the image both for Sanfilippo and Dorazio. In the former, the “sign” is clearly outlined and creates the image around some sort of central tangle, a nucleus of centripetal energy with respect to which the margins of the pictorial page represent the background; in the latter, the pictorial stretch is crushed and dispersed, and saturates the entire field of the canvas, subjecting it to an overall tension.
On show are two mixed media on paper by Tancredi, both created in 1959, a crucial year for the artist. The writings published for the first time in the catalogue of the anthology exhibition curated by Marisa Dalai Emiliani, and held at Galleria Comunale d’Arte Moderna in Bologna in 1992, describe the spirit of anxiety with which Tancredi faces the analysis and reworking of the intense experiences lived in Paris since the winter of 1959. The need to affirm a sense of continuity with the previous production attests, in fact, the extent of the formal and poetic novelties of that year, which were destabilizing but also extremely stimulating.
The paintings, now exhibited in Verona, can be traced back to a phase immediately following the summer of 1959 spent in Sweden and Norway with his wife Tove Dietrichson, during which Tancredi completed the paintings then sent to the VIII Quadriennale Nazionale d’Arte in Rome. With over two thousand works, this exhibition offered a broad overview of Italian artistic situation in the four-year period 1955-1959. In the late spring of 1959 Tancredi decided to leave Venice. He stopped in Milan to sell off the remnants of his feverish work of the previous years. In the summer he travelled as far as Oslo and Stockholm, then he reached Paris, where his first daughter Elizabeth was born in December.
The following months were characterised by existential difficulties as well as intense experiences acting as cultural stimuli for his renewal: contacts with Jean-Jacques Lebel and other old and new protagonists of the researches inspired by Surrealism, the meeting with Giacometti, the confrontation with a context dominated by Dubuffet’s and Klein’s actions, in a city deeply marked by the Algerian war. At the beginning of 1960, still in Paris, he joined the Anti-Procès movement promoted by Alain Jouffroy and Jean-Jacques Lebel, and worked on the Facezie, that he defined as “heartfelt jokes... made with a little lightness and a little bitterness.” The works, that he would soon exhibit in the solo show at Galleria dell’Ariete in 1961, would be a source of disorientation for the public, still unaware of how much his example would then be able to affect a whole generation of young artists in the future.