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Articles by: Renato Miracco

  • Art & Culture

    Lucio Fontana: “The Only Freedom is Intelligence”

    I still remember when in 2007 the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum presented Lucio Fontana: Venice/New York, the first major exhibition devoted to the artist in the United States since the museum’s 1977 retrospective.
     

    It was a small exhibition that included 49 works and brought together two important series from 1961: Fontana’s Venice paintings and his New York series of metals, presented together for the first time.
     

    It was organized under the auspices of the Milan-based Fondazione Lucio Fontana and was the most comprehensive presentation of Fontana’s work from that period. Critics back then wrote really nasty things about it, calling him a “decorator” rather than an artist.

     

    How to Better Understand Fontana

    The retrospective “Lucio Fontana: On the Threshold,” curated by Iria Candela and Emily Brown, on view at the Met Breuer through April 14, is much larger and stratified, though I find some of the choices, including the display, questionable. One of the intentions is to give the artist more recognition, as stated in articles by the New York Times and the Washington Post, but that’s not quite enough.

    In my opinion, we will never understand this artist’s mission if we don’t contextualize it within his research and his vision. And I can say this because I was the co-curator with Matthew Gale of the exhibition about Fontana at the Tate Modern in London.

     

    Therefore, I would like to put forward some preliminary notions about Italian Art History and about some of Fontana’s writings.

     

    The Historical Context

    In the first half of the 20th century, Italian artists began to investigate matter not as a static decorative element, but as a living, organic element, which, through its interactions, creates a “unicum” that is neither painting nor sculpture.

     

    At the same time, in 1912 Picasso was conducting parallel studies in France, and had started introducing extra-pictorial materials in his paintings.

    In Italy at that time, Futurism had just been founded. When talking about this avant-garde movement (do you remember the beautiful exhibition at Guggenheim a few years ago?), we must keep in mind a clear distinction between Futurism as an artistic phenomenon with political elements, and Futurism as a cultural and political movement whose theories changed the aesthetics of the 19th century. It was not a sudden change, but rather a gradual one born from a need within the movement itself, a clarification slowly brought to the consciousness of its protagonists.

    In his essay "Art and Ideology", Karel Teige declared that "…before Futurism, Italy was oppressed by a heavy stagnation that had lasted for over half a century ... a careful reading of Futurist posters reveals a strong revolutionary core that proves fruitful for current poetry... It teaches us to measure the value of life by its intensity, to act to the utmost of our energy.”

    The words of Albert Einstein, the father of relativism, are significant in this regard: "If what we contemplate and experience is shaped by the language of logic, we practice science, if it is mediated by forms whose links are inaccessible to conscious thought, even if intuitively recognizable as meaningful, we practice art."

    This concept is totally aligned with two of the most “intuitive” statements by Lucio Fontana:

    “There is an art that cannot be for everyone, and this is also true of other human creative manifestations. Humanity experiences them, and we owe our civilizations solely to this. The only freedom is intelligence.” (Lucio Fontana, Galleria del Naviglio, Milan, April 18, 1953)

    And: “Really, I didn’t invent anything [...]. Futurists had already started to probe the limits of figuration and to consider art as a mysterious, philosophical fact, representing a new consciousness, not a figurative consciousness.”

    Exploring the Possibilities of Spatial Environments

    These ideas explain the new series of Spatial Environments that we can see today, the first one dating back to 1948-49 when it was displayed at the Galleria Il Milione in Milan. They are seen as: “Neither sculpture or painting, immediate art ... suggestions free from viewers in a spatial environment created by an artist, concept of art based on the evolution of the medium in art.”

    1949 marked a turning point in Fontana’s career. During this year, he created the ‘Buchi’ (holes), his first series of paintings in which he punctured the canvas, and his first Spatial Environment, a combination of shapeless sculptures, fluorescent paintings, and black lights to be viewed in a dark room.

    In his last interview in 1968, released just a few months before his death, Fontana explained that not only did he strongly believed in Futurism but he considered it the most important avant-garde movement.

     

    Tetradimensional Art

     

    However, in his ‘Manifiesto Blanco’ (1946), we can see echoes of the Concrete and Neo-Constructivist movements that were active in Buenos Aires in the 40s, as well as Kinetic and Luminist components.

     

    All of Fontana’s artistic stages are always present in this effort to obtain "art based on the unity of time and space. The sound and the movement that develop over time and in space are the fundamental forms of this new art, which contains the four dimensions of existence."

     

    The first act for "the development of tetradimensional art" is the recognition that "the materialism established in all consciences requires an art possessing its own values, far from the representations that today constitute a farce."

     

    And then he created his famous 'Cuts’ (1958-1968), the slashed monochrome canvases with which he is now indelibly associated and that he started making when he was nearly 60 years old. Like the ‘Holes’, they represent contractions of the infinite in the form. Holes are the first step for the artwork, which is not a painting nor a sculpture but a “unicum,” “a dynamic form because of its changing and evolving essence.”

     

    Fontana’s Spatial Concept of Art
     

    "It is not true that I was puncturing to break the picture, no, I punctured to find it," said Fontana who, I would add, was trying to discover an unknown dimension in the cosmos. Hence, for Fontana there isn’t a spatial painting or sculpture, but only a spatial concept of art. This is the idea behind his works titled ‘Spatial Concept’.
     

    There is in his works a sort of invisible halo between the object and the action, between relative motion and absolute motion, between the visible and the invisible, between the painting and its cosmic projection, where the shape does not contain the infinite, but it is the passage, the gap, the flow of free movement.

     

    Later, he resumed his studies on sculpture, linked to his experience with his father, a sculptor, but which took on another value for him. I think that the best part of the exhibition is the Sculptures Room, which is so vivid, so impressive, though not well displayed. I would suggest facing every single artwork in the exhibition and trying to enter into their dimension. You will be surprised.

     

  • Art & Culture

    Alberto Giacometti: The Core of Life

    Not in this lifetime will you find a better setting for the 200+ works of Alberto Giacometti than those on display today.   

    That’s the first impression you get upon entering the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which Frank Lloyd Wright designed, despite his commission, with a view to building “the best possible atmosphere in which to show fine paintings or listen to music.”

    That was the gist of all the comments made at both the dinner and opening press event by the museum’s director Richard Armstrong; Francesca Lavazza, a trustee and sponsor of the show; Catherine Grenier, director of the Giacometti Foundation in Paris; and Megan Fontanella, co-curator of the show.     

    Stanley Tucci (actor and director of the 2017 Giacometti picture Final Portrait) captured the impact well when he spoke about the negative and positive space that the artist’s sculptures manage to delineate, evoke, communicate. (By the way, it was a weird coincidence and a weird meeting, since Stanley and I narrated the upcoming documentary about Tintoretto produced by the National Gallery in Washington.) 

    But why are we speaking in English about a Swiss artist for an Italian magazine? Should we think of Alberto Giacometti as Italian?

    Well, in one sense, yes. In part because Giacometti himself frequently said that he felt more Lombardian than Swiss, seeing as he was born in that Italian canton. Giacometti was actually born in Borgonovo di Stampa, in Canton of Grisons (Switzerland) on October 10, 1901, to the post-Impressionist Swiss painter Giovanni Giacometti and Annetta Stampa, a descendant of Protest Italian refugees from Switzerland.  

    He was also intensely attached to his native land and almost violently devoted to his family, as his sculptor and friend Mario Negri pointed out in his documentary for Swiss television in 1986. 

    Giacometti began drawing, painting and sculpting at a very young age. Impressed by his talent, his parents sought to encourage him. There is a famous clay portrait of his mother from his high school years at the Giacometti Foundation in Stampa, in the Val Bregaglia, Grisons, Switzerland. Founded in 2013 and distinct from the Giacometti Foundation in Paris, who is the co-sponsor of the current show.

    In 1921, the then twenty-year-old moved to Rome to study, among other things, the great artists of the past. 

    During his studies, he took a particular shine to the work of Tintoretto and Giotto, who inspired him to create art that eschewed intellectualism and drew from primitive origins.  

    At the same time, he also took an interest in anthropology and African art, an interest that resurfaced in many of his creative stages. 

    Archaeology was another subject of interest, in particular Etruscan art, which he first came across at the Museum of Archaeology in Florence. It would influence many works, such as “The Chariot” of 1950. The same was true of Egyptian sculpture, which can be seen in many statues and busts from 1940 on.  

    Upon returning to France, he came under the spell of Cubism. His work from this period makes constant reference to Brancusi and Archipenko. Look carefully at the first part of the show and you’ll discover where he converges with and diverges from the two artists. 

    It’s really an open (art history) book.    

    In 1927, Giacometti became part of the Surrealist group (despite participating in shows with them till 1938, by 1935 he’d already broken from the group). His first surrealist sculptures were displayed at the Salon des Tuileries  

    During these years, he formed an important bond with the movement’s founder, Andre Breton, and contributed to his magazine, Surrealism in the Service of Revolution. But the revolution proved very intimate, painful, freeing: 

    “Yes, I make pictures and sculptures, and I have always done so, from the time I first started drawing or painting, in order to denounce reality, in order to defend myself, in order to become stronger in those things with which I can the better defend myself and launch my attacks; in order to stave off hunger, cold and death; in order to be as free as possible, free to strive, with the means that today appear to me as the most suited to this task, to see and to understand my environment better, to understand it better so that I have the greatest measure of freedom; in order to squander my powers, expend all my energy as far as a I can into that which I create, to have adventures, to discover new worlds, to wage my battle—for pleasure? out of joy?— a battle for the sake of the pleasure of winning and losing.”

    His is a career of constant extremes, I’m moved to say, constantly torn between competing forces, as we can see throughout his career as both a painter (the current show has a wealth of drawings and canvases) and sculptor.  

    During his surrealist period, the imagination and (oftentimes) the unconscious are the guiding principles that form the base of Giacometti’s sculptures, which are very important to the surrealist idea of “objects with a symbolic function.” 

    That gave rise to “Boule pendu” (Suspended ball, 1930). A ball hanging on a thread rests on top of a halfmoon inside an iron cage. The sculpture, a standout as you wind your way through the spiral museum, introduces the problem of spatial limitations, which would become a constant in Giacometti’s esthetics.  

    In the sculptures from the early 1930s, a period well represented in the show, there are a few recurring elements fundamental to interpreting the work: allusions to body parts and sex organs that form a dialectical relationship with linear and geometrical shapes by being placed inside of them (“Cage,” 1931). His use of cages highlights the idea that sculpture is a transparent, visible and plastic construction of “illusory” space in painting. His friendship with Pablo Picasso during these years was fundamental.       

    When they first met, in Surrealist circles, the two artists already knew and admired each other’s work. Alberto Giacometti had seen the paintings of Picasso, just as the latter had Giacometti’s sculptures. In fact, the Spanish artist had attended the sculptor’s first Parisian show.  

    It was a point of pride for Giacometti that he attracted Picasso’s attention. He was twenty years his junior and Picasso was already considered the great modern artist of the era.  

    Reading Giacometti’s letters to his family, you realize the depth of his friendship with Picasso, whose hound would become the model for the sculpture that closes the show at the Guggenheim.  

    But the Surrealist period and his work in that vein would soon fizzle out, and Giacometti returned to figurative studies, to the “Fleeting resemblance,” as the title of Jean Soldini’s 1998 book has it. Chronologically speaking, this shift in thought is occasioned by the death of his father in 1933.  

    From 1935 to 1940 he concentrated almost obsessively on studying heads, beginning with the gaze, the seat of our thought. He began to draw entire figures in an attempt to capture the identity of single human being with just a glance. 

    His preferred subjects, few and constantly revisited, were familiar: his mother, his brother Diego, his cousin Silvio, the objects he surrounded himself with, the landscapes  he’d seen and lived in. 

    It is here that I find extraordinary parallels to Giorgio Morandi. Both artists explore their intimate relationship with objects (or, in this case, people). It is the space between them, the way they emerge and contrast that “creates art,” whether it be two or three dimensional.  The figures are fixed, immobile, strictly forward facing, isolated in space. Almost as if their presence created both an emptiness and fullness, so that what emerges is a “metaphysical space.” The figures are made of “lines of force” covered with amorphous materials that carve out the surroundings. This pursuit became a real obsession. 

    “From 1935 on, I never did anything the way I wanted. What emerged was always something different from what I wanted. Always.”   

    Almost never, with the exception of the eyes (“Mains tenant la Vide” or Holding the Void, “Objet invisible” or Invisible Object). Their outline is drawn, but the viewer is left to imagine the pupil. Everything is placed in an inaccessible dimension in which the circumscribed space is the essential component. It’s the artistic transposition of Sartre’s existential theories; no coincidence that he wrote an essay for one of Giacometti’s shows and became a partner in crime. 

    The artist/sculptor spent World War II in Geneva, for he couldn’t return to Paris, and that is where he met Annette Arm, his future wife.

    In 1946, after the war, he returned to Paris and was reunited with his brother Diego. He immediately launched into a frenetic phase of activity, during which his sculptures became elongated, their limbs extending into a space that contains and completes them. 

    From 1950 on the figures were more often alone, though groups of figures inhabit the same space. It’s the space between them that establishes their relationship. Not the gaze but the approach to “similitude” that is the key to read and interpret their relationship. 

    In Giacometti’s elongated figures, we recognize the figures described by Proust at the end of In Search of Lost Time: «comme si les hommes étaient juchés comme sur de vivantes échasses qui grandissant sans cesse finissaient par leur rendre la marche difficile et périlleuse, et d’où tout d’un coup ils tombaient».

    We are all hovering on the edge of lost time. 

    We’ve mentioned Breton, Picasso, the Surrealists, Sartre. But another figure—apparently far removed from that world—remained dear to Giacometti’s understanding of existential theory: Jean Genet, who wrote a beautiful essay about his friend.  

    Picasso thought it was the most beautiful essay on art that he’d ever read. It’s easy to understand why he was so enthusiastic; L’atelier di Alberto Giacometti, which came out in the magazine Derriere le miroir for the first time in June 1957, is an incisive, intense and illuminating piece. 

    “As I see it,” writes Genet, “Giacometti’s work makes our universe even more unbearable. It seems, in fact, as though the artist knew how to lift the veil from our eyes to reveal what remains of man when all misleading appearances have fallen away.” 

    Genet felt Giacometti’s sculptures were the key to beginning the process of recognition and stripping away, a process every creature must complete: you need to shrug off the visible world and venture beyond what can be measured, beyond the appearance of reality. 

    It was a “testament” for both beings, an essential, unusual yet real bond between the arts that the two men represent.

    It turns out this process is interminable for the artist who stubbornly pursues a goal that, mysteriously, eludes him. ”I have the feeling,” he says, “or the hope, that I am making progress each day. That is what makes me work, compelled to understand the core of life.” 

    Then came the glory years. In 1955, the Arts Council Gallery in London and the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York put on major retrospectives of his work. 

    In 1961 he received the Carnegie Prize and the year after the Grand Prize for Sculpture at the Venice Biennale, where a space was reserved for his work alone. 

    There were other important shows at the Tate Gallery in London, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Louisiana Museum in Humlebaek, Denmark, and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. That same year the French government awarded him with the Grand Prix National des Arts. But perhaps the greatest honor was when the artist and some of his works were printed on the Swiss 100-franc note (!!).   

    He died of heart disease in Chur, Switzerland on January 11, 1966. 

    You could talk for hours about Giacometti and unravel his intense and contentious relationship with America and various institutions, or talk about the acquisitions that, slowly, made him one of the most sought-after artists of the 1900s. But more importantly I encourage you to go see this show. Then maybe we can reconvene to talk about him. Sound good? 

    While you’re at it, check out the three bronzes on sale in the Galleria Venus on 980 Madison Avenue. You won’t regret it! 

  • Antonio Canova. Modello for George Washington (detail), 1818. Plaster. Gypsotheca e Museo Antonio Canova, Possagno Fondazione Canova onlus, Possagno; photo Fabio Zonta
    Art & Culture

    Canova Storms New York

    Who was the first Italian artist involved in restoring artworks who wrote a treatise that today forms the foundation of an agreement shared by many countries for the preservation of artistic patrimonies? Don’t sweat it too hard; I’ll give you a hint: Antonio Canova

    His name came to mind recently as I was cobbling together the preface of a volume jointly issued by the State Department, FBI and Homeland Security regarding the results of the Memorandum of Understanding, an agreement outlining concerning the responsibilities and requirements of archaeological property signed in 2001 by the government of Italy and the American State Department.  (By the way, the volume, edited by Catherine Foster, the State Department and myself, will come out next September.)  

    It is now 15 years since the “MoU” was first signed, and as a result a good 375 works of art have since been returned to Italy thanks to the Carabinieri and the aforementioned American Institutions. It has been a huge success and is based on ideas of preserving and contextualizing archaeological artifacts, ideas that have deep roots and stretch back to the diplomatic and legislative work of Canova, who is now famous in New York for his sculptures.

    As Consul General Francesco Genuardi rightly put it in a recent speech, “Canova has folded the City of New York in a warm cultural embrace.”  

    In fact, right now you can visit three exhibits. The first, “Canova’s George Washington” (Frick Collection, 23 May – 23 September) celebrates the vicissitudes of the Statue of George Washington, which was commissioned by the General Assembly of North Carolina in 1861 for the Rotunda of the then-State Capitol in Raleigh. 

    When asked, Thomas Jefferson claimed that no American sculptor had the competence to sculpt the American president and hotly argued in favor of the Italian sculptor—one of the most famous sculptors of his day. 

    The second, curious exhibit, “Canova e la Danza,” runs from 22 May – 28 June at the Italian Cultural Institute.   

    The third exhibit focuses on photos of Canova’s sculptures, lovingly housed at the Gypsotheca and the Museo Antonio Canova di Possagno under director Mario Guderzo. The photos were taken by the important photographer Fabio Zonta and are on view from 22 May – 23 September in the rooms of the Italian Consulate on Park Avenue. 

    But let’s back up a moment (we’ll get to the exhibits shortly). I would like to underscore the civic and moral consciousness of Canova the man before we take the measure of his indisputable stature as an artist.   

    In fact, few people know about this aspect of the life of Canova, and we need to recognize his contribution to the formation of modern ideas of protecting and safeguarding artistic patrimonies. 

    We must remember that, in strictly artistic circles, over the course of the 1700s, there was great interest in the harmony and composition of ancient art. This was in the wake of Joachim Winckelmann’s theories of modern archaeology and after the first major museums were opened to the public, who from then on could admire the masterpieces of the past.  Regarding the past and believing in its importance and the message it might send to younger generations—these are givens now, yet they didn’t exist until, as I said, then. 

    Take for example the time Antonio Canova was called to London at the end of 1811 because he was one of the few to understand the real worth of the marbles that Lord Elgin had removed from the Parthenon. In 1801, Thomas Bruce, the Seventh Count of Elgin, had been granted—very controversially—permission by the Greek government to “not remove statues but only that which was uncovered from a specific excavation site.”

    From 1801 to 1812, Elgin’s men removed about half of the remaining sculptures from the Parthenon along with architectural and sculptural elements from Erechtheum and Propylaea.  Though he feared that it would compromise the integrity of the Parthenon, Canova came out in favor of transporting them to England. 

    He chose what seemed to him, at the time, the lesser of two evils.  His decision proved decisive; it convinced the British government to acquire them and place them in the British Museum. And it’s a matter of history that after Lipsia, when Napoleon’s luck was on the wane, Canova – who had long criticized the plunder of artwork perpetrated by the French Emperor to satisfy the demands of Vivant-Denon for the nascent Musée Napoleon in Paris – was charged with traveling to Paris to recuperate all of the artwork stolen as part of the terms of the Treaty of Tolentino. 

    It wasn’t easy. The situation in Paris was “desperate” to say the least, given that the French and Russians were categorically opposed to how it would be carried out. Thanks to the intervention of Klemens von Metternich, in the summer of 1815 Canova did a masterful diplomatic job and negotiated the return all artworks to Italy.  

    He was the most famous and beloved sculptor in the world, and even if Talleyrand disparagingly dubbed him “Monsieur L’Emballeur” (Sir Moving Man), he enjoyed the friendship and admiration of Sir William Richard Hamilton, the secretary of the English delegation.  

    Furthermore, the professional competency of Canova and the unanimous prestige bestowed on him by the sovereigns of Europe, from Metternich to the Russian Czar, played a key role in what was considered a nearly impossible mission. 

    His mission done, Canova returned to Rome on the evening of January 3, 1816, and was promptly received by the Pope. To thank him for having recovered the stolen Italian artwork, the Pope gave him the title “Marques of Ischia” and wrote his name into the “Libro d’Oro del Campidoglio.” For his coat of arms, Canova chose the lyre and snake (symbols of Orpheus and Eurydice, respectively). “[They are] in honor of my first Statues,” wrote the sculptor to a friend, “I must recognize [them] as the start of my civil existence.”  

    “Wake up the dead since the living sleep,” wrote Leopardi in his “Ode to Angelo Mai.” And that is exactly what happened in Italy and Europe during the Restoration. “The dead” – the masterpieces of the past – served to wake up the living and made them conscious and proud of their national identity.  The sense of injustice and privation that swept over the people of Europe after Napoleon’s plundering of their patrimony significantly contributed to transforming heritage from something traditionally considered of mercantile/antiquarian or literary/erudite importance to something of national-political importance.   

    The governance of culture exercised by Pius VII did the rest. This is on display in the protection laws of 1802 (which Canova helped author) concerning the conservation of art work and monuments. It is the seed of Cardinal Bartolomeo Pacca’s 1820 edict and certainly the forerunner of Italian protection laws, from Rava-Rosadi in 1909 to Bottai in 1939, which still partially inspires modern law.   

    For Pius VII, cultural patrimony had a moral and spiritual worth that belonged to all, and because of that, countries had the right/obligation to intervene wherever it was concerned and however possessed. Modern protection laws begin here. We’re well aware of them and proud. 

    But let’s get back to the exhibits: Curated by Xavier Salomon, head curator of the Frick Collection, in collaboration with Mario Guderzo, “Canova’s George Washington” is the first exhibit of its kind, the brainchild of Franca Coin, President of the Canova Foundation, after a recent trip to the United States. 

    The exhibit tells the story of the first and only statue made by Canova for the United States. On the suggestion of Jefferson, the sculpture was commissioned by the American consul in Etruria Thomas Appleton at the end of the Revolutionary War to celebrate the respect the American nation now commanded in the world. 

    In order to get his facial features right, Canova was given a copy of a bust of George Washington sculpted by Giuseppe Cerrachi in 1795 and currently housed in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Nantes.  

    After thousands of false starts, he portrayed the American President in the clothes of a Roman condottiero, replete with cuirass, writing his farewell address on a tablet held which he holds in his left hand. The words inscribed in the tablet read: “George Washington, to the People of the United States, Friends and Fellow Citizens.” 

    This pose is believed to be based on a statue of the Roman Emperor Claudius, today found in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples.  

    The original work was unveiled in 1821 and was an immediate hit.  Only a decade later, on January 21, 1831, a tragic fire broke out in the State House, reducing the statue to an ash heap. 

    But in 1970 the sculpture was remade by a Venetian sculptor, Romano Vito, thanks to the existence of a model at the Gypsotheca and Antonio Canova Museum in Possagno. Vito’s replica was subsequently sent to Raleigh. 

    "Canova’s George Washington" retells the story of this lost masterpiece, probably Canova’s least well-known public statue. The exhibition also reunites the life-size plaster model—which has never before traveled outside Italy—with four preparatory sketches and other drawings and incisions. 

    The little model makes a major impact. Called the “First Thought,” it bears the artist’s handprints and reflects the first of the poses Canova had studied to represent the President.  Also moving is the nude model, which was necessary, according to the sculptor, to determine the right anatomical posture before being covered up. 

    On display is a portrait of Canova in 1816 painted by Thomas Lawrence, also on loan from the Gypsotheca and Antonio Canova Museum in Possagno. (The museum is the house where the sculptor was born.) 

    The interesting, handsome catalog includes his correspondence about the commission, as well as essays by Salomon, Guderzo and director of the Palladian Museum in Vicenza Guido Beltramini. 

    “The statue embodies the early relationship between Italy and the US, and through this exhibit we’re happy to renew our vow of friendship,” affirmed Xavier during the press meeting. The museum director followed up by saying, “Finally this international initiative will return the great Italian sculptor Antonio Canova to his rightful place: as the greatest interpreter of neoclassicism.”  

    In the spirit of full disclosure, one of the reasons I’m very fond of this exhibit is because in 2013, when I was among the organizers of the 2013 “Year of Culture in the United States,” I was in contact with Mount Vernon, Washington’s house in Virginia, to discuss the exhibition. Now I’m truly happy that it was so well conceived and, who knows, the idea of a future tribute in the house of George Washington is lurking in my mind.  

    The other exhibit, on view in the rooms of the Italian Cultural Institute on Park Avenue, focuses on the subject of Canova and dance. Curated by Mario Guderzo, the exhibit presents sixteen works in tempera made between 1799 and 1806 and shown for the first time since their recent restoration.  

    The portraits are of nymphs and dancers, subjects inspired by Pompeian figures which represent a study (they conserve his artistic originality, though) for larger-scale bas-reliefs and sculptures. 

    The third event at the Italian Consulate (an ideal space, in my opinion!) features the Italian photographer Fabio Zonta’s giant “Gigantrofie,” which invite us into the Gypsotheca of Possagno (the word ‘gypsotheca’ comes from Greek and means “collection of plasters”) to look at the most important plaster casts made by the maestro.     

    In fact, the works were transferred from Rome to Possagno beginning in 1826, four years after the sculptor’s death, when his Roman studio was closed and sold off. 

    The museum houses 236 works by Canova, including drawings, sketches, plaster casts, and large sculptures. The only thing “missing” is the sculpture of Love and Psyche, which was later given to one of his apprentices and is now at the Metropolitan Museum of New York.   

    Visiting the museum is really an unforgettable experience, and I strongly urge you spend a few hours there. You’ll thank me! 

     

  • NYC's MET Museum Digitally Recreates Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel
    Art & Culture

    Michelangelo Divine Draftsman and Designer - How a Monument Comes Alive

    When we talk about Italy, whether as a child in an elementary school or a as a tourist, there are always these three words: Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums. Even those of  a certain age like me remember with particular anguish, which later on became absolute joy, the modern restoration that began in 1979 of the lunettes of the Sistine Chapel ceiling and that continued until the restoration of the entire work. On December 11, 1989, the  process was documented by the Japanese photographer Takashi Okamura as it  brought back the ancient splendor and colors a work that had lost its original power.

    Do you remember all the controversies at the time? And the people who identified Michelangelo with a faded painting rather than a vivid incarnation? We can definitely say that Michelangelo has always made people talking a lot about himself.

    Painter, sculptor, architect, and poet,  Michelangelo, one of the most famous artists of the Italian Renaissance, was born in Tuscany on March 6, 1475, in Caprese, a little village close to Arezzo. Michelangelo’s father, Lodovico, was  serving as a magistrate there  when he recorded the birth of his second of five sons to his wife, Francesca Neri.  As  critic Holland Cotter correctly noted  in his article in the New York Times, the exhibit “Michelangelo Divine Draftsman and Designer” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a monument to a monument. As Cotter said, ‘’It is a one-stop event with a nonextendable three-month run, which is the maximum exposure to light, even at dusk-level, that the drawings can safely stand‘’.

    To explore  more fully the idea of the exhibition, we asked questions of Carmen C. Bambach, a good friend of mine, curator of the exhibition,  as well as curator at the Museum's Department of Drawing and Prints. We wanted to know more about the work, the commitment and the torment behind this and every other major exhibition. 

    Is the exhibition about Michelangelo a sign of devotion to an artist you've always loved? Is it your life’s commitment?

    Michelangelo Divine Draftsman and Designer is the result of a life-long commitment to study this great artist and is in many ways a professional dream come true.  I was born and raised in Chile until I was a young teenager, when my family emigrated to the United States, where my inclination during my early life was to become an artist. At that young age, I was very focused on drawing copies after photographs of Michelangelo’s frescoes and sculptures  to train my eye and hand. Michelangelo  was my love throughout my college years and graduate studies in art history at Yale University, but the concentrated efforts, research, and serious planning for the exhibition at the Met have occurred during the last eight years. Our focus  in the show is primarily on  the originality of the artist. At a time when much of our visual experience -- as students, scholars, or the general public -- is inundated by digital images, it is a rare privilege to see so many original works by Michelangelo gathered together in an event designed for  close looking, contemplation, and even reverie. The Met’s exhibition explores the concept of Michelangelo the Divin’ disegnatore, the divine draftsman and designer, with a selection of more than 200 extremely rare works, selected from almost 50 museums and private collections in Europe and the United States."

    What did you find out about Michelangelo that you did not know before? Do you see him in a different way now?

    "In preparing the Met’s exhibition and making the selection of the over 200 works, it became especially important to focus the attention on Michelangelo’s disegno, its meanings and implications in the widest possible sense. Michelangelo’s energy and imagination – his “fantasia” -- were uncontainable up until his death at 88 years of age, and the exhibition attempts to illustrate his enormous versatility as an artist in the selection of works. The exhibition showcases the 133 drawings by Michelangelo, which is a very large representation of his work. There are also three of his sculptures and a wood architectural model from the Fabbrica di San Pietro in order to illustrate  the continuities in his artistic process and the monumentality of scale in his conception of the human figure and architecture. The exhibition also includes drawings, paintings, and sculptures by other artists that  represent Michelangelo in the art world of his time."

    The audience visiting Michelangelo is sometimes a distracted audience. What should those people absolutely not miss about this exhibition? 

     "The design of the exhibition includes many monumental works  which create vistas as points of attraction  for the public, as enticements to keep going from one room of the exhibition to another. The vistas are of Michelangelo’s marble sculptures and of his largest compositions all seen in dramatic lighting. Of course, the visitor should not miss the room at the midpoint in the exhibition that contains an  enormous reproduction of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, the scaffolding, and Michelangelo’s original studies for the Sistine. The reproduction of the Sistine Ceiling can be seen floating above almost at the entrance of the exhibition so that the visitor begins the show with that as a destination."

    Back to the Sistine restoration, I want to underline that the preliminary experimentation began in 1979. The restoration team included Gianluigi Colalucci, Maurizio Rossi, Piergiorgio Bonetti, and Bruno Baratti, who took as guidelines the rules for the restoration of works of art established in 1978 by Carlo Pietrangeli, director of the Vatican Laboratory for the Restoration of Paintings. The first stage of the work took place  between June 1980 and October 1984 and the vault was completed in 1989. The final stage was the restoration of the wall frescoes, approved in 1994 and open to the public on  December 11, 1999.

    Holland Cotter also wrote  that “this exhibition has made you revisit the original Renaissance concept of design,  disegno,  as a theoretical category, an aesthetic and ethical end in itself?” True?

    "Yes, in commenting in detail about Michelangelo’s 'disegno' Holland got to the very pulse of the Met’s exhibition in his thoughtful review. Michelangelo’s conception of “disegno” (in the sense of design and drawing) provided the very foundation of his art, and he understood it in a profoundly metaphysical sense. In Michelangelo’s creative process the work of the mind, the eye, and the hand of the artist are interconnected in a continuum in which the intellectual and the manual production of art exist as one, and are inseparable dimensions of  creativity. Disegno unified Michelangelo’s activity as sculptor, painter, and architect. It was very important to demonstrate to the viewer this ineffable, continuous connection of mind, eye, and hand in the sequences of drawings we presented. Many of the sequences of drawings reveal that for Michelangelo drawing was a very rich and functional language of expression, as well as an act of love. His gift drawings to his friends are the jewels of Michelangelo’s disegno, and those given to for Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, for instance, are all reunited in the  exhibition. Michelangelo’s art also emphasizes the monumental, the permanent (even wishfully, the eternal), and the very execution of the work “by his hand” -- “di sua mano,” as so many documents and letters by his contemporaries confirm. The authenticity of Michelangelo’s hand in drawing and design is a leading theme in the  exhibition."

    Michelangelo’s lover Tommaso dei Cavalieri(1509–1587), was an  exceptionally handsome nobleman  whose appearance seemed to have fit the artist's notions of ideal masculine beauty. Cavalieri was 23 years old when Michelangelo met him in 1532, at the age of 57 and he was the object of the greatest expression of Michelangelo's love. He dedicated approximately 30 of his total 300 poems to Cavalieri, which made them the artist's largest sequence of poems. The homoerotic nature was recognized in his own time, so that a decorous veil was drawn across them by his grandnephew, Michelangelo the Younger, who published an edition of the poetry in 1623 with the gender of pronouns changed. John Addington Symonds, the British poet, critic,  and gay activist, undid this change by translating the original sonnets into English and by writing a two-volume biography, published in 1893. Michelangelo also had a strong relationship with Vittoria Colonna,  who influenced Michelangelo's life the most. He met her in Rome, where he spent the last 30 years of his life. Their friendship came late, when he was 61, lasted until Colonna’s death in 1547. It seems to have seriously changed by  encouraging his move in a contemplative direction and bringing a new, soft grace to his work.

    What does Michelangelo’s art teach a contemporary artist?

    "Michelangelo’s philosophy of  disegno seems to me to provide very important avenues for new ways of thinking about our contemporary art world. The example of Michelangelo can help us refocus our attention on the work by the artist’s hand, di sua mano, which can and should be seen as intrinsic to the creation of art. In our contemporary art world, it seems to me a very productive exercise to rethink how we approach the relationships of the conceptual and the technical execution of art. Today, artists, collectors, and the art public have often felt a certain anxiety about admiring or even valuing  the technical virtuosity of a work of art. Instead, the importance and value go mostly into conceptual aspects and  ideas behind the work. Many contemporary artists have especially diminished the value of the execution of a work of art so that a basic sketch can be given to studio assistants from which to paint or to create  a series of images. A sculptor in Carrara, for example,  can create an entire monumental sculpture in marble based on  a small conceptual sketch by an artist. Similarly, we have often tended to emphasize the ephemeral in art and give little thought to the permanent."

    In this field I remember that Jackson Pollock,  one of the leading painters  of the twentieth century, one who undermined the rules of western figurative art and dissolving the last bastions of Renaissance perspective was influenced by Michelangelo. The  young Pollock, still undecided whether he wanted to become a painter or a sculptor, studied and reflected upon Michelangelo’s work: there are drawings by Pollock that reproduce  the ‘naked’ in the Sistine Chapel, the Cumaean Sibyl, and The Prophet Jonah, certain figures in the Flood, Adam in his famous position,  and studies of positions and drapery in the Judgement. A small exhibition of Michelangelo’s influence  was held  in Florence in 2014.

    An ambitious project with a prestigious institution can create some competition in the art world. What was the reaction of international lenders and, in particular, of Italian colleagues? 

    "The Met’s show has been eight years in the making, including the research and the many loan negotiations. From the very beginning, our colleagues in the museums of Europe and the United States rallied to support this project with loans, and once we had secured a core group of works, more institutions began to collaborate . Both European and American museums and private collectors have been beyond extraordinary in their generosity with loans, and they often performed miracles to get these loans approved  in time for the  Met’s exhibition. Very importantly, Italy has lent a total of 57 works,, most of them by Michelangelo’s hand. This large group of impressive loans has made a magnificent contribution to the show. Of the nearly 50 lenders of works of art to the Met's show, I would like to single out especially the Royal Collection of Windsor Castle (Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II); the Ashmolean Museum of Oxford; the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence; the Casa Buonarroti in Florence; the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte in Naples; the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence, the Musée du Louvre in Paris and the British Museum in London."

     

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    Carmen C. Bambach, Curator of Italian and Spanish drawings (BA, MA, and PhD, Yale University; fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences), is a specialist in Italian Renaissance art. She is the author of Drawing and Painting in the Italian Renaissance Workshop: Theory and Practice, 1300–1600 (Cambridge University Press, 1999) and Una eredità difficile: i disegni ed i manoscritti di Leonardo tra mito e documento (Florence, 2009), more than 70 scholarly articles, and 10 exhibition catalogues, including Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer (2017), The Drawings of Bronzino (2010), An Italian Journey(2010), Leonardo da Vinci: Master Draftsman (2003), Correggio and Parmigianino (2000), and The Drawings of Filippino Lippi and His Circle (1997)

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    Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (until 12 February 2018)
    Accompanied by a catalogue by the organizing curator of the exhibition, Carmen C. Bambach—an authoritative volume that examines the Renaissance master as "the divine draftsman and designer" whose work, according to Giorgio Vasari, embodied the unity of the arts.

    Many thanks to Carmen Banbach, Mauro Mussulin and the The Metropolitan Museum

  • Art & Culture

    Morandi’s Sound of Silence

    Coming years after the Morandi exhibition I curated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art back in 2008 and the one displayed by the Philip Collection that same year, this is definitely the most remarkable retrospective dedicated to the great Italian artist in recent times.

    Moreover, while the first two were organized in a museum, this exhibit takes place in a study and research center, giving visitors the opportunity to really gain insight into the artist and his method of painting.

    Furthermore, one of the main goals of CIMA President and Founder Laura Mattioli has been to gather together rarely seen works from private collections—a bold vision indeed.

    In my recent interview with her for i-ItalyTV, Mattioli opened up about her intimate relationship with some of Morandi’s masterpieces on display here as well as that of her father, famous Italian art collector Gianni Mattioli (1903-1977).

    It is a relationship that is straightforward, emotional and rich in love and complicity. On top of that, the juxtaposition of some paintings from around the 1930s sheds new light on Morandi’s work during that period and highlights certain elements of painting he would take to their extreme in later years.
     

    The Soul’s Breath
    The first question we must ask ourselves when facing a painting by Morandi is: “What am I looking at?” or “What should I look at?” We could answer with a metaphor, such as: “Morandi’s paintings are self-contained islands of silence.” As I have written at various times in my essays on Morandi, what matters most in his paintings, and even more so in his drawings, are the blank spaces.

    Between the forms that penetrate each other and the forms that we merely intuit lies what I have elsewhere called “the soul’s breath.”
     

    His working room and desk
    For Morandi, the still life represented a manner of being; it was a filter through which reality was read, interpreted and sublimated.

    He lived and worked in a tiny room containing a simple bed, an old writing desk, a drawing table, a bookcase and, arranged on narrow shelves all around the room, his arsenal of simple objects, discreetly awaiting use, which are familiar to us from his still lifes: bottles, containers, vases, jugs, cooking utensils and boxes.

    These things had been unearthed by Morandi from second-hand stores, and the artist loved each and every one, often studying them at night by the light of the moon. Morandi’s working desk was comprised of three shelves.
     

    On the lowest was a jumble of objects that caught his eye. The middle shelf contained objects that appeared as if they were waiting to step onto the stage. On the top shelf, placed at eye- level, were objects selected for particular compositions in all their imperturbable solitude. Then began the director’s subtle weaving of harmonies between the objects. In the vita silente (or “silent life”, a term coined by De Chirico in reference to still lifes), one must listen to, interpretand begin to express the remote voice of objects that invite us to enter into contact with them, penetrating their inexorable materiality.
     

    “Nothing is More Abstract than Reality”
    Giorgio Morandi transcends realism and abstraction. Against the background of his love for old things emerge the refined subtleties of modern art. His modernity lies in his switch to abstraction (in the true etymological meaning of the term) and to the methodical search for a reality that is defined by the reiterated form yet whose pictorial essence was obsessively abstract.
     

    In a 1955 interview Morandi declared that “nothing is more abstract than reality.” Although this statement has always been interpreted as a refusal on the part of the artist to make the transition to abstraction, it actually signals his entrance into it. In the same interview, he provides a key to this second interpretation: “I believe that what we see is the creation, the invention of the artist, if he is capable of removing the filters and conventional images that superimpose themselves between the artist and things.” In another interview a couple of years later the artist maintained that: “The sentiments and images inspired by the visible world are very difficult to express and perhaps inexpressible in words, insofar as they are determined precisely by forms, colors, space and light.”

    Morandi investigated the free exchange, the oscillation between what appears in the foreground and what appears in the background of the painting. He developed the optical exchange, which was for him so important, in different systems of images.
     

    It is a thrill to return to Morandi’s work after over half a century, and I want to convey my deep admiration for CIMA and its president, as well as everyone who contributed to this insightful exhibition on one of the greatest modern artists from Italy.

    * Renato Miracco, currently Cultural Attaché, Embassy of Italy (Washington, DC) is the author of many books and scholarly articles, supervisor curator of all of the Embassy’s exhibits in Washington DC, as well as exhibits curator around the world.