In 1968 Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Teorema (Theorem) was released, a parable of a bourgeois Milanese family that falls apart after the arrival of a mysterious young man who makes love to each member of the household in turn, leaving the family fragmented. That same year, the cultivated bourgeoisie depicted in Teorema – until then the main audience for contemporary art in Italy – started to collapse in real life as well. Some of the classic slogans of 1968, such as ‘Power to the Imagination!’ and ‘Neither God nor Master!’, implied both a perception of artists as promoters of revolution and the eradication of the old hierarchy of authority. But for Italy, weighed down by its forefathers, throwing off the shackles of history was, and still is, a difficult task. Within this conflict between rebellion and reverence for the past, Francesco Bonami found the backbone for ‘Italics’, a survey of 106 Italian artists from the past 40 years.
Although Italians glorify the illustrious masters of the past, we somehow forget many of our country’s more recently influential artists. The resurrection of several such artists is the great surprise that ‘Italics’ offers. Perhaps our forgetfulness is due, at least in part, to Italy’s notorious lack of public collections and museums devoted to contemporary art. Tellingly, ‘Italics’ takes place in Venice’s Palazzo Grassi, owned by French collector François Pinault.
This exhibition is long overdue, but great expectations can also stoke controversy. Even before the show opened, it encountered several problems, including Fausto Melotti’s estate choosing not to loan work and Jannis Kounellis refusing to take part because he thought the exhibition misrepresented the Arte Povera movement.
Yet ‘Italics’ doesn’t focus so much on movements as on individuals, among whom Alighiero e Boetti and Maurizio Cattelan are given places of honour. Boetti’s Autoritratto (Self-Portrait, 1993) – a sculpture of the artist holding a water hose over his head as if refreshing his ideas – floats on a dias in the canal at the entrance to the building, while Cattelan’s All (2008) – a large sculpture of nine marble corpses that recalls both images of contemporary photojournalism and baroque funerary monuments – is installed in the majestic hall and functions as the show’s aphorism.
And that’s where the problems start. The exhibition’s narrative is simplistic: if Boetti (who died in 1994) makes sense as the exhibition’s muse – an historical artist whose legacy is apparent in recent Italian art – Cattelan’s work here is over-celebrated. Detached from the rest of the show, All’s prominent position suggests an annoying reverence not only of the piece but of what Cattelan embodies: that is, the internationally successful, sensational self-made artist. The arrangement seems to exalt the artist’s status, rather than examine the relevance of his individual works.
The show’s installation also leads to simplistic conclusions. The ‘death room’, for instance, combines Roberto Cuoghi’s picture of a collector’s face in phases of decomposition after death, (Untitled, 2006) with a small, black ‘Cretto’ from 1976 by Alberto Burri, and photographs of mafia murders (1979–82) by photojournalist Letizia Battaglia. The works are all strong, but the association, based on the illustration of death, is shallow. Similarly, the ‘boudoir of design and sex’ juxtaposes Paola Pivi’s photos of a girl’s bottom resting on miniature chairs (Untitled, 2005) with photographer Gabriele Basilico’s series of female behinds (‘Contact’, 1984) on which are impressed chair textures; the connection is in the chairs and the butts, but the two artists share nothing else. Fewer works (there are some 200 pieces on view) installed with greater sensitivity would have resulted in a more solid, less confused survey, leaving room for themes to be more thoughtfully developed.
Painting is given a central place in the show, from Carla Accardi’s geometric motifs on transparent foil of the 1970s to the Transavanguardia works of the 1980s by Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente and Enzo Cucchi (the latter with one of his best works: Caccia Mediterranea, Mediterranean Hunt, 1979). The less interesting episodes of Italian painting are also documented, of which the works of Fabrizio Clerici and Pietro Annigoni are only two examples. The show returns to more compelling, current ideas with paintings by Alessandro Pessoli, Margherita Manzelli, Pierpaolo Campanini and Pietro Roccasalva.
‘Italics’ indicates that Italians, as a people, share little. Italy itself, as a unified country, is not more than 150 years old. Contemporary Italian artists hardly recognize in themselves a distinct ‘Italianness’. Legendary singer-songwriter Giorgio Gaber said it best: ‘I [was] born and I live in Milan / I don’t feel Italian / but fortunately or unfortunately I am Italian / Pardon me, Mr President / it’s not my fault / but this homeland of ours / I don’t know what it is.’ Nonetheless, Italy remains a place of singular and ingenious creativity, to which ‘Italics’ pays homage.
First published in Issue 122