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Italian Post-War exhibitions happening in London right now

February 12, 2016

Arts | by Harry Seymour


It’s an exceptionally good moment for London-based fans of post-war Italian art. The major auction houses are all presenting a strong showing of big name Arte Povera artists in the Contemporary sales this week and three Mayfair galleries have well-timed exhibitions of Italian artists that opened this week. Candid visited Ben Brown Fine Arts, Mazzoleni, and Dominique Lévy to see how they compare.

Ben Brown Fine Arts has put together an exhibition of Alighiero Boetti’s trademark Embroideries. Boetti, one of the best known artists of the Arte Povera movement, became interested in embroidery following a trip to Afghanistan in 1971. He first commissioned a series of world maps (Mappa) from an embroidery school in Kabul in 1971, each a brilliant display of colour and craftsmanship, but no two alike. There is a beautiful, large scale example of this series, which Boetti continued until his death in 1994, in the exhibition dating from 1978. From maps he became interested in objects and later in text. His Arazzi series present words and phrases drawn from poetry and literature, rendered in embroidery by Afghan women. The arrangement of letters and random assignment of colours make the pieces seem almost abstract. The Arazzi shown at Ben Brown Fine Arts range in date from 1979 to 1992 and feature different phrases and wool types, depicting the passage of time through Boetti’s choice of phrase and the embroiderers’ choice of wool. Indeed, Boetti, who was obsessed with time’s inevitable progression, would be pleased to see how the embroideries have gently aged, with the older ones showing slightly faded colours and loosened fibres, giving them a sense of history.

Alighiero Boetti, Le Infinite Possibilità di Esistere, 1992, embroidery, 33.5 x 35.5 cm. (13 1/4 x 14 in.) © Fondazione Alighiero Boetti & Archivio Alighiero Boetti. Courtesy Ben Brown Fine Arts, London.
Alighiero Boetti, Le Infinite Possibilità di Esistere, 1992, embroidery, 33.5 x 35.5 cm. (13 1/4 x 14 in.) © Fondazione Alighiero Boetti & Archivio Alighiero Boetti. Courtesy Ben Brown Fine Arts, London.

Mazzoleni London is exhibiting the work of another Italian Post-war favourite, the conceptual artist Piero Manzoni. The exhibition consists of work from two of Manzoni’s series, his Achromes (1957-1963) and his Linee (1959-1963). Distinctly less colourful than the Boetti exhibition at Ben Brown, Manzoni’s Achromes comprise a series of works that investigate material, texture, and process rather than colour. Works from this series include white polystyrene, fabric, and rocks that the artist has manipulated in various ways. The result is oddly mesmerising and the effect of hanging several Achromes together is visually satisfying. In Linee, Manzoni pushes the conceptual limits of art further by drawing a single black line on paper. He later expanded upon this by drawing a line, rolling up the paper and placing it in a black cylinder labelled with the line’s length. The series reached its philosophical apogee with Linea di Lunghezza Infinita (Lines of Infinite Length), in which there is no line at all, only an empty cylinder labelled ‘Contains a line of infinite length. Piero Manzoni ’60’. There is a rare example of one of these ‘Lines of Infinite Length’ on display in the exhibition. Altogether, the two series show the important role conceptual art played in the development of the Arte Povera movement in the 1960s, and particularly how much Piero Manzoni contributed to it despite his premature death in 1963 at the age of 29.

Piero Manzoni, Linea di lunghezza infinita (Line of infinite length) 1960, Wood cylinder, paper label, 15 x 4,8 cm, Private collection, Siena Courtesy Fondazione Piero Manzoni, Milan
Piero Manzoni, Linea di lunghezza infinita (Line of infinite length), 1960, Wood cylinder, paper label, 15 x 4,8 cm, Private collection, Siena Courtesy Fondazione Piero Manzoni, Milan

Around the corner, Dominique Lévy is hosting an exhibition of works by Enrico Castellani, who was Manzoni’s friend and co-founder of the Azimut gallery in Milan and accompanying Azimuth journal in 1959. Castellani, however, is very much alive and still working, and the show at Dominique Lévy displays pieces from his early career alongside several recent works. The earlier series Superfici Bianche consists of large scale white paintings with surfaces that have been manipulated with nails to create a raised relief effect. The result is not unlike Manzoni’s Achromes, and indeed the two artists likely influenced each other’s work in the late 1950s. Castellani’s works are more studied and structured, however, with nothing left to the chance reaction of materials. His more recent series of metallic painted Angolari and Biangolari feel very modern, almost futuristic in juxtaposition with the Superfici. These later works on display at Dominique Lévy are all painted silver and twist out from the walls of the gallery in three dimensional sculptural forms.

Enrico Castellani, Superficie Angolare Cromate, 2010-2011, Acrylic on canvas, 39 3/8 x 31 1/2 x 31 1/2 inches (100 x 80 x 80 cm). Courtesy Fondazione Enrico Castellani
Enrico Castellani, Superficie Angolare Cromate, 2010-2011, Acrylic on canvas, 39 3/8 x 31 1/2 x 31 1/2 inches (100 x 80 x 80 cm). Courtesy Fondazione Enrico Castellani

Together, the exhibitions at Ben Brown Fine Arts, Mazzoleni, and Dominique Lévy provide an in-depth look at three key figures in Post-War Italian art and an insight into the radical Arte Povera movement. These pioneering artists changed the face of the European art scene in the 1950s and 60s, long before their works ended up in a sale room with estimates in the millions. These exhibitions are well worth visiting, especially if you saw the Fontanas and Pistolettos at Christie’s and Sotheby’s (and all three are in easy walking distance of the auction houses).

By Helena Anderson

Alighieri Boetti, 9 February – 28 April 2016 at Ben Brown Fine Arts

Piero Manzoni, February 9  – April 9 2016 at Mazzoleni

Enrico Castellani, February 9 – April 8 2016 at Dominique Lévy