POP ART ITALIA 1958-1968
17th april - july 3rd 2005
Pop Art is a world-wide phenomenon although it is usually seen by art
critics, at least in its greatest and purest guise, as part and parcel
of Anglo-Saxon culture, the USA first and foremost. There is a certain
truth to this, albeit a half-truth. While it is undeniable that the
harbingers of this medium were first found in British culture in the
‘50s, and that the broadest development of the language was to be found
in 1960s America, it is equally true that Continental Europe was also
witness to a range of significant, autonomous experiences which, after
some 40 years since the explosion of the phenomenon, merit an in-depth
While the dates, the characteristics and the quality of the works in question leave no doubt as to the existence of an Italian Pop language with its own well-defined and recognisable identity, there is just as little doubt that Pop Italiana fell foul of critical acclaim right from the outset. A quick browse through the pages of what was the most popular text on the subject during the ‘60s proves the point; the book by Lucy Lippard grants precious little space to the artists from Italy, most of which is used to provide explicit criticism of their works. According to Lippard, the Italian Pop movement represents no more than an imported trend, unclear in its expression and basically “lagging behind” compared to the contemporary movements in Britain and the States. This more or less involuntary shunning of the Italian group had a knock-on effect on later writings, in which there were very few Italian artists considered to some extent worthy of recognition on the international scene. Those who did all in fact belonged to a current somewhat estranged from the true definition of Pop Art at the time.
Although there are various reasons for this underestimation, at least two stand out above the rest: the lack of ability on the part of the Italian artistic system of the times to support its own artists – not only abroad but also within Italy – and the paths chosen by the majority of the artists of that movement. As a matter of fact, the vast majority of the artists who contributed to the birth and development of a figurative pop culture in early 1960s Italy radically changed stylistic course right from the second half of the same decade.
That said, it is now only fitting to focus on the main areas in which the Italian Pop season was born and bred. First of all, it indisputably originated in ‘50s culture, to be precise in the works of two artists: Enrico Baj and Mimmo Rotella, who have every right to be considered the forerunners of this scene (i.e. just as Rauschenberg and Johns are considered in American culture, or Blake and Hamilton in British culture). In fact, it was around 1958-59 that Baj and Rotella abandoned their previous careers – which might be generically defined as a non-representational genre despite being run through with post-Dadaism – to catapult themselves into a new world of images and the reflections on them which was springing up all around them. Rotella’s torn posters gained an ever more figurative taste, often explicitly and deliberately referring to the great icons of the times. Baj’s compositions were steeped in contemporary kitsch, which was to turn out to be a gold mine of images and stimuli for an entire generation of artists.
These were not isolated experiences (the early works of Bestini in Milan or those of Mauri in Rome are also signs of a time which was starting to find its own definition), yet they were still a tiny minority. Furthermore, whenever the need is felt to step back and view the situation from outside the frameworks that have been overtaken by events, the critics’ favourite answer is, at least until 1963, to adopt the definition of “new figuration”: a definition generally closer to that of Italian figurative culture, heavily based on a form of “academism” which struggled to recognise the violently radical novelty not only of the new artistic language, but also – and perhaps above all – of the artistic premises in which it was rooted and the consequences it would bring.
After only a few short years, this resistance was broken down across the board. An entire generation came together to discuss the same issues, finding the same stimuli and giving answers which, while clearly not the same as each other, belong to the same line of thought. There are those from more explicitly neo-Dadaist experiences, those from ones of form annihilation, and those from a more “traditional” non-representionalist background. But they all share the same destination: the new world to be found around the artist is the subject of choice, or at least, the trigger of imagery invention. For one and all, the new world meant the pool of print and moving images, the new image culture bound up in glossy magazines, the cinema, advertising posters, television: in a word, mass media. Just how much of this world was to provide a direct iconographic loan and how much a mental model of reference is what differentiates the different works and attitudes.
Of course, among the early characteristics of Pop Italiana, we find art’s relationship with its own past. Although it is of little importance whether classical or recent (generally classical), the fact remains that the reference to high-brow culture is irresistible. The more or less explicit references to Festa, Angeli, Schifano, Tacchi, Ceroli, Adami, Mondino, or even Baj himself, are rife in this period, the leitmotif of an era. The surprising thing, that which gives the entirely characteristic feel to Italian Pop is this presence and the wide variety of attitudes towards it. While, of course, a reflection takes place ranging from the ironic to the affectionate not only (and not in fact dominantly) on the history of art, another is held on the diffusion of images that have made up the history of art as objects of consumption. In its most radical form, Italian artists see Michelangelo as their Mickey Mouse, and the Mona Lisa as their Marilyn.
Yet this is not a question of confronting high and low culture (as in the Anglo-Saxon world); the comparison is rather between high culture transformed into low culture and then reconstituted within high culture. Within this process, it is always the historical data which provides the driving force behind the composition and its underlying thought. At least this is true from a representational point of view, since from a reflective one, the principle is undoubtedly the opposite; i.e. these artists demonstrate a clear awareness of the complete loss of centrality in the work of art compared to traditional evaluation criteria. Michelangelo no longer belongs to art historians, nor to art-lovers; he belongs to the indistinguishable masses. This premise leads to another: that there is no longer only one Michelangelo, but numerous, each with a right to take part in the world of images, just as automobiles, stars of the silver screen and so on do.
The other great novelty lies in the new visual panorama, both inside the four domestic walls and out: cars, road signs, television, all the “new world”. Everything can belong to the world of art, which itself is new. In this respect, Italian Pop Art takes the same ideological path as that of the International scene; the only thing that changes is the iconography and, in some cases, the presence of a more critical attitude to it. Even in this case, the prototypes can be traced back to the works of Rotella and Baj, both far from neutral in their relationship with society. Yet this is not an exclusive element; there is a long line of artists, from Ruffi to Barni, from Pasotti to Bignardi and Cintoli who take on reality as a toy, as a great pool of imagery from which to draw material with disenchantment and frivolity, questioning the traditional linguistic role models with a renewed spirit of “let me have fun” à la Palazzeschi.
All around this, there is a country shedding its former self, hints of which may be found in these works and the outlooks that brought them to life. For good or bad, this is a country now united by television; it is interesting to note how the art world, with its time-honoured delay, fails to recognise this new form of “unity” properly, bloody-mindedly defining the artists of this period by “school”: The School of Piazza del Popolo, the Milanese School, the School of Pistoia, etc. While there are a number of characteristics which really do differentiate the works originating in diverse socio-cultural contexts, these seem far fewer than the differences to be found with a retardedly 19th century mentality, still unable to think if not in global, at least in national terms. Undoubtedly the artistic climate of Rome was different from that in Milan; to be precise, while Rome was under a more direct influence from the United States, Milan had just as strong a link with France and the UK. But it is also clear that there was a common climate, one that can be seen even more clearly today through an examination of the works displayed under one roof. They give the idea of a general climate declined in different forms. However, the protagonists of British Pop, for example, were not all alike, despite all living in London; confusing specific linguistic differences with the notion of a genius loci honestly seems counter-productive.
Similarly, although it is clear that the debate on the ’64 Biennial and all that it entailed marked a fundamental passage in this story, it must be remembered that the bases, the foundations were already in place. The ’64 Biennial was important also because it forced all the artists to measure themselves up to this language and because it sparked off an enormous wave of Pop (and this really was imported, although the same thing could have been said a decade earlier with regard to non-representationism). Almost none of the artists present in this exhibition needed that event to start out; in actual fact, perhaps it was that very event which persuaded many of them to abandon the Pop language altogether.
On the other hand, the middle of that decade saw the beginning of another social revolution which came to a head with the events of 1968: it is no coincidence that the range of this exhibition closes with that year. While almost all the artists started to take different directions from this moment on, those who kept on developing the original language were forced to come to terms with a generation-wide loss of innocence, one which inevitably stands as a watershed in the history of Italian culture.
CatalogoPop Art Italia 1958-1968
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|Sede||Palazzo Santa Margherita|
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