Before today, I thought of Italian art only in terms of sculpted gods and goddesses, lively Renaissance paintings and fabulous architecture. That’s all changed. I just returned from the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Roma, where I witnessed the Arte Povera (Poor Art) exhibition. This important modern Italian art movement began in the early- to mid-1960s, and was first organised and loosely categorised by Italian art critic Gerano Celant, who arranged the premiere exhibitions of the movement in 1967-68.
The spirit of rebellion that characterises Arte Povera was birthed in the 1960s, when inhabitants of the western world were casting off convention and openly balking at institutional authority. In Italy, an avant-garde group of artists became radical, questioning everything that came before, in particular, the recent trend toward technology and abstraction in art. Rejecting both the abstract European Modernist movement and the technological leanings of American-style Minimalism, artists such as Luciano Fabro and Alighiero Boetti began producing works from found objects, using low-tech methods of sculpture, painting, even performance, to express the links between modernity and the past.
Pino Pascali - Attrezzi Agricoli
Some 20 pieces by artist Pino Pascali are part of the Galleria’s permanent collection, and have been installed into the exhibition. Pascali is a rather romantic figure from the movement, having died at the young age of 32 in a motorcycle accident. His sculptures have an architectural, almost furniture-like feel to them, but seem to have a natural bent as well: a set of “bones”, Ricostruzione del dinosauro (Reconstruction of Dinosaur), 1966, farm implements, Attrezzi agricoli (Agricultural Tools), 1968, and two huge mushroom-shaped objects, Cesto (Basket), 1968 and Contropelo (Against the Nap), 1968, which would have been perfect tuffets, actually, for a gigantic Miss Muffet. These last two were made from roughly woven brown rope and fuzzy imitation fur. Such “fake” sculptures illustrate Pascali’s focus on creating simple, organic shapes using existing materials from the modern world. In his work, you’ll see evidence of his early career in television and film advertising—where nothing is quite real.
Pino Pascali - Ricostruzione del Dinosauro
Boetti’s Mimetico (Camouflage), 1966, also uses found material—military fabric printed with a camouflage pattern—but, instead of sculpting or otherwise manipulating it, he allows the fabric itself to be the focus. This forces you to contemplate the relationship between the unrealistic imitation of leaves and branches with the real world it represents, but it also takes the whole thing one level deeper: the fact that the artist took the material, originally created to imitate for the purpose of function, rather than realism—and stretched it across 6 panels to make his statement about reality/unreality—is the actual work of art.
Giuseppe Penone - Spoglia d'Oro su Spine d'Acacia
My favorite piece from the show is titled Spoglia d’oro su spine d’acacia (Golden Skin on Acacia Thorns), and was created not in the 1960s, but in 2002, by Giuseppe Penone. I like it for several reasons: first, because there’s a twist: instead of modern materials fashioned into something simple, Penone used organic material—thorns, thousands of them—and turned them into something futuristic, almost mechanical. Second, I like the fact that this piece was done in 2002—proving that the Arte Povera movement is an ongoing phenomenon. Third, when you approach the work from the side or stand immediately in front of it, there is no recognisable pattern, but when you step back, you see the dichotomy: a newsprint-like image of sensual lips filling a 40-ft wide set of panels. What was he trying to say? Kiss me? Kiss off? Hard to tell…but, like the rest of Arte Povera, unquestionably compelling.
Arte Povera, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Roma, Italy - The show runs until 4th March, 2012.