Vita Nuova: New issues for art in Italy 1960-1975
Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MAMAC)
Place Yves Klein, Nice
May 14 through October 2, 2022
By JOSEPH NECHVATAL, May 2022
Hélène Guenin, director of Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MAMAC) in Nice, invited French art historian (of Italian descent) and specialist in Italian Modernism—Valérie Da Costa—to guest curate a historical re-reading of the Italian art scene between 1960 and 1975. The resulting multidisciplinary Vita Nuova (New Life) takes its title from a book of verse written by Dante Alighieri in 1294, indicating to me that what was once old can be seen as new again. As with the 2022 Biennale di Venezia exhibition The Milk of Dreams, Vita Nuova establishes—or restores—the importance of many female artists whose past contributions have only recently begun to be more fully valued.
Though the non-exhaustive emphasis is on the participation and image of Italian women during the Pop Art 60s (of which the MAMAC collection excels) into the ardent Conceptual and Body Art trends of the early 70s, Vita Nuova does not feel artificially squeezed by a gender driven agenda. Rather, I gained a balanced and expanded appreciation of the era through the inclusion of well-selected design practitioners and through an emphasis on Italian cinematic production. The show feels full, but not overwhelming, with 130 works from 60 artists—more than half women—many coming from The School of Piazza del Popolo in Rome—along with some choice Neo-Dada archival documents.
Prominence is placed on projected moving images, that in the hanging of the show are delicately balanced with the lighting needs of the wall and floor art. The show begins with fabulous film clips from Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1961), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Accattone (1961), and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964) and ends in a climatic éclater with Fabio Mauri’s 1975 film installation Intellettuale. Il Vangelo secondo Matteo di / su Pier Paolo Pasolini (Intellectual. The Gospel according to Matthew by / about Pier Paolo Pasolini). It is an intense still echo—with 15 black and white photographs in a dark and moody room—taken at the screening/performance that Mauri created with the participation of Pasolini. On May 31st 1975, shortly before Pasolini’s enigmatic death, Pasolini sat in the Galleria Comunale in Bologna and had his black-and-white 16 mm film Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to Matthew) projected on his white shirt. This intimate presentation is simulated with a projection of Il Vangelo secondo Matteo on a clean white shirt and jacket draped over a simple wooden chair. Walking into that room, I felt a curious thrill pass through my nervous system—antagonistic, apprehensive, anxious—as the churning sound of the 16 mm projector merged with the romantic sound track and Italian voices of Il Vangelo secondo Matteo.
In-between those film brackets, representatives of 15 years of Italian art are demurely presented not chronologically—but thematically. Cross-cutting the topics of A Society of Images, Reconstructing Nature (via Pino Pascali) and The Body's Memory: porous themes that demonstrate the circulation of artists and ideas in and around visual, ecological and body issues. For example, both Archizoom Associati’s Superonda Sofa (1967) and Pino Pascali’s shaped-canvas relief Cascate (Waterfall, 1966) use massive smooth white wavy forms, like the contours of immense bodies sleeping under sheets.
Robert Rauschenberg winning the Grand Prize for Painting at the 1964 Biennale di Venezia launched a transition in Italy (as elsewhere) away from the gestural aesthetics of Abstract Expressionism and towards the figurative and boldly colored painting style commonly associated with Neo-Dada (aka Pop Art, a term not used in Italy yet). Italian Neo-Dada enthusiasts celebrated the way that popular culture connected to the everyday banal existence through its appropriation of existing popular images that reference consumer culture. Unsurprisingly, that spliced in with the Italian transformational years of gusto—the 1960s and early-1970s industrialization of production and capitalist consumerist culture. These forces opened the door for new modes of representation in Italy (as elsewhere) and it is this historical and political context, along with attendant Marxist and Feminist political movements, that form the dreamy nostalgic milieu of Vita Nuova.
From my standpoint, these years in Italy seem inhabited by a fascist-traumatized generation who came to regard post-war freedom and luxury from an aesthetic point of view. This well before art institutions began to orient themselves towards middle-class consumerist consumption that is merging today into an increasingly mobile popular world of experience-based technological leisure.
Some examples: Fabio Mauri’s Marilyn (1964) makes a rich point of resistance to the Pop Art masterpiece Shot Sage Blue Marilyn (1964); Andy Warhol’s 1964 silkscreen painting that is much talked about recently due to its outrageously high auction price of $195 million. Mauri applies—then denies—the same logocentric commercial standard of Warhol’s Marilyn to Elsa Martinelli, an Italian brunet actress, through the addition of the abstracted silence of a visually empty TV screen image. Franco Angeli’s painting on cardboard Abbraccio eterno (Eternal Embrace, 1968) also uses empty abstraction to bring a sense of openness to the cliché image of two people kissing. Making a similar point are Gianfranco Baruchello and Alberto Grifi with their ecstatically chopped-and-stretched montage film La Verifica Incerta (The Uncertain Verification, 1964-1965) that was inspired by Marcel Duchamp and made from catch-as-catch-can recycled film clips from Hollywood.
Vita Nuova is a good show not only because it casts light on what were once considered marginal artists, but because it reminds us that in order for painting or cinema to be dissonant with contemporary consumer culture, it must risk its very identity as painting and cinema.