Of Horses and Vegetables: Wonders from Arte Povera
Arte Povera was a more or less spontaneous reaction by a still rural and poor country against the rampant industrialization of the US and of European countries
Often described as a form of conceptualism, Arte Povera (Impoverished Art) was an Italian movement born sometime around 1966 throughout Turin, Rome, and Milan and developed until the early 1970s. Its name was coined by the Italian art critic Germano Celant, in 1969, to describe the works of his countrymen Michelangelo Pistoletto, Alighiero Boetti, Giuseppe Penone, Giovanni Anselmo, Luciano Fabro, Giulio Paolini, Pino Pascali, Gilberto Zorio, Mario Merz, Pier Paolo Calzolari and Jannis Kounellis.
Arte Povera was a more or less spontaneous reaction by a still rural and poor country against the rampant industrialization of the US and of European countries such as France, Germany, and England after the economic boom. Arte Povera artists worked with very simple materials that contrasted with the new ones developed from the industrial roar of those years, and with which the population had begun coming into contact. The Italian movement questioned traditional art, disavowing its techniques and mediums and relying on “poor”, humble materials, such as earth, wood, iron, cloths, plastic, industrial waste. This literal and immediate use of materials was somehow challenging the “immaterial” turn that American and European art had taken with Conceptualism, Minimalism, Performance and Pop Art. That is why Arte Povera shaped itself as a counter-culture to the new “trend” of Conceptualism, while aiming at evoking the original languages of contemporary society, by destroying its habits and traditional structures. Celant stated that Arte Povera “minimized and impoverished signs, to reduce them to archetypes.” In this way the viewer perceived and confronted only the materials’ existence, and, in doing so, explored their material qualities.
The international recognition of the movement was baptized in 1969 when the Arte Povera and Conceptual Art show When Attitudes Become Form was organized and curated by Harald Szeemann at Berna Kunsthalle, as well as through the publication of Arte Povera by Celant. That was followed by the exhibition Conceptual Art Arte Povera Land Art at Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Turin, whose current director Carolyn Christov-Barkargiev comments:
Those artists’ notion of energy and learning to orientate oneself in the universe was first and foremost a political statement about the emancipation of individuals in society.
The Art Newspaper, 1 October 2015
Some artists even relied on living objects, such as plants or animals. The Italian Greek-born artist Jannis Kounellis presented eleven horses tethered in the gallery, in a 1969 exhibition in Rome: a visually and symbolically sharp contrast with the Minimalist and Conceptual art persisting in the US. Giuseppe Penone‘s concern with the body-nature dichotomy was showed through his potato-like metal casts of human body parts (an ear, a nose) that were flanked by real potatoes, the humblest product of the soil.
The responsibility and the weight of Italy’s art-historical past created a paradox in the arts, questioning the role of art itself. Arte Povera brought to life the “convergence… of an apparently ordered past with the contingent jumble of the present” (Michael Archer, Art Since 1960, Thames and Hudson, £8,95). However, it enhanced and subverted this same artistic and cultural heritage, through recurrent references to the classical tradition of Italy. Michelangelo Pistoletto‘s Venus of Rags (1967) juxtaposed and counter-posed the ideal perfection of a Classical statue with the randomness and poverty of a heap of scraps, enhancing Italy’s as well as art’s contradictions and paradoxes. Giulio Paolini‘s more conceptual art challenged the classical image of Classic art throughout history and throughout the art world in general, dismantling those previous systems while hinting at a Renaissance perspective and Baroque irregular rhythm.
Some artists had a more philosophical and alchemistic approach to materials. The undisputed star of Arte Povera Mario Merz relied on the Fibonacci number sequence as a model of human life which develops throughout the universe, and applied it as written on plane surfaces and with neon lights (lights used in poor environments) to his famous igloos, which were a statement about the artist as wanderer.
Giovanni Anselmo combined two different types of matter: the inorganic and the organic one, reflecting on the durability of materials and on their immediateness. In Untitled (1968) one block of granite was tied to another smaller stone, with vegetables squashed in between. As the vegetables aged, the small block would have fallen.
Arte Povera’s attempt was that of rescuing individuals from the alienating effects of consumer culture, but also of “breaking down the separation between art and life” (Celant). These artists challenged the idea of art as transcendent and out of time, to favor an art as immanent because strictly bound to nature and the deteriorating effect of time.
According to Celant, artworks had hitherto been “a procedure along binary parallels, art and life, in quest of the intermediate value.” Arte Povera aimed at a renewed “aesthetic tautology”. Arte Povera presented materials as materials, not as ideas. Their artworks could certainly bear a symbolic potential, but they did not address to anything other than their being, their essence, their factual existence. This was their promise to subvert consumer culture, never dealing and confronting, though, with the most intimate human reality…