By: Tal Peer
This spring, Palazzo Strozzi will host Birth of a Nation. Italian Art from the Postwar Reconstruction to 1968, a mesmerizing exploration of art, politics, and society in Italy from the 1950s to the protest years of the late ‘60s.
Over seventy works will reflect the history of the era, including emblematic works by Guttuso, Lucio Fontana, Alberto Burri, Emilio Vedova, Piero Manzoni, Mario Schifano, Mario Merz and Michelangelo Pistoletto.
A Renaissance landmark, the Palazzo Strozzi reframes our cultural expectations of Florence through a dynamic programme of historic and contemporary art exhibitions. Formally a private home, the 16th Century palazzo’s world-class programme is recognized for its ability to bring new interventions to a historic setting, and provide the context of history, to new artworks, making it a unique setting for Birth of a Nation.
Curated by Luca Massimo Barbero, the exhibition will illustrate the effervescence of Italian culture during a period of total transformation - from the war-torn, dark years of Fascism, through an age of economic miracle, and up to the protests of 1968. This momentous period is charted throughout Birth of a Nation - the triumph of Informal Art and leads us on through the images, gestures, and figures of Pop Art, in strident juxtaposition with the experimental vision of monochromatic painting, leading up to the language of Arte povera and of Conceptual Art.
The exhibition tells the story of a growing sense of nationhood during a twenty-year period that saw a new idea of art take root, with an astonishing vibrancy of styles, materials, and forms fuelled by events and figures from the events of the era. Italian artists working in this period are now broadly acknowledged as a crucial contribution to today's contemporary art scene, their practice revisiting identity-related themes in a country where art is seen both as a force for innovation and a tool for exploring cultural context.
“Birth of a Nation will enable insight to a period in art that is indissolubly bound up with Italy's development and that sucked its lifeblood from politics, current events, and social change," explains curator Luca Massimo Barbero. "The works will be presented in contrasting juxtaposition in an effort to convey to visitors the sense of vitality typical of that moment. The energy in these years allowed the Informal artists to pursue their research, while Pop artists were busy following a diametrically opposite path. The aim is to make visitors feel that they're encountering these artists first hand, at a point when they were defining new national art movements".
Conjuring up an overview of Italian society from unification to 1968, Birth of a Nation opens with a series of videos that draw on art, cinema, fashion, current events, politics and society from the period. The images are set in dialogue with the Battle of Ponte dell'Ammiraglio (1951–5), by Renato Guttuso, a key figure in the political orthodoxy that dominated the propaganda of Neorealism. Guttuso's work instantly comes up against the styles of the new avant-garde, represented by the antirealist abstraction of Giulio Turcato and his crucial work Political Rally (1950) and by two works from the following decade, a provocative collage on fabric entitled General Egging His Troops On to Battle (1961) by Enrico Baj, and a defaced Mussolini in The Last King of Kings (1961), by Mimmo Rotella.
The continuity of Informal Art between the 1950s and '60s is explored with works that decline the theme of existentialism: Emilio Vedova's large work, Clash of Situations '59-II-1 (1959), and the rare, lacerated metal of Lucio Fontana's Spatial Concept, New York 10 (1962). Other exhibits bear witness to radical experimentation with materials, such as Alberto Burri’s works on hessian, canvas and burnt wood, the disturbing terracotta of Leoncillo, and Ettore Colla's use of mechanical waste. Pursuing the clash of opposites, Giulio Turcato's Lunar Surface (1968) and Enrico Castellani's monumental White Surface (1968) are set side by side with the bandage compositions of Salvatore Scarpitta, the everted canvases of Agostino Bonalumi and the trailblazing series Achrome, by Piero Manzoni.
In parallel, we see the emergence of artists such as Jannis Kounellis and Pino Pascali who regenerated the language of art with natural elements and primordial designs. Neo-conceptual stringency was offset by the encompassing vision of Domenico Gnoli and the new figuration of Tano Festa, Works by Sergio Lombardo, Renato Mambor, and Giosetta Fioroni, depict the national flag as a symbol. The emblematic Protest March (1968), by Franco Angeli's, interacts with comrades, Comrades (1968) by Mario Schifano – an artist who was to become a focal point for new Italian painting.
Early works by Giulio Paolini, Alighiero Boetti, Michelangelo Pistoletto and Mario Merz, give insight into the artistic practice of those who later forged the Arte Povera movement. Luciano Fabro's Italy Upside Down (1968), transformed the concept of the nation, subverting its very meaning. Alberto Biasi's installation Echo (1964–74), marks the conclusion of kinetic and programmed experimentation.
The exhibition winds up with a "short-circuit" between Alighiero Boetti's iconic Map of the World (1971–2) and Gino De Dominicis' Attempt To Fly (1969), mirroring – and introducing visitors to – an Italy that now speaks an international language and aims to become a focal point, a reference point, even outside its own borders. Giuseppe Penone's Reversing One's Eyes (1970) brings the exhibition to an emblematic close, showing a nation gazing introspectively at itself and its history as it enters the period of critical tension that was to spawn the armed struggle.
Pietro Consagra (Mazara del Vallo 1920–Milan 2005) Pastore dell’essere (White Transparent Iron II), 1966, cut, curved, welded and painted sheet iron, 250 x 164.5 x 14.5 cm Private collection. Photo by Claudio Abate. Pietro Consagra by SIAE 2017
Birth of a Nation: Italian Art from Post-war Reconstruction to 1968
curated by Luca Massimo Barbero, Florence, Palazzo Strozzi
16 March – 22 July 2018