In Venice, until July 28th, an exhibition dedicated to the “Master of Matter” offers the opportunity to chronologically trace the most important stages of his artistic career
This anthology on Burri is held held at the Giorgio Cini Foundation, on the island of S. Giorgio Maggiore. The exhibit consists of 50 works that, after more than half a century, still lead to heated discussions, perhaps summarising the career of the artist from Città di Castello. An audience of non-experts could ask themselves: Well, what landfill do the old sacks that Burri offers us come from? Some works have burn marks, so they are the remnants of what fire? What are the panels with cracked surfaces displayed at the show. Is this art? Yes, and let us explain why.
Burri was one of the leading exponents of “Arte Informale” (the Informal Movement), a radically innovative phenomenon in art. The term was coined by the critic Tapié in 1951 to indicate works that stood outside the debate that raged in the second post-war period between the supporters of the “figure” and the abstractionists. The “Informali” artists entirely rejected “form”, instead focusing on gesture and matter (and material). Burri uses poor materials in an innovative and unscrupulous manner. Bags, plastic and sheet metal replace the canvas. The paintbrush is now flanked by a blowtorch.
This was not supposed to be his career. He graduated in Medicine, but it was 1940 and Italy has just entered the war. He volunteered for a tour in Africa. In 1944, he was captured and sent to a detention camp in Texas. Once back in Italy, he devoted himself entirely to painting with a pain and a fury that he shared with many of his generation. His art arose form an inner torment, an expression of a discomfort. However, his art was also in line with the times, the fruit of the moral and material misery of a Europe that has just emerged from the war.
His first series, Catrami and Muffe [Tars and Moulds], was innovative. He was still using canvas, while also mixing paint with enamels, tar or pumice. However, it would be the 1952 work called Sacchi [Bags] that placed him as one of the most interesting artists on the scene. In this series, he definitively eliminated the canvas, replacing it with jute bags, the type used for the transport of goods, which he took from landfills or deposits. Reusing them as they were: worn, dirty, with printed labels. He then intervened with colour or cuts, sometimes inserting other fabrics. The sacks testify to the history of the object but also to the men who used them. Tears and mending symbolize the lacerations and the mending of the soul, in a way that according to Burri was not possible to express with traditional techniques.
The artist transformed what for others was garbage: bags, an emblem of poverty and pain. In the mid-1950s he began working with fire, and the materials were now wood, iron and plastic. The Ferri, Combustioni e Plastiche combuste [Iron, Combustion, and Burnt Plastics] series was born. It passes from the recovery of something used – the sacks – to the use of typical materials of the industrial society, on which he used the oxyhydrogen flame because “… in combustion everything lives and dies in a perfect unity”. At the beginning of the 1970s, he created the Cretti panels in uniform white or black colour, with artfully cracked surfaces. He used a new material, cellotex, a mixture of sawdust shavings and hot-pressed glue that he decorated with acrovinyl (acrylics and vinavil). Cretti are a metaphor for an arid land in which life struggles to emerge and shows itself damaged by a myriad of cracks. However, there is still life. The cracking process is not left entirely to chance but is guided by the artist, as if at the bottom of his soul Burri believes that man can win this battle. These works bring together touches on of his Umbrian homeland, mixed with memories of the arid plains of Texas.
He will also make a Cretto on an environmental scale. Between 1985 and 1989, he created a sort of shroud on the Sicilian town of Ghibellina, which had been destroyed by the earthquake in 1968. This enormous Cretto was made with cement mixed with the rubble from the fallen homes. The irregular crevices recall the medieval alleys of the town, once made again viable, albeit immobilized in the cold of the sad past.
The art of Burri is therefore not incomprehensible. He uses “matter” and materials as a metaphor for life. They are the memory and testimony of the pain of mankind, whose existence is marked by cuts, burns and furrows that the passing of time inevitably causes. This exhibition speaks about all of us, our pain and our lacerations.