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Arte Povera

About this term

Source: Oxford University Press

Term coined by the Genoese critic Germano Celant in 1967 for a group of Italian artists who, from the late 1960s, attempted to break down the ‘dichotomy between art and life’ (Celant: Flash Art, 1967), mainly through the creation of happenings and sculptures made from everyday materials. Such an attitude was opposed to the conventional role of art merely to reflect reality. The first Arte Povera exhibition was held at the Galleria La Bertesca, Genoa, in 1967. Subsequent shows included those at the Galleria De’Foscherari in Bologna and the Arsenale in Amalfi (both 1968), the latter containing examples of performance art by such figures as Michelangelo Pistoletto. In general the work is characterized by startling juxtapositions of apparently unconnected objects: for example, in Venus of the Rags (1967; Naples, Di Bennardo col., see 1989 exh. cat., p. 365), Pistoletto created a vivid contrast between the cast of an antique sculpture (used as if it were a ready-made) and a brightly coloured pile of rags. Such combination of Classical and contemporary imagery had been characteristic of Giorgio de Chirico’s work from c. 1912 onwards. Furthermore, Arte Povera’s choice of unglamorous materials had been anticipated by more recent work, such as that of Emilio Vedova and Alberto Burri in the 1950s and 1960s, while Piero Manzoni had subverted traditional notions of the artist’s functions (e.g. Artist’s Shit, 1961, see 1989 exh. cat., p. 298). Like Manzoni’s innovations, Arte Povera was also linked to contemporary political radicalism, which culminated in the student protests of 1968. This is evident in such works as the ironic Golden Italy (1971; artist’s col., see 1993 exh. cat., p. 63) by luciano Fabro, a gilded bronze relief of the map of Italy, hung upside down in a gesture that was literally revolutionary.

As well as expressing their interest in social issues, the Italians were preoccupied with creating various forms of physical interaction between the work of art and its viewer. From the early 1960s Pistoletto had been making life-size images of people that were attached to mirrored surfaces so that the reflections of the spectator became part of the work, for example Vietnam (1965; Houston, TX, Menil Col.; see 1989 exh. cat., no. 198), which represented demonstrators holding a banner. Gilberto Zorio began in the late 1960s to create installations that registered the actions of visitors or other changes in the work’s immediate environment by such means as flashing lights. Other artists pursued more esoteric conceptual interests. giulio Paolini created replicas of historic sculptures or paintings, which are given the status of original works of art by the ideas behind them, if not by their form. In Mimesis (1976; artist’s col., see 1989 exh. cat., p. 364), Paolini placed two plaster casts of the same Classical statue opposite each other as if they were in conversation. This transforms the viewer’s perception of the original sculpture by depicting the figures in silent dialogue with each other, rather than with the onlooker, and by shattering the concept of a work of art as being a unique creative act. Mimesis presents the duplicates as if they were ready-mades rather than the products of an individual artist. Fragments of plaster casts were also used by the Greek exile Jannis Kounellis, who was particularly concerned with expressing the disintegration of culture in the modern world (e.g. a performance held 1973; Rome, Gal. Salita; see 1986 exh. cat., p. 139).

The Arte Povera artists did not restrict themselves to allusions to Western civilization; from 1968, for example, mario Merz made igloos (e.g. Double Igloo), referring to nomadic societies, which he admired particularly for being flexible and well adapted to their environments. He himself emulated these qualities in the ease with which he built the igloos from a wide range of both technological and ‘natural’ materials, including metal, glass, neon, slate, wax, earth and wood. This eclecticism in fact emphasized the essential difference between homogeneous traditional cultures and pluralistic modern ones. Around 1970 Merz also became preoccupied with the Fibonacci series of numbers, which he presented as the mathematical structure underlying a wide range of natural and manmade objects. A more active interference with nature was achieved by Giuseppe Penone: in The Tree Will Continue to Grow Except at This Point (1968; see 1978 exh. cat., p. 33), an iron impression of Penone’s fist was fitted around the trunk of a sapling so as to affect but not prevent the tree’s growth. The involvement of natural processes is also a feature of the work of giovanni Anselmo. In Structure that Eats (1968; New York, Sonnabend Gal., see 1989 exh. cat., p. 368) vegetables were put between two stone blocks with the expectation that one would fall when the organic material rotted. This emphasis on the sculpture’s impermanence shattered conventional notions of how art can transcend the normal processes of mortality. Anselmo pursued his interest in such phenomena as gravity into the 1980s, often using blocks of granite. In general, his colleagues also showed remarkable consistency in both their themes and imagery, although from the late 1970s the prevailing trend towards figurative art was reflected in some of the artists’ work: for example, while still producing igloos, Merz painted animal forms, often combined with neon lights (e.g. Crocodile in the Night, 1979, Toronto, A.G. Ont.). Other artists created highly complex installations, which, in the case of Kounellis, often combined earlier pieces with new motifs (e.g. Metamorphosis, 1984; Schaffhausen, Hallen Neue Kst). Despite competition from the figurative Transavanguardia artists in Italy, Arte Povera remained a vigorous movement, responsible for some of the most innovative and sophisticated Italian art of the period.

From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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