Lucio Fontana (1899-1968), Spatial Concept, c. 1964. 45 x 16.8 x 16.8 cm. © Bernd and Eva Hockemeyer Collection
LONDON.- The Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art presents the exhibition Terra Incognita: Italy’s Ceramic Revival from 30 September to 20 December 2009. This is the first time that the Hockemeyer Collection has been exhibited in the UK and promises to be a revelation to modern art and ceramic enthusiasts alike.
The Bernd and Eva Hockemeyer Collection of 20th century Italian ceramics has been formed over the past twenty-five years as an expression of the collectors’ interest in Mediterranean – and especially Italian – art from antiquity to the present day. Although individual pieces have been exhibited before, this is the first time that such work has been the subject of an exhibition in Britain. It presents a selection of some fifty key works dating from the late 1920s to the mid 1980s by twenty-three of Italy’s most celebrated artists and ceramists including sculptors such as Arturo Martini, Marino Marini, Lucio Fontana, Fausto Melotti, Leoncillo Leonardi and Giuseppe Spagnulo, the painters Roberto Crippa, Gianni Dova and Emilio Scanavino and ceramic masters Pietro Melandri, Guido Gambone, Marcello Fantoni, Pompeo Pianezzola and Carlo Zauli.
The works on show – sculptures, panels, vases and plates – illustrate sixty years of Italian artistic development in the historic medium of clay. The exhibition presents a wealth of different styles, aesthetic ideas and concepts, underlined by the diversity of techniques and scale of the objects on show: terracotta, maiolica and lustrewares ranging in size from a girl’s head by Marino Marini (only 21.6 cm high) to the suspended maiolica sculpture of 2.16 meters by Salvatore Meli, which was presented at the XXIX Venice Biennale in 1958.
The exhibition begins with early classical works by Italy’s most important sculptors of the first half of the 20th century: Marino Marini and Arturo Martini. The latter was represented by works in terracotta at the seminal exhibition XX Century Italian Art at MoMA, New York, in 1949. The exhibition shows works of the same period by the ceramist Pietro Melandri who, with outstanding technical expertise, created both prestigious decorative art objects and sculptures, winning the Grand Prix for Sculpture at the 1937 Paris World Exhibition.
Another important period in Italy’s 20th century ceramic history is extensively represented by the many works of Lucio Fontana dating from the 1930s to the 1960s. The Hockemeyer Collection boasts some of his early figurative and neo-baroque sculptures in terracotta and maiolica from 1931 and 1936, as well as a range of his famous Concetti spaziali which the artist first executed in ceramic in 1959 before he transferred the concept to canvas.
The exhibition also includes works by the sculptor Leoncillo Leonardi, charting the passage from his neo-Cubist period of the late 1940s to his participation in Italy’s explosion of Arte Informale, which was to have considerable influence in Europe and America. His large-scale San Sebastiano Bianco (White Saint Sebastian) (1962) makes a particular impact in its merging of Informale aesthetics with the ‘cut’ – a central element of Fontana’s theory of the Concetto spaziale. Works such as these occupied a central position in Leoncillo’s one-man show at the XXXIV Venice Biennale in 1968.
The works of Fontana’s lifelong friend Fausto Melotti, on the other hand, reflect an entirely individual sculptural approach to the material, exploring the technical limits of manipulating the textural qualities of clay, glazes and firing techniques in pursuit of poetic, formal compositions.
The explosion of Arte Informale in post-war Italy was only one of many creative outbursts that encouraged experimentation in ceramics by artists and artisans alike, resulting in new forms of – and decoration on – the classical vase or plate. One of the galleries will focus on pieces from the 1950s by ceramists such as Guido Gambone and Leandro Lega, whose work was strongly inspired by Italian and international contemporary art. Of great interest are the works of Salvatore Meli and Giuseppe Civitelli, whose painterly abstraction was influenced by the conceptual and aesthetic ideas proclaimed by such groups as Forma I and Gruppo Origine, internationally known through their main protagonists, the painters Giuseppe Capogrossi and Piero Dorazio.
Also in this section are Marcello Fantoni’s modern interpretations of the vase-object which excel in their originality, merging the angular shapes typical of the period with elements that appear reminiscent of the Etruscans or other pre-historic civilizations.
This extraordinary selection of works from the Hockemeyer Collection illustrates the great affinity with the materiality of clay that distinguishes Italy’s artistic panorama of the inter-war and post-war period from those of other European countries during the same era. At a time when many contemporary artists use clay as a means of expression to push the established academic boundaries between art, craft and design, this exhibition represents a long overdue consideration of Italy’s 20th century ceramic culture which, at its high point, was distinguished by a contempt for the divisions between the fine and decorative arts.