Thursday, August 22, 2013

Concrete Art in Italy: Movimento Arte Concreta

Concrete Art is a term applied to various abstract art movements. The term was coined by Theo van Doesburg in his 1930 Manifesto of Concrete Art. Van Doesburg's insistence that art should be formed from the "concrete" elements of form and colour without reference to the physical world was championed by the Swiss artist Max Bill, a former student of Josef Albers and Wassily Kandinsky at the Bauhaus. In the late 1940s and the 1950s two groups influenced by Bill flourished in France and Italy: Groupe Espace and MAC, the Movimento Arte Concreta. The two groups exhibited in combination in Italy as Gruppo Espace.

Poster for the 1954-1955 Gruppo Espace exhibition in Milan,
and the verso with woodcuts by Enrico Bordoni (1904-1969)
and Silvano Bozzolini (1911-1998)

MAC was formed in 1948 by four Italian artists: Atanasio Soldati, Gillo Dorfles, Bruno Munari, and Gianni Monnet. It disbanded in 1958, following the premature death of Gianni Monnet at the age of 46.   Besides collective exhibitions, the members of MAC produced four remarkable collections of art and writing entitled Documenti d'arte d'oggi. These publications, which were packed with original lithographs, silkscreens, and woodcuts, came out in 1954, 1955-56, 1956-57, and 1958; I have copies of the second, third, and fourth, but not that for 1954. Now extremely rare, they must have been produced in very small editions, because there is so much handwork in the production, with everything printed on different kinds and weights of paper, and all kinds of collaged elements added. Gianni Monnet in particular was very interested in adding texture by sticking on bits of sandpaper and the like. One of his lithographs has, in addition to various hand-punched holes, a piece of scrumpled newspaper collaged on the surface, and impressions on the surface caused by small oblongs of sandpaper and corrugated board fixed to the facing page.

Gianni Monnet (1912-1958)
Original lithograph with hand-punched holes and collaged newspaper, 1956
photographed against a white background

The same Gianni Monnet lithograph
photographed as a double-page spread, with colour showing through the holes from the image behind

Rectangles of corrugated card and sandpaper on the facing page

A list of members of Gruppo MAC/Espace in the 1956-1957 volume lists 74 names and addresses. At that time there was a governing committee of six: Gillo Dorfles, Gianni Monnet (Secretary), Bruno Munari, Enrico Prampolini, Mauro Reggiani (President), and Vittoriano Viganó. The  majority are listed as painters or sculptors, but there are also plenty of architects and engineers. Several members of MAC achieved fame as industrial and interior designers, including Joe Colombo (Cesare Colombo, 1930-1971), whose Total Furnishing Unit, unveiled at the Museum of Modern Art in New York the year after his death, was a complete "living-machine" comprising kitchen, wardrobe, bathroom and bedroom on just 28 square metres. All the listed members are Italian, but the same page also gives the committee members for Espace in France, Belgium, Switzerland, Sweden, and England. The English group included the architect Wells Coates and the painter Victor Pasmore; the French, André Bloc, Sonia Delaunay, and Edgard Pillet; the Swiss, Alfred Roth, Max Bill, and Richard Paul Lohse; the Swedish, Eric Olson and Olle Baertling. So there was certainly an international dimension to this Italian art movement, which even had a toehold in the USA through the Wittenborn Gallery, which represented MAC artists such as Gillo Dorfles; George Wittenborn also gave limited American distribution to Documenti d'arte d'oggi.

Bruno Munari (1907-1998)
Lithograph cover for Documenti d'arte d'oggi, 1955-1956
I believe the collaged strip of shiny red was an "intervention"
by Gianni Monnet, but can't now trace the source of this information

Luigi Veronesi (1908-1998)
Lithograph cover for Documenti d'arte d'oggi, 1956-1957

Gianni Monnet
Lithograph cover for Documenti d'arte d'oggi, 1958
with die-cut circular hole and collaged corrugated board
- when first posting this, I failed to note that the purple sections are also collaged,
they are some kind of furry felt

Despite this international penetration, it has to be said that the MAC artists have rather fallen into neglect, certainly compared to the 1960s movement that followed, Arte Povera. Perhaps there wasn't a single star artist, whose light could reflect on the others. Perhaps the artist's concerns were too abstracted and intellectualised for popular appeal. Perhaps there just wasn't enough that was truly radical and new in the art they created. Or perhaps they have simply been victims of the fickleness of an art market that prefers a few big names to a lot of small ones, and a simple story arc to a fragmented narrative. I certainly think the death of Monnet and consequent disbandment of MAC stopped the movement in its tracks. Momentum was lost, and some of the major figures, such as Gillo Dorfles (who designed the cover for the 1954 Documenti d'arte d'oggi), turned their interests elsewhere. Although Dorfles carried on creating art, he put most of his energy into teaching and writing about art and aesthetics.

Tito B. Varisco, 1915-1998
Drawing (reproduced as a conventional line block, I think), slotted through a die-cut television screen;
the background drawing can be pulled up and down to reveal different sections on the screen.
This comment on the ways in which television would affect our visual perceptions
is a good example of the weird and wonderful stuff to be found in Documenti d'arte d'oggi.
It comes from the volume for 1955/56.

More to come on individual MAC artists.


Jane Librizzi said...

Neil, I looked at the Bozzolini and the Veronesi prints and thought of Ettore Sottsass. And then you mentioned Sonia Delaunay and I thought, yes, exuberance is what connects them.

Neil said...

Hi Jane - What an interesting connection to Ettore Sottsass; I'm sure he would have been aware of MAC, and especially of those members involved in industrial design and architecture. My next post of a little series on MAC will focus on the women members.