In 2015 Italy and the world are celebrating what would be the 100th birthday of Post-war Italian artist Alberto Burri.
Born in Città di Castello in Umbria, Burri originally trained as a doctor, and was sent to work in Libya at the very beginning of World War II. He was subsequently captured and sent to an American prisoner war camp where he first started to experiment with art.
During this time, Burri initially paints traditional Italian landscapes but slowly shifts into using and distorting ‘poor’ materials. His use of burlap sacks in his famous Sacchi works speaks to his past as a doctor, where stitches and cuts were part of the artist’s everyday life. But these works can also be seen and felt as an echo of what was left of Italy in the aftermath of the bloodiest of wars. Stitching sacks was a metaphor for a country left in pieces.
Burri’s greatest achievement is his use of long lasting, resistant and cheap materials as replacement of the canvas, considered for centuries as the traditional ‘support’ for paintings. By giving materials a prominent place in the creative process, he transformed art into radical experimentation, with results that cannot simply be described as painting or sculpture, but instead, as an art of materiality, where materials and the artist’s gesture completely overcome the painterly in art.
Burri was a key presence in the Italian artistic scene in the second half of the 20th century, whose revolutionary use of materials would influence artists practice right up until today, and as a scientist as well, Burri’s works saw the use of different and innovative materials after burlap sacks, from wood and plastic to PVC and fabric and ultimately cellotex, with striking results. Perhaps less known but equally important to his process-based technique are his Combustioni plastiche, (plastic combustions), compositions of melted and charred plastic, and his Cretti, (cracks), a series of monochrome black or white craquelures later transformed into larger-scale works of Land Art.
Michelangelo says in one of his most famous rhymes:
The master-craftsman hath no thought in mind
That one sole marble block may not contain
Within itself, but this we only find
When the hand serves the impulse of the brain.
Michelangelo believed that the artistic form existed from the beginning in a piece of marble and that it was the hand of the artist guided by the brain that could turn the material into its ultimate perfect shape. In the same way, Alberto Burri knew exactly what to expect from his experiments. Materiality was everything in a world where paintings were starting to have meanings that went beyond simply what one saw hanging on a wall.
It is thanks to Burri more than any other artist, that today’s contemporary artists gained the right to experiment with materials never considered ‘appropriate’ enough for artistic creation. For this and for his influence in the past fifty years, and in the centenary of his birth, the Solomon Guggenheim Museum in New York is planning a major retrospective due to open in October: ‘Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting’, the first one in over 35 years to be held in the US, celebrating a man that played with materials like no other and whose legacy will remain present in art for many years to come.