Creativity takes courage.

(Henri Matisse)

Arte Povera is “poor art”, not because the artists lacked money, although they may have, but because their choice of materials went beyond the classical oil, bronze or marble, choosing instead to explore the possibilities offered by nature: twigs, stones, moss, soil. The movement was first labelled in 1967 by Germano Celant and became defunct soon after 1972, when several artists distanced themselves from it, although its influence continued well up to the end of the 20th century.

As well as traditional materials, Arte Povera rejected the constraints of traditional art and the values of the commercialised gallery system of the time It was a challenging time for Italy, which was experiencing economic and political instability. The young artists who identified themselves with the movement came from Turin, Milan, Genoa and Rome – centres of urban intellectual and artistic activities.

The later 1960’s witnessed a mushrooming of art tendencies and movements that aimed to be free of the (real or perceived) constraints of form, context and ideology of the time. The conceptual artists start from an idea and they use the material and form they consider most appropriate to work out their concept.
As well as using a wide range of materials, the poveri worked in a variety of expressions, from photographs to installations, from sculptures to performance, large and small, demonstrating a vibrant, pluralistic way of creating art.

Back to Nature

In 1967 at an exhibition in Genoa curated by Germano Celant, Arte Povera was first identified as a distinct movement. Celant wrote about the “magic” created by the artist immersing himself into the natural environment, discovering the marvellous value of animal, vegetal and mineral elements.

Unlike Pop Art, the dominant art movement at that time, which also used everyday materials, Arte Povera rejected the mass production and consumerism that was reflected in the work of Pop artists. Instead, the interest was more existential: the passing of time, the seasons, the deterioration and death of living things. Existential reflections on the illusive and ephemeral reality aside, Arte Povera was a political anti-establishment movement. Some of the artists involved were political activists, such as Mario Merz (1925- 2003) who spent time in prison for his anti-fascist activities.

Mario Merz’ Lingotto is a typical example of the use of natural materials: the sculpture is made of bundles of brushwood, tied with hessian string and wire; some of the twigs are covered in lichen; on top of the pile, on a steel plinth there is a creamy block of beeswax, like a bird’s nest in a tree.

The transient nature of the elements – and of Art - is illustrated by Giovanni Anselmo in Eating Structure: a head of lettuce is held by a copper wire between two granite blocks; as the lettuce wilts, the wire relaxes and the smaller block falls. To maintain the sculpture, it must be fed with fresh lettuce.

Provocation or Poetry

Fire and water, earth and live animals in art galleries was unusual in the 1960’s, when Yannis Kounellis exhibited his most famous work Untitled (12 Horses) at L’Attico Gallery in Rome (yes, 12 real life horses). There was more than a small element of epater la bourgeoisie. As it probably was the intention of Michelangelo Pistoletto with his Venus of the Rugs featuring an over-sized naked goddess next to a pile of colourful rugs discarded on the floor. Venus, the symbol of love, fertility and above all beauty – the aspiration of Western art – is facing away from the viewer, contemplating instead the pile of useless cloth raising in front of her. Her cold beauty contrasts exquisitely with the soft, colourful material.

Smoke and Mirrors

Reality is both illusive and elusive; we only have our senses to perceive it, and sometimes they mislead or betray us.

Giulio Paolini’s Young Man Looking at Lorenzo Lotto is a photo on canvas which reproduces Lorenzo Lotto’s Portrait of a Young Man in its original size. The picture is the mental mirror, the viewer is on the position occupied by the painter in 1505, looking at the young model. And in his 1965 work Delfo, Paolini is photographed in an empty frame – the artist himself is the work of art.

One of the most famous examples of Arte Povera is Lampada annuale (Yearly Lamp) by Alghiero Boetti (1966). It is a single light bulb inside a mirror-lined wooden box. The light switches on randomly for eleven seconds each year, making it quite unlikely that a viewer be present at the moment of illumination. The installation is a reflection on the possibilities of chance – as well as the force of energy.

In 2009 Michelangelo Pistoletto smashed 20 out of 22 mirrors with a sledgehammer in a show entitled, quite accurately, Twenty two Less Two. Fragmented into the shards, the visitors to the Paris gallery where the show took place, tried to suspend their superstitious beliefs.

The Heritage

Earlier this year I went to see an exhibition of Pier Paolo Calzorari at the White Cube in London. I was curious to see to what extent he distanced himself from Arte Povera, after his declaration of divorce in 1972. Best known for creations of luminosity using his signature material – frost – Calzolari also uses fire and neon, lead and wax. Il mio letto così come deve essere is made of stabilised moss resting on tobacco leaves; all very natural materials, although the chemical process required to stabilize (ensure longevity by extracting the moisture) is not entirely in the spirit of Arte Povera.

Giulio Paolini’s exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery a few years ago and Calzolari’s show at the White Cube confirm that Arte Povera, if it ever expired has reincarnated and is getting richer. But as Pistoletto said: “[Povera] means the essential energy of art.” The pluralistic, innovative, original way of creating art is the essential energy that has a lasting influence on the (Italian) contemporary art scene.