Mainly created between 1950 and 1956, the Sacchi are Burri’s most celebrated works. They are identifiable by their distinctive use of burlap sacking and prized, not only for their scarcity but also for their rough tactile beauty and coarse conceptual impetus. Burlap was a material of tremendous importance for Burri. It had been ubiquitous during the Second World War, deployed in tents, supply sacks and sandbags, even woven in strips through camouflage netting. The artist’s earliest works even used stretched burlap as a support – an abrasive alternative for conventional canvas. However, in the present work, the burlap becomes more than just a medium. It is the subject matter; a motif that is charged with the significance of that tumultuous conflict that still dominated the European collective memory in the 1950s.
Burri had spent most of the Second World War in America, having been captured and imprisoned by Allied troops. Thus it wasn’t until he returned to Naples in 1946 that he witnessed the aftermath of the conflict upon Italy. He saw gutted apartment blocks, charred black with smoke, and Renaissance churches, stripped of their facades and reduced to rubble. Burri’s brother had been killed, thousands of others were homeless or starving, and it seemed that everything he had previously held dear had been destroyed. He was a surgeon before the war, and a military doctor before he was captured, but to pick up where he left off as if nothing had changed seemed barbaric and reprehensible, even sacrilegious. He turned instead to art; what had started as a prison hobby now became a calling, even an obsession. For the rest of his life, Burri immersed himself completely in the creation of extraordinarily powerful abstract paintings. They were the only means by which he was able to comprehend the horrific trauma that had been inflicted upon his life, his family, and the society in which he lived.
The burlap used to create the present work is vitally and indelibly imbued with the turmoil of its historic moment. The present work is pock-marked and strained, patched with an accent of patterned cloth, and strewn with striations of haphazard stitching. Between the flat painted ground, and the expanses of pre-fabricated medium, these stitches are the only trace of artistic gesture in the entire composition. Stretched in taught zig-zags between the unravelling cloth, they carry more import than mere reparative haberdashery and instead bespeak the heartfelt effort of the artist; Burri glorified this passage of ruined fabric, so inexpensive and so inherently damaged that it might easily have been discarded. He emphasized and lionized its repair and, in the context of post-war Italy desperately trying to repair its myriad of socio-economic wounds, this is a statement of overwhelming poignancy. James Johnson Sweeney, the legendary MoMA curator and a close friend to Burri, equated this artistic tenderness to the artist’s medical background: “Burri transforms rags into a metaphor for bleeding human flesh, breathes life into the inanimate materials which he employs, making them live and bleed; then heals the wounds with the same evocative ability and the same sensibility with which he first inflicted them... The picture is human flesh, the artist a surgeon.” (James Johnson Sweeney quoted in Exh. Cat., Rome, L’Obelisco, Burri, 1955, n.p.)
For more than half a century since its creation, Sacco has resided in the highly esteemed Morton G. Neumann Family collection and is thus identifiable as a masterpiece of rare quality. Neumann was an industrialist from Chicago who began to acquire art with his wife in the late 1940s. Although they were entirely self-taught in connoisseurship, their collection is unrivalled in depth and quality, elucidating masterpieces from some of the greatest artists of the Twentieth Century. The Neumann’s decisions in acquisition were informed by the great dealers of the age – Pierre Matisse, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, and Sidney Janis – and their frequent travels through Europe afforded them personal relationships with Fernand Léger, Man Ray, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Jean Dubuffet, and Alberto Giacometti. In 1980, they were honored by a major exhibition presented by the Art Institute of Chicago, at which the present work was exhibited; a tribute to the institutional quality and range of their extraordinary assemblage. Neumann acquired Sacco in the years immediately following its creation, exemplifying that judgement made of him by the art historian Sam Hunter: “For Neumann, art collecting is a profound form of personal commitment – a consuming passion and an obsession. He rarely waits for the seal of approval to descend on the artist or product and clearly prefers to move as close as he can to the crucible of emerging talent." (Exh. Cat., Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, The Morton G. Neumann Family Collection, 1980, p. 15)
Sacco is as avant-garde as it is elegiac, as engaging in concept as it is evocative in content. In each single stitch of the composition, Burri beseeches his viewer’s empathy and mourns the losses inflicted not only upon his own life, but on Europe as a whole. It stands as an emblem for the European post-war mood; scorched by charred soot-black, seeping from a wound of hot scarlet red, battered but unbowed, hanging on by mere stitches of thread.
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