Sale: Sotheby's, London, 20th Century Italian Art, 20 October 2008, Lot 15
Acquired directly from the above by the previous owner
Thence by descent to the present owner
Fondation Palazzo Albizzini, Ed., Burri Contributi al Catalogo Sistematico, Città di Castello 1990, p. 145, no. 597, illustrated in colour
Growing up in Perugia, Burri held little artistic ambition. Indeed, he trained as a doctor specialising in tropical diseases, and when World War II broke out, was immediately called up to serve with the Italian Army in Africa. It was only once he was captured in 1943, and taken to an Allied Prisoner of War camp in Hereford, Texas, that he began to express himself with palette and brush. After returning to Italy he moved to Rome in order to further develop his artistic sensibilities. In 1950 he became a founding member of the Gruppo Origine; a group of artists whose uniting factor was their focus on the ambiguity of the pictorial surface and the use of traditionally non-art materials. Thus, by the time the present work was created in 1956, Burri was in full creative flow, executing works which are now considered to be amongst the most commanding of his entire career.
Despite the obvious differences between occupations, Burri’s enterprises as a pre-war doctor and post-war artist are inextricably linked. In Combustione M.2, the ripped up wood and burnt black scarring appear as physiological wounds, perhaps emblematic of that permanent scarring that had been inflicted upon the European cultural consciousness. In the words of contemporaneous critic James Johnson Sweeney: “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. What for Cubists would have been reduced to the partial distillation of a partial composition… in Burri’s hands becomes a living organism: flesh and blood… The picture is human flesh, the artist a surgeon” (James Johnson Sweeney quoted in: Exhibition Catalogue, Rome, L’Obelisco, Burri, 1955, n.p.).
However, to view this work as an elegiac requiem for the dead would be to erroneously assume an intention of representation, and also to miss its inherent violence and aggression. Combustione M.2 is not a readymade artefact of war, presented for our consideration, but rather a conflation of found objects that have been charred, torn, and battered into unified submission. Burri did not try to bestow representational significance on any of his works, but instead offered up arrangements and manipulations of familiar everyday materials that might grip the viewer in domestic intimacy. Thus although the present work appears redolent of the bombed out architectural ruins that still littered Europe in the 1950s, with its rough ripple of warped wood punctuated by a single blood-red spot, it was not created to represent a fragment of one of those destroyed buildings, nor even to signify them, but rather to distil the mood that their destruction engendered. It was this aspect of Burri’s work that proved so appealing to Robert Rauschenberg when he visited Rome in 1952. Indeed Rauschenberg later employed a similar tactic in his celebrated Combine paintings.
However, the legacy of Burri’s work was felt most keenly in his native Italy. Alongside Lucio Fontana, he pioneered the concept that a painting might be viewed not as a representation of some other grander notion, but as an object in its own right, with its own aesthetic value, and with its own poetic significance. This theory of art would go on to inspire Piero Manzoni, Enrico Castellani, and the entire Arte Povera movement and has cemented Burri's position as one of the most important avant-gardists of his time.
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