Contemporary Art

After 50 Years, Arte Povera is Still Provocative

By Sophia Kishkovsky

The Alexander Hall at the Hermitage Museum, Courtesy of the Hermitage Museum

A Novel Approach to a Historic Period

In 1968, Arte Povera revolutionised European perceptions of art. Artists such as Alighiero Boetti, Pino Pascali and Michelangelo Pistoletto rejected figurative painting and sculpture and instead created a new vernacular, making works out of everyday objects.

Fifty years later, for the first major survey of Arte Povera in Russia, Dimitri Ozerkov could have taken the obvious approach and contrasted the movement known for its use of mundane materials with the more palatial interiors of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. Instead, the curator, who oversees the museum’s growing roster of contemporary art, decided to stage Arte Povera: A Creative Revolution in a sympathetic third-floor space of the Winter Palace, the museum’s main building. It was renovated in the 1960s to display works from Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov’s seminal pre-Revolutionary collections of Impressionist and Modernist French artists. These inspired several generations of Soviet artists who were cut off from international contemporary art.

Curator Dimitri Ozerkov, Courtesy of the Hermitage Museum, Photo: Alexander Lavrentyev

The third-floor galleries echo the blank slate, white-walled interiors of the Kunsthalle Bern, where the landmark 1969 Arte Povera exhibition Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form was held. Subsequently restaged by the Fondazione Prada in Venice in 2013, it included artists Jannis Kounellis, Giovanni Anselmo and Pistoletto, all of whom feature in this Hermitage show.

The Winter Palace, part of the Hermitage Museum

“For a long time the third floor was mythic,” Ozerkov says. “It showed, for the first time, art that had been banned. In the Soviet Union we had official and unofficial art,” said Ozerkov. “There was the Union of Artists and the Non-Conformist artists. We’re not setting up the parallel, but it’s apparent.”

Lucio Fontana, Spatial Concept: Expectations, 1964, GAM – Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Torino. Courtesy of Fondazione Torino Musei, Photo © Studio fotografico Gonella

Taking Inspiration from the Russian Revolution

Arte Povera serves as a coda to last year’s monumental exhibition, The Winter Palace and the Hermitage in 1917: History was made here, which marked the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. “For us there are two points that make this [Arte Povera show] important for us,” he adds. “In 2017, we did an exhibition devoted to the Revolution. Now the theme is continuing because there was a creative revolution in 1968. Arte Povera is turning 50 years old. It is a recognition of that, and we can show a movement that has never been shown in the Hermitage before.”

Mario Merz, Che Fare? (What To Do?), 1968, Fondazione Guido ed Ettore De Fornaris GAM – Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Torino, Photo: Paolo Robino

Ozerkov went straight to private collectors to source loans, and to the Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea (GAM) and Castello di Rivoli Museo D’Arte Contemporanea in Turin, the birthplace of Arte Povera, working closely with the institution’s director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. He also secured loans from living artists, including Pistoletto.

“Our task is to show not only a selection of famous works, but also different tendencies and how they are connected in context,” he says, with Arte Povera developing into the “European answer to Pop Art”.

Installation view of When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013. From left to right: works by Gary B. Kuehn, Eva Hesse, Alan Saret, Reiner Ruthenbeck, Richard Tuttle, 2013, Courtesy of Fondazione Prada, Photo: Attilio Maranzano

Works in the exhibition include such famous pieces as Mario Merz’s Che Fare?, 1968, Gilberto Zorio’s Hatred, 1969, and Lucio Fontana’s Spatial Concept: Expectation, 1964. Alighiero Boetti’s Tutto series, Ozerkov says, is a “symbol of the presence of everything” and raises “the question of whether this is good or bad and whether it changes our consciousness today.” Meanwhile, Giuseppe Penone’s Ideas of Stone – 1372 kg of Light, 2010, has been on display in the Great Courtyard of the Winter Palace since 4 April (through 7 October), both as part of an annual installation at the site and a teaser for Arte Povera.

Arte Povera: A Creative Revolution, State Hermitage Museum, 17 May – 16 August

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