Lucio Fontana's Travels in Space
T he series of Nature – or Natures in English – is the preeminent body of sculpture by post-war Italian master Lucio Fontana. Moulded and shaped from terracotta into organic spheres bearing violent gouges and raw clefts, the Nature comprise forty-four individuated works created between 1959 and 1960, from which thirty-three were cast in bronze.
Spanning almost a metre in diameter and from a bronze edition of only two (numbered 59-60 N 20 in the artist’s catalogue raisonné), the present work is one of only three monumental Nature, measuring over 80cm in diameter, left in private hands.
The remaining works today reside in the most prestigious museum collections across the globe. Where the original terracottas are housed in the National Gallery, Berlin, the corresponding bronze casts belong to the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C.; the Kröller-Müller Museum, Netherlands; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; the Moderna Museet, Sweden; and the Museum Abteiberg, Monchengladbach.
With its rich patina of golden brown speckled with exquisite aquamarine verdigris, Concetto spaziale, Natura is remarkable both in scale and for the deep cleft that has almost rent the planet-like form in two. With raw edges and crust-like matter bearing the violent trace of the artist’s forceful manipulation of solid and heavy clay, the present work is simultaneously corporeal and astral, both erotic and cosmological.
The deep fissure that horizontally cuts towards the sphere’s core has almost divided the work; gaping open, Concetto spaziale, Natura seems to yawn an intake of breath, rupturing the boundary between outside and in, and confusing the viewer’s somatic relation to its three-dimensional form. As sculptures that are both corporeally charged and astrologically evocative, these heavy spherical forms join the seminal Fine di Dio in delivering the most advanced expression of Fontana’s defining artistic philosophy.
Testament to its foremost importance within Fontana’s oeuvre, the present Concetto spaziale, Natura has been exhibited in a number of major survey exhibitions including at Galleria Civiac d’Arte Moderna, Turin (1970); Palazzo Reale, Milan (1972); and Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris (2014), to name but a few. Imbued with a raw tactility retained from its clay origins, the cast bronze sculpture seems at once primordial and profoundly contemporary.
Produced during an epoch defined by the so-called ‘Space Race’, Concetto spaziale, Natura potently contends with the boundless dimensions of a universe that is simultaneously billions of years old, yet newly discovered by humankind. With its spherical, planetary composition – striated and pot-holed like the surface of the moon – and its vast, gaping aperture, the sculpture evokes the mysterious and infinite dimensions of space.
"I was thinking of those worlds, of the moon with these... holes, this terrible silence that causes anguish, and the astronauts in a new world"
Describing his inspiration for the Nature, the artist explained: “I was thinking of those worlds, of the moon with these... holes, this terrible silence that causes anguish, and the astronauts in a new world. And so... in the artist's fantasy... these immense things have been there for billions of years... man arrives, in mortal silence, in this anguish, and leaves a vital sign of his arrival... they were these still forms with a sign of wanting to make inert matter live, weren't they?" (Lucio Fontana cited in: Exh: Cat:, London, Ben Brown Fine Arts, Lucio Fontana: Paintings, Sculptures and Drawings, 2005, p. 79). In rupturing his sculpture to leave a deep, hollow chasm of vast and empty space, Fontana addresses this sense of ‘anguish’ or anxiety at treading the unknown, uncertain depths of the cosmos.
With these remarkable developments in cosmology and physics, man’s first steps into the unknown began to take on a truly tangible reality towards the mid-Twentieth Century. It is notable therefore, that the Nature were executed just short of a year before the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin travelled into space for the first time in human history in 1961.
Thus, for Fontana – who was indebted to the aspirational legacy of Futurism – the will to aesthetically respond to the scientific took on a marked urgency. The artist officially laid out these ideas as early as the First Spatialist Manifesto of 1947: “We refuse to think of science and art as two distinct phenomena… Artists anticipate scientific deeds, scientific deeds always provoke artistic deeds” (Lucio Fontana, Primo Manifesto dello Spazialismo (First Spatialist Manifesto)’, 1947 in: Exh. Cat., London, Hayward Gallery, Lucio Fontana, 1999-2000, p. 185).
Scientific advancements ignited in Fontana an ambition to create a conceptually challenging body of work imbued with the very same spirit of space exploration, a corpus that could reflect man’s position on the brink of an infinitely large universe. Expanding the representation of space within art through his radical articulation of the void, Fontana would forever alter the course of art history.
The cratered and creviced topography of Concetto spaziale, Natura is imbued with a sense of polymorphism: at once dense and weighty, yet hollow and seemingly transmutable, the work conjures what author J.A. França described as “a space beyond space, an interior space, dark and mysterious” (J.A. França cited in: Anthony White, Lucio Fontana: Between Utopia and Kitsch, Cambridge, Massachusetts 2011, p. 255). Herein, the bodily associations of the Nature are beyond reproach.
Simultaneously orifice and wound-like, violent gashes and holes disturb, disrupt, fragment and compromise the integrity of the whole; gone is the perfect modernist surface as epitomised by Constantin Brancusi. In this respect, the present work shares an affinity with the contemporaneous work of French-American sculptor Louise Bourgeois who was also exploring a corporeal and psychologically charged formlessness in her amorphous sculpture of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
However, where Bourgeois complicated conceptions of interior and exterior space in response to inner psychical drives and the unconscious, Fontana’s Nature disrupt bodily boundaries as an expression of the corporeal ‘anxiety’ of humankind as a response to external factors; namely the threatening and formless, nothingness of space.
In their very corporeal disruption of space, Fontana’s Nature were integral to the conception and development of the monumental series of egg-shaped canvases, the Fine di Dio of 1963-64. As art historian Anthony White has stated: “Instead of the pregnant fullness of perfect form, the canvas [of Fine di Dio] reflects a body that appears broken and hollow…Thus the theory of nothingness, which was central to the conception of the Nature sculptures, is also at the heart of the End of God series” (Anthony White, Lucio Fontana: Between Utopia and Kitsch, Cambridge, Massachusetts 2011, p. 260).
Indeed, the ‘Cosmic Egg’ of the Fine di Dio seems to find its prototype in the otherworldly, swollen spheres of the Nature. Imbued with a deep and inherent sense of fecundity that is nonetheless riven by external forces, the present work is both pregnant yet ripped in two; fertile yet ravaged by humanity’s newly discovered place in an absolutely vast and indifferent universe. Utterly singular and unlike anything before or since, the Nature confer bold corporeal form to the philosophical human condition at the dawn of a new cosmic age.