waterpaint, oil and glitter on canvas
Marlborough Galleria d'Arte, Rome
A. Spada, Brescia
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner in the 1980s
The Genius of Lucio Fontana
by Michael Macaulay
Sublimely poised and glowing a celestial magnificence through the shimmer of its golden glitter, Lucio Fontana's Concetto Spaziale, La Fine di Dio is the brilliant apotheosis of Abstract Spatialism and was thus seminal to the revolution in painting and sculpture that occurred in the middle of the Twentieth Century. Simultaneously arresting focus, captivating imagination and emanating intense energy, this sculpted and painted masterwork is sophistication crystallised. It can justly be sited in the very top tiers of both the Italian maestro's exceptional output and of the canon of twentieth-century European Abstract Art. Two years earlier in 1961, Yuri Gagarin had pierced the Earth's stratosphere to become the first human in space. His galactic journey proved that existence is not limited by earthly dimensions but is ultimately located in spatial infinity. Even in a century replete with tectonic eruptions, this development was exceptional and among the masters of twentieth-century art, it was Lucio Fontana whose contemporaneous work best crystallises it. Like all truly great artists, he both revolutionised precedent and created a conceptual ideology whose new perspective simultaneously reflected and impacted on his own time. If Bacon focused on the inner turmoil of our psychological and bodily existence after the war and Warhol on the exterior obsession with surface in our product and celebrity centric culture, Fontana focused on the spaces which surround and define us and our psychosomatic desire to further the boundaries of our existence.
Of the full cycle of La Fine di Dio works, all executed between 1963 and 1964, this is just one of two that is gold coloured (the other being in the Italian Embassy in Tokyo) and the only example lavished with golden glitter. It is thus utterly unique and the experience it conjures of astral incandescence via the reflections of thousands of aurous metallic facets is truly exclusive. Fontana has conflated the absolutes of wealth and creation, gold and egg, to produce an epic and singularly iconic artistic vision. Both gold and egg are seared with endlessly lyrical concatenations of squarci ('gashes'), buchi ('holes'), and graffiti punctures, which act as windows of epiphany through the heavy deposits of metallic shards into the 'infinite space of the void' beyond. Thus the egg, as the ultimate referent for life, and gold, as the potent signifier for prosperity, are together pierced and gashed by visceral ruptures that tear at the solidity of these fundamental concerns of Humanity.
The reasons why this La Fine di Dio is so extraordinary can be delegated to two categories; its visceral and unique manufacture, and the nature of its underlying conceptual rationale. Inevitably, the histories of these material and theoretical identities are also related to Fontana's contemporaneous biographical context. By 1963 Fontana had achieved extensive renown and critical acclaim as the progenitor of Spatialism: he had been pioneering and perfecting the rejection of the figurative and material in search of capturing movement and space since the mid 1940s. Fontana's artistic disposition was characterised by untiring investigation into the boundary between sculpture and painting through an inimitable gestural vocabulary. Finally, it was with the series La Fine di Dio that this experimentation became fully evolved into a transcendent language of abstraction.
The origin of La Fine di Dio
Although unanimously titled Concetto Spaziale ('Spatial Concept'), the abstract works that Fontana generated with such prolific energy before La Fine di Dio comprised focused sequences: the Buchi ('Holes'), Pietre ('Stones'), Gessi ('Chalks'), Inchiostri ('Inks'), Olii ('Oils', see fig. 3), Tagli ('Cuts'), Nature ('Natures', see fig. 2) and Metalli ('Metals', see fig. 3). In these last two series; the Nature works of 1959 and 1960, and the Metalli produced from 1961, Fontana manipulated three dimensions with terracotta, copper, aluminium and brass, thus developing the phenomenal sculptural aptitude that was the kernel of his talent in preparation for the formidable challenge of La Fine di Dio.
The inception of La Fine di Dio is evident in a pen and ink drawing on paper of 1962. Above seven sketches of ovals is the inscription 'la finedio', hence relating the oval format with the thematic idea of 'The end of God' a year before Fontana began work on canvas. Although subtly different from the final La Fine di Dio, this title is particularly provocative because fine in Italian carries the double meaning of both 'end' or 'termination', as well as 'aim' or 'purpose'. It is intriguing to notice that in three of the sketches, the two of the top row and one bottom left, the compositional features bear striking similarity to a facial arrangement of eyes, nose and mouth. Furthermore, none of these ovals are necessarily or singularly egg-shaped. Perhaps this brief snapshot suggests, somewhat surprisingly, that Fontana's point of departure stemmed from a haunting, sepulchral physiognomy. Nevertheless, from a letter he wrote to his friend Enrico Crispolti dated 17th January 1963 he seems to have had an idea of the significance of his new work from an early stage, remarking with characteristic modesty, "I am working on a series of paintings...which I would like to call 'lafinedidio.' If you happen to be in Milan, come and see me, I'd like to discuss them with you, and if we agree, you could write a critical essay on them" (the artist cited in: Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Lucio Fontana 1899-1968: A Retrospective, 1977, p. 209).
The fact that in February 1963 Fontana's friend Piero Manzoni died unexpectedly aged just 29 without doubt invests the context of these works with significant personal trauma. Themes that are absolutely central to La Fine di Dio; infinity, the void, and nothingness must have all abruptly materialised as distressingly apt and been painful to confront. Four months after Manzoni's death, on 11th June 1963 a selection of La Fine di Dio were presented in the exhibition Le Ova at Galleria dell'Ariete in Milan and were titled Concetto Ovale. Fontana's accompanying declaration that the ovals signified "the infinite, the inconceivable chaos, the end of figuration, nothingness" is steeped in a tragic nihilism that it is tempting to attribute to a suffering of loss.
In 1964 examples from the cycle were shown in the exhibition Les Oeufs Celestes at Iris Clert's gallery in Paris. At this show several of the canvases were reworked, with increased punctures, darker colours, and some were applied with glitter. In the catalogue of the 1977 Guggenheim retrospective, Paolo Campiglio identified this increased emphasis on manufacture, claiming that the "heightened artificiality of the work corresponded to a sharper contrast between the real surface and the suggestion of depth" (Paolo Campiglio in: Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Lucio Fontana 1899-1968: A Retrospective, 1977, p. 210). Indeed, while the conceptual and emotional content of La Fine di Dio is salient to its total impact, it is the work's plasticity that is most immediately stunning.
The initial appearance of this La Fine di Dio is so extraordinary and other-worldly that extant evidence of its human manufacture is actually shocking. Predating this work by almost twenty-five years, Raffaele Carrieri made the eerily prescient statement that "Fontana's story is the story of Fontana's ceaseless battle with his hands" (Raffaele Carrieri, 'Le maioliche geologiche di Lucio Fontana', Illustrazione Italiana, Milan 8th January 1939): Fontana fuelled his desire to go beyond material by constantly regenerating material. The mystery of this work's conception is partly revealed through its intensely beautiful, visceral form. A unique schema of hewn scars narrates the history of its genesis, and the sheer physicality of La Fine di Dio constantly reminds the viewer that Fontana was trained as a sculptor. Residual quotations of his thumbs, fingers, and fists emerge as shadows fixed in oil paint and glitter amidst the ruptures, ridges and recesses. As if forged by explosions, the blasted gashes are encircled by seemingly melted ridges of paint reminiscent of the incinerated mineral surface of a meteorite.
The egg in Art History
This unprecedented form of an egg-shaped oval canvas almost two metres tall broadcasts the very special and individual nature of this work from the outset. An oval - ovum means egg in Latin - with only one axis of symmetry, the egg shape presents a fundamentally different visual experience to that restricted by the boundaries of a rectangle. The spectator's eye recognises the outline of the work itself as possessing a clear iconographical identity, rather than searching for iconography within a perpendicular prescription. For this reason La Fine di Dio is closer to sculpture than painting: its very shape is critical in determining spectator experience. In addition, light cast on the painting is refracted by the canvas-encasing metal rim, which disseminates a diaphanous halo and frames the curved shape in an intangible illumination.
As the universal visual referent of birth and creation, the egg clearly has a longstanding history as a potent symbol in the iconographical lexicon of art history. For millennia it has acted as a sign of fertility and hope, representing the cycle of regeneration and new life. From the graphic symbol of femininity in Egyptian hieroglyphs to its depiction by artists ranging from Diego Velázquez, Carl Fabergé, René Magritte and Jeff Koons; the imagery of the ovum has long incited variously esoteric semiotic interpretations.
However, La Fine di Dio does not exactly depict the egg, but rather enlists this beautifully simple shape to provide the canvas silhouette; this egg is not drawn, painted, or sculpted, but made by the prefabricated stretcher. The elegant serenity of the unending curve provides an apt analogy with the infinity of the void, while the work's scale and centre of gravity directly confront the spectator to suggest something of a human incubator. In this context La Fine di Dio assumes an almost womb-like identity. However, an egg's capacity to incubate depends upon the consistency of highly fragile conditions: obviously a broken egg is useless as a life-support. Thus the vulnerability of the egg and the delicacy of eggshell are shattered by the violence of Fontana's lacerations and thus the shadows of destruction cast across his perfect shape seem all the darker.
Key to the sensory intoxication provoked by La Fine di Dio is its metallic appearance and the radiant luminosity of its deep gold colour. Unlike the other gold La Fine di Dio in the series, in the Italian Embassy in Tokyo, this work is not flatly monochromatic but evinces subtle gradations in tone and hue according to the varied dispersion of golden glitter on top of its intense green ground. In addition, the reflections of the glitter cause a spectrum of light intensities. The grass green paint and metallic gold shimmer between rasping discordance and smelting unity according to the play of light across the surface. Two independent vibrations sounded together, the green and gold compliment each other in a relationship that evokes the terre verte under-painting of flesh tones and gold leaf in medieval egg-tempera painting.
When contrasted with the comparative restraint of the perforations in Fontana's other works on canvas, such as the mechanically uniform Buchi ('Holes') and Tagli ('Cuts'), the ruptures here possess a vastly more complex and varied identity. Sarah Whitfield has noted that with a cut "The most intense moment of luminosity occurs at the point where the slightly curving planes at each side of the cut meet the slit of dark space", whereas "the multiplicity of the hole affects the whole canvas" (Sarah Whitfield in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Hayward Gallery, Lucio Fontana, 1999-2000, p. 42). With the holes of La Fine di Dio frayed canvas, paint ridges and reflective shard-edges overlap and interlock amidst a complex, facetted pattern of shadows. Betraying a rich narrative of creative destruction, these holes punctuate a three-dimensional landscape, their size and shape changing as the spectator moves around the work. Regarding the light effects produced by the holes in Fontana's punctured paintings in 1952 Lisa Ponti described "a fantastic effect in which material counts little and doesn't endure, and what is important is the enlargeable, three-dimensional spatial spectacle that is created" (Lisa Ponti, 'Idee di Lucio Fontana,' Domus, no. 271, 1952, p. 74). This idea of the spatial spectacle not only relates to Fontana's environmental installations and work in neon (see fig. 11), but is also especially relevant to the present work because of the radiation of light from the glitter, as well as the play of light and shadow produced by the holes.
In sum, what remains on this canvas - the residue of a momentous action - may reveal shadows of human creation, but ultimately remains intangible and ambiguous. This imperceptibility parallels an astral vision: we can look into space and see the stars, but we will never comprehend the unending plenitude of galaxies beyond. Furthermore, La Fine di Dio's scarred surface bears more affinity with the Moon than a merely superficial passing resemblance. Whitfield has noted that with La Fine di Dio "The damage seems as random as the scars on the moon left by the countless impacts of meteorites" (Sarah Whitfield, Op Cit, p. 46). Innumerable meteorites and asteroids are an endless cosmic phenomenon and in some ways the surface of the Moon testifies to the true nature of Space: random and chaotic with the constant threat of arbitrary destruction. By contrast, the surface of Earth is shielded by its atmosphere, the pressure of which burns most meteoroids and causes the elegant tail fires of shooting stars. We can therefore finally consider Fontana's masterpiece in aptly parallel terms. Through the violence of gashed squarci, punched buchi and scratched graffiti La Fine di Dio authors the true nature of our condition: immersed in the unfathomable depths of Infinity and lost in the intangible Void.
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