Lot 39
  • 39

Michelangelo Pistoletto

250,000 - 350,000 GBP
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  • Michelangelo Pistoletto
  • Figura su sfondo nero
  • acrylic, plastic paint and tissue paper on canvas
  • 170 by 150cm.; 66 7/8 by 59in.
  • Executed in 1961.


Galleria Il Fauno, Turin

Acquired directly from the above by the previous owner in the 1970s


Exhibition Catalogue, Venice, Centro Internazionale delle arti e del costume, Palazzo Grassi, Pistoletto, 1976, p. 5, illustrated, (incorrect title and measurements)


Colour: The colours in the catalogue illustration are fairly accurate. Condition: This work is in very good condition. Close inspection reveals some light scuffs towards all four corners. Further inspection reveals two hairline cracks: one towards the lower right corner and one towards the centre of the upper right quadrant. No restoration is apparent under ultra-violet light.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

“In 1961 I painted my own portrait on canvas using a variety of backgrounds: gold, silver, bronze, and glossy black. One day, sketching out the head of a standing man on a large canvas already prepared with black mirror-surface paint, I was shocked to see it coming towards me, detaching itself from the background – which was not part of the painting, but the actual wall behind my back.”

Michelangelo Pistoletto in conversation with M. Friedman, Minneapolis, February 1966. 

Figura su sfondo Nero presents an almost unique opportunity for the Michelangelo Pistoletto collector. It is one of the very finest self-portraits to appear at auction, it is one of the very first of Pistoletto’s celebrated mirror paintings series, it is one of the only mirror paintings to be completed against a black background, and it is one of the first works from this artist to incorporate tissue paper into the medium. In execution, it fuses the brusque painterly style of Pistoletto’s celebrated early works with the reflective device that would define his oeuvre in years to come. It should be viewed as the hereditary seat of Pistoletto’s visual language; the source from whence all of his most sought after strands of creation flowed; prized not only for its consummate rarity, but also for its historical importance, and particularly for its beguiling interpretative intensity.

The son of a restorer, Pistoletto was well versed in the canon of Western art from childhood. He would doubtless have been aware of the iconological pedigree held by the mirror; he would've known how artists like Jan Van Eyck, Paolo Veronese, and Diego Velázquez used reflective surfaces to force viewers to engage with their works on an immediate level, and he would have understood the artistic acclaim that their mirror depictions afforded. However, if these Old Masters started the practice and formed the tradition, Pistoletto advanced it hugely and asserted his own role within the discourse. Where his aesthetic antecedents had included mirrors within their works – glimpses of an apparent reality within a wider illusion – Pistoletto includes his whole work within a mirror-like reflective surface and thus projects his illusion directly into the viewer's reality. This technique inverts the picture plane, so that it becomes an axis around which the physical fact of the viewing space and the illusory folly of the work blur and intermingle.

In keeping with the best of the mirror painting series, the present work delivers not a snapshot of a moment in time, but rather a transitory experience – it exists in the eternal present. In Pistoletto's own words, "the mirror isn't a wall, it's always in the future, all that is to happen tomorrow is already in it" (Michelangelo Pistoletto, Le Ultimo Parole Farmose, Turin 1967, n.p.). To this end, it is fascinating that the artist appears to show himself as somewhat older than his contemporaneous age of 28, as if already keeping the viewers of the future in mind. In this light we understand Pistoletto as a performance artist: he casts the gallery space as his stage and his viewers as the players, installing himself as the eternal director.

Many critics have ascribed the influence of Francis Bacon to Pistoletto's early works: we can compare each artist's vigorous sumptuous brushwork and each of their perennial inclusion of isolated figures inside imaginary pseudo-architectonic boxes. However, the present work, with its rare black background, also recalls the precedent of Alberto Giacometti: in the thin elongated head, the pointed intimacy of the facing figure, scaled to life, and the emphasis placed on the surrounding void, we are reminded of the paintings of the elder French master. This comparison suffuses the present work with a mood of vague existentialist unease. Where in Giacometti's work we are made aware of the fragility of the isolated figure in space, in the work of Pistoletto we are reminded that an inevitable implication of the immutable passage of time is our own demise.

Figura su sfondo nero holds an incredibly important position within Michelangelo Pistoletto's oeuvre. The rarity of its black background is compounded by the importance of its position at the source of this artist's most celebrated series. Deftly engaging with ideas of dimensionality, performance, and the passage of time, as well as making subtle stylistic reference to the existentialist giants who had dominated the post-war critical discourse, this is a work of singular quality that marks a turning point of immense significance within Pistoletto's oeuvre.