Paolo Marinotti, Milan
Riccardo Cebulli, Milan
Riccardo Tettamanti, Milan
Christie’s, London, Post War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, 8 February 2007, Lot 6 (consigned by the above)
Private Collection (acquired from the above sale)
Thence by descent to the present owner
Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, Polariteit het appolinische en het dionysische in de kunst, 1961, n.p., no. 23, illustrated
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting, 2015, p. 174, no. 30, illustrated in colour
Riccardo Tettamanti and Giorgio Verzotti, Tre decenni di Avanguardia dalla raccolta di Riccardo Tettamanti, Milan 1988, n.p., illustrated in colour
Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini, Ed., Burri, Contributi al catalogo sistematico, Città di Castello 1990, p. 99, no. 393, illustrated in colour
Although he volunteered for the military in 1935, Burri had spent most of the Second World War in America, having been captured by the allied troops and imprisoned in Hereford, Texas. Thus, it wasn’t until he returned to Naples, in 1946, that he experienced the horrors that conflict had inflicted upon the country of his birth. He saw gutted apartment blocks, charred black with smoke, Renaissance churches, stripped of their facades and reduced to rubble, and thousands of people, homeless and starving. The artist’s brother had been killed, and everything he had previously held dear and true was destroyed. Burri had trained as a surgeon before the war, and was a military doctor before he was captured, but to pick up his occupation where it left off, as if nothing had changed, seemed barbaric and reprehensible, even sacrilegious. He turned instead to art; what had started as a prison hobby – a leisure activity that was allowed by his captors – now became a vocation, even a calling. From this point onwards, he immersed himself in the creation of extraordinarily powerful paintings such as the present work; they were the only medium through which he was able to comprehend the horrific trauma that his life and country had undergone.
Sacco e Rosso exemplifies the meditative power and quasi-religious force that exudes from Burri’s praxis; it is as striking in its compositional simplicity as it is captivating in the minute diligence of its detail. Colour, form, and medium entwine and enmesh across the canvas as deep black and hot red galvanise the coarse ochre of burlap. In content and manner, it is both beguiling and ground-breaking, typifying that judgement made by contemporaneous critic Giulio Carlo Argan: “The object that Burri puts together with extraneous strange materials is not figuration or representation. It is a picture, or better yet, the fiction of a picture, a sort of reversed trompe l’oeil in which the picture no longer imitates reality but reality imitates a picture” (Giulio Carlo Argan quoted in: Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, (and travelling), Alberto Burri, 2015, pp. 43-44).
The Sacchi are Burri’s most celebrated works, identifiable by their distinctive use of burlap sacking, and mainly created between 1950 and 1956. The present work is one of the last that he executed and one of the largest. Burlap was an incredibly important material for Burri – his earliest works, made while still imprisoned in Texas, had even used stretched burlap as a support. The material had been ubiquitous during the war, deployed in tents, supply sacks, and sandbags, even woven in strips through camouflage netting. It was a colour and texture that was charged with significance and laced with memory for anybody who had lived through those tumultuous years. Even against this backdrop of conflict, the burlap of the present work seems to have undergone an extraordinary amount of wear. The left hand side has been wrenched away from its edge, held on by a stretched zig-zag of black twine, the lower right corner appears to have been torn away or blown off entirely, and the middle is pockmarked with punctures and rips. The rough cloth is imbued with a tangible sense not only of destruction, but also of the passage of time; each blemish speaks of an individual episode of pain; each imperfection recalling an episode of loss. That the thick weave and wear of this material speaks so powerfully of multiple usage by multiple hands lends a further sense of choral expressivity to this pervasive plaintive mood.
Between the flat paint and pre-fabricated burlap, the only trace of artistic gesture in this work appears in the lines of stitching that meander across the panel. Burri was extremely adept with needle and thread and was even known by his Roman neighbours as ‘The Tailor’. He had been regularly required to sew in the army, to maintain and repair his kit. However, in the stitching of the present work, we are more readily compelled to recall his surgical training. These stitches seem more than mere reparative haberdashery, imbued instead with a mood of human tenderness and care. The aquiline weaves between patches and frays bespeak Burri’s heartfelt effort; he pointedly repaired this fabric, so inexpensive and so inherently damaged that it might easily have been discarded. In the context of post-war Italy, desperately trying to recover and frantically repairing its myriad societal wounds, this is a message of overwhelming poignancy. One is reminded of the words of legendary MoMA curator James Johnson Sweeney, who was a close friend to Burri throughout the 1950s and ‘60s: “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… The picture is human flesh, the artist a surgeon” (James Johnson Sweeney quoted in: Exh. Cat., Rome, L’Obelisco, Burri, 1955, n.p.).
The palette of this work is further idiosyncratic to Burri; notable for its limited scope, and loaded with symbolism. Red denotes passion, fervour, rage, and blood, while black recalls soot, and char, and suffuses the composition with a melancholic mood. Of course these colours and their associations abounded in post-war Italy, but in art-historical terms, they have wider significance. In deploying a palette of red, black, and matte burlap gold, Burri paid homage to the Italian altarpieces of the quattrocento and trecento. He was well acquainted with the fresco schemes of Arrezzo, Assisi and Sansepolcro, and so it is no surprise that the palette of Sacco e Rosso abbreviates the chromatic effect of altarpieces by Cimabue and Simone Martini, whose vermilion reds and burnt-bone blacks provided saturated contrast for gilded backgrounds. This Renaissance influence continues. Particularly in the Sacchi series, Burri’s use of cloth can be compared to the expressive use of drapery in Renaissance painting. As a young man, he had regularly cycled from his hometown of Città di Castello to Monterchi to see Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto (Madonna of the Partition, 1455-65), a fresco which shows the pregnant Virgin Mary being revealed by angels from behind a cavernous red and gold curtain. Its masterful depiction of tethered heavy cloth is referenced and recapitulated in the tension of fabric on the left-hand side of the present work. We can even judge Burri to have called on Italian painting from the Baroque period in Sacco e Rosso; the coarse texture of burlap recalls the tactility of works by Jusepe de Ribera, while the stark contrast between colours seems to make reference to the chromatic brilliance of Caravaggio. Thus, Burri takes up the mantle of Italian art. This work certainly acknowledges the tragedies of the first half of the twentieth century, but also, through a bold simplicity of palette and a subtle evocation of Renaissance drapery, quietly reminds its viewer of the height of Italian culture and society.
Burri also gleaned influence from his twentieth-century peers. In the practice of attaching found objects to his ground, he picked up where Surrealism and Dadaism left off. We are reminded of Kurt Schwitters, who created collaged panels of extraordinary variance and texture; and particularly of Marcel Duchamp – the first artist to present found objects as art, and the first to use their inherent form and implication to further his own artistic message. Where Duchamp was cynical and subversive, contributing to an oeuvre that was mainly discursive in nature, in the present work, we can see Burri appropriating his methods to more noble ends, furthering a poetic meaning of personal significance and melancholic impetus.
American influence was also very important. In Jasper Johns, Burri found a fellow interrogator of texture; another artist who appropriated quotidian form and mundane material from the world around him in order to imbue his works with a sculptural sense of heavy materiality. Robert Rauschenberg visited Burri’s via Margutta studio when he came to Rome with Cy Twombly in 1953. Like Burri, Rauschenberg deposited disparate materials upon his canvases, and like Burri, his works sought not to denote a specific subject matter, but rather to evoke a mood. Theirs was a relationship of cross-pollination, and many view Burri’s Sacchi series as the crucial progenitor to Rauschenberg’s feted Combine series, which began in those years immediately following his Roman sojourn. To this end, it is noteworthy that Rauschenberg would have seen such works as Grande Sacco and Grande Bianco during his studio visit. As art critic Rosalind McKever has outlined: “In 1953 Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly, on their famous Roman trip, apparently visited Burri’s studio. There Rauschenberg would have seen three 1952 works, Large Sack, Large White and Large Sack... In dialogue with the American’s Neo-Dada ‘combines’ we are forced to reflect on the extent to which Burri transformed [Rauschenberg’s] ready-made materials” (Rosalind McKever, ‘Surface Tension: Celebrating Alberto Burri’s Centenary’, Apollo, 13 October, 2015, online).
However the influence of these artists paled by comparison to that of Mark Rothko, whose work Burri admired hugely. Sacco e Rosso demonstrates the manner in which, just like Rothko, Burri put huge emphasis on unmodulated colour and its formal arrangement into a harmonious composition. Furthermore, it can be said that both artists had been similarly affected by the war: just as Burri felt that he could not return to his pre-war career as a doctor, Rothko felt that he could not return to his pre-war career as a figurative painter and so turned exclusively to abstraction. Indeed, like Burri, Rothko began to bestow quasi-religious experience upon the creation of his subsequent works; each one a further meditation on mortality; each one a further contemplation of the lows to which humanity had stooped. Had our Italian artist been more inclined to speak about his work in such emotive terms, he would doubtless have summed up his artistic emphases in a manner similar to Rothko: “I am interested only in basic human emotions… tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on – and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicated those basic emotions… The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when painting them…” (Mark Rothko quoted in: John Elderfield, ‘Transformations’ in: Glen Phillips and Thomas Crow, Eds., Seeing Rothko, Los Angeles 2002, p. 101).
In beauty, colour, composition, and style, Sacco e Rosso is of a quality that is rarely matched within Alberto Burri’s oeuvre. An extremely rare masterpiece with a glowing exhibition history, its presence at auction denotes a tremendous occasion upon which to re-evaluate the achievements of this modern master. In its immutable executional power and unbridled poetic content, it can be identified amongst the very best of the Sacchi works, which are themselves the most sought after series from Burri’s oeuvre. Sacco e Rosso not only advanced the limits of the contemporaneous avant-garde, but also served as a poignant contemplation on the angst of the Italian post-war mood.
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