In Alberto Burri’s Sacco E (1958), medium, colour, content and form entwine across a textured and tactile surface. Rendered in fabric, burlap and acrylic on canvas, the work exemplifies the Italian artist’s innovative pictorial praxis: namely, to champion everyday materials and elevate them to the status of high art. Striking in its compositional and monochromatic simplicity, Sacco E is a rare and spectacular work from Burri’s celebrated body of Sacchi. Subversively employing matter as the subject for this pioneering series, Burri looked to the limitless potential of materiality as a vehicle for artistic expression. Revered for their revolutionary use of burlap sacking, the Sacchi defy easy categorisation: neither painting nor sculpture, these captivating works are punctuated with frayed and jagged stitching and suffused with a sense of desolation and destruction befitting of the Italian post-war mood. Housed in some of the world’s most eminent international collections, including The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris; and the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Rome, to name but a few, the Sacchi constitute the most profound expression of Burri’s consummate practice.
In Sacco E, passages of deep, charcoal black coalesce with the coarse ochre of natural burlap. The defining feature of Burri’s Sacchi, this material was imbued with tremendous symbolic importance for the artist, and the present work’s rough tactile beauty arises from a profound conceptual impetus. Ubiquitous during the Second World War, burlap was utilised for tents, supply sacks, and sandbags, and even woven in strips through camouflage netting. Evocative, therefore, of the turmoil of this historic moment, it became the medium through which Burri was able to comprehend and overcome the horrifying trauma that still dominated the European collective memory in the 1950s. Cathartically repurposing elements of ragged, cast-off burlap sacking in his works, Burri highlights its “visual, tactile and symbolic power” (Emily Braun cited in: Exh. Cat., New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting, 2016, p. 157). In so doing, the artist radically elevates his materials from mere medium to subject matter, from content to context. A key proponent of the ensuing Arte Povera movement that would take Italy by storm in the late 1960s, Burri boldly relinquished traditional mediums, opting instead to experiment with everyday materials that spoke more pertinently to the modern world he lived in: in place of canvas and paint, burlap, wood, fire, plastic and metal would become the predominant instruments of his labour. Indeed, with its coarse textured surface and asymmetrical composition, the present work poignantly foreshadows the fundamental precepts of Arte Povera.
Having graduated from university with a medical degree, Burri was conscripted to the Italian military in 1940 as a combat medic. In 1943, he was captured by Allied troops and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in America. Thus it was not until 1946, upon his return to Naples, that he witnessed the devastating aftermath of the conflict on Italy. The cities were ravaged with war-torn apartment blocks charred black with smoke, and Renaissance churches, stripped of their façades, were reduced to rubble. Burri’s own brother had been tragically killed, and thousands of others were left homeless or starving. Disillusioned by the senseless brutality of war, Burri was never to practice medicine again. He turned instead to art: what had started as a prison hobby now became a calling, and for the rest of his life Burri immersed himself completely in the creation of extraordinarily powerful abstract paintings. Famously reserved on the hermeneutics of his own esoteric artworks, Burri preferred to afford critics and art historians with a considerable freedom of analysis, invoking a host of multivalent interpretations across the rich ground of his oeuvre, many of which revolve around the artist’s own biography, and the trauma of the war years.
In the present work, dense, opaque black pigment melds into the membranous folds of raw burlap to produce a rich and complicated topography. The viewer is confronted with a dramatic and primitive material surface, profoundly redolent of a scorched and eviscerated landscape. In its creviced and cratered façade, the work foreshadows Lucio Fontana’s seminal La Fine di Dio paintings of 1963: with their wound-like punctures and thickly painted surfaces, Fontana’s paintings similarly portray a ravaged yet ebullient organic beauty that hovers between the forces of destruction and regeneration. Renowned for his impressive manual dexterity with roughly hewn cloth, Burri owed his mastery of needle and thread to both his training as a surgeon before the war, and his conscription to the army where he was required to mend and maintain his uniform. Treading the boundary between laceration and repair, his Sacchi are charged with a psychological intensity. “It is sometimes impossible to discern whether a tear and repair was pre-existing in the source material or deliberately introduced by the artist,” writes curator Emily Braun (Ibid., p. 158). Imbued with this dichotomous sense of ruin and repair, Sacco E contends with a process of trauma and catharsis in which the seemingly desolate surface is juxtaposed with restorative stitching. Indeed, in spite of the semblance of dissolution, the painting’s components hold powerfully and resiliently together.
The burlap used to create the present work is instilled with symbolic potency. Pock-marked, patched, and stitched with visceral striations, the work speaks to a fragile and fragmentary post-war world. As the only trace of artistic gesture in the entire composition, the sewn grooves and furrows become a compelling allegory for humanity’s journey towards psycho-social and economic recovery. Equating Burri’s pioneering technique to his medical background, the legendary curator and close friend of the artist James Johnson Sweeny proclaimed: “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 cited in: Exh. Cat., Rome, L’Obelisco, Burri, 1955, n.p.). At once avant-garde and elegiac, conceptually engaging and contextually evocative, Sacco E stands as a work of pivotal innovation within Burri’s highly acclaimed and influential oeuvre.
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