2015 American Association for Italian Studies Annual Conference, University of Colorado, Boulder
IAS-Sponsored Session

Unattended Figures: Revisiting Figuration in Postwar Italian Art, 1946–1980

UMC 247
Thursday, March 26, 2015, 2:30–3:45PM

Organizer and Chair: Tenley Bick, University of California, Los Angeles

In the years following World War II, the direction of Italian art was largely informed by cultural debates that set realism and abstraction in conflict as viable creative strategies for the postwar period. Realism, primarily manifest in figurative painting, was problematically associated with Communism and criticized as an untimely return to neoclassical ideals endorsed by Fascism, and largely fell out of favor by the end of the 1950s. By contrast, abstraction––both geometric and gestural––while also politically contentious due to nationalistic associations with French cubism, art informel and American Abstract Expressionism, ultimately gained traction over the course of the 1950s and predominantly dominated the 1960s. While scholarship has focused on the numerous innovations and historical importance of abstraction for key developments in postwar and contemporary Italian art, little consideration has been given to the continued history and significance of figuration for the same period, instead leaving it largely unattended from the end of neorealismo in the early 1950s to the emergence of the Transavanguardia in the late 1970s. This session requests papers that address the complex, understudied history of figuration in postwar Italian art from 1946 to 1980, with particular interest in topics that consider the politics of figuration, its relationship to the formation of postwar Italian identity, and/or its significance for Italian modernism and avant-garde movements of the period. Paper topics might include: Arti figurative exhibitions and the project of postwar cultural renovation; figuration in the Fronte nuovo delle arti; the image of the “new man” and postwar Italian design; postwar figuration and the remediation of Italian futurism; nuova figurazione; postwar figuration and cultural exchange between the USSR and Italy; and the figure in Italian pop, among others.


Adrian R. Duran, University of Nebraska at Omaha
"Revolutionary Figures in Postwar Italian Painting: The Fronte Nuovo delle Arti"

Abandoning the notion of figuration as regression, this paper will return to Italian painting during the first years of the Cold War and position representation as a centrally innovative language for the arts, as formally synthetic and politically charged as has long been presumed of its abstract counterparts. To this end, the careers of Fronte Nuovo delle Arti-affiliated artists such as Renato Guttuso, Armando Pizzinato, Giulio Turcato, Emilio Vedova, and Giuseppe Zigaina will be studied as both refractions of the volatile political landscape of postwar Italy and catalysts in reintroducing the Italian circumstance to international Modernism. These artists’ images of workers’ struggles and contemporary political events were important mechanisms of historical reckoning and self-determination in the wake of Fascism, civil war, and the emergent hysteria of the Cold War and are thus essential waypoints for any mapping of the period.

This study of individual works will be buttressed by attention to the contemporary discourse on artistic realism promoted by authors such as Mario de Micheli, Palmiro Togliatti, Francesco Arcangeli, and Lionello Venturi. In doing so, this investigation will attend to the fluidity of practice that allowed the art of this period to defy the critical binary of realism and abstraction so often presumed of postwar art. Ultimately, this paper will reveal Italian painting of these first postwar years to be a more permeable and synthetic practice than generally understood and a harbinger of the fugitive taxonomies of the last decades of Italian Modernism.

Tenley Bick, University of California, Los Angeles
"Figure as Model: The Early Work of Michelangelo Pistoletto"

Within the field of postwar art history, figuration as form and practice has long been regarded as a misguided pursuit, associated with outmoded ideologies, reactionary politics, and uncritical, traditional artistic work. This reading, however, has ignored more nuanced histories and dismissed differential models of avant-gardism that complicate or challenge the politicized historical narrative it supports. In response to this problematic, this paper proposes a counter-model for postwar art history by shedding light on the formative role of figuration in the work of a central member of the European neo-avant-garde, Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto (b. 1933). This paper studies the artist’s exploration of figuration and writing on the subject that framed his early work––from the little-known paintings of isolated figures and series of self-portraits he made as an emerging artist in Turin in the late 1950s, to the mirror paintings that established him––if problematically––as an international player in Pop Art and New Realism by the early 1960s, to the pivotal Plexiglas works immediately preceding the artist’s Arte povera years. By situating Pistoletto’s work within the cultural context of postwar Italy and Europe in the 1950s and 1960s, figuration emerges as neither pre-modern nor critical, but rather as a driving question and critical model for many of the interdisciplinary, linguistic, and conceptual innovations made by the Italian neo-avant-garde of the 1960s. Discussion of work by contemporary Italian artists including Mario Merz, Mauro Chessa, and the Nuova figurazione movement, as well as that of international artists serves to situate and qualify Pistoletto’s experimentation with figuration in context, ultimately complicating existing narratives of modernism and post-war avant-gardism in turn.

Ross K. Elfline, Carleton College
"‘The Only Architecture Will Our Lives’: Superstudio Supersurface and Architectural Embodiment"

In Superstudio’s iconic 1969 project The Continuous Monument—perhaps the signature work of Italy’s Radical Architecture movement—form dominates. In image after image, viewers are treated to the unnerving extension of a cold monolith as it snakes its way over assorted exotic terrains. Rarely, however, is an inhabitant to be found. Rather, as is the case with so many of Radical Architecture’s designs, the focus is on the authority intrinsic to the forms of International Style modernism when its logic is extended to its horrific conclusion.

It was surprising, then, to see so many bodies populate the collective’s 1972 work Supersurface, produced for the Museum of Modern Art’s pioneering exhibition “Italy: The New Domestic Landscape.” Images of hippies, dropouts, and other outcasts writhe around on the ground atop a comprehensive grid covering all habitable surfaces of the landscape. The accompanying statement informs us that the newly nomadic residents of the Earth will plug into the grid for whatever immediate demands need gratifying along their itinerant wanderings.

This paper attempts to understand this shift from abstract architectural form to bodily-activated system. This return of the body in Superstudio’s imagery complements a broader shift in Italian architectural culture, one that we might call the “anthropological turn.” Of special consideration are the gendered aspects of Superstudio’s focus on an embodied architecture: indeed, it is the liberated and eroticized female body that comes to stand in for a broader sense of political and social self-valorization.

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