Alberto Burri: The Torment Of Matter

Alberto Burri: The Torment Of Matter

According to legend, when Rauschenberg visited Alberto Burri at his studio in Città di Castello in 1952, the two artists chatted pleasantly in the garden and afterwards, with much ceremony, exchanged paintings. After leaving, Rauschenberg threw all his own works into the Arno River so he could start painting afresh, more like Burri. But the Italian, who wasn’t very impressed with his American colleague’s works, used them as targets for skeet shooting. After picking them up off the ground he told his friends he’d intended to increase the level of art in Rauschenberg’s paintings.

What is certain is that in January 1958, the US magazine “Horizon” published a photo sequence entitled “Birth of an Art Form” which showed Burri shooting at a beer can and then mounting the shot-riddled container on a support as a sculpture. The performance made history and served as an inspiration to artists like Niki de Saint-Phalle, Yves Klein, Christo and many others.

The United States, more than, and before any other country, admired Burri’s works. Milton Gendel, the famous US critic, wrote the following succinct comment beneath a photo portrait of Burri: “A funny character. Left medicine to go into art. One of the Italian artists who managed to make a name for themselves abroad as well as at home after World War II.

Contemporary Italian critics, on their side, produced only incomplete and incomprehensible critiques in the conviction that “depth equals obscurity”. The dominant culture propounded by arts authorities, academies and museums considered painting as a series of flat canvases, as horizontal surfaces covered in signs, forms and splashes of colour that needed to be deciphered. Paranoid from their ideology, critics viewed Burri’s opus as a kind of mathematical-philosophical sublimate, a highly cerebral art form accessible only to a few of the elect via a logical analysis based on equations. They could not explain a kind of beauty that was both incomprehensible and dramatic, and very far removed from the divertissements of Piero Manzoni, and from Lucio Fontana’s incisions.

Much has been written about the symbolism of Burri’s materials and signs. The Umbrian maestro spoke to a world that was proud of its own conviction that there exists a logic that only operates through the artistic process. In such explicitly material works, one “feels” the torment which the artist inflicts on matter, and only when one has wholly identified with that matter does one perceive its suffering.

Alberto Burri, a notoriously reserved character and a tireless hunter, was born in Città di Castello. A non-practicing surgeon, he took up painting while a prisoner war in 1943 in the notorious Criminal Camp in Hereford, Texas. Putting aside his paintbrushes and easels, he first created Catrami (Tars) (1948-9), then Muffe (Moulds) (1950-1) and Sacchi (Bags) in 1952. These famous jute rags scandalized the art world, sweeping through it like an earthquake. Burri’s incomprehensible genius lies in the simple fact that he is able to transform commonplace materials recovered from trash cans into pieces of art that are both moving and bordering on the sublime.

Then came the periods of Combustioni, Ferri (Irons), Legni (Wood) and Cellotex (from 1954 onwards), ending up with the Cretti (Cracks). His most impressive work, which has the power of a masterpiece, is without doubt the Grande Cretto di Gibellina (Great Crack of Gibellina) (1981), in which he covered the ruins of a Sicilian village destroyed by an earthquake with a layer of concrete. The result looks like a shroud thrown over a corpse, with the old roads represented by deep furrows.

After nearly 20 years, Italian critics in 1973 accepted Burri’s “antiquadri” (antipaintings) and awarded him the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei’s Premio Feltrinelli for graphic arts. The award cited “the quality and inventiveness of his apparently simple graphic works produced with the most up-to-date techniques. They perfectly complement the artist’s paintings, representing not just a collateral aspect but a kind of vivification that combines extreme rigour with an incomparable purity of expression”.

A few marvellous examples of Burri’s antipaintings and graphics are available on our site.