Remembering Emilio Vedova, a leader of Arte Informale
Nov 27, 2019
This winter in Milan, Italy, the Palazzo Reale will host an exhibition celebrating what would have been the 100th birthday of the Italian abstract painter Emilio Vedova, who died in 2006. Born in Venice in 1919, Vedova rose to fame in the decades following World War II thanks to his multitudinous contributions to the 20th century Italian avant-garde. At various moments, Vedova was a member of several influential artist collectives, including Corrente (Current)—a movement dedicated to openness and anti-fascism during the Spanish Civil War—and Fronte Nuovo delle Arti, which was founded after the war to advocate for the embrace of the latest developments in European Modernism. In 1946, Vedova signed the Manifesto of Realism for Sculptors and Painters, also known as “Beyond Guernica.” The manifesto celebrated the figurative, anti-war stance Picasso asserted in his Guernica painting of 1937 and called painting and sculpting acts of “participation in the total reality of mankind.” It furthermore stated that the “positive function of individualism” was “exhausted.” Like other signatories of this manifesto, Vedova had been a member of the Italian Resistance Movement that opposed Nazi Germany and the fascist Italian Social Republic during the war. In practical terms, their post-Guernica manifesto meant they believed realistic, figurative art was the best way of confronting the political and social ills of their society. Yet, over the years the self-taught Vedova changed his mind, taking more and more refuge in his own imagination. He finally came to believe that the only way to truly move Italian art forward was through idiosyncratic, individualized abstract art. By 1952, Vedova had abandoned all of his previous associations and instead joined what came to be known as the Gruppo degli Otto (Group of Eight), which also included Afro Basaldella, Renato Birolli, Antonio Corpora, Mattia Moreni, Ennio Morlotti, Giuseppe Santomaso and Giulio Turcato. Though it only existed for two years, this group proved to be truly transformative for Vedova, because when it showed together at the 1952 Venice Biennial it came to be regarded as the beginning of the abstract art movement known as Arte Informale.
A Global Awakening
Arte Informale is often referred to as the Italian equivalent of Abstract Expressionism. However, this is kind of a lazy, short-hand explanation that ignores the nuanced differences between the two positions. It also sidesteps the reality that both positions were part of a much larger global awakening in the arts. Along with Tachism, Art Autre, Art Brut, the work of the Gutai Group, Nouveau Realism and several other international manifestations of the phenomenon, Abstract Expressionism and Arte Informale were simply attempts by Post War artists to break free of historic limitations by concocting personal abstract methods of creating art. The main reason Arte Informale is so often compared to Abstract Expressionism is that certain painters associated with both positions mobilized a similar visual style defined by energetic, gestural brush marks on large scale canvasses. Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline might be prime examples of Abstract Expressionists who used those techniques, and Emilio Vedova is a prime example of an Arte Informale artist who did the same.
Emilio Vedova - Franco's Spain, 1962. Ink on paper. 12 1/2 x 17 3/4" (31.6 x 44.0 cm). L-B Foundation Fund. MoMA Collection. © 2019 The Museum of Modern Art
Interestingly, Vedova moved in a social circle with Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline. Vedova befriended one of their main supporters, Peggy Guggenheim, when she visited Venice in 1946; the influential collector bought several works from Vedova and even helped him exhibit in the United States. But to be fair to both Vedova and the Abstract Expressionists, their work is not really the same at all. The Abstract Expressionists considered themselves essentially American, and they strived to shrug off the legacy of Europe in order to express something unique to their culture. On the contrary, Vedova perceived himself as a citizen of the world. Upon an extended visit to Brazil in 1954, he became entranced by the ways nature exerted its power in that place. He described being transformed by the “whole new geography…Cities that swallow men up…Nature as melodrama, hurricanes like the Last Judgement.” He later talked about his own works using this same kind of language, describing them not as paintings, but as “earthquakes.”
Emilio Vedova - Tensione, N 4 V, 1959. Oil on canvas. 145.5 x 196 cm, framed. Signed, dated and titled on the reverse. Galleria Blu, Milan (stamp on the reverse) / European Private Collection. © 2019 Dorotheum GmbH & Co KG
Another quality that made Vedova distinctive was the way in which he insinuated his work into exhibition spaces. In addition to his large-scale canvases, which would hang in unexpected ways, he would sometimes hang massive swarms of small paintings on a wall together, tightly compacted like posters slapped on an urban wall. He also made giant, circular canvasses, sometimes joining the circles together perpendicularly on the floor. In 1961, he created his first “Plurimi,” or Multiple, a type of free-standing assemblage of painted surfaces. In 1964, he exhibited what is considered to be his Plurimi masterpiece at documenta III in Kassel, Germany—Absurdes Berliner Tagebuch ´64 (Absurd Berlin Diary '64). The work resembled a ramshackle refugee village, or the bombed out remains of a city. It seemed like a figurative, anti-war statement, but also each of the Plurimi could be read as simply replicating the abstract compositions Vedova was using in his paintings.
Emilio Vedova - Untitled, 1984. Paint on canvas. 120 x 90 cm, framed. Signed and dated on the reverse and on the stretcher. Galleria Salvatore + Caroline Ala, Milan / European Private Collection. © 2019 Dorotheum GmbH & Co KG
Perhaps the most telling aspect of his exhibition style was that Vedova preferred his paintings to be shown together in large groups. We are used to seeing a single painting by an artist, or even if it is a retrospective the paintings are hung far enough apart from each other that they can be considered separately, like special artifacts. Vedova often clumped his paintings together, piled them on top of each other or otherwise hung them in non-traditional ways, almost as if to say the individual objects were not intended to be reverent. It was the overall effect that he wanted viewers to think about. This attitude that each of his paintings was not a prized commodity again separated Vedova from his contemporaries in the United States. This attitude is also one of the reasons he is considered to have been a major influence on Arte Povera artists. Like them, Vedova was never worried about satisfying existing systems of art; he was often content to disembowel them instead.
Featured image: Emilio Vedova - Senza Titolo. Oil on paper applied on cardboard. 24 x 34 cm. Statement of authenticity on the reverse: My work / E. Vedova: stamp Gallery Il Traghetto, Venice.
All images used for illustrative purposes only
By Phillip Barcio