Un Art Pauvre

February 7, 2010By Heidi EllisonArchive

The Riches of
Poor Art

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“Igloo di Giap” (1968), by Mario Merz. © Centre Pompidou/Dist. RMN-GP © Adagp, Paris 2016

For the past few millennia, fine art has mostly been the exclusive preserve of the affluent, who could afford the best materials, artists and artisans. Then, in the anti-establishment 1960s, when the impulse was to turn the world on its head, the Arte Povera movement was born in Italy. This revolutionary “poor art,”

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“Manifesto” (1967), Alighiero Boetti’s list of Arte Povera artists. © Centre Pomidou/Dist. RMN-GP © Adagp, Paris 2016

which was supposed to be freed from the marketplace but is now affordable only to the very rich, is being spotlighted in a multidisciplinary exhibition, “Un Art Pauvre,” at the Centre Pompidou.

It’s nice to see those contrarian ideas brought back to the forefront. The show, which features the major protagonists from the movement in 1960s-70s Italy, starts with a few works by precursors and “relatives” of the proponents of Arte Povera – Alberto Burri, Piero Manzoni and Lucio Fontana – then moves on to the hardcore Povera works. Their interpretations of “poverty” vary widely in form and materials. Giuseppe Penone went back to nature with his “Il Verde del Bosco con Ramo” (1987), a painting of trees made with sap and chlorophyll that incorporates a real branch. We also see amusing photos of the artist’s performances, in one of which he literally hugs a tree, wryly titled “The Tree Will Remember the Contact” (1968).

Not all of the artists worked with “poor” or natural materials. Michelangelo Pistoletto, who often used mirrors, exhibits his own sense of humor – another attribute shared by many of these artists – in such works as “Metrocubo d’Infinito” (1966), a cube of roped-together mirrors facing inward, presumably reflecting each other to infinity, safe from prying eyes, and the startling “Donna al Cimitero (1962-74), a large mirror printed with the image of a woman, seen from behind, bending over tending a grave, which manages to be sexual (but not sexy) and tragic at the same time and makes you do a double-take every time you glance it from across the room.

Luciano Fabro used fine materials – Murano glass and silk – to create a rather hideous work (beauty was not a concern of Arte Povera), “Vetro di Murano, Seta Naturale (Piede)” (1968-72), a huge greenish-glass bird’s claw topped with a frilly turquoise silk column.

Mario Merz’s “Igloo di Giap” (1968) combines two unexpected materials: clay-filled plastic bags and neon lights spelling out a famous quote from the Vietnam People’s Army’s General Võ Nguyên Giáp: “If the enemy masses his forces, he loses ground; if he spreads out, he loses strength.”

Mario Ceroli, an interesting sculptor not well known outside of Italy, is represented by the Pop-influenced “Cassa Sistina” (1966), a carefully worked wooden cabin inhabited by carved male and female silhouettes, which can be glimpsed through various openings. Winner of the sculpture prize at the Venice Biennale in 1960, it still has the shipping stickers on the outside.

Like its granddaddy, Dada, the radical Arte Povera movement was short-lived (late 1960s-early 1970s), but made the public look at the everyday in new ways and had a profound influence on what we consider art. For proof, after visiting the exhibition, just take a walk through the contemporary collection of the Centre Pompidou.

The museum, which has one of the world’s largest collections of Arte Povera, is celebrating the movement with a number of events. Its influence on architecture and design is examined in the continuation of the exhibition on the fifth floor and on music in the festival ManiFeste, while related films are on show in the museum’s Cinema and in the exhibition.

Heidi Ellison

Centre Pompidou: 19, rue Beaubourg, 75004 Paris. Tel.: 01 44 78 12 33. Open 11am-9pm. Closed Tuesday. Métro: Rambuteau. Admission: €14. Through August 29, 2016. www.centrepompidou.fr

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