When we talk about the most important avant-garde movements of the 20th century in Europe, an important spot is taken by the Italian Arte Povera, which had emerged in the early 1960s and had a tremendous impact on the world of art for good ten years to follow. Also known as “poor” or “impoverished art”, it gathered a dozen artists from Italy around famous critic Germano Celant, who recognized their common tendency to use everyday, “worthless” materials for their artworks, in response to the modernist abstract painting that had dominated European, and arts worldwide, in the 1950s. This rebellious, and even radical movement took place at all the major Italian cities, attacking the values of established institutions of culture, industry and the state itself. Although Arte Povera officially stopped existing as an organized movement in the 1970s, its impact and influence can still be felt in all spheres of art, particularly through the production of conceptual sculpture and the work of its participants still working today.
At a time when abstract painting and the interest in it began declining in Italy, Arte Povera found the way to promote its own rebellion towards it. There are many factors that influenced and directed the group’s intentions to reject the established artistic notions, although as it often happens, they also embraced some of their aspects as they saw fit. The movement mainly opposed the ever-presence of American Minimalism, but did not fully reject the mystery it involved - rather, they aimed to remove its scientific rationalism and to create comic, absurd juxtapositions that call to mind the works of Dadaist artists. In fact, among the different sources of inspirations for the Arte Povera artists, there were the strange constructions of Dadaism, the pre-Conceptual artworks of fellow Italians Piero Manzoni and Lucio Fontana with his Spatial paintings, the “ready-made” pieces by Alberto Burri, who also relied on the use of poor materials in order to make artwork, as well as international tendencies in arts, such as Art Informel, Nouveau Réalism, Happenings, Dau al Set. Furthermore, they joined the wave of political radicalism that began showing its force across the continent, eventually culminating in the street protests of 1968.
The term “arte povera”, literally translated from Italian as “poor art”, was coined by critic Germano Celant, who in 1967 organized the first exhibition which put together the works of those who leaned towards the tendency. The venue was Genoa’s Galleria La Bertesca and the show title, Arte Povera e IM Spazio, announced the group’s dedication to raw, everyday materials. That same year, Germano Celant also wrote the movement’s manifesto for Flash Art publication, stating that the idea was to break down the barrier between art and life, mainly through the creation of performance and, above all, assemblage art made out of such items. He described the process as the continuous experimentation, concerned above all with the physical qualities of the medium and the characteristics of these materials. Assemblage, a very popular medium in the 1950s and 60s, served the Arte Povera makers right, as both wanted to overtake the abstract painting and give way to physical forms in space, ones that walk the line between sculpture and installation, too.
By using simple, artisanal materials, but also by referencing consumerist culture, the “impoverished” creatives wanted to break away from modernity and go back to tradition, the “old” way of making artwork. Still, many of their pieces happen to contain the “new” elements and items as well, as if to show the effects of industrialization and modernization, to point out link between the present and the past, and the way time influences our understanding of the world, thus the art as well. But apart from the sculptural characteristics, they also employed performance and installation as important aspects of their vision, with each artist creating an individual relationship with these media, as well as with the viewers. Many find the key to Arte Povera’s success in the consistency of approach ushered by Germano Celant as its most important figure.
Soil, wood, rags, scraps of newspapers, rocks, clothing, rope, concrete, glass, metal… These were only some of the materials used by the most prominent Italian, but also international creatives, who had part in Arte Povera. Whether they are hung, framed, applied to walls or posed on the ground, their artworks evoked the “worthless” quality. Here, we have a stack of asbestos blocks by Alighiero Boetti, a tiled floor covered in newspaper by Luciano Fabbro; mounds of soil formed into solid shapes by Pino Pascali; the organic igloo by Mario Merz; the famous mirrors by Michelangelo Pistoletto, as perhaps the movement’s most significant name; the “natural” artworks of Giuseppe Penone, Gilberto Zorio’s fragile installations… we shouldn’t forget the pieces by Giovanni Anselmo, Piero Gilardi, Giulio Paolini, Emilio Prini, Marisa Merz, Pier Paolo Calzolari… Although Arte Povera gathered mostly Italian artists, other international creatives also contributed their talents, including the great Jannis Kounellis, as well as Joseph Beuys, Carl Andre, Eva Hesse and Richard Long.
Some four decades after Arte Povera seized to exist as a movement, its artists are still among the most prolific ones, as they managed to build lasting reputations and rich artistic careers on their own. Their contributions to the group, however, continue to catch the attention of institutions and collectors even today, as an aspect of post-modernist arts that made great changes. Its influence can be noted in the field of Land art, as well as the ideas of the Japanese mono-ha group, which also rejected technological modernism and embraced the essence of materials. In recent years, there have been numerous exhibitions dedicated to the Italian tendency, and its artworks hold an important spot in museum collections around the world. To contemporary artists wishing to return to the everyday, to nature in its physical and chemical aspects, to space and language in their pure forms, Arte Povera will always serve as the primary and inexhaustible font of ideas.
Editors’ Tip: Arte Povera
The Goetz Collection has one of the most comprehensive collections of Arte Povera; it is presented in this publication and probed for its relevance for today’s youngest generation of artists. Photographs and modern-day documents shed light on the far-reaching impact of this artistic awakening, which has lost none of its momentousness. Foreword by Bernhard Mendes Bürgi, contributions by Luca Cerizza, Rainald Schumacher, Christiane Meyer-Stoll, Angela Vettese, graphic design by Sofie's Kommunikationsdesign, ed. Bernhard Mendes Bürgi.
Featured images: Michelangelo Pistoletto - Muretto di Straci, 1967, via Wikimedia Commons; Pino Pascali - 32 Square Meters of Sea, 1967, via Museo Polignano a Mare; Mario Merz - Le case girano intorno a noi o noi giriamo intorno alle case?, 1994, via Guggenheim; Jannis Kounellis - Untitled, 1968, via Tate; Gilberto Zorio - Star (To Purify Words), 1980, via Guggenheim. All images used for illustrative purposes only.