by Roderick Conway Morris

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Maurizio Bosio
Ugo Nespolo in his Turin studio

Back to the Futurists: Nespolo's World

By Roderick Conway Morris
FLORENCE 28 November 2009


Ugo Nespolo's works bridge the worlds of the artist and the craftsman, the traditional and the modern, the child and the adult.

The paintings, sculptures and other playful objects raised in the fantastic nursery of Mr. Nespolo's imagination bring to mind that whole new race of Futurist toys proposed in the 'Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe' which, it was envisaged, would not only delight children but also be 'very useful to adults, too, keeping them young, agile, joyful, self-assured, ready for anything, indefatigable, instinctive and intuitive.'

The authors of this manifesto, published in 1915, were Giacomo Balla and Fortunato Depero, whose works Mr. Nespolo has collected for many years. He is also the owner of around 4,000 manuscripts relating to Depero's life and works, and the exotic waistcoat, designed by Depero, which Filippo Tomasso Marinetti, the founder of Futurism, can be seen sporting in a famous photograph taken in Turin in 1922.

The Futurists hated museums, or at least affected to - Marinetti likened them to cemeteries in the first 1909 Futurist Manifesto - but Mr. Nespolo is an avid enthusiast for them. One favorite, he says, is the Bargello in Florence, which contains some of Italy's greatest sculptures - from Donatello's 'David' and 'St. George' to Michelangelo's 'Bacchus' and Giambologna's 'Mercury' - alongside an outstanding collection of ceramics, glass, metalwork, ivories, enamels and other applied arts.

Mr. Nespolo was invited by the Bargello to stage a retrospective of his work in its temporary exhibition space, the first time it has ever hosted a contemporary artist. Mr. Nespolo's 'Novantiqua' - the name is a word play on new and old - is curated by Beatrice Paolozzi Strozzi, the museum's director; it runs until Jan. 10.

The show consists of 40 paintings and sculptures in ceramic, glass, bronze and other media, spanning Mr. Nespolo's career. It includes three pieces, 'Novantiqua 1-3,' inspired by the Bargello itself and made especially for this exhibition.

Museums have long been a theme for Mr. Nespolo, as demonstrated by three earlier works among the paintings here.

'Andy Dandy,' from 1973, features a bizarre display of three identical flower paintings being observed by a man accompanied by a bulldog on a leash; 'Ferrarese Suggestions' from 1982, offers a view of an imaginary gallery containing paintings by the Metaphysical artist Giorgio de Chirico; and 'The Beautiful Gestures,' from 1999, presents a vista of a museum, or other exhibition, of modern art.

The images are constructed from jigsaw-like patterns of wooden pieces, painted in glossy, primary acrylic colors, suggesting a vision of childlike wonder and simplicity.

In the three 'Novantiqua' pieces, which employ the same technique, Mr. Nespolo has depicted internal views of the Bargello, reinforcing the chromatic richness with gilded sections, reminiscent of the golden backdrops of precious Byzantine mosaics and medieval Italian paintings. Among the exhibits, museum visitors - gazing at the displays, reading guide-books, taking photographs and sketching - themselves constitute unwitting living statues amid the antique marbles and bronzes.

Mr. Nespolo was born in 1941 in Mosso, northeast of Turin. He studied at Turin's Fine Arts Academy and still has his studio in the city, in a former porcelain factory.

In the 1960s, he made entertaining contributions to the avant-garde movements of the time, from Pop Art to Arte Povera and Fluxus. But by the 1970s he was experimenting with unfashionable materials associated with the decorative arts of the past.

Using embroidery, alabaster, ebony and mother-of-pearl, porcelain, silver and wood inlay - the last adapted to make his jigsaw-like paintings - he created an array of works calculated to break down the barriers between traditional crafts and contemporary artistic expression. Between 1966 and 1977 he also found time to shoot 11 surreal, experimental short films.

A number of his Dadaesque, finely wrought works figure here: mosaic panels made of tinted alabaster; 'Trance de View' (1978-79), a large fan made of dyed wood, silver and mother-of-pearl, which features tiny models of surfers riding the waves of the fan's undulating surface; 'Gentleman's Agreement' (1978), a miniature hat stand adorned with silver men's hats; and 'The Ground Floor of the Kensington Museum' (1978), a mysterious array of hammers with gnarled silver heads and smooth ebony handles, in a fine wooden case with an inlaid top.

By the early 1980s, Mr. Nespolo was also making ceramics and blown glass; since the 1990s, he has been designing and illustrating limited-edition books using stencil and hand-coloring techniques. Examples of all these are on display, as well as bronze sculptures in the form of books, lettering and a corrugated cardboard-like mask.

The artist's bold graphic style has become widely known as a result of commissions for around 150 posters for events and publicity campaigns, including for Campari, for which Depero designed the miniature conical, one-shot bottle that is still in use. Mr. Nespolo has also designed furniture, tableware, wallpaper and neckties.

During the 1980s, he spent extended periods in New York, where he had his first opportunity to design stage sets, for a production of Ferruccio Busoni's opera 'Turandot' at Stanford, California. In 1990 he did the sets and costumes for Giovanni Paisiello's 'Don Chisciotte' at the Teatro dell'Opera in Rome and, in 1998, for Donizetti's 'Elisir d'amore' for the same theater.

In his most recent venture in opera, he made the costumes and sets for 'Madame Butterfly' for the 2007 Puccini Festival at Largo della Torre on the Tuscan coast. The exhibition includes a dizzying video showing the artist applying his irrepressible energy and pyrotechnic creativity to the task.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024