PRINT May 1990


Anche di notte il Monte Bianco è alto 4810 metri. E la Pietà Rondanini di notte è sola con se stessa. E l’ultimo quartetto di Beethoven è conturbante anche quando nessuno lo suona. (Even at night Mont Blanc is 4,810 meters high. And at night the Rondanini Pietà is alone with herself. And Beethoven’s last quartet is disturbing even when no one plays it.)

—Fausto Melotti

THE ART OF FAUSTO MELOTTI—secret, lyrical, poetic—opens a window onto our century, illuminating the intersection between classical culture and the birth of the avant-garde. Born into an upper-middle-class Italian family in 1901, Melotti grew up in a milieu still resolutely 19th century in feeling. Yet by 1919 he had found his way to the Casa d’arte of the Futurist Fortunato Depero,1 who was living in Rovereto, Melotti’s birthplace. The experience with Depero, shared with his cousin Carlo Belli, a theoretician of Italian abstraction, and the architect Gino Pollini, a founding member of Gruppo 7,2 brought Melotti into the orbit of the avant-garde at the same time that he was studying the classical arts—painting, sculpture, and especially music—at the academies in Turin and Milan.

Such contradictory influences were not unique to Melotti but may be said to characterize the entire international generation of the mid 1920s which had to take into account the “classical” choices of Giorgio de Chirico and the Parisian “Rappel à l’ordre” (Call to order) while living in a tense rapport with Futurism and trembling with admiration for Piet Mondrian and Theo Van Doesburg. The result, for Melotti, was an art that continually filtered, sifted, and integrated elements from multiple artistic contexts, the synthesis of discordant tendencies in the lifelong attempt to create the total artwork.

It is no accident that the small group of Melotti, Belli, and Pollini had an effect on the direction taken by the rationalist architectural movement of Gruppo 7, which was founded in Milan in 1926. The notion of an integrated, that is, interdisciplinary, art practice, and the accompanying solidarity between artists and architects, is a constant in the best Italian art until the 1960s, following a line of influence from the ricostruzione futurista dell’universo (The Futurist reconstruction of the universe) to Kasimir Malevich to Van Doesburg to Le Corbusier.

Melotti, pursuing many artistic directions at once, produced nothing concrete in the late 1920s. His first integrated work, however, the 1930 fountain for the Bar Craja, in Milan, may be seen as the fruit of a long period of internal development, and, at the same time, a tacit manifesto of environmental art as it came to be understood in 1930s Milan. Pollini (with Luigi Figini and Luciano Baldessari) designed the bar along rigid, rationalist lines. Melotti inserted his fountain, consisting of long-limbed figures, vertically and diagonally deployed between the tight vertical elements of a wall. The sculptural style followed that of Arturo Martini, the most typical Novecento exponent of classical primitivism. Idealization of the figure and archaism coexisted with the bare Bauhaus-like architecture. Rational rigor and classical tradition: functionalism standing alongside its antithesis, historicism.

At the 1933 V Milan Triennale Melotti and Lucio Fontana, who had met in Milan in 1929, placed two large sculptures into the space of the Villa-Studio for an Artist, designed by Figini and Pollini. As with the earlier fountain for the Bar Craja, the sculptures were not art placed in a setting but, rather, intrinsic to the work site, an example of environmental art. The villa encodes the characteristics of the new genre; the sculptures enter the space and their scale is elevated to that of the architecture. Fontana’s Bagnante (Bather) stretches out along the entire short side of the pool; Melotti’s Fanciullo a cavallo (Young boy on horseback) occupies the wall of the courtyard and is painted polychrome—a synthesis of painting and sculpture on an architectural scale.

Melotti began making abstract sculpture after he joined the group of artists that met, beginning in 1934, at the Galleria II Milione in Milan. In many respects, this work was a confirmation of the notion of a total art and was more than ever seen in the context of rationalist architecture, as is all Italian abstract art of this period. In addition to being an aggregate of all the arts, total art implied the coexistence, without contradiction, of the abstract and the figural within the same artist’s work.3

Within the universe of total art, abstraction is a part of the whole that is represented by Modern art. Belli, writing in Kn, a crucial book-manifesto about Italian abstraction, said that the goal of total art was “to conclude, to sum up, to unleash some meaning from this half century of agitation.”4 The art that he describes in Kn is embodied perfectly in Melotti’s white, nude, abstract sculptures. His is an art that is not only abstract, not only nonhuman, but entirely nonnatural: art art. “Art art” is the result of a reasoned examination of Modern art and is projected beyond abstraction itself. It is art that addresses its own concept, which is identical to itself:

Art is.
It is nothing except itself.
Art is not pain, not pleasure, it is not hot, not cold.
It is in no way a human fact.5

Eighteen pieces of abstract sculpture by Melotti were exhibited at the Galleria II Milione in 1935, selected from the group he made in 1934 and ’35. They were made of plaster, clay, bronze, or painted or chrome-plated metal: bare metal, or white surfaces. The title was always a number, the structure reductive, in terms of both materials and means. The parts were meant to convey a musical unit, a sound: lines in resonance (Scultura n. 25, plaster, 1935, not in show); a cluster of lines that vibrate at the height of the golden mean, like a musical chord (Scultura n. 17, metal, 1935); a sound wave (Scultura n. 12, plaster, 1934). A plaster sculpture portraying a logarithmic spiral (Scultura n. 11, 1934) is, at the same time, somewhat like a treble clef. Writing 40 years later, Melotti made explicit the musical structure of these works: “There is a musical space structured in the building of the harmony, and a musical tempo in the scansion of the counterpoint: imitation, canon, variation, even the simple unfolding of the melody. Seeking to connect myself to these principles, in the abstract works of ’34-’35 I also brought into play the renunciation of the turbid pleasures of matter.”6

The music-sculpture equation is expressed in spatial terms; the sculptor sees the space in music and translates it with the means most appropriate to music, time. Elements like the ellipse, the musical wave, are fixed in this phase as morphemes destined to be definitively realized in his later work. Their arrangement is dynamic yet integrated: void/solid, light/dark (Scultura n. 23, plaster, 1935, not in show), concave/convex (Scultura n. 12). The concept of simplification as a historical criterion, an extreme achievement of abstraction, is in agreement with the theories of Van Doesburg. But Melotti also understands the category “simple” in terms of the idea of the classical and the Mediterranean: a classicism interpreted with harmony, which is a mathematical calculation and a musical norm, and therefore a way of guiding geometry beyond itself.

The precepts of the last theoretical works by Van Doesburg, the extremist of abstraction, are observed by Melotti in numerous ways. Van Doesburg, working during the 1920s, insists in his writing on reduction and on mathematical painting. “Only the act of thinking, with a rapidity that is without doubt superior to that of light, creates,”7 he writes in Art concret. Melotti takes this up in his introduction to a 1935 exhibition: “Art is the angelic, geometric feeling. It addresses the intellect, not the senses.” And Melotti continues, setting out his theorem: “The architecture of the Greeks, the painting of Piero della Francesca, the music of Bach, rational architecture, are exact arts. The forma mentis of their creators is a mathematical forma mentis.”8

Van Doesburg also had published Toward the White Painting, his manifesto on art concret: “WHITE! Simple. THERE IS NOTHING TO READ IN PAINTING. THERE IS SOMETHING TO SEE.”9 One can presume that Melotti was influenced by Van Doesburg in his programmed renunciation of matter, of which every abstract sculpture, beginning with his white sculptures, represents an example. Here a fundamental split occurs with Fontana, who, precisely at this moment, discovered Medardo Rosso’s exploration of matter, and brought himself into line with the matter = space tendency. Melotti, instead, articulates space in a specifically physical-classical sense. He writes, at the time, that he wishes it “were dealt with (given that, in a composition, there are not only spaces, but also forces at work) not only in terms of geometric laws, but also the physical laws of the composition of forces (static, cinematic).”10 This is a notable deviation from the ideas of Van Doesburg, who was open to non-Euclidean geometry; for his part, Melotti reproposed classical mechanics and physics.

In 1936, a year after the II Milione exhibition, Melotti created a key work, Costante uomo (Constant man), as part of an environmental installation in the Sala della coerenza (Hall of coherence), designed by B.B.P.R.11 for the VI Milan Triennale. The 12-piece sculpture was evidence of Melotti’s environmental ideas and, at the same time, an overt statement of his adoration of de Chirico. The mannequins, lined up and attached to metal supports that divided the room, seemed to have walked out of a de Chirico painting, taking their places within the essential and rationalist space. Soft, swollen, smooth, these white materializations attest to the human element within de Chirico’s Metaphysics.

The extent of de Chirico’s influence upon Melotti becomes clear from Belli’s description of a trip he, Melotti, and Gino Ghiringhelli took to Paris in 1937, which was the occasion for the purchase of three paintings by the older master. Without realizing it, Belli describes the paintings as if they were Melotti’s white figures, but with an emphasis on a “poverty of matter” unknown to de Chirico: “Pure mannequins. Feigned poverty of matter. Colors brimming with poetry. . . . The lean de Chirico who has caused us to dream for so many years, the one whom we have always sought everywhere, here he is with three superb, fascinating examples, full of metaphysical hallucination.”12

After 1936, the political situation in Italy created a climate unsympathetic to the rationalist values of Gruppo 7, and the group lost its cohesion. The interference of the fascist regime was felt even in the art world, and Melotti’s artwork changed accordingly, becoming more rhetorical and grander in scale. Melotti’s 1940 installation at the VII Milan Triennale, Allegoria delle quattro arti (Allegory of the four arts [sculpture, decoration, architecture, and painting]), is almost a test case of the new direction manifested in his large-scale public works. The four seated figures, clothed in ample drapery, are impressive in the solemnity of their poses, which isolate them and elevate them from an earthly to a more abstract realm of ideas. Of the four large statues, Decoration, in the guise of ceramic, represents its elevation to high-art status, and the consequent role of decorator imposed on artists by the regime. Ceramic, in fact, is a medium that will assume notable dimensions in Melotti’s production from this point on. The lightness of the extremely thin drapery, which looks like wrinkled paper, is an astounding achievement. (Later, drapery will constitute one of the ethereal, prodigious charms of the fleeting figures in his “Teatrini” [Small theaters] and the aerial sculptures.)

From 1940 to ’43, Melotti worked on two marble groups, Si redimono i campi (The fields are liberated) and Si fondano le città (The cities are established, unfinished), for EUR, the enormous state work site of fascism in Rome, where Mussolini meant to celebrate the power of Italy under his regime, and to exalt the ideal value of its culture. In these pieces, the fixity of the closed forms, the refinement of the anatomical details, and the cold modeling manifest Melotti’s adaptation to the rhetorical and pompous strategies of the regime.

In July 1943 Melotti returned to Milan. The destruction of his studio later that year seriously affected his energies as an artist. This was the beginning of what might be called a phase of creative eclipse. He writes:

For me, the war brought about a period of stasis. This didn’t happen for Fontana, he took shelter from events here [by going to Argentina]. He returned from America with more clear ideas. I confess—the war left me with deep inner torment. I think that one cannot think about making abstract art, if in one’s soul there is something that brings you toward certain . . . figures of desperation.13

A 1944 ceramic piece of the bust of a woman with raised arms, entitled Lettera a Fontana (Letter to Fontana), is a “figure of desperation,” with its perturbed glance and burnt colors. Some painted terra-cotta pieces, including the twin rectangular panels Dopoguerra (After the war, 1946) and Le donne spaventate dagli uccelli (The women frightened by the birds, 1946), are further witness to the devastation wrought by the war. The two tall female shapes in Dopoguerra wander, downcast, among skeletal destroyed houses; a thin central tower emphasizes the hieratic development of the figures, while a bird emerges in flight from the ruins. In the second panel, two female figures turn away from the sight of two birds, which fly off in the opposite direction. The two opposing movements “pull” the space in divergent directions, creating a formal tension that underscores the alarming and strongly emotional content of the piece.

Despite Melotti’s sense of “dislocation” and his decision to take a break from sculptural activity (a period that critical convention has had last until the aerial sculptures of the 1960s), this phase of artistic silence was spent in the exploration of alternative expressive means and the accumulation of new tools that later would prove invaluable. In 1944, for example, Melotti published a book of poetry, Il triste minotauro (The sad minotaur).14 Melotti’s poetry, like the music of his student days and his early sculpture, is an attempt to realize a total art; soon thereafter, he began to paint, influenced by Martini, whose 1945 book, Scultura lingua morta (The dead language of sculpture), proclaimed the death of the sculptural experience and professed a renewed hope in pictorial art. Melotti consequently introduced color into his ceramic and terra-cotta pieces, and then, after 1945, began to focus on a genre intermediary between painting and sculpture —the “Teatrini.”

Melotti’s “Teatrini” are Metaphysical stage sets, modeled in clay, that take off from the example of Martini’s works of the ’30s, with the notable addition of color. The representation of the “real” and the modeling resemble crêche-scene narratives: summary yet descriptive. The three protagonists of La disputa tra l'angelo, il diavolo e la morte (The debate between the angel, the devil and death, 1951) carry on an amicable-seeming conversation in a shallow domestic space. In Le mani (The hands, 1949) the naturalism of the two small, disembodied hands is chilling, even if the piece is painted in soft, benevolent earth tones and reds.

Melotti the ceramist continued to predominate in the ’50s, years in which he produced such large-scale reliefs in painted plaster as Son fuggiti i leoni (The lions have escaped, 1955) and Gli uccelli affamati (The starving birds, 1958). Disparate materials, such as metal, paper, and rags, converge on the plaster surfaces; the narrative is always suggested by the titles, which are capable of creating a climate, a condition. But it is color—purples, mustards, earth-reds, citrus-green, grays—powerfully felt and clearly defined as saturated, vibrant, and tonal, that prevails.

Also from this period is a personal reservoir or archive of the artist, piles of colored paper, a diary without date, called Esercitazioni informali (Informel exercises). These papers contain Melotti’s reflections and response to the various pictorial techniques offered by art informal. He mentions these in passing in a text: “And then Tapiès discovers the world of plasters, of clots, of clays, with the eyes of a sensitive spider; the dragonfly sees Fautrier; dramatic insects see Tobey, Pollock. But the insect still cannot be a measure of the universe.”15

“Creative silence” is for Melotti a relative term. For throughout the 1950s he was at the center of things, receiving great recognition and commissions as the creator of ceramic pieces for interiors and as a partner with the architect Gio Ponti in such large-scale projects as the decoration of the grand patio of the Villa Planchart in Caracas in 1954. Ceramic sculptures decorate a ship; solemn ceramic fireplaces grace elegant apartments. The culmination of Melotti’s work in ceramic was a wall of 700 enameled tiles that was realized for the “Italia ’61” exposition in Turin in 1961. (Fontana’s contribution, in another part of the pavilion, was a neon environment, Fonti di energia [Sources of energy].)

At this point, which one can call the end of Melotti’s environmental work, one already senses a decompressive effect, whereby the long immersion in the ceramics medium and the various experiments open up into a solution that is lighter but still reflective of accumulated knowledge: the aerial sculpture. In Equilibristi (Acrobats, 1959), two figures made from three pieces of metal wire sway from the weight of the small balls that function as their head and feet. Above the metal structure from which they hang rise two heads, suspended in the shadow of a somewhat disheveled solar disk. Absorbed, distant, the heads seem abstracted from the slow, ordered oscillation that occurs beneath them. In their lightness, the aerial sculptures are a formal resolution of Melotti’s lifelong search for an associative language: pure space—air—furnishes the element missing from the prior synthesis. In fact, these works share many concerns with the “Teatrini” and the reliefs, though here the narrative moves from the walls to inhabit immaterial, if perfectly delimited, borders.

Between 1957 and 1960, Melotti introduced brass sheets and wire into his material repertoire. Offering a certain consistency and resistance as a plane, a pillar, or a wall, brass is weightless in effect and a good conductor of light. Now everything travels freely, conveying an idea, a reverie, a shrewdness. The expression or sensation transmitted by the brass works is often one of intense, agonized humanity. A dense emotion emanates from Monumento ai perseguitati politici (Monument to political victims of persecution, 1962), a simple metal structure from which seven figures oscillate, swaying like the bodies of hanged men beneath the brilliant sun.

A group of these aerial sculptures with lyrical subjects were brought together for an exhibition at the Galleria Toninelli in Milan in 1967. Two of the pieces, Preludio I (Prelude I) and Preludio II (Prelude II) had musical subjects. A related series, done in 1967-68, developed the musical ideograms of his abstract sculptures from the ’30s (Contrappunti [Counterpoints], Canoni [Canons], Temi con variazioni [Themes with variations]). Here the musical structures are developed broadly, with a long tempo, lining up over one or more planes as if on the lines of the musical scale. In 1968 Melotti executed the large-scale Scultura A (I Pendoli) (Sculpture A [The pendulums]) and Scultura G (Nove cerchi) (Sculpture G [Nine circles]) in stainless steel, after his Scultura n. 21 of 1935. It is as if he wanted to confirm that he could not move forward unless he were furnished with the complete weight of his past.

Belli, who remained close with Melotti throughout their lives, was aware of the passage the artist had completed. He understood that in order to plumb the entire depth of things accumulated it was necessary to jettison one’s “baggage” and to free oneself from the closed confines of sculpture. In 1968, writing on the occasion of Melotti’s show in Reggio Emilia, Belli issued a call to arms: “Beyond sculpture, beyond everything that we once called sculpture. From here, begin another way of being for art; and transcend the point of arrival of abstract sculpture.”16

Drawing, the secret weapon of every artist of classical bent, supported Melotti in his leap into the void. This was drawing in air, with which, as if with Ariadne’s thread, he oriented, placed, and distributed his tenuous materials in space. The metal threads, the rags, the pieces of colored sheet are the equivalent of pencil traces and colored stains. In reality, the forms assumed by the sheeting, by the netting, by the fabric are plastic modeling, but in essence, it is a form that is continually suggested but not described. In L’amico leone (The friend lion, 1960), a curved metal wire represents the body of the animal; the same wire, curved differently, becomes the flight of a bird in L’uccello profeta (The bird prophet, 1971), or the force of the wind and the water in La tempesta (The tempest, 1973). In Mosé salvato dalle acque (Moses saved from the waters, 1973), the rippled net contains the memory of Melotti’s amazing paper-thin ceramic draperies; in Il colore della notte (The color of the night, 1974), a piece of blue-tinted fabric is the sky; or, in La neve (The snow, 1973), a piece of fabric torn into little pieces falls before outstretched hands.

The economy of means Melotti achieves in these works was especially congenial to the growing narrative demands of his art (during this period Melotti also published new poetry).17 The artist lingers over spatial discourses with large lyrical pauses; the synthesis of the harmonized traces and signs in the aerial field might be described theoretically as a line or phrase:

The modulation of the sign, of planes, the modulation of the color, of the sound, of the word, generate the life of the phrase, of art. The concept is in the phrase. The concept without the support of the modulation of the phrase (this is the limit and the poverty, perhaps the purity of conceptual art) doesn’t find the strength to move out of the limbo in which, in the end, it remains, abandoned.18

What Melotti describes in 1961 as “the phrase” is, in a certain fashion, the mark of the aerial era, of which he wrote in 1963: “Confused, thirsting for quiet, we distance ourselves now and then and secretly witness the orphic marriage of geometry with poetry.”19 The emotional, lyrical index, the fact that the sculpture sets forth a story, is explicitly declared. And so the reference to the phrase alludes to the technique by which Melotti distributes the story in space. For example, in the series “I carri” (The carts), he sets various contemporary items in motion. Il carro del giorno e della notte (The cart of day and of night, 1973) carries the word GIORNO (Day) on two wheels and NOTTE (Night) on the other two; the cart can move forward in either direction, beneath a multipart and dancing firmament. Here, the profoundly lyrical content is conveyed with traces of wire and little else.

Around 1970, and continuing until his death in 1986, Melotti’s idyllic contemplations of nature become denser. La luna e il vento (The moon and the wind, 1970) is a moon swept by the movements of the wind—that is, by rapid turns of the wire. In La notte Africana (The African night, 1973), the joyfulness of the saturated color is contrasted to the fragility of the simple metal structure: the moon and the suns freely carry out a dialogue in a nature as “primitive” as the Garden of Eden. In Chi raccoglie gli ultimi sospiri delle farfalle? (Who gathers the last sighs of butterflies?, 1979), Melotti assumed an ecstatic, elegiac stance. The lightness of his chosen materials frees the composition upward: a rustling, a beating of wings, a light movement of the wind are indicated by elements that are barely hinted, insinuated, meek and yet intensely poetic.

The epilogue of the long sojourn between alternating phases and the contradictions of the century is an enchanted lyric.

Melotti takes his leave with a final free song.

Jole de Sanna is an art critic who lives in Milan and teaches at the Accademia di Brera.

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.



1. With Giacomo Balla, Depero authored the manifesto La ricostruzione futurista dell’universo (The Futurist reconstruction of the universe), published by the Central Headquarters of the Futurist Manifesto, Milan, in March 1915, which theorized esthetic overflow into the environment.

2. The members of Gruppo 7, which advocated an “architettura razionale,” were Ubaldo Castagnoli, Luigi Figini, Guido Frette, Sebastiano Larco, Gino Pollini, C. E. Rava, and Giuseppe Terragni. Castagnoli was replaced by Adalberto Libera in 1927.

3. Corrado Cagli, note in Quadrante no. 2, Milan, June 1933, p. 30.

4. Carlo Belli, Kn, Milan: Edizioni II Milione, 1935, reprinted Milan: Scheiwiller, 1972, p. 147.

5. Ibid. (Scheiwiller edition), p. 29.

6. Fausto Melotti, “Discorso al conseguimento del Premio Rembrandt,” 1974, from Melotti: 1901-1986, exhibition catalogue, Milan: Arnoldo Mondadori Editore/Rome: De Luca Editore, 1987, p. 181.

7. Theo Van Doesburg, Art concret (introductory issue), Paris, April 1930, pp. 2-4.

8. Melotti, “Presentazione della mostra alla Galleria Il Milione,” Milan, 1935, from Sculture astratte di Fausto Melotti, 1934-35, exhibition catalogue, Milan: Scheiwiller, 1967, p. 11.

9. Van Doesburg, pp. 11-12.

10. Melotti, “Idee sull’insegnamento artistico,” Milan: Galleria Il Milione, 16 June 1934, from Sculture astratte di Fausto Melotti, p. 15.

11. The intitals B.B.P.R. stood for Banfi, Belgioioso, Peressutti, and Rogers.

12. Belli, Parigi 1937, Rome: Edizioni della Cometa, 1980, n.p.

13. Jole de Sanna, “Conversazione con Fausto Melotti,” from Fausto Melotti, Lucio Fontana, exhibition catalogue, Meda: Galleria Atena, 1974, p. 3.

14. Melotti, Il triste minotauro, Milan: Scheiwiller, 1944; reprinted 1974.

15. Melotti, “Sculture astratte del ’35 e del ’62,” Domus no. 392, Milan, July 1962, pp. 48-52.

16. Belli, Fausto Melotti, exhibition catalogue, Reggio Emilia: Sala Comunale delle Esposizioni, 1968, p. 1.

17. Melotti, Linee, Quaderno I, Milan: Adelphi, 1975; Linee, Quaderno II, Milan: Adelphi, 1978; Insonnia, Milan: Scheiwiller, 1984; La melagrana aperta, Rome: Edizioni della Cometa, 1986.

18. Melotti, introduction to exhibition at the Galleria dell’Ariete, Milan, 10 November 1971, p. 1.

19. Melotti, “Incertezze,” Domus no. 400, Milan, March 1963, pp. 37-38.

An exhibition of the work of Fausto Melotti will be at the Museo Fortuny, Venice, until June 24; and another at the Museo Cantonale d’Arte, Lugano, June 23-October 14.