Ettore Colla

Teatro Farnese

Bellonae et Musis Theatrum” (Theater of Bellona and the Muses), begins the dedication on the frieze above the stage of the monumental Teatro Farnese (1619) in Parma, where this show of work by Ettore Colla (1896–1968) was installed. I don’t know if the curators were aware how surprisingly well the show’s contents adhered to that dedication. Both Bellona, the goddess of war, and the Muses seem to have inspired Colla, who was drawn equally to the aggressive culture of iron and the fascination for an archaic mythology.

Colla’s first abstract sculptures, made from iron scraps, appeared in the mid ’50s. His esthetic was profoundly modified by contact with Mario Ballocco, Alberto Burri, and Giuseppe Capogrossi within the context of the Gruppo Origine (Origin group, formed in Rome in 1950). Up to that point, his work was characterized by a traditional figuration that gave no hint of the radical turn to follow Gruppo Origine didn’t propose a solution to the realism/abstraction antithesis but rather a non-synthetic leap to nonfiguration. Colla interpreted this possible escape from tradition by means of found materials, readymades, and reused scraps of iron and wood. Never interested in the former function of these discarded fragments of industrial society, he was attracted by their form. His approach was neither political, polemical, nor satirical vis-à-vis the society that had thrown out these objects. On the contrary he avoided metaphor and concentrated on the esthetic potential of the materials he salvaged. Able to see the ironic possibilities within the soul of an object, he could fully elicit its intrinsic sensuality and energy.

In a formal sense, he was attracted to materials that respond to rigorous Platonic geometry based on primary forms: the circle, square, rhomboid, and triangle. His prechosen objects were cogged wheels, manhole covers, slabs, grills, dadoes—sometimes assembled with rough welding and maintained in the same state of decay in which they were found. If his iron objects still preserve a metal clangor and the roughness of a rusty patina, this indicates that Colla, while maintaining a simplicity of surface, knew how to find a primal matrix within it, and how to restore it with added esthetic value.

In terms of content, Colla’s persistent elaboration of the “primitive” is marked by a certain classicism. Through the use of coarse materials, his esthetic basically responds to a desire for harmony and for structuring reality according to classical canons. His craft, on the one hand, avoids figurative metaphor, but on the other eludes all reference to the psychology of construction. His industrial idols are neither fetishes nor Duchampian “bachelor machines,” and they have nothing to do with symbolic/alchemic iconography; rather, they are transcribed idols, as one can see in the extraordinary Ritratto di ignota (Anonymous portrait, 1966). His sculptures always manifest his will to order material presented as chaos, psychologically He seemed to want to remove fragments from their destined destruction, to integrate them into an organic, creative flux. His is an ideal redemption, a sweet abstraction from the formless residue of industrial society, which still finds finished form. The technological utopian civilization Colla perceived has precise dimensions, is comprised of ordered volumes, and is regulated by formal laws of sobriety.

While the culture Colla expressed is far from the one that finds its sumptuous apotheosis in the Teatro Farnese, the installation of his “immobilized machines” was integrated perfectly into its location. In fact, his esthetic experience is based on the same will to submit the multiform aspects of a disordered reality to the rigors of a structuring thought process that characterized late-16th-century European culture, a world rocked by the doubts and crises of an age of transition, an age in search of a rule. Colla supports his route of objectivity by a thought process pointing toward an ideal civilization of pure forms as an ultimate end.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.