Giangiacomo Spadari

Cremniter / Laffanour Downtown

Giangiacomo Spadari’s “Concrete Utopias” of the early ’70s are documents two times over. Intended as visual essays on moments of revolutionary history, these bold, poster-like paintings have become, at two decades’ distance, irrefutable records of their own political and artistic moment—the halcyon days after May 1968 when all utopias seemed concrete, and when European artists like Spadari felt at one with their social calling.

Although Spadari had addressed political themes since the mid ’60s, with 1968, he explains, came “the urgency of approaching events with my own tools, those of painting.” He had no illusions about creating art for the masses; he never left the galleries for the streets, but tried instead to bring his painting in line with the climate of the times. The result was a glorious mix of incongruous political vanguard and artistic avant-garde imagery: a defiant Vietcong marching against a background of Fernand Léger’s upbeat abstractions; Leon Trotsky reviewing the troops under an Alexander Rodchencko poster promoting books; Rosa Luxemburg’s Sparticist League collaged with Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel.

Somewhat ironically, the impetus behind this hybrid style was American Pop art, which in Europe was seen as an alternative, not only to abstraction, but also to the realism—socialist, neo-, and otherwise—of the Left. No matter that the American prototype implicitly promoted consumerism, Spadari’s “political Pop art,” as he calls it, used the same media-derived imagery to champion the cause of revolution.

In I Costruttori (The builders, 1970), it is Lenin and the Russian revolutionaries, but also the outsized workers on their stylized scaffolds, from Léger’s paintings of the same name, who are hailed as the “builders” of the new society. In La Pagoda cinese (The Chinese pagoda, 1970), it is the Chinese army that fills the now-notorious Tienanmen Square to commemorate the 1949 revolution. When a similar movement was not forthcoming in the European context, Spadari adopted a more analytical stance, notably with “La Rosa e il Leone” (The rose and the lion, 1972), where the exhortatory poster format gave way to a much more complex and contemplative series of montages offering a prescient critique of communist orthodoxy through the lives and deaths of two illustrious dissidents, Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky.

In contrast to the currents that inspired them, Spadari’s “Concrete Utopias” have held up remarkably well; like medieval altarpieces or baroque ceiling paintings, they continue to exude a magic combination of faith and formal expertise. Léger, for example, is abundantly quoted as an ideological mentor, and at the same time his palette of primary colors and formal vocabulary has been wholly absorbed. Similarly, the use of line cuts rather than halftones for photographic reproductions—a technique borrowed from Cuban posters in order to de-individualize the images and reinforce collective identity—produces stunning design effects as well. Even the ultra-industrial airbrush winds up creating sensuous surfaces.

There is, in short, an artistic exuberance in these “Concrete Utopias” that matches the political optimism. With his paintings of photos and films, Spadari pushed (or packed) the medium to the limit, and beyond that limit, it could be argued that painting became superfluous. This may be another reason Spadari stopped painting for almost a decade; when he picked up the brush again in 1986, it was to inaugurate a much more painterly style in keeping with the mood in art today, which is just as nostalgic as the mood in politics.

Miriam Rosen