São Paulo

Alfredo Volpi

Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo (MAM)

Volpi: A música da cor” (“Volpi: The Music of Color”), a retrospective of the work of Alfredo Volpi (1896–1988), brings together 135 paintings, twenty of which have never before been shown. This vast panorama reveals an artist who emigrated from Italy to São Paulo as a child and whose varied use of line, color, and space creates a poetic experience rather than a formal trap. From the surface of the paintings feelings and memories emerge through the evocation of popular, everyday forms. Facades, seascapes, and saints, for instance, are present throughout the show, subjects that continually fascinated Volpi, even during the ’60s and ’70s, when his painting achieved its most reductive stage. Likewise the traditional feast flag of São João—a small, colorful, handmade paper flag—is a constant reference in the artist’s work. He reinvents what’s common, but without falling into populist clichés or resorting to provincial allusions—though posthumous titles, often supplied by collectors when Volpi didn’t bother with them, explain the artist’s poetry in a most obvious way.

Volpi’s early figurative years, under the influence of the Neapolitan school of Posillipo or the Tuscan Macchiaioli, are well represented in the show. After his first solo exhibition, in 1944, he participated in the inaugural Bienal de São Paulo (1951), as well as the Venice Biennale of 1952. While abroad, he saw Italian Gothic art, which made a great impression on him. Gradually he moved from oil to tempera, and in the same decade he also started a constructivist phase. The works titled Composição Concreta (Concrete Composition), 1950, exemplify this very static and geometric period. Later, in the ’60s, he produced a number of purely chromatic optical schemes, like Portais e Bandeirinhas (Gates and Small Flags), 1960, or the previously unexhibited Elementos de fachada e bandeirinhas (Façade Elements and Small Flags), ca. 1960. These are the highlights of the exhibition, along with Mastros (Masts), 1970. Here the brushwork brings materiality to the surface. Rather than exploring color as an optical phenomenon, it stands out as a natural element. To this end, tempera becomes essential in his work, allowing the pigment to breathe. That ancient medium projects Volpi into the past, creating a continuity between the tradition of Giotto’s skies and Paolo Uccello’s Renaissance standards and the new spatiality of modernism.

Curator Olívio Tavares Araújo, who knew Volpi well and long championed his work, has seen to it that the exhibition functions as an homage to the artist. Yet the dominating presence of the show’s largest painting, Bandeira brasileira (Brazilian Flag), 1960—officially titled Composição com Sugestões Marítimas, (Composition with Nautical suggestions—gives an unfortunate literalist turn to the artist’s relation to the sources of his imagery. The nominal patriotic appeal of this vast painting comes from its blues and yellows, the colors of the Brazilian flag. This is the least desirable association for an artist who, in the early ’60s, was experiencing a process of form and color transformation, which, by the way, had nothing to do with raising a flag. Volpi never sang hymns; he shunned manifestos and programs, a stance almost inconceivable in the politically heated Latin American art scene of that era. While the Concretists bemoaned the incompatibility of art and theory, Volpi gestured toward simplicity and the intimate in his paintings. In that sense, Volpi has been a unique and inspiring force within the Brazilian art scene. Especially in São Paulo, his influence can be seen in a new generation of artists, for instance Paulo Pasta, Rodrigo Andrade, and Tatiana Blass, whose paintings have a comparable inventiveness and sense of physicality through color.

Lucrecia Zappi