Fabio Mauri, Ideologia e Natura (Ideology and Nature), 1973, photosensitive canvas, 106 1/4 x 80 3/4".

Fabio Mauri, Ideologia e Natura (Ideology and Nature), 1973, photosensitive canvas, 106 1/4 x 80 3/4".

Fabio Mauri

Fabio Mauri, Ideologia e Natura (Ideology and Nature), 1973, photosensitive canvas, 106 1/4 x 80 3/4".

Fabio Mauri was an intellectual par excellence, and while the twentieth century all too readily supplied the subjects of his politically engaged work, it was the age of Enlightenment that provided him with a model of ethical responsibility. Although he was born into an extremely well-to-do family and thus able to observe his era without the compromises dictated by material need, his privileged background served only to heighten his sense of obligation. He became determined to act as a witness to his time with all its misfortunes as a sort of custodian of the world’s memory, a sentinel keeping watch against its deviations from the path of good.

Deviating from the good signifies turning onto the path of evil, and Mauri, who was born in Rome in 1926, experienced firsthand the constrictions and disasters of Fascism and Nazism. When, in the early 1970s, he began to think that the collective memory of this experience was vanishing and that its spores remained alive in the air unobserved, he decided to warn his contemporaries against a repetition of the century’s tragedies. For twenty-five years, beginning with the first appearance of Ebrea (Jewess), 1971—a complex installation/action that simulates the everyday world of the Shoah’s victims and executioners through a room filled with objects whose titles tell us they are derived from the skin, hair, bones, and teeth of human beings, as if they had been discovered in a concentration camp—Mauri was engaged, with didactic obsessiveness, in an investigation of the seductive apparatus of evil, revealing its grotesque, demonic side, its “cloven-footedness.”

Innumerable performances and installations followed, almost all of which are well documented in this first large-scale survey of his work, “Fabio Mauri: THE END,” masterfully curated by Francesca Alfano Miglietti. These range from Che cos’è fascismo (What Is Fascism), 1971—the staging of an anthology of “youth competitions” intended to inculcate the young with Fascist ideology—to Che cos’è la filosofia. Heidegger e la questione tedesca. Concerto da tavolo (What Is Philosophy. Heidegger and the German Question. A Table Concert), 1989. The latter, also presented this year at Documenta 13, focuses on the figure of the intellectual fascinated by evil and at the same time seduced by a certain quotidian vulgarity; it takes the form of a people’s banquet based on traditional German foods amid a succession of philosophical readings and classical music. Perhaps the most famous of Mauri’s works is Il muro occidentale o del Pianto (The Western or the Wailing Wall), 1993, conceived for the Forty-Fifth Venice Biennale that year. It is a wall made of suitcases, evoking the baggage of a voyage without return; into such suitcases deportees crammed their possessions and their entire history.

Mauri’s civic engagement matured during a period of general protest and revolutionary outbursts in Italy, but was constructed over many years of reflection and scattered considerations that at first might have seemed vague and disconnected, even dandyish. His early series of “Schermi” (Screens), 1956–2009, works that in some ways anticipated much art of the 1960s (and not only in Italy), could hardly have predicted Mauri’s subsequent development: These are monochrome canvases with rounded edges, like the screens for home movies or the frames for slides. Today, Mauri, who died in 2009, is being rediscovered and reevaluated as a complex figure whose aesthetics were submitted to a persistent ethical stance. It would not be wrong to feel some nostalgia for an artist who would nonetheless only be diminished by being defined as merely an artist rather than an intellectual. Our times no longer seem to produce his like.

Marco Meneguzzo

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.