THE FONTANA PHENOMENON: from Seaside to StudioLondon
ProvenanceGift of the artist to Don Luigi Maria Verzé, Milan
Madrid, Palacio del Retiro, Exposición de arte italiano contemporaneo, May–June 1955
“We do not intend to abolish art or stop life: we want paintings to come out of their frames, and sculptures from under their glass cases. An aerial, artistic portrayal of a minute will last for thousands of years in eternity.”—Second Spatialist Manifesto, 1948
Lucio Fontana’s beautiful Ballerina, created in 1952, is fully alive with a vivid sense of swirling movement, of dynamism. Spiraling fronds radiate from the semi-figural, semi-abstract dancer, penetrating and articulate the space around them, conveying an intense sense of flowing movement and exemplifying the tenets fundamental to Fontana’s Spatial Art, defined by the artist himself as “neither painting nor sculpture, nor lines delimited in space, but continuity of space in matter.” Meanwhile, the miniature peaks and troughs of the highly worked surface witness and evoke the artist’s own highly dynamic, gestural approach to his medium. Indeed, there is an intensely tactile quality to this sculpture, accentuated by the delicate polychromy.
The Ballerina dates from a pivotal period in which Fontana was involved in both figurative and abstract projects. The years between the mid 1940s and mid 1950s in particular witnessed Fontana’s creation of much of his figural sculpture. Many, including his famous series of crucifixes, explore religious subject matter, and his reliefs for the fifth door of the Duomo in Milan, completed in 1956, mark the culmination of this project. In the same period, Fontana concurrently began to create his first series of paintings in which he punctured the canvas with buchi (holes), as well as his first spatial environments, which originally combined shapeless sculptures, fluorescent paintings, and black lights viewed in a dark room, soon integrating neon tubing into their ceiling decoration.
In the Manifesto Blanco, published by several of Fontana’s followers in Buenos Aires in 1946, the nascent Spatialists declared that “We live in the mechanical age. Painted canvas and upright plaster no longer have a reason to exist.” Yet in Fontana’s Ballerina and other figurative works of the years that bookend it, Fontana insisted that “upright plaster” did indeed merit existence, pushing his sculptural materials to their limits in order to capture an inexorable and wholly modern sense of movement.
Exemplifying Fontana’s pioneering modernism, the present Ballerina was selected for inclusion in a survey of contemporary Italian art presented in Madrid at the Palacio del Retiro in 1955. Performing artists, from dancers and actors in the commedia dell’arte to jesters and circus clowns, held an enduring fascination for this artist obsessed with movement in space. Indeed, his very first ceramic sculpture, the Ballerina di Charleston of 1926, features a dancer in motion, and when he debuted his very first spatial environment at the Galleria del Naviglio in Milan in 1949, he hired a tutu-clad ballerina to dance continuously in the space for the six-day run of the exhibition. Visitors and critics were amazed, and the photographs of the dancer featured alongside many laudatory reviews. It is tempting to hypothesize that the present Ballerina commemorates and celebrates this significant moment in Fontana’s career, just a few years prior. At the same time, the work also looks ahead. The deep and emphatically delineated vertical cavern scored into the base of the sculpture perfectly anticipates the taglio, the signature slash which would define the work of Fontana’s later career.
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