Fontana + The GothicNew York
Pagliacci (Clowns), 1954
Though now renowned for his highly experimental and innovative work as Spatial artist, Lucio Fontana began his career as a sculptor. As a young man, he worked for his father's firm creating funerary busts from materials like plaster and marble, and in 1928 he began studying sculpture at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera, working in the traditional academic manner.
Fontana soon abandoned the classical idiom prescribed by the academy and began to explore sculpture-making more freely; in 1935, Fontana started working in the workshop of the Futurist ceramicist Tullio Mazzotti in the small town of Albisola. Vividly animating and rupturing the space around them, Fontana’s expressive, luminously coloured ceramics, both abstract and figurative, are among the artist’s most innovative and experimental works, at once gestural performances of artmaking and meditations upon its infinite potential.
In a series of plates such as the present work, rather than simply decorating the surface of a plate with a two-dimensional scene, Fontana began with a blank surface and modelled fully three-dimensional figures. In this beautiful ceramic piece entitled Pagliacci, two figures spring out of the smooth surface of the plate in a whirl of turbulent motion. Dressed in pale tones of yellow, their rough textures and fluid forms imbue them with a powerful sense of energy. Transitioning from flat relief to rugged shapes that project outwards, they embody Fontana’s highly dynamic, gestural approach to his medium. There is an intensely tactile quality to this piece, accentuated by its delicate polychromy of pinks, yellows, blue and soft grey. Moulding the clay by hand, he is able to convey a huge amount of detail and feeling through simple yet finely crafted forms.
The shallow lines incised into the plate create multiple positions for the figures in the manner of the Italian Futurists’ depiction of movement through the superimposition of forms. The lines also recall Fontana’s signature gesture, the slash or taglio, which would become the emblem of his pioneering Spatialist movement.
‘Pagliaccio’ is the Italian for clown, but Fontana’s title also brings to mind Pagliacci, the renowned opera written by Ruggero Leoncavallo in 1892, in which the leader of a troupe of commedia dell'arte players is driven by jealousy to murder his wife and her lover. Ranging from joyful humour to darkness and violence, its most famous aria is sung by the betrayed husband, who must put on his cheerful costume and perform even though his heart is breaking. The two figures leaping from Fontana’s plate could be two clowns in a light-hearted performance, but Leoncavallo’s opera has inextricably linked the pagliaccio with stories of ill-fated desire and heartbreak, and perhaps the present work portrays the husband and lover in their fatal fight.
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