Francesco Bonami defends his “40 years of Italian art”
The curator “didn’t intend to create a stink”, but wanted to distance himself from the expectations of the art establishment
By Georgina Adam. Museums, Issue 196, November 2008
Published online: 19 November 2008
VENICE. Curator, writer and critic Francesco Bonami is running into trouble. His current exhibition at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, “Italics: Italian art between Tradition and Revolution, 1968-2008”—running until 22 March, and from 11 July to 25 October at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Chicago—is causing something of a stir among artists and critics alike.
Mr Bonami is no stranger to negative press—as director of the 2003 Venice Biennale he was criticised for its sprawling lack of focus. Urbane, gregarious and unconventional, his outspokenness does not always win him friends. Born in Florence in 1955, Mr Bonami has lived in New York since 1987. He is guest curator at the MCA, as well as being artistic director at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin and the Fondazione Pitti Immagine Discovery in Florence. He curates the monograph series “Supercontemporary” (Electa Books) and is published widely.
“There has been a big stink over this show,” admits Mr Bonami, sitting in the Palazzo Grassi, the private museum of François Pinault, owner of Christie’s. As assistants put the finishing touches to the exhibition, which surveys the past 40 years of Italian art, he doesn’t seem too concerned by the storm of criticism he has provoked. The Italian press has had a field day—“An Exhibition of Discord” wrote our sister paper Il Giornale dell’Arte; “Just like at his Biennale, he is making many errors of judgement” (dealer Enzo Cannaviello, quoted in Corriere della Sera); “Revisionism, exclusions and disputes” (La Repubblica); “Bonami wants to separate history from politics, and doesn’t tolerate those who don’t agree” (Corriere della Serra again).
The problems come from a very public row with artist Jannis Kounellis leading to his work being withdrawn, while the Fausto Melotti estate refused to lend a sculpture; Mario Merz’s daughter has said the show doesn’t truly represent the arte povera movement (but did lend two works). Other critics carped at his inclusion of anti-modernist portraitist Pietro Annigoni and the realist painter Renato Guttuso. Mr Bonami has also ruffled Venetian feathers with his public criticism of Emilio Vedova, a Venetian artist.
“I didn’t intend to create a stink,” says Mr Bonami. “But in Italy, when you step outside the ‘family’, when you don’t involve established figures, then you are wrong. My older colleagues, such as Germano Celant [who curated the New York Guggenheim’s 1994 show ‘The Italian Metamorphosis’, 1943-68] would definitely have liked to do a big Italian show at Palazzo Grassi—and they didn’t.”
The show brings together 107 artists, from well-known names such as Lucio Fontana to many unknown outside Italy, such as the abstract painter Salvatore Emblema. “I didn’t even know him, I stumbled on him by chance,” says Mr Bonami. I asked if he could have selected a different group of artists to represent the period. “No,” he says. “I could have changed five names for five others, that’s all. Of course another 50 artists claim they should have been included. It’s an endless discussion.”
His objective, and the reason for the storm of protest, is his desire to “recount the story of Italian art in the last 40 years from an utterly different point of view, escaping the maze of the official critical approach that has crippled a real understanding of its complexities, contractions and paradoxes”, as he says in the catalogue introduction. Twice he tells me that Annigoni and Guttuso are “scapegoats” for those critics attacking the show. “I intended this show to open up discussion,” he says.
Mr Bonami explains that he decided to “de-select” Kounellis’s Scarpette d’oro, 1971, after the artist opposed publication of an image in the catalogue. “I didn’t want to transform the show into a quarrel,” he says. Asked why Kounellis was hostile, he adds: “He doesn’t like me because of a text I wrote about arte povera for the Tate Modern show ‘From Zero to Infinity’ .”
The mention of Kounellis brings Mr Bonami on to one of the mainsprings of this exhibition, the desire to address the fact that Italian artists over the last 40 years have largely failed to garner the same international recognition as artists from other countries. Asked why, he says: “Italy never built museums and art schools in the same way as Germany, Switzerland, the UK, even France. These institutions allow artists to mature publicly, not privately. As a result, when curators and even art dealers come to Italy, they have to rely on a private network to find out who the artists are. So what they see is edited by individuals, and not by public institutions. It is a big weakness of Italian art. If you go to New York, for example, you don’t rely on a curator, you go to MoMA or the Whitney.” And as he says in the catalogue, the weakness is perpetuated by a network of public universities ruled by a cartel of “power barons” with an obsolete vision of art history.
“When I started thinking about this project, I found a lot of totally unknown artists doing beautiful work, but they were misunderstood or overlooked. I spoke about my project with colleagues in Italian museums, but they totally ignored it. For public Italian institutions it is a shame that this major show is presented in a private museum owned by a Frenchman,” says Mr Bonami.
The result, he says, also affects the market, where except for a few headline stars such as Fontana, “Italian art has always lagged behind. For example prices for arte povera are much below those for the US artists who came to the surface at the same time—Flavin, Judd or Nauman for example.”
He goes back to Kounellis: “There is a totally self-defeating attitude here in Italy and it influences the market. The Kounellis belongs to a private collector, it comes into the show, it gets some visibility and value. But now, if it were to go to auction, who would want to buy a piece that the artist doesn’t even want shown—and its value collapses,” he says, adding, “Jasper Johns would never have made such a fuss.”
I ask him why, in Italy, contemporary art remains an elite collecting category, mainly dominated by older people, whereas in other countries it tends to attract a younger audience. “In Italy I am considered a young curator, at 53,” he responds. “Here there is an older culture, and it is ruled by two things, politics and television. Society is raped by both. Ministry of culture officials can change everything. With every new minister everything has to go back to the blackboard. And then the television broadcasts very contentious programmes about art in which someone like Vittorio Sgarbi [the controversial Italian critic and politician] is featured. He knows nothing about art, but he is put on the same level as people such as Robert Hughes and Robert Rosenblum. So the public can’t evaluate a show such as this in the proper way—the polemic becomes the message.”
The “Italics” show has certainly generated its own share of polemic but, as he says: “Italy lacks rigour in promoting its own talents. ‘Italics’ does not pretend to rewrite 40 years of art history, but rather tell the tale in a different way and I hope people will look at it differently as a result.”
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