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London’s Italian art invasion

5 December 2014

An extraordinary quantity of post-war Italian art has been exhibited, sold and written about this year, particularly in London. But what has been behind the rich pickings of so-called ‘poor art’ outside Italy?

Throughout the year Italian art has been making headlines at auction houses. In February Christie’s held a major sale of works by Arte Povera artists, their Italian antecedents and international network. ‘Eyes Wide Open’ saw total sales of nearly £40million and record prices for 11 Italian artists, both established figures such as Alberto Burri and Michelangelo Pistoletto, and lesser-known names including Francesco Lo Savio and Marisa Merz. In October’s Frieze week Christie’s and Sotheby’s both held major Italian sales, with the latter featuring a Piero Manzoni Achrome that sold for over £12million, more than double its estimate.

The rising reputation and prices of post-war Italian art have also been evident in private galleries. In February Max Wigram’s exhibition ‘La Bella Figura’ contextualised Arte Povera within fractious post-war Italian politics. Luxembourg & Dayan showed exhibitions of Mario Schifano in the summer and Alighiero Boetti in the autumn. The months around Frieze saw numerous exhibitions open: a mini-retrospective of Mario Merz at Pace Gallery served to cement his reputation, while the Spatialist Paolo Scheggi was presented at Robilant + Voena and Enrico Castellani’s work was contextualised in relation to American Minimalism at Dominique Lévy. At Frieze Masters Ben Brown showed Boetti drawings and Marian Goodman exhibited Giovanni Anselmo, Giuseppe Penone and Giulio Paolini.

Paolini was the subject of a fantastic exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery combining recent works with a survey of five decades of conceptual image-making. It was the only major exhibition of post-war Italian art at a public gallery in London, a fact that hints at the issue behind the increased international sales. Italy’s art export legislation, in place since 1939, states that artworks over 50 years old whose maker is dead require a licence if they are to be exported temporarily or permanently. Paolini is still alive, but many fellow protagonists of Arte Povera are not, and the 50-year anniversary of Germano Celant coining the term in 1967 is fast approaching. Sales may be on the rise for now, but international loans are a problem.

In New York the loan issue affected the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s major Futurism exhibition, but the museum’s Zero Group show, as well as the founding of the Center for Italian Modern Art by art historian and collector Laura Mattioli, ensured increased attention for modern Italian art. In Paris, Lucio Fontana received a retrospective at Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris this summer and the Tornabuoni Gallery showcased post-war Italian art in and out of the FIAC art fair.

In short, 2014 has seen Italian legislation encourage Italian collectors to sell their artworks internationally while impeding loans of anything made before 1964; supply and demand has reached a peculiar tipping point. The legislation is meant to protect Italy’s cultural patrimony, but risks further isolating its art from the history of modernism. While auction houses and dealers continue to petition the Italian government to change the rules, Italian art looks to hold its place in the London art scene into 2015. Exhibitions of big names in 20th-century Italian art, Renato Guttuso (Estorick Collection) and Jannis Kounellis (Sprovieri), are opening soon, and shows introducing Dadamaino (already open at Sotheby’s S|2), Pier Paolo Calzolari (Ronchini Gallery) and the sculptures of Agostino Bonalumi (Mazzoleni). The Turin-based Mazzoleni Gallery opened recently in Mayfair, and Tornabuoni is set to open on the same street in January. London’s reputation and appetite for modern Italian art is growing stronger while becoming increasingly untenable.

Related Articles

‘La Bella Figura’ at Max Wigram Gallery

Review: ‘Mario Schifano 1960−67′ at Luxembourg & Dayan

Review: ‘Giulio Paolini: To Be or Not to Be’ at the Whitechapel Gallery

First Look: ‘ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow’ at the Guggenheim New York

Review: Lucio Fontana at the Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris

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