Mario Schifano’s last war Service notes

“Mario Schifano immediately entered a new dimension. He moved around the ancient spaces at his ease. His face wore smiles that cut the air. At different times, he seemed a monk, a necromancer, a doctor, or a scientist, but he was simply an artist who had discovered the weight of destiny. Because painting, for Schifano, was not something that came easily, it was not just the result of innumerable gestures or of great technical experience. It was above all a perennial struggle, tough, merciless with the destiny that each one of us is called to face, at least once in our lives”. Janus


It was 30th April 1988 and an exhibition was inaugurated at the Tour Fromage of Aosta which was, in its way, unique for Mario Schifano (1934-1998), one of the most significant and controversial figures in Italian art during the second part of the 20th century. It was introduced by the critic Janus (Roberto Gianoglio, 1927-2020), the driving force behind an incredible and unforgettable series of exhibitions in the Valle during the 1980s and 1990s, which would certainly deserve dedicated examination. The exhibition Mario Schifano. Verde fisico (Green Physicist) gathered together the results of some three weeks that the painter spent working in a wing of the ancient convent of Saint Bénin. Waiting for him every evening at Pila were his wife Monica De Bei and his three-year-old son Marco, who had arrived with him in February and, together with him, fled in the Jaguar that had brought them there following the eruption of a diatribe with the tax authorities in Rome. Schifano appeared like a meteor in the placid skies of the Valle and left his mark on the life stories of many, starting with his artist friend Lucio Bulgarelli (1932-2015), as well as on the Museo del Castello Gamba, which was created more than twenty years later and which conserves five canvases bought by the Region after the closure of the exhibition on 24th July.

Schifano at that moment

But what did Mario Schifano mean in 1988? And what happened in the ten years between then and his definitive departure from the colors of the earth?

Schifano in the second half of the 1980s was the bulimic painter we remember, loved and hated by gallery owners, the victim and murderer of them and of his own painting, as well as of his own fame. His mood went perennially up and down like a rollercoaster, ferocious and revengeful, humble and gentle, contemporaneously attacking and withdrawing in the proverbial isolation of his studio in Vie delle Mantellate, Rome, fuelled by the need to face up to his drug addiction or to defend himself against an inexorable fragility… A whirlwind of relationships, collectors, lovers, and friends who throng the Biografia in a hundred sections edited by Luca Ronchi, where anecdotes tumble over each other, in danger of escaping our control, like cascading cherries. The Pop artist was a true anarchist and he subverted the art system like a tightrope walker on thorns. He did not always remain to stand, not least because he drew no help from the merciless logic that requires a person wishing to escape from the mechanism of the market to create a mechanism of their own. Whether expressive bulimia or the need to sell came first, matters little. The logic was not that of accountancy but of performance. How else, after all, could he have subverted the world of painting from the inside, after a couple of millennia, if not by exploding, like a worthy Italian Warhol, the concepts of the uniqueness of the work of art, of the masterpiece, of mass production, authenticity, inspiration, clientele or commission? “He found the waste of money that compelled him to work continually, the always-open, unchecked accounts with suppliers, a form of masochism. His expenses were always overblown, and exorbitant. But he needed that dissoluteness. When I pointed it out to him, he made me seem to mean”. An unbridled hemorrhage, born even of generosity, that had something of the ascetic: “He was a Franciscan and his relationship with money was only of utility, never of accumulation. He distributed it to so many young people, artists, and non-artists […]. Money was a tool with which to obtain items for use, for consumption, a means, not an end. The end was the man. According to this logic, long-term possession was deplorable if not amoral: “He is the man who has earned the most money of all artists, of all times, but money burnt with him like a matchstick. Whatever he saw, he bought or gave away. If you only knew how many houses, villas, or castles he could have had … if he bought ten televisions, he gave eleven away”.

Critical opinion was dedicating itself (or preparing itself) to giving a place in history to his monochromes of the 1960s and then, in their turn, to his Plexiglas, his photographic emulsions, and his televisions, as well as elevating him to the demiurge, father and boss of the Piazza del Popolo School who strangled Tano Festa and Franco Angeli. Schifano turned out paintings by the thousand, flooding an insatiable market, without ever losing sight of what a masterpiece was, maybe even so as to be left at peace while he continued to create them. He would often keep them to himself until necessity caused him to part with them. Unique works are certainly not lacking in this final phase, works capable of standing out from the delirious outflow of his production, peaks to be noted, and works germinal to the series that followed.

The 1980s had seen a return to painting as such, often strongly physical, in some ways the antithesis to the massive use of photographic emulsion he had imported from America at the beginning of the 1970s, which had characterized that decade and was to predominate again in the 1990s. The pictorial mass and gesture took first place, reconnecting him to informal painting, to be interpreted as a return to his beginning, stimulated by the outbreak of the Trans-avant-garde and the arrival in Italy of a new German expressionism.

The watershed year

1985 was, moreover, the year of the mythical Chimera, the 4x10m painting created in a few hours in Piazza dell’Annunciata, Florence, before thousands of people who tuned in to the ongoing TV report by Achille Bonito Oliva, and among jars of paint and performance gestures. But 1985 was also the year of his marriage to De Bei and the birth of his son Marco, emotions that were decisive for the phase that followed. Now there was a little Schifano to be cared for, always at the center of his cosmos. “Marco spent a lot of time in the studio with his father, every day. If he didn’t go to fetch him from school, I went myself. He needed to see him continually, he had him take part in his work. From the very beginning, he put cameras and video cameras in his hands… I have many photos of the two of them painting together, side by side”. Marco entered into Schifano’s world but did not overwhelm him in his conduct, if anything he addressed his actions principally to him: “For parties, he called the magician Silvan, men on stilts, tightrope walkers, everything. From his earliest days, he put him in the highest point of the room and wanted us to applaud him. He said that, only after his birth, had he known that feeling of affection, of paternity, even maternity… He loved him strongly and physically. In the evening, before he went to sleep, he always told him his favorite story, the story of the evening when he was born”.

Schifano, the man of civil strife

It is by no chance that, at the beginning of the 1990s, in one of his most important works, Tearful (In lacrime), the drama of the war in Iraq was viewed from within the father-son relationship, starting with a photo from “Time” of 10th November 1990. In this cutting, a bewildered child watches us while his soldier father, leaving for the front, is no longer able to hug him and bows his head, covering his face with tears. “Tearful, then, in its spectral way, is a work of ‘civil strife’, it is Mario Schifano’s Guernica, a work that could even hang in the Headquarters of the United Nations. It almost seems as if Schifano wished to take the place of National Guardsman John Moore (that is the name of the man crying in the photo) to relate in first person a story of the world, his war of the moment, his perpetual tears. The idea of loss, of absence, of the family, of the whirlpool of history that – please excuse the rhetoric – bears away everything, even painting itself”.

Marco was then five and in that child without a face on which the canvases hinges – a nephew of Schifano’s child in “Io sono infantile [I am Childish]” – there is also the artist, perennially in the stress of abandonment and solitude, while he fills himself with things that explode in colors around him. Schifano was made like that, after all. Space conceded to the other – in-laws, friends, painting, objects, or whatever – was conceded only insofar as it was part of himself, confirmation of himself. There are no works that are not, in some way, self-portraits.

In those years, Schifano kept a close watch on international dramas, conflicts, poverty, and even ecological problems. Likewise, he was particularly sensitive and unreasonably generous with anyone who asked him for money. This was the context in which he created the enormous painting gifted to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) two years previously, at the end of 1988, the period of his stay in the Valle d’Aosta. This work is derived from a pictorial appropriation of the complex reality of the world, as transmitted by television. The same impulse gave rise in 1991 to Sorrisi scomparsi [Vanished Smiles], a painting in which new faces without a face, dominated by the translation of the title into the Arab language, drew attention to the tragedy of Kuwait.

Media return

1990 was the year of the great exhibition at Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Rome, Divulgare. Here, the use of photographic images transferred to canvas via photographic emulsion already experimented with in the 1970s exploded and evolved. Schifano had photographs taken from television screens printed in London on enormous PVC canvases. He then underlined, with painting, just a few cardinal points of the chosen image. This was the fruit of the invasion of television onto Schifano’s retina, and of the artist’s double possibility of selection, consisting both of capturing the television still and of choosing the formally decisive elements to be underlined with pictorial interventions. In Schifano’s studio, an uncontrolled number of televisions were switched on day and night, casting a continuous flow of information. The artist repeatedly photographed the screens: “Through this window [the TV], I capture the images that impress me most, the messages arriving from the dramatic reality bursting in upon us. But I am not a passive spectator. While I follow the giddy succession of events on the video, I think, I reflect, I create”. To the point of becoming a means of communication himself: “I feel I’m like a media…”.

In these years of voluntary reclusion, the television became for him a window onto the world and an obsessive source of inspiration. Schifano sent out dozens of rolls of film to be printed every day: photos taken from the television screens that heaped up in his studio, sometimes divided by subject, dragged into a process that was both devouring and germinating. Schifano often held them in his hand while speaking on the phone or in sessions of thought. Almost as in a trance, he passed from one to another, embroidering them with touches of paint. The photographs were retouched in oils and marker pen, giving rise to an inexhaustible production of unique items that the gallery owner Emilio Mazzoli has called “Schifano’s rosary”. Turned out day and night whenever he was free, they represented an attempt to leave his mark on whatever was happening around him or came to his knowledge. For a moment, the artist also imagined a black container, shaped like a television, in which to mount them one by one, but many were given away and were never seen again. A large nucleus of thousands of photos was purchased en masse by Mazzoli himself, opening the road to single shrines of authentic Schifano within the reach of everybody. Others were mounted on great polyptych as if to counteract the shredding effect of the enterprise, as happened for the Venice Biennial of 1993.

With Emilio Mazzoli

Emilio Mazzoli (Modena, 1942), was a celebrated talent scout and a fundamental player in the affirmation process of the Trans-Avant-Garde, set up with his friend Achille Bonito Oliva. He was a decisive gallery owner for Schifano in this phase of his life. At times, Mazzoli succeeded in persuading him to work in Modena for the time necessary to concentrate on producing the paintings for the next exhibition. Mazzoli watched over his work, checking the quality and sniffing out the items that he himself defined “germinal”. Three exhibitions were dedicated to Schifano, the result of pivotal moments in the painter’s production, in which the gallery owner was able to channel, to some extent, Schifano’s restless tendency to self-destruction, at least up to a certain date. Between Schifano 1970-1980. Laboratorio umano e pittura [Human Laboratory and Painting], of 1980, and Udienza [Audience] of 1993, came Mario Schifano “estroverso [Extrovert]” of 1991, certainly one of the artist’s most important exhibitions. Indeed, as we leaf through the large catalog we can only be amazed at the way one expressive summit succeeds another. The essay by Achille Bonito Oliva discusses the two nuclei of works presented, not linked by a common theme. The first regarded the paintings from 1982 to 1986. The second contained unpublished works, of which Tearful certainly stood out – completed between 1990 and the first months of 1991 itself.

“This family of pictures that are not related to each other (and therefore Italian) constitutes the latest brilliant example of the creative nomadism of Schifano, the artifice of everything and at the same time the extrovert, unrepentant bachelor of a painting that does not continually require a check on its paternity, that of a pornographer with a gaze that transforms snapshots and stills from television news programs into durable artistic images.

“I, Achille Bonito Oliva, art critic, certify that these pictures are by the hand of Mario Schifano, in life the father of Marco Giuseppe, conceived with Monica De Bei, extrovert, unrepentant bachelor of artistic forms in the field of erotic elaborations made with the help of the Mass Media. I also declare that I am the godfather of his son Marco Giuseppe and the traveling companion of his painting, an Italian family of works”.

Mazzoli’s Modena workshop was free to intercept racehorses even from outside the main road of painting that characterized it, just as it was free to enroll critical pens from trends widely differing among themselves, as happened in the second half of the 1980s with Giovanni Testori. But certainly, the relationship between Mazzoli – “a Roman Catholic Apostolic gallery owner who believed in the family and in the infallibility of the father” – and Schifano was among the most significant for him. “As you know, Mario was not interested in the sacred, but for me, his work was rather like religion and he reminded me of the cloistered nuns who always prayed to achieve ataraxia. He did the same, he worked continually, either drawing or painting, it was like a form of purification for him. Certainly, he also had this secular attitude of wanting everything at once. Mario liked the most beautiful, and also the toughest, things on the earth”.

Various photographs bear witness, moreover, to Mazzoli’s direct presence during the execution of masterpieces that are destined to remain forever linked to his selective capacities. This makes him in some way a connoisseur in the critical sense, such as we more commonly saw at work in the art of past centuries. Three paintings of 1985, such as Incidente (Accident), Osservatorio (Observatory), and Il parto numeroso della moglie del collezionista (The Numerous Childbirth of the Collector’s Wife), or the series of great buildings in flames, or Tearful itself of 1990, leading up to Cardinali (Cardinals) of 1993, will always by “Mazzoli’s paintings”, regardless of who may claim to possess them.

He who lives by television…

The collaboration between Mario and Emilio was destined to end, de facto, by the end of 1995, when the torrent chosen by Schifano to channel his bulimic production and to cope with his continual need of money caused him to step back from the gallery owner of Modena. These were the years of what many considered a suicide, in which the rules of the market subverted by the artist seemed to demand payment. In reality, there was a series of factors, which the chapters of the biography by Ronchi set out lucidly, starting with the crisis of Tangentopoli (1992), when the fabulous eighties came to grief, undermining a certain Roman market and putting a brake on the sales of the artist, who remained in need of (a lot of) money. Another factor was the incredible diffusion of fakes that were flooding the market, without Schifano knowing it – and in some cases, he seemed not even to wish to oppose it. The situation was much more critical than might have been imagined, not only because of the vast dimensions of the phenomenon, but because it was handled, in many cases, by criminal rackets, which on several occasions came to threaten the artist. The reaction of Schifano, who was unable to cover himself with a defense that would have probably demanded a regularization of his artistic practice which he would have considered unacceptable, was to entrust himself in 1995 to an exclusive agreement with Pier Paolo Cimatti’s Monte Titano Arte, leading to the sale of the larger part of his works via Telemarket channels and to a mass production which should have satisfied the market.  The haemorrhage was the same, but it was in some way authorized by the artist. His debts and his sincere convictions regarding the democratic nature of art caused him to hesitate no longer and Bonito Oliva himself accepted this step as being in continuity with the ongoing media process undertaken by the painter. “When Schifano chose the Telemarket, he was reflecting as a pater familias. He had to protect his family, his small son, and to do this he had to invest in his name more than in his works. He had understood that, at a certain point, the name may count more than the work. Giving his name to works multiplied in large quantities, he was also adhering to a philosophical principle in which he believed: the diffusion of art through the media. He had already used photography and cinema. In short, it was an application consistent with his point of view”. The regular payments from Cimatti ensured him a stability he had never previously experienced, though at a high price, in terms of expressive freedom and, in the long term, of the market too.

Sometimes they (do not) return

Schifano realized the limits of this compromise and, at the beginning of the escapade, he made various attempts to resume dialogue with different worlds. Belonging to these years is a gift to Emilio Mazzoli that encapsulates the dramatic nature of that moment, as well as much of the artist’s restless, affectionate and childlike nature. But it also expresses his lucid vision of what counts and of the fullness of poetic vision of which he was capable to the end. This was a diptych of 1995, two emulsified canvases portraying the gallery owner in his cosmogony, surrounded by his universe, into which Mario asked to re-enter. Above the first good-natured countenance of Mazzoli, space was found for the leaders of the Trans-Avant-Garde: his friends Enzo Cucchi, Mimmo Paladino, and Sandro Chia, evoked with the impulse of a text from an encyclopedia, as if to underline their place in history, in which Mazzoli had played a major part. At the level of the heart is located his own bibliographical incipit, but with his surname canceled, just a name enclosing a key adjective: “[your] Mario”. The second canvas illustrates the predisposition of Mazzoli that Schifano wished for himself: that of a father. Evoked around Emilio’s countenance is his son, Francesco, at that time doing military service with the Carabinieri. Radiating around him are the key words “flag, oath, mother, Carabiniere, fellow soldier, dedication, the band”. On Emilio’s heart, portrayed in the painting almost as a votive offering, is the definition “father of the family: a man who has given birth to one or more children”. On both canvases is repeated the legend, written with the paint-tube, which serves as both title and message of the work: DEAR EMILIO CONTINUE… (to deal with me).

The poetry of the end

But the artist had less than three years left to him – a series of strokes hit him on 26th January 1998. Not long enough for the collaboration with Telemarket to go rusty, and the return to Modena never came about. These were years in which Schifano watched with voracious curiosity the first potentials of the Internet and optic fiber, which he portrayed in a celebrated picture of 1997. He opened a website of his own in 1996, imagining that he could transmit himself at work directly on the net. Maybe Schifano, who had been in the saddle for almost forty years, had gifted us with enough phases. It was time for him to switch off his televisions and enjoy his starry nights in peace, among flying chimeras and the monochrome skies typical of anemic landscapes. A poetic end, certainly, but without romanticism. Because, “if there was one thing that did not belong to his work, it was naivety”.

Davide Dall’Ombra

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