di David Anfam
THE BURLINGTON MAGAZINE

2017.09 The Burlington Magazine.jpgA mammoth exhibition project at four venues in Milan (all to 24th September) returns to the spotlight a figure almost unknown outside his native Italy. Giancarlo Vitali has had only two solo exhibitions in other countries and there is no notable publication on him originating in English. Spearheaded by Giancarlo Vitali: Time Out at Palazzo Reale, Milan, and accompanied by a hefty bilingual catalogue, the exhibitions make clear that Vitali’s obscurity has little to do with the work itself.

Born in 1929 to a family of fishermen in the village of Bellano on the eastern shore of Lake Como, Vitali is a self-taught recluse who has rarely left his birthplace: he even eschewed the exhibitions’ opening ceremony. His renaissance has been masterminded by his son Velasco, himself a considerable painter and sculptor. Clearly compelled to paint and draw just as others might eat or drink, Vitali uses imagery that has an existential intensity made all the greater by its relatively narrow range. Landscape rarely intrudes, with the notable exception of Resegone (1991; all works collection of the artist), a panorama that ruggedly captures a local Bergamasque mountain, capping the elegant display Mirabili Naturalia Artificialia at the Museo Civico di Storia Naturale. Instead, still-lifes, portraits and figure scenes are his staple.

At face value Vitali is a realist of sorts. Deeper down, he is expressionist to the core. Keen observation, virtuoso painterliness (which suffers greatly in reproduction), grotesquerie, droll humour and death mingle in a synthesis greater than the sum of its parts. Behind his lake fish may lurk the ghosts of Courbet’s Trout (1873; Musée d’Orsay, Paris), Soutine’s sundry dead creatures and more besides. Yet the image holds its own against them, the energetic impasto gleaming within darkness. The same applies to his many renditions of slaughtered bulls and rabbits, while even a halved Pomegranate (1993) spills its fruity guts. Equally memorable is Pause, wherein a fanciful self-portrait in a top hat fades, ghost-like, behind blood- red slashes of paint applied half a century later. Mortality and transience also run through Vitali’s many treatments of blossoms and sunflowers, the last grouped together in the corner of a gallery where they hang en masse in several tiers like a bright efflorescence soon to dim.

It may be this morbid aura that has entranced the British film director Peter Greenaway to collaborate with the painter. Mortality with Vitali at the Casa del Manzoni is a series of installations (replete with multifarious sounds) by Greenaway that enter into a dialogue with the cycles of life and death in the pictures on the walls. Spanning the period 1950–2008, these have an earthiness reminiscent of Neorealist films by Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini. By contrast, Vitali’s assorted musical bands are Felliniesque and upbeat in their bright uniforms, while his portraits of goats exude wiry capriciousness.

Artificialia in the Castello Sforzesco offers a wide selection from the more than 450 prints Vitali has created since the 1980s. There they confront old-master prints from the Bertarelli collection, by Rembrandt and Goya as well as James Ensor, who has bequeathed to Vitali elements of vanitas, satire, the multitudinous crowd and bright revelry. In the medieval underground Sala Visconti, Velasco Vitali has created a hushed installation in which his father’s used copper plates hang from the vaulted ceiling above blank sheets laid in two rows on a long red carpet in a serial arrangement that alludes to those of Walter De Maria.

Contrary to the impulsive or loose impression that the works in oil sometimes give, Vitali is in fact a formidable draughtsman. This accomplishment emerges in the meticulous monotypes and other works on paper shown at the Museo Civico di Storia Naturale. They seem as ‘modern’ as the paintings feign to look backwards. Covering a career of seven decades, these exhibitions bring an inveterate outsider vibrantly back into the continuum of the present.

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