Can a pictorial form also have value as an apparition? Can the rigorously formal organism of a painting contain the lightness, the living breath of an evocation, the leap or shudder of memory? This, for me, is the problem; this is the reason for the constant disquiet that makes me paint. The picture should be an enclosed world; within its limits the drama unfolds; this chessboard spells victory or defeat.
Afro, New Decade, 1955
Tornabuoni Art Paris presents the most comprehensive international survey ever to be held in a private gallery of Afro Libio Basaldella (1912-1976), better known as Afro.
The accompanying exhibition catalogue is edited by Philip Rylands, Director Emeritus of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, who has also written an original essay for the catalogue.
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On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the artist’s monumental fresco, The Garden of Hope created for the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, Tornabuoni Art holds an unprecedented exhibition dedicated to Afro, at its gallery in the heart of the Marais. Highlights of this show will transfer to Tornabuoni Art London in October 2018.
Born in Udine in 1912, to a family of artists and interior designers, Afro’s unusual name was given to him by his patriotic parents in honour of Italy’s recent colonisation of the North African coast of Libya. After studying art in Venice, Afro quickly emerged — in the 1930s — as a signi cant member of the School of Rome, a group of tonalist painters whose expressionist style contrasted with the prevalent neoclassical ‘return to order’ of the day. From the 1950s, he travelled to the United States and developed an abstract art that combined American in uences with, as Philip Rylands discusses in his catalogue essay, the great Italian artistic traditions of colour and line.
Along with Alberto Burri and Lucio Fontana, Afro is today considered an important example of Italian Abstraction. Initially he explored abstraction in formal terms – focussing on shape, colour and composition. However, he later came to believe that the painting itself should embody the emotion, not just represent it. Afro’s works are often autobiographical, drawing on past memories conjured up some time after the event in order to allow the instant to be recalled through his senses rather than as mental images. Through time, the memory of the moment becomes colour and feeling for him. This is most keenly felt in works such as Estate nell’Orto (Summer in the Vegetable Garden) 1955, where the colour and movement of the painting engage the viewer’s senses and evoke the feeling of a past experience imbued with nostalgia.
This exhibition, produced in collaboration with the Fondazione Archivio Afro, presents around 50 artworks from the 1950s to the 1970s, and the final room is entirely dedicated to preparatory drawings of Afro’s majestic mural fresco The Garden of Hope.
These drawings, aside from their relation to UNESCO’s mural, are of great interest as they clearly show how Afro expressed and gathered elements of his past works and redirected them into this magnum opus.
Highlights of the exhibition also include major works, such as Racconti di Guascogna (Tales from Gascony) 1951, and Ragazzo col Tacchino (Boy with Turkey) 1955, which show how Afro’s more symbolic representation of objects and figures shifted to become a purely expressive and emotional form of abstraction.
Philip Rylands considers Afro to be Italy’s answer to Abstract Expressionism and an example of the fertile artistic dialogues between Italy and the US in the post-war period. In his catalogue preface, he writes:
Afro was one of the leading Italian painters of the very talented and numerous generation of artists that flourished in the decades following World War II. He was as successful internationally, above all in the United States, as he was in Italy. Afro’s career and work provide an interesting case study of the relative values of new European and American art in that period.
The exhibition catalogue also features a study of UNESCO’s fresco and its preparatory drawings by Anne Monfort, curator at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, an analysis of the artist’s work and his close relationship with the American Abstract Expressionism movement by Barbara Drudi from the Accademia di Firenze and a text by Davide Colombo, History of Art Professor at the University of Parma. The publication is rich with original documents, including some of the artist’s correspondence, as well as a selected critical anthology, much of which has been translated into French and English for the first time on this occasion.
In October 2018, around 20 of Afro’s key works will be exhibited at Tornabuoni Art London, with the aim of encouraging the British public to learn more about the only Italian Abstract Expressionist, whose work has rarely been exhibited in the UK.
Afro Libio Basaldella, known as Afro, was born in Udine, Italy, 4 March 1912. With his brothers Dino and Mirko, aged only 16, he exhibited paintings at the only Mostra della Scuola Friulana d’Avanguardia (1928). In 1930, he was awarded a scholarship by the Marangoni Art Foundation of Udine, which enabled him to move to Rome with his brother Dino, and engage the art scene there, specifically that of the Scuola di via Cavour and the Scuola Romana. From 1931, he took part in various Mostre Sindacali and in 1933 exhibited at the Galleria Il Milione in Milan with fellow Friulan artists, Bosisio, Pittino and Taiuti. Later, Afro moved permanently to Rome. In 1935 his work was shown at the 2nd Rome Quadriennale, and in 1936 at the Venice Biennale to which he was invited again in 1940 and 1942. Following his experience with the Scuola Romana, he painted several large murals. He passed the war years in Venice. In the late 1940s he developed his distinctive version of abstraction from a combination of neo-Cubism and the metaphysical painting of de Chirico.
In 1950, Afro travelled to the United States and began his almost twenty-year collaboration with the Catherine Viviano Gallery, New York. The different cultural climate in the USA and the American avant-garde of the period made a strong impact on Afro. This influence, however, appeared only later in his work, and was expressed in a personal manner. In 1952, Afro was part of the Gruppo degli Otto, whose members exhibited at the XXVI Biennale. In 1955, he was invited to exhibit in the first Documenta in Kassel, in the Rome Quadriennale, and in a traveling exhibition in the USA, The New Decade: 22 European Painters and Sculptors. By this time, Afro had achieved international fame and recognition. In 1956, he was awarded the prize for best Italian painter at the Venice Biennale. In 1958, together with Appel, Arp, Calder, Matta, Miró, Moore, Picasso and Tamayo, he was selected to decorate the new UNESCO Headquarters in Paris. His contribution was a mural entitled The Garden of Hope.
Afro continued his international career in 1959-60: he exhibited at the second Documenta in Kassel, and won the Carnegie prize in Pittsburgh, as well as the Italian prize of the Guggenheim International at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. In 1961, James Johnson Sweeney, former director of the Guggenheim Museum, New York, wrote an essay for a monograph on his work. During this period, Afro held solo exhibitions in Cambridge, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1960), the Galerie de France in Paris, and the Galleria Blu in Milan (1961). In 1964-65, he was given a series of European exhibitions: the Galerie im Erker in St. Gallen, the Räber in Lucerne, the Günter Franke in Munich, and in 1969-70, a large retrospective exhibition curated by Bernd Krimmel at the Kunsthalle in Darmstadt, the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, and later, at the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara.
Following the death of his brother, Mirko in 1969, Afro suffered various periods of ill-health.
During the 1970s, Afro focused mainly on printmaking, concentrating less on painting. He participated in fewer exhibitions. Afro died in Zürich, 24 July 1976. A monograph edited by Cesare Brandi was published the following year. In 1978, the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome paid homage to Afro with a large retrospective exhibition, curated by Bruno Mantura.
Numerous solo and collective exhibitions were held in the years that followed, and extensive research by art historians and critics consolidated Afro’s renown, contributing to the ongoing diffusion of his work, in Italy and abroad. Awareness of Afro’s art grew and continues to grow over time, thanks also to the revival of interest in the various historical contexts, more than half a century ago, in which he played a role, as an in Italian painter of international renown.