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Melotti the magician
Organised by Eva Fabbris and Cristiano Raimondi, the exhibition at Villa Paloma centres on the elective affinities that, for a happy period, coupled Fausto Melotti’s genius with that of the visionary Gio Ponti.
“After all that space, an astronaut is laid in a hole in the ground.” This comment made by Fausto Melotti many years ago conjures up a big osmotic mix of life-bloods – the errant and empty sidereal space of the celestial sphere where it is impossible to grasp any sense of size or distance and the sunken one teeming with worms and insect legs, squeezed between hordes of moles and roots in the equally dark depths of the earth. It actually well conveys the singular nature of an artist given over, indeed, to abstraction and geometry, driven to pare away and rigorous counterpoint but also seemingly shaken now and again by an intermittent, perhaps primordial and very human sentiment of attachment to worldly things and to the laws hidden deep down in that which exists.
In all Fausto Melotti’s art, we cannot but see a constant tension towards “the high signs” – to use the words of Italo Calvino who wrote illuminating pages on him. A tension more of the intellect than the senses (a flashback to the muteand so-called “abstract” sculptures of the 1930s, a series of variations on a theme, including the 18 exhibited in the artist’s first solo exhibition at the Galleria Il Milione in Milan in 1935). It is, however, also true that nothing in his works, as he said, “is consigned to an indifferent equilibrium, like a ball on a perfectly horizontal plane. The ball comes alive when it rolls down or is cast on high.” That is like saying that the metre may be stringent but the verse is free. The voids are as important as the solids. Feverish, excited and freed from all certainties, the space expands and contracts in a quest to adapt.
The work of Fausto Melotti (born in June 1901 in the Hapsburg and irredentist Rovereto of Fortunato Depero and Melotti’s cousin Carlo Belli, he was a musician, the son of a butcher and had a degree in electro-technical engineering; he died in Milan, in a moment in June 1986) possesses something of the moth’s wing-beat, of the wave that turns white, of the translucent thread, of the afternoon moon. A hint of pinkish-blue – slight, pounding and impalpable; very distant, as if immersed in the luminescent first light of dawn, and fine, so very fine, his sculptures “on stilts” are open elaborately composed forms fluctuating in the empyrean, struggling to support the weight of a gaze, if not that of a spider or a star.
“Melotti is a sensitive and silent artist”, wrote Lisa Ponti in an article entitled “Melotti the Magician” in Domus in 1948. “The first times people visit him in his studio, they are taken aback by his short nervous laugh, amid so many strange marvels aligned on planks. […] I know of architects who have found his coffee cups ‘un-architectural’ but it is their way of rebelling against the charm of his almost useless beautiful objects. I know of other architects who gave up searching for the sugar at the bottom of his coffee cups a year ago, so long and cylindrically straight are they, but they wouldn’t stop using them for anything in the world. Melotti laughs about what he does: about his compartments filled with armies of angels, the families of ‘wrong animals’ and the necklace beads. He picks one up and shows it, turning it and smiling like a slightly amused entomologist presenting a butterfly through a lens. These are things I do on the side, of course, he says: they are clearly not sculptures.”
After the war, it was Lisa Ponti and her father Gio (who had, in the meantime, returned as editor of the magazine he founded in 1928) who, with their fingers and in Domus (see: Domus 392/1962), pushed aside the veil of silence that had been woven over the artist’s work like a spider’s web, lifting it until – starting in the late 1960s, let’s say, with the 1967 exhibition at the Galleria Toninelli in Milan – it took off once and for all. There were many articles complete with photographs by Ugo Mulas, Giorgio Casali and Arno Hammacher on Melotti or written by him, including that wonderful admission of intent, that programmatic manifesto, that was “Uncertainty” (Domus 400, March 1963), expressing with very little ceremony his impatience with certain pigeonholing tendencies peculiar to a then-embryonic art system. “Were Giotto to be born again”, the artist later wrote, “the market would condemn him to constantly repeating his O.”
A recently opened exhibition (until 17 January next) centres on the elective affinities that, for a happy period, coupled Melotti’s genius with that of the visionary Ponti in the molten lead of Domus type (roughly between 1948 and 1968). It is a combined effort by Marie-Claude Beaud, director of the Nouveau Musée National de Monaco, curators Eva Fabbris and Cristiano Raimondi, Baukuh and Valter Scelsi (exhibition design), the Fondazione Fausto Melotti and the publisher Domus. Arranged in one of the two NMNM premises – the elegant Villa Paloma overlooking the waters of the French Riviera – it has found a fitting venue.
Somewhat unexpectedly, the exhibition starts with all the rhetoric and magniloquence of the allegory, featuring copies (the originals have been destroyed) of the three plaster statues created by the artist for the 7th Milan Triennale (1940): La pittura (painting) L’architettura (architecture) and La decorazione (decoration). Turn the corner and the gaze falls on the figure of the pendulum, visited by Melotti more than once and here in the form of the concentrated, dense, levitating metal balls of Scultura A (I Pendoli) dated 1968. As Calvino wrote, it is a pendulum not slave to the Earth’s oscillating gravity but open to reverse oscillations, like those of the diapason, the clapper of a different bell or a solar gong.
Arranged all around, as if trained by invisible rays, are some of the loveliest brass sculptures of the mid-1960s, aerial, suspended and overflowing with liquid images. These are the Magician Melotti’s miraculous spaces: Il Circo is here, La barca and Metrò natalizio there and La Pioggia over there. But a stone’s throw away, the undulating circumferences of the Ellissi steel sculpture (1964) are reflected in a large mirror placed to reveal its reverse side (the mirror, with all the wealth of its directioning, is the stage device chosen by the exhibition designers to probe the works and turn them into mouthpieces) but also in the silver gelatine of a photograph of the work taken by Ugo Mulas a few years after its production: a counterpoint of variously inclined 2D and 3D planes echoed all along the exhibition route.
Every stage of the exhibition features uncommonly poetic pages painstakingly sourced by the curators in the Domus archives. They connect and respond to the works displayed. Along the way, you encounter the batch of polychrome ceramic pieces that in the late 1940s started to emerge from the Milanese studio in Via Leopardi 26, only to reappear shortly afterwards in the magazine’s illustrations, including Lettera a Fontana 1944 (the Fontana in question is, of course, his friend Lucio; they met in Adolfo Wildt’s class at the Brera Academy) and La Follia (exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1948). Indeed, it was his ceramic works that earned Melotti the laurels initially denied him by art.
Next come accurately geometric sculptures, based on a certain musical measurement (Preludio I e II, 1961; Tema e variazioni, 1969; Contrappunto III, 1970), here exhibited alongside glass cases containing their reproductions (very rare issues of Domus). Then, after climbing to the third floor, there are bas-reliefs in clay and painted ceramic with a vaguely prehistoric feel (all untitled and produced between 1946 and 1962), and examples drawn from that separate chapter in the artist’s eclectic production centred on the painted terracotta Teatrini – box theatre sets occupied by lines of thin figures, over which hang vague reminiscences and memories.
Immersed in a time with no clocks and as if dotted with trap doors and secret exits that open suddenly to offer unexpected bursts of wonder, the Fausto Melotti exhibition at Villa Paloma is cloaked, or rather plunged, in a dense vegetation of signs filled with uncertainty, lacking in meaning of course and able to adopt any meanings we may wish to give them. High signs, winged signs. Silver spires, the notes of a score and kite tails. Distant but familiar at the same time. As described by Paolo Fossati in his seminal comment on Melotti’s oeuvre that is Lo spazio inquieto, they are signs of an elsewhere of which these are the remains.