A Chronology of Ezio Gribaudo’s Work – Interview of Ezio Gribaudo by Victoria Surliuga (extracts)
Victoria Surliuga – In these interviews I’d like to discuss not only the origins and structure of your artistic output, but also the impact that your work has had on modern and contemporary art. Tell me about how and when you decided to make art your whole life.
Ezio Gribaudo – It was the day I achieved so-called maturity, although it’s rather banal to put it that way because I had actually already decided many years before to live my life surrounded by art. For technical and circumstantial reasons, keeping in mind that those were the early postwar years, about 1945, I found it hard to make a choice. Fascism had not accustomed our youth to knowledge. It had oriented our taste toward hedonism, pleasure that was addressed more to the body than the mind. I still wasn’t completely aware of all this because I had experienced it firsthand in the 1930s and 1940s, when I was still lacking in much of the information that comes in handy in life. In 1945 and 1946 I made contact with the historic reality, realizing how it was an elaborate fiction for which it is no use denying the circumstances. Then I realized that the real world was different, and that it could also be improved.
My first discovery was a book I was given by my math teacher, even though I wasn’t really good at the subject, but I still wanted to study math because I believed it was important. People would say that both Latin and math were important. I knew that Latin was essential, but math was so as well, albeit in a different way. This teacher would tell me, “I see you’re talented.” During his lessons I’d draw, and he once remarked, “I must give you a book about the European avant-gardes.”
My generation was terribly ignorant, although there were some people who were knowledgeable in spite of Fascism. I was struck by the images made by Wassily Kandinsky, and by those of the Russian painters, who had been banned because our society had opposed the dissemination of culture. I could never have imagined that there was a different world to know and experience; it took me only a few years to realize this was so, however, and I forced myself to leave behind the generational ignorance in which I was still immersed. Rather humbly, I was struck by the world of art that was right there for me to explore. I wanted to know things. I’d complete every project in total immersion, and I wanted to know everything there was to know about cinema, theater, history, and literature, trying to soak it all up as quickly as possible. In Turin I could turn to the Cinema Club of the Unione Culturale, as well as to the one on Via San Francesco da Paola. For the first time ever, I saw Russian movies, including Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Mother, and the ones directed by Sergei Eisenstein. It was by opening my mind to what was happening in the world that I became free to be interested in music and theater.
During the years of my youth, social activities had involved oratory and gymnastics exercises, as well as everything else that the dictatorships had forced on us during that period. My yearning to know things and my curiosity were a form of rebellion, and I was eager to discover Paris.
You were trained in graphic arts and architecture, including both painting and sculpture. How were the essential stages in your artistic output affected by this?
I’d like to define the randomness that exists in art, not just that which is related to life’s actions and choices. I decided to go into graphic art because it seemed to me there was a void around that subject matter. From the layout to the choice of the type, you could see that the newspapers were a century old. All these things made me think about the possibility of renewing graphic art wherever it was used, as well as printing. I felt I was capable of turning the whole area around, making a difference for the next one hundred years. The same thing happened, for example, with Byzantine art and the Renaissance all the way to Masaccio. Our Byzantine style, visible in the formats that were used to make books, revealed a kind of rigor that was magnificent. Today Italian libraries are filled with memories of the amanuenses who worked there for years, and then centuries.
In graphic art, the desire to change something is a presumption, just as it is in art. I saw that we needed to stop painting in a traditional way and to imitate the work of the avant-gardes. It was the start of a new era, with so much information coming in you felt crushed by it. I was lucky to experience the 1950s as a time of transition and groundbreaking change. In that postwar period filled with enthusiasm and a yearning to do things, I managed to achieve goals that had a positive outcome for me.
About every ten years I developed or modified my technical studies in a significant way, examining new forms of expression that would combine texts and words with the story. I was an unconventional painter; I didn’t work in the traditional botteghe, or workshops. I worked in the world of printing instead. The images of my universe begin inside a world without an intermediate vision, which was instead the case with Morandi, whose art expresses the visual impact of certain objects.
Although success is relative, I created some examples of graphic art that won me awards, acknowledging my work and my desire to discover and learn. I have always been a curious person, and my desire to know has been appeased many times in spite of the huge effort it has cost me. I’m old now, but fifty years ago I ran, I’d set off, I’d take planes. When I draw up a balance of my life, I realize how useful my desire and will to learn were to me, and I see these same things in today’s youth. In recent years there has been a return to the idea of exploring the world and leaving behind the academy – which is also a place of shelter. In my life I’ve been nominated President of the Accademia Albertina by Letizia Moratti, who was then Minister of Education, Universities, and Research. It happened in 2005. It seemed strange to me, because when you think of an academy you think of something that’s uncompromising. Being president of an academy gratified me, especially because I’m a rebel by nature, not a revolutionary, and I’ve never played by the rules. I felt as though I was being allowed to approach certain ways and contents that had been lost over time.
My life has been filled with highs and lows, compromises and mistakes: I’ve added them all up, and now it’s even hard for me to figure out what I should have done. Perhaps making certain mistakes was a good thing, as there was always a positive side to them as well. We tend to sum things up over a period of three or four centuries, whereas what one really needs is a whole lifetime for just one moment. Over the seasons I have had many opportunities to meet artists like Jean Dubuffet, Francis Bacon, Giorgio de Chirico, and other great names that have no doubt changed me without altering my basic ideas. I have also been fortunate because my daughter Paola chose to embrace one of the paths I had pointed out to her. Being free to decide, she chose this type of publishing activity. Paola, my eldest daughter, graduated from college in 1983, and since then she’s been better than me. Her work is important, and I believe her future has been charted out for her. I hope it’s a future filled with promise.
The definition and canonization of an artwork concerns the sources that led to specific understandings of art. Which artists and movements or schools have had an impact on your work? Besides Mantegna, Piero della Francesca, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (the first drawing you bought was by this artist), Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, which moments in art history interest you the most?
This is a universal question that embraces five centuries of art history. I was drawn to all of them, from Masaccio, Giotto, to Piero della Francesca, and all the way down to my contemporaries, the ones I know personally. I’m a lucky man: when I was young I met Pablo Picasso, but I probably didn’t realize at the time just how important this twentieth-century genius was. I believe he is one of the cornerstones of painting in the world. In time I think I realized what it meant to actually meet him. Picasso had a long life, and he tried out all types of painting and had all kinds of experiences; he even tried his hand at African art, which afforded him a moment of glory. This led to Guernica and then to Massacre in Korea, paintings on which all of contemporary art is founded. I believe that Picasso, like Albert Einstein, was crucial to his century, in this case like no other painter among the moderns. Before his time, the same can be said for Piero della Francesca, Giotto, and Leonardo da Vinci, and I could mention others all the way to Bacon, another figure whom I met and spent time with.
The other day I was leafing through a book and I found a small portrait made by Bacon, who on several occasions said to me, “Come, tomorrow I’ll do your portrait!” But I was foolish and exuberant and had other things to do. I continued to put it off, also because he only worked at certain times of the day, so that when he had time I couldn’t make it. So I missed out on having my portrait painted by Bacon.
I have also been an art promoter, and I organized great events for my city, Turin. One of the most important of these was when I brought the Peggy Guggenheim Collection to Turin in the 1970s. It was also a personal success, as I had a good relationship with her, and I had already produced a complete monograph of her collection and catalogs. When I suggested that she have a show at the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Turin, she said, “Yes, right away,” with an enthusiasm that wasn’t like her. She gave me her entire collection for the exhibition, including the headboards that Alexander Calder had made especially for her, and all her daughter Pegeen Vail’s paintings. I saw this as being a gesture of friendship and esteem, which she also mentioned in her memoirs. It was truly gratifying.
My creativity lies within this context as well, with its highs and it lows. Swept by enthusiasm, I organized and completed many publishing initiatives. I can list at least seven or eight great artists whose monographic shows and books published by Fabbri Editori I curated: Bacon, Miró, Burri, Man Ray, Chagall, Picabia, Duchamp, and Albert Savinio. Overall, those thirty-four books that I personally curated have left their mark; contained inside each one of them is my own creativity.
I read, however, that you’re particularly interested in Piero della Francesca’s stud- ies on space.
I was particularly drawn to Piero della Francesca because he sums up the sublimation of everything. Giotto, instead, still showed the signs of high poetics in his work, and in Leonardo there was the mathematical rigor I was interested in. In Piero della Francesca I also observed elements of descriptive geometry, which I then discovered at the Polytechnic in Turin while I was an architecture student. This subject excited me because it offered me an openness that I hadn’t found in mathematical analysis. Descriptive geometry is the projection in space of what Piero della Francesca portrayed in his works. For this reason, I have always been especially drawn to him.
What can you tell me about Toulouse-Lautrec? I was acquainted with his descendants, Michel Tapié de Céleyran, the prophet of art autre. This all sounded new in Turin when I had the chance to meet him, and in a short time, it was like a coup de foudre. Over the course of an evening when we were characters in search of an author, he showed me a series of slides that summed up all of art from 1945 to 1950 through 1955. Some of them were of paintings by Pollock and other artists that I was seeing for the first time. I had already met Peggy Guggenheim, and on that occasion I was asked, with particular interest, “What would you do with these one hundred slides?” I’d make a book,” I replied. I invented the whole book overnight, and the next day we left for Paris, after planning the book called Morphologie autre that made Tapié famous. It’s a seminal work—at least it is so in Europe— about postwar art. Tapié didn’t just include European painters, but American and Japanese ones as well. The whole thing turned out to be hugely successful.
I was intrigued when Tapié said to me, “Moi, je fais partie de la famille de Toulouse-Lautrec.” He was the artist’s nephew. Toulouse-Lautrec was an important witness to the fabulous side of Paris during the Belle Époque and the period of the cafés chantants. He was also the
first great poster maker. I have always been struck by the fact that he invented the canons of world advertising before all the others, who were busy trying to do the same thing, like Raymond Savignac, to name just one. To understand that he was the first great “editographer,” all you have to do is take a look at his works. Moreover, the subjects he exalted, such as the Belle Époque, made him a popular artist because his cafés chantants left a joyous mark on a different Paris, an unconventional one, which everyone yearned for and loved. Toulouse-Lautrec is no doubt the precursor of this Paris, even though he certainly wasn’t David or even a pompier painter. He made a break with these traditions, placing himself almost at the same level as the Impressionists. While Cézanne was transfiguring and creating still lifes, Toulouse-Lautrec made popular works, akin to what Warhol would do a century later with Campbell’s Soup. I find it significant that the first drawing you purchased for your collection was a Toulouse-Lautrec. Sometimes acquiring a piece of art has a lot to do with luck, but is there anything else behind this story? I was working in publishing and I was owed money by Georges Bernier, the director of a contemporary art magazine called L’Oeil. There wasn’t any money to pay for the publication, and money was owed to Edizioni d’Arte Fratelli Pozzo for some past work. Bernier made me an offer: “Is there something you might be interested in? Otherwise I may need to defer payment further.” I began leafing through a folder, and that’s when I noticed a Toulouse-Lautrec. I stopped to think, “I wonder how much it’s worth?” When I started paging through the folder a second time, Bernier noticed that I was especially interested in that drawing, and at one point he said: “This one is also published in a catalogue raisonné.” The volume had been curated by a woman whom I had met through my friend Jean Kisling. I kept looking at the drawing, knowing that if I hadn’t bought it, I would have lost out. That was when I made my final decision.
I still have that drawing, and although it meant making a sacrifice, I’m happy to have purchased it when I was still a young man. Another person would have said, “I’d like a Ferrari,” even though at the time Giuliettas, and maybe even more so Porsches, were all the rage. The drawing by Toulouse-Lautrec was worth a small Porsche, and now it’s worth about a dozen of those cars. I like to think that that time I came out the winner.
I’d like to move on to the core of your artistic production. Which are the most important stages in the development of your work? More specifically, what did it mean for you to shift from the figurative to the abstract?
The change wasn’t sudden. My first masters always told me that it was important to draw from nature, not to copy nature. Already as a young man at fourteen, I would take an apple, a pear, a dry leaf, or any domestic object and I’d put them on the table, staring at them so that I could portray them. The artist learns to paint, but today the discipline no longer exists. That’s how I got started, and then it became easy. I followed my curiosity, traveling and visiting exhibitions. Wherever it was I ended up I’d immediately go see a show.
All this opened my mind because I got to see Pieter Bruegel in Belgium, then Hieronymus Bosch, and I achieved sublimation when I saw the slashes by Lucio Fontana, who represented anti-painting. My encounter with him was one of the last from which an important partnership was born. Suffice it to say that in 1961 we presented a monograph by Fontana called Devenir de Fontana, with an essay by Tapié. I had the same type of liaison with all the abstract, figurative painters, like de Chirico, Dubuffet, Alechinsky, who were all completely different. However, because I was part of this crucible, sometimes it was hard to be myself. Later, locked away in my studio, my own ideas emerged, which became the logogrifi. Being in contact with these painters on a day-to-day basis, sometimes in the silence of my studio I found it hard to separate my creativity and abandon the distorted vision of their works in my mind.
Allow me to add that my current studio-bunker was designed in 1974 by the architect Andrea Bruno, a fellow student at the Faculty of Architecture. Turning the design into something real was laborious because it meant planning a building in an area of the city where hardly anything new was ever built. I like to think of my studio as the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, to borrow the title of the film of the same name directed by Robert Wiene in 1920. The windows overlook the Mole Antonelliana, and the landscape includes the Gran Madre. To me, this is the most beautiful part of the city. Turin encompasses a multiplicity of images with many sides to them, but it is also a Gogolian city filled with dead souls. It has also been the headquarters for all my artistic work and my publishing activity.
You have always worked with a variety of genres and materials, from painting to sculpture to bronze to polystyrene. What are the formal and contents-related needs that have accompanied the choices you made concerning the materials chosen for your works?
I’ve used precious materials like bronze and marble, although the latter of the two can easily be worn down. I’m not saying that bronze is eternal, but it does create some practical problems—for instance concerning transportation. To be able to make a large-scale work you need a lot of space. I only had that kind of space later, but not when I was young. No doubt there was a moment there when sculpture, like all the arts, almost got the upper hand. There were practical issues—from the weight of the work to its transportation, there always seemed to be some technical difficulty. That’s when I started making polystyrene and cardboard maquettes. Luckily, polystyrene was discovered after the war; even Henry Moore, who was a friend of mine, used it a lot. I realized that this material was malleable, practical, albeit cumbersome. I then tried the Fonderie Limone, where they’d never worked with an artist before. So they didn’t have the sort of tradition you might find in Pietrasanta, Verona, or Turin, and there were few sculptors who required their work. To be honest, there just weren’t any of the typical foundries in Turin. FIAT, however, had made it possible for the by-industries to work with aluminum, bronze, and other materials, and I met several businessmen to whom I will forever be grateful for having introduced me to some of those foundries.
To transport bronze you have to have Herculean strength, and because of this I couldn’t be as creative as I wanted at the beginning. Everything changed with the advent of polystyrene, a very light, malleable, soft material on which I used nonin- vasive techniques, and that didn’t include detergents or any other sort of harmful substance. As I was saying, I had a stroke of luck in the 1970s when I discovered the Limone foundries, where I was given immense space all to myself, although I wasn’t exempt from paying the very high production costs. That experience, span- ning over forty years, was described in a book that came out in 2012.
I then used these techniques to enlarge my logogrifi and the prints I made on paper in a smaller scale. This gave me the chance to broaden my vision. Added to these were works that even today are rather fragile, but they’ve been carefully and suitably conserved. Overall, the idea was to work for the future. I have always known that bronze and marble will stand the test of time, but I have never been sure about the other materials subject to wear, and therefore they require protection. Conservators have their work cut out for them, as even contemporary art is hard to conserve. Furthermore, as my studio isn’t big enough, all this work had to be done outside, also keeping in mind how hard it is to shift heavy objects around, which has nothing to do with creativity.
I think that sculpture also needs space. My fellow artists who have, or had, huge studios, where one’s creativity can really spread out, are lucky. At a certain point I went back to paper. But although paper is durable, there were problems owing to the fact that I treated it with readymade materials. I took my work back to the studio, where I limited the number of presses and the materials that required special machinery. I went back to my roots, to the pen, the watercolor, to paint and canvas, and that’s why you’ll find these “memories,” that is, revisitations, not postdated works. It was not something I invented. What I did was find a way to use flani—that is, the recycled, heavy, heat-resistant paper that was once used to create typographical prints. These works continue to be of interest today because they are so far removed from the painting tradition.
The academies may well have changed the subjects they teach now. Personally, I belong to the generation of artists who studied at the academies when the syllabus included the figure and decoration after nature. Just as the conservatory teaches its students solfeggio, figure and decoration were on the core curriculum at the academy. With computer science there are new genres of expression, and this has also changed creativity. While today set designs are made with different types of lighting, in my day we used a simple form of lighting. Nowadays, there are myriad solutions to be chosen from in the field of installation, and although I’m getting on in years, I still have some clear and specific ideas about the matter. Although my imagination is still alive, I find it hard to approach these new materials. The best thing would be to have some institutions willing to fund a person’s artistic work. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to find sponsors.
Although I had thought I would develop some large-scale works, ultimately what matters is what I’ve actually accomplished. I have done many different things, and I’m grateful to myself for this. Like the curious child in me, I wanted to find the sweetest jam, and to do so I opened many jars so that I could taste what was inside. Some of the flavors I discovered interested me more than others, and led me to think, for instance, about making dinosaurs. This is a story that I like to tell. It all started with a trip to America with my daughter Paola. She’d just earned a degree in art history with a wonderful thesis on Charles Le Brun’s treatise about drawing the human passions—a complex and magnificent topic, and notably a classical one. My first approach to prehistoric animals took place in New York when Paola was twenty-three and I took her to see the Museum of Natural History, not the Metropolitan Museum of Art nor the MoMA.
They were setting up the rooms, and I have to admit that Americans are truly excellent at making museums a learning experience. If an elementary school kid spent a whole year in one of those museums, he’d come out knowing everything there is to know about the world, learning by actually seeing. The way the spaces are set up is outstanding. In 1982 luck would have it that our visit came at the same time as the installation of two huge rooms with dinosaurs. I was dazzled by those enormous twenty-yard-long skeletons. When I got back to my studio I drew them, all the while wondering what a fashion designer like Giorgio Armani would have done with shapes like those. I then decorated them, achieving amazing results within my entire oeuvre.
In the collection of a well-known family of Montecarlo there’s a beautiful, fascinating painting of mine that’s made with cabbage leaves. Other works with dinosaurs followed, and I made several books on the subject, which has become one of my trademarks. Now it’s a habit: I draw this prehistoric animal that moves slowly but stays sharp, nourished by trees that are by now destroyed not so much by the dinosaurs themselves as by the bulldozers in the Amazon and in all the forests that had filled my imagination. In 1987 I had a dinosaur exhibition at the Galleria Bergamini in Milan, and on that occasion Fruttero and Lucentini wrote a commentary for the book Gribaudo Dinosaurus, published that same year by Fabbri Editori. This was followed by another book, I Dinosauri di Gribaudo, published by Fògola Editore in 1993.
Interview continues in
THE MAN IN THE MIDDLE OF MODERNISM by Victoria Surliuga, Giltterati, 2016