"Dear friends and enemies, go fuck yourselves." Gastone Novelli between detachment, art and contestation

The publishing house Nero published this year the most comprehensive collection of writings by Gastone Novelli, a refined artist and sharp polemicist in 1960s Italy. This is a good opportunity to briefly outline his art and his contestations.

“There you go. Yes, dear friends, and enemies, and strangers, go fuck yourselves.” Thus began a text that Gastone Novelli (Vienna, 1925 - Milan, 1968) wrote between 1964 and 1965 to express all his disappointment, which in this invective was tinged with an explicit and overt disgust, with the artistic and intellectual circles of the time. His sharp pen, sharpened by the sufferings he endured in the war and endured with contempt for the enemy (Novelli participated in the resistance, and as early as 18 years old he wrote heated letters from prison in which he proudly professed his deep anti-fascist faith), by his character of passionate and learned polemicist ready to intervene on the most pressing topics of the cultural current affairs of his time and by the detached, often disdainful attitude with which he observed the world around him, on that occasion was directed against the indolence, self-referentiality and tacticism of an environment that was, in his opinion, closed and little inclined to open up to the outside world: “these people,” Novelli continued in his typescript, which would only be published posthumously, “have never even noticed Pirandello, Savinio is bounced on their heads from the outside, our museums do not have a Boccioni or even a Modigliani, in 1957 the superintendent of the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Rome had never heard of Schwitters, Moravia and the other gurus of our farm did not know Lautramont even by name, and they scramble in an attempt to read Sartre skipping all surrealism with equal feet.”

The heartfelt denunciation Here it is is one of the texts that the publishing house Nero has republished (along with numerous unpublished ones) in a full-bodied collection Scritti ’43 - ’68, edited by Paola Bonani and published this 2019. And this is currently the most extensive corpus of Gastone Novelli’s literary production, of fundamental importance for delving into the multiple, deep and complex aspects of his personality, with writings ranging from the aforementioned prison letters to the latest interventions on the correlations between art and politics that pervade everything produced in 1968. In between, a timeline that allows us to follow the evolution of his rebellion against the artistic and literaryestablishment, of his art that proceeded from inner needs and impulses and invested every fragment of his life and thought (“art,” he wrote in one of his last texts, “is one of the ways in which man orients himself in the world,” and in this sense its methods and legacy, he claimed, are similar to those of science and equally contradictory), as well as the battles against his main enemies: ignorance, mental laziness, and asphyxiating academicism.

Aboutignorance, which, according to Novelli, was one of the evils that plagued art criticism in Italy, the artist was already writing, in his early thirties, in the 1950s. One of the earliest occasions was a further typescript, unpublished and therefore published for the first time in the collection edited with punctuality and rigor by Bonani, with which Novelli intervened against an article by Marcello Venturoli (Rome, 1915 - 2002) on the 1956 Venice Biennale, which had appeared in the newspaper Paese Sera: “Venturoli,” Novelli wrote, “gives an exemplary essay of the ignorance and unpreparedness of the majority of critics to whom the columns of our newspapers are entrusted today. He violently attacks non-figurative painting and, carried away by his own lack of culture, polemicizes Mondrian’s plastic assertions accusing him of nihilism without realizing that he is discussing things and positions that are already part of the history of art and therefore not at all polemical. Evidently Venturoli has never understood or noticed the lesson of the black and whites of the Giottesque bell tower of the cathedral of Florence or the polychrome lesson of the walls of Pompeii, a lesson that Mondrian was able to explain to us by seeing in it not only a decorative fact but a complete and living form of plastic creation.” There was, on the part of certain circles of Italian critics, a strong resistance to acceptingabstract art, and the controversy that followed the exhibition of Piet Mondrian ’s works at the ’56 Biennial (although his works, like those of other exponents of de Stijl, had been strongly requested from Willem Sandberg, then curator of the Holland Pavilion, by Rodolfo Pallucchini, who was secretary general of that Biennial and who intended to continue the action that, in the same role, he had begun to undertake since 1948: the goal was to open to the Italian public that international experience that had been precluded to it during Fascism) was but the aftermath of an attitude of almost pro-tempered closure that was characteristic of many critics and politicians for several years after the war: the veto that the then Minister of Education Guido Gonella imposed on an exhibition of works from Peggy Guggenheim ’s collection at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Rome, despite the positive opinion of its director Palma Bucarelli (an episode that, moreover, was probably at the origin of the rivalry between the two great women, with the American collector reproaching the young Roman art historian for not having worked hard enough to overcome the minister’s resistance), is worth an example.

Gastone Novelli nel 1966. Fotografia di Marina Lund
Gastone Novelli in 1966. Photograph by Marina Lund

Gastone Novelli, Scritti '43 - '68 (Nero edizioni, 2019)
Gastone Novelli, Writings ’43 - ’68(Nero editions, 2019)

These were the attitudes toward which Novelli harbored his contempt: he hurled strides against the lack of openness and against insipience, somewhat like Francesco Arcangeli who, in that same turn of years, lashed out against “the routine of eternal aestheticism, of the eternal Italian academy, always ready to rise from all corners, disguising itself as traditional wisdom and modernistic wisdom, as humanism and Mediterranean tradition, as eternal contemplative spirit and Platonic tradition.” And that same ignorance that Novelli reproached Venturoli with was, in his view, a feature that connoted much of Italian cultural circles at the time: “the lack of culture,” he would write the following year, “does not prevent people from speaking, from making inappellable judgments, about things about which they ignore everything, from technical language to ideal topography, to historical position. And this ignorance has now become customary, in the field of the visual arts, not among amateurs alone but among critics themselves. Their language is now merely rhetorical; drawing from the cauldron of old things one can hope to find new and good ones, but this proceeding is always a confession of powerlessness in the present. We no longer have any desire to hear about ’happy juxtapositions,’ ’sure constructive force,’ brightness, virility, tonality, undertones, sensibility and other such drivel. After all, criticism is made of words, so it should be a poetic affair and not a mechanical autopsy.” And if the attack on an art criticism that is fundamentally incapable of talking about a work or an artist except in terms of a pure dissection as an end in itself, arid and uselessly rhetorical, is still alive and current (and consequently would be equally biting even if referred to today’s panorama), nevertheless in today’s reality one can discern what Novelli identified as the results of a motionless and self-referential criticism: the “falling behind,” the “inability to live,” the unconscious “fear of research.”

But Novelli’s goals did not only include the intent to string critics up, to nail them to their responsibilities: for Novelli it was also a matter of reclaiming the artist’s freedom. In 1964, when invited by the magazine Il Ponte to comment on that year’s Venice Biennale, he did not fail to direct more than one dig at the critics (“as far as I know, for some time now every discourse on art has been falling on deaf ears, particularly in this country, which is still in the hands of sentimental amateurs on the one hand and history maniacs on the other - the critics themselves, both the more retrograde and the ’tip’ reduce their language more and more every day to the level of insults and buffoonery.”), nor to emphasize his impatience with those who tried, even at that time, to ascribe labels or categories to him. But in the end, that detachment prevailed (probably from the world, but even more from himself) that, ever since the experience of arrest and imprisonment (when detachment was a kind of longing for immortality, for rebirth, in anticipation of execution: “I began then to speculate. I detached myself a little from my body and convinced myself that I would not die with him. Indeed, I looked at him with great compassion. I would have to leave him soon and he would die to give life to worms.”), had always characterized his personality (“there is a thick fog that divides me from myself, that’s why I can occasionally guess at something and immediately afterwards it may no longer interest me,” he wrote in 1959). A detachment that, in that brief and polemical intervention in the magazine Il Ponte, took the form of a reflection on the origins of art: “it seems to me evident and clear that painting should not originate from certain events nor should it address a certain society with a certain function, in the first case it would be chronicle, in the second didactics or propaganda. Painting is a personal ritual that arises from infernal necessity and addresses itself to an audience completely shrouded in the mystery of number and time. The work may be read in thousands of different ways and at different times, it may not be read at all, but it remains a work by the mere fact of its making.”

Novelli was one of the few Italian artists able to understand the work of Paul Klee (and it is no coincidence that the artist with whom Novelli worked most closely was Achille Perilli, of the Italians perhaps the closest to the great Helvetic). Like Klee he was convinced that art was not a passive means of recording, like Klee he sought to grasp the origins of artistic creation, like Klee he was fascinated by the possibilities of language, like Klee he probed the potential of sign, like Klee he believed that an artist who wants to be a true master of his craft must know deeply the origins of the basic figurative elements (point, line, surface: Novelli argued that as soon as one leaves a dot on a surface, the intervention has already begun and can already take on meaning) and must know that movement is the basis of perception (many, in this sense, also his contributions on composing). With Klee he shared the experimental approach, the aptitude for creating new alphabets, the tendency to consider signs as concrete as images and to create worlds and universes from signs. “The creation of a valid plastic work,” Novelli wrote in 1957, “has its origins in the impulse that drives one to act and ends with the physical act of execution. It thus invests the whole individual, from the intuitive capacity of his subconscious, to the intellectual knowledge and physical preparation of his gestures. It is necessary to try to understand, rather than to know, all that is known today, to know how to use all possible means to create forms and works, and in the end to forget all that has been learned of balance and knowledge so that the creative act regains its spontaneity, becomes automatic and thus capable of gathering every impulse and expressing every intuition, retains that part of the irrational that is always a source of new suggestions, a possibility of representing primordial truths, of drawing something from the chaos of origin.”

Gastone Novelli, Poetry reading tour (1961; tecnica mista su tela, 220 x 350 cm; Roma, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna)
Gastone Novelli, Poetry reading tour (1961; mixed media on canvas, 220 x 350 cm; Rome, National Gallery of Modern Art)

Gastone Novelli, Barca sotto il sole (1967; olio, tempera e matita su tela, 19,5 x 29,5 cm; Venezia, Collezione Peggy Guggenheim)
Gastone Novelli, Boat under the Sun (1967; oil, tempera and pencil on canvas, 19.5 x 29.5 cm; Venice, Peggy Guggenheim Collection)

Gastone Novelli, Questi bersagli... (1961; pastello, matita e vinavil su carta, 49,5 x 67,5 cm; Collezione privata)
Gastone Novelli, These Targets... (1961; pastel, pencil and vinavil on paper, 49.5 x 67.5 cm; Private Collection)

Gastone Novelli scrive La Biennale  fascista dietro una sua opera alla Biennale del 1968
Gastone Novelli writes “The Biennale is fascist” behind one of his works at the 1968 Biennale.

A chaos where everything is possible, where signs are endowed with a strong concreteness because their combination gives rise to a universe (or rather: to several possible universes) to which a certain language corresponds. A language that for Novelli is “magical,” that is, capable of structuring itself by itself and in an ahistorical way (as opposed to “academic” language, which instead makes use of pre-existing structures) using “residues and fragments” that constitute, quoting Lvi-Strauss (according to whom the sign is an intermediary between image and concept and art stands halfway between scientific knowledge and mythical thought, and the artist halfway between scientist and bricoleur), “fossil witnesses of the history of an individual or a society.” A language that finds its literary references in Lautramont and Joyce. And a quest that invests art in a broad sense, since, Novelli thought, “the work exists in all its possibilities and at all times in relation to the language to which it belongs.” And since the possibilities of a work are potentially unlimited, the discourse on criticism reasonably returns to two consequences: first, it is difficult to formulate an unambiguous judgment on a work, since a judgment on a work is necessarily subject to the context that produces it and can radically change at a distance of time (the judgment, for Novelli, assumes the character of a hypothesis). Second, it is forbidden for critics to harness the artist, or dictate to him the lines, or instigate artistic creation. The artist must be free to create, to produce, to develop his or her own research independently, to contest if necessary.

As when at the 1968 Biennale Novelli withdrew his own works from the room dedicated to him. On June 18, at the opening of the international exhibition, groups of students had started a lively protest in St. Mark’s Square, against the institution, against the art of the masters. It ended with charges, truncheons, unnecessary displays of violence by the police. All documented by the photographs of Ugo Mulas and Gianni Berengo Gardin, who were present. Of the twenty-two Italian artists who participated in that edition of the Biennale, nineteen protested, either by hiding or covering up their works. But only on the opening day. From the second day on, there were only three left to follow up the protest: Gianfranco Ferroni, Carlo Mattioli, and Gastone Novelli. Ferroni decided that for the duration of the Biennale he would exhibit his works turned inside out, with the back exposed to the public and the painted part attached to the wall. Mattioli and Novelli instead withdrew their works.

Novelli had made no secret that he considered the Biennale a “dead” institution: “it is periodic museography of research,” he had written in a text explaining the reasons for his protest. But to refuse to participate would have been mere exhibitionism and pure self-castration. An unacceptable disengagement for an artist like Novelli. So, if it is true that “to make paintings is to act within a language,” similarly Novelli believed that participating in the Biennale was a means of changing it from within. But under the conditions that came about after the repression of the protest, it was no longer possible to participate: “this Biennial has become the site of a show of force between a police state and an opposition that, instrumentalized by the P.C.I., channels the protest toward the superstructures so as not to affect the true roots of our society. There is no man, and specifically I do not say artist, who can accept, in the climate that has been created, to expose his own work.” War on war, stood written on one of his well-known paintings. Novelli had submitted it for that edition of the Biennale.

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