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From Chicago to Città di Castello: Arriving at Burri’s Abstract Expressionism

I feel very lucky to have grown up in Chicago, though I take delight in ribbing my hometown for its spit and swagger. Chicago gave me many things: the knowledge that hot dogs are meant to be served with celery salt; the knowledge that even if your team hasn’t won the Super Bowl in over twenty years, they’re still better than the Packers; the knowledge that there is a difference between the temperature and the windchill factor, and you damned well better pay attention to the latter.

But the most important thing that Chicago gave me was a deep, broad, lasting knowledge of the arts. The Windy City may be gritty (or was when I grew up there…the past twenty years have transformed her into a jewel of pristine parks, reclaimed neighborhoods, and haute cuisine), but it is also home to some of the best architecture, music, dance, and literature of any American metropolis.

Not to mention art, of course.

Chicago’s Art Institute is a local landmark and is one of the largest and most important art museums in the world (it is second in size in the US only to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City). This is not why it was so influential in my life-long love of art, however. It was influential for these two reasons: 1) when I was a kid, it was free (kind of) and 2) the most important collection is also one of the most accessible to art newbies.

When I was a kid, entrance to the Art Institute was a “suggested donation”. So, you could pay the de facto ticket price or pretty much anything (or nothing) to get in. Which meant, of course, that when I was a penniless teenager, it was cheap option to pass a freezing Sunday afternoon. And pass, I did. I would throw my buck or two at the ticket counter and head right to the museum’s crown jewel collection: Impressionists. Which was fabulous, because Impressionism is the perfect gateway drug to an appreciation of other art periods and styles. It’s pretty, figurative, easy to decipher, and reproduced on handy posters to hang in your teen bedroom. It also, in my case and I think in many people’s, lit the flame of curiosity to explore what came before the Impressionists (which, in many cases, inspired their works) and what came after (which is, in many cases, inspired by Impressionism).

I am bored with that period now…I overdosed as a teen and when I find myself in the Museé d’Orsay spend more time looking at the fabulous architecture rather than the paintings. But I do know that if I hadn’t had that exposure at a time that I was becoming curious about art, I wouldn’t be able to appreciate Guercino or Caravaggio or—and here I come to my point—Burri.

Alberto Burri, Italy’s pioneer Abstract Expressionist, produced art from the 1950s until his death in 1995 which is the antithesis of Impressionism. Decidedly unpretty (though often majestically gorgeous), unfigurative (though viewers are hard-pressed not to have organic forms jump out from his bold collages and torched canvases), impenetrable in meaning (Burri declared, “I see beauty and that is all” regarding how to interpret his works), and almost completely uncommercialized (this giant of modern art is little known abroad; even the Tate Modern owns only a single example of his work), Burri’s works at once fierce and violent yet lyrical and evocative.

It is perhaps for these very reasons that I found myself a late convert to Burri. He had a revival, as artists often do, upon his death in the mid-1990s, and out of curiosity I was drawn to the museum dedicated to his life and work in his hometown of Città di Castello in northern Umbria. The first portion of the museum is housed in a the 15th century Palazzo Albizzini and opened to the public in 1980; the dramatic annex completing the collection opened in 1990 in a restored mid-century tobacco drying house outside of town.

Here I found some of the most engrossing and captivating works of 20th century art in Italy. Burri’s early quirky “Sacks” collages—using materials from burlap sacking, tar, pumice, PVC glue, netting, and resin—segued into the “Hunchback” period of warped canvases and the charred works of his “Combustion” series that give his art a three-dimensional look, to end in his “Cracked” series, in which canvases were thickly covered in monochrome paste left to dry and crack like the parched fields of a plain in drought. He later went on to use plastic, metal, and the industrial insulation Celotex to create works that are at once abstract yet undeniably natural in form. His paintings (if one can call them that) invoke the natural beauty of his rural home region of Umbria, the bloodshed of WWII (during which he was held as a war prisoner for 18 months in Texas), and the energy of an industrializing post-War Italy.

His works were considered subversive when first shown, but to the contemporary eye they are simply powerfully dramatic, elegantly unconventional, and, considering their dates, surprisingly avant-garde. It seems that everyone and their brother is taking a blowtorch to their canvases these days, but Burri was the first to show how precise destruction can be the most beautiful of all forms of creation.

To visit the Burri Museum and his collection, check the Burri foundation’s website for opening times and information.

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