After the Second World War, Pop Artists and Neo-Dadaists went further than their Modernist forebears in the deconstruction of boundaries between lived experience and interior imagination. The aftermath of World War II resulted in the reconstitution of identities as much as the rebuilding of the European infrastructure.
The shattering of established codes and conventions by the trauma of two world wars, as well as the toppling of the totalitarian regimes of Nazism and Fascism was explored by artists after 1945. Working through the disorientation, uncertainty and even the sense of opportunity that characterised the post-war decades, new materials and techniques enabled them to question the mechanisms of representation embedded in modern society. Whilst France became a fertile ground for exciting theoretical experiments on the part of philosophers and critics who had experienced the horror of the first part of the twentieth century, Italy was transformed by its ‘economic miracle’. Once the ‘Lazarus of nations’, Italy became a global leader in fashion and design – offering its desirable yet affordable consumer items to a world eager to advance itself through brands and beauty that bore the stamp ‘Made In Italy’.
Italy also had a key role to play in the development of Post-Modernism in the visual arts. Artists such as Mimmo Rotella and Michelangelo Pistoletto used rubbish, scraps and discarded garments to undermine the assumptions on which so much of Italy’s national mythology depended. Underpinning the apparently banal installations of Pistoletto and the peeling glamour of Rotella’s Pop Art collages was a deeply rooted existential need to question the nature of appearances that dominated the signs and symbols of advertising within the newly established mass culture.
Rotella created vast collages from the remnants of movie posters that he found posted around the streets of Rome. Blurring the demarcation between inside and out and surface and depth, Rotella’s lacerated layers of torn and faded paper were anything but affirmative of the new reality of Italy’s economic boom that was embodied by the monumental Cinecittà film studios. By building up a new image out of the remains of one already worn by weather and the over-familiar gaze of the passer by, only to destroy it through his own tears and cuts, Rotella exposed and challenged the operations of the star system. Driven by a burgeoning fan culture and consumer fantasy, the system was upheld by the Bulgari jewellery worn by Elizabeth Taylor and iconic garments such as the Capri Pant, a style of trouser immortalised by Audrey Hepburn during the filming of Roman Holiday.
In 1962, Mimmo Rotella’s work was exhibited in a solo show aptly named Cinecittà at the Gallerie J in Paris. Bringing him closer to the French circle of the artists known as the Nouveau Realistes, who shared his interest in working with found objects to destabilise the academic authority of the art world, the exhibition seemed to reinforce so many of the ideas relating to Semiotics explored by Roland Barthes in his seminal text Mythologies, which had been published in 1957. Rotella’s collages highlighted the arbitrary relationship between signifier and signified by literally removing the image from its original site of reception – the streets of Rome – where its meaning was created by a movie-going public as they vicariously consumed a glamorous celebrity culture based on the flimsiest of foundations.
Rotella challenged the boundaries between material reality and representation, breaking down the distinction between creator and consumer. Like Michelangelo Pistoletto and the Arte Povera movement, the Nouveau Realistes challenged the concept of the gallery space as a discrete and ideal interior unit, protected from the exterior world of reality. By bringing the dirty truth of the street into the pristine sanctum of the avant-garde gallery, Rotella blurred the boundary between outside and inside. His monumental images of glamour beguiled the spectator through their reference to the magic of film but also sought to disorientate. In a Western society recovering from war and challenged by structuralist and post-structuralist theories that were amplified by Mimmo Rotella’s faded and ripped goddesses, the certainty of all that appeared stable and secure dissolved as rapidly as the thirst for icons of celebrity accelerated.
Dr Penelope Wickson, Head of History of Art
Images from Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository
Mimmo Rotella at work By Scotch Brand – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56847371
The Renaissance of Culture By Vittorio martire – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62763091
The Wolf of Sila By Vittorio martire – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62762928
Shipwreck By busand2003, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53858571