by Georgina MaddoxApr 19, 2023
Art found a way of cutting through the mundane to bring us to the trans-experiential, as we sat down with Achille Bonito Oliva, the curator of the Farnesina Collection. The Grand Italian Vision is an anthology of 70 masterpieces from the widest selection of Italian art. It moves from contemporary works like a mysterious photograph of the man reflected in the mirror, a striking red and blue abstract work and mellow yellow abstract with stars floating toward the viewer.
Oliva is an Italian art critic and historian of contemporary art. Since 1968 he has taught history of contemporary art at La Sapienza, the University of Rome. He is well known for his contribution to Italian art history where he coined the term Transavanguardia (or trans-avant-garde), a 1979 phenomenon that we later explore in our interaction with him.
Oliva inaugurated his curated show by stating, "We are not here to celebrate art, we are here for art’s ability to influence." The collection has the ability to transform and transcend, as it consists of artists from seven generations. Farnesina, in Italian, is an acronym for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Oliva insinuates that the values behind this collection are complex, beyond aesthetic and emphasise articulation, just like the standards of the institution. The collection represents a cultural anthropology of Italy, not promoting patriotism but rather transparent diplomacy which welcomes the world.
Before we started the interview, Oliva asked us a question, reversing the tables with his slow smile and an ever-calming presence—“Tell us about STIR. What is your online art site all about?” Our team quickly answered, “STIR is really an acronym that spells out See - Think - Inspire - Reflect. STIRworld is a digital publication that approaches the global creative ecosystem as a tapestry, with the intent to weave the worldwide persons or groups of creative agency and weft their practice with threads of intrigue.”
Achille Bonito Oliva: STIR is a very interesting acronym since art needs to provide all these stimuli of thought and inspiration, so it’s a concept that is formative and it shapes society. Similar to what art sets out to do. It’s a way to affirm that art is an instrument or a tool for spreading knowledge. This is sort of a mirror to what my own idea of art is. My belief is that art is a massage for the atrophied muscles of collective sensibility; it’s a statement and clearly something that comes from my heart. It’s not just an object on which to contemplate, it is a tool from which to transform.
Georgina: Based on the images we have seen, this collection reflects both the contemporary modern as well as a few elements of the classical aspects of Italian art. Could you tell us about the show as there is very abstract and minimal work and there is a figurative and highly defined style as well?
Achille: Italian art has something that is called cultural nomadism, there is also a lot of stylistic eclecticism, it presents both memory as well as the suspicion of the future a hint.
Georgina: What is the message that you are sending to your audience here in India?
Achille: Having the show in India is very important because India, in fact, all of Asia, is the continent of the future. It has been chosen as a venue for the art exhibition as a deliberate choice. It’s a fact of cultural anthropology and a process that we have undertaken, a natural process since art is both a historical fruit and also a promise of the future. I would sum up the experience in five words—It is a process of dialogue, exchange interlocution or interaction, sharing—having a shared experience and co-existence. This is a moment that favours dialogue. I am deeply affected by the situation in Ukraine and it is a moment where dialogue is important. I believe in India the social climate favours this.
Georgina: Tell us about the selection beginning with futurism to the current contemporary art scenario, one that is not chronological but rather thematic. Could you expand on the theme aspect?
Achille: Italian art presents a complexity of the realities of things. There is the theme of velocity and speed, we are talking about machines and cars, there is also the idea of introspection that is metaphysical in its theme. Art follows the various movements—futurism, metaphysical art, informalism, pop art, kinetic art and conceptual art, Arte Povera and transavanguardia (trans-avant-garde). As a well-known theoretician I may describe it as a moment of ‘maturity’ of Italian art. Until this moment in art history, every movement when it gave way to the next one, passed on the baton or challenged what had come before, every movement when it gave way to next, however with transavanguardia, it embraces everything, it disrupts the idea that each movement was segmented. Transavanguardia invites society to share and live together. All these movements represent a mosaic and this collection reflects the fact that many things exist together and they are all equally important. It's an invitation to peace and art provides this invite to co-exist, live together and look for peace. In the times that we live in, this value of art acquires political value. Because it is no longer just art and is a moment in world geopolitics.
Georgina: What about your response and experience to Indian modern and contemporary art?
Achille: I presented Anish Kapoor to Italy, in 1978 I presented that show that in many ways made Italy aware of him as an important artist. The element that appealed to me most about his work was spiritualism and the spiritualness of his work. Though materiality is important as it is a means of expressing oneself, it’s the carrier of art. However, I am more interested in the ‘spirit’ of the work, what it is driving at and what it means. I always look for that element and that is what appeals to me.
Georgina: Tell us about the decisions with the curation that was a challenge and how did you overcome them?
Achille: It is a lifetime of making curatorial choices, in fact this is what I have done all my professional life. I have employed a child-like freedom and liberty that infuses me while I am making these choices, and making collections that ‘work’. Thanks to Transavanguardia as a concept, I have managed to turn art on its head. Before that American art was much in vogue but I have managed to bring back the 'memory' aspect to art, because Europe has a lot more memory than America. Hence, transavanguardia is something that brings the aspect of memory back to art. Transavanguardia arrived at a moment when there was an ideological crisis it was a moment when there was too much faith in the future. 'Trans' means beyond and it encases in itself the idea of movement not just forward it also goes back its that perfect space in which movement can be in both directions.
Some of my favourite works from the collection belong to the period of the turning point of the Transavanguardia, works like those done by Sandro Chia, Danilo Nicola De Maria, young artists like Loris Cecchini, Vanessa Beecroft, Matteo Basile, Mario and Marisa Merz to name a few.
These are all artists who have absorbed the maturity that contains all art; there is no nationalism contained in the art. I instinctively picked out pieces from various generations that convey the stylistic cultural nomadism and the eclecticism that is what I’d like to show through the artwork. From the beginning of an international phenomenon which place in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, and became one of the most influential movements of Post-war Italian art along with Arte-povera to the dominant idea of the conceptual in art and the original avant-garde’s "hysteria for the new”, or the Transavanguardia that is an inclusive reflection of our times.
(With Inputs from Sakhi Sobti)
The exhibition is on view at the Bikaner House till June 22, 2023.