Il Gesto: Global Art and Italian Gesture Painting in the 1950s

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This essay examines how the remarkably vibrant and cosmopolitan art scene in post-war Italy helped to shape a society undergoing a difficult period of transition. In a few short years, despite catastrophic economic problems and deep, ongoing political and social divisions, Italy emerged from wartime chaos and ruin to become one of the world's great post-war democratic and economic successes. That the visual arts were considered important to this recovery is demonstrated by the enormous effort put into art and cinema in Italy at the time of the European Recovery Program (Marshall Plan). However, precisely what role did art play in this recovery? More specifically, in what ways did artists respond to the post-war challenge of forging relationships with new global communities? In this paper, which investigates the international cultural exchanges that took place in Italy during the 1950s, we set out to answer these questions. By exploring the ways in which artists in Italy initiated and became involved in dialogues and collaborations with their international colleagues, and how international artists were drawn from around the world to participate in Italian creative industries, we show how art in Italy contributed to the national recovery by working to re-invent the very idea of Italy as a modern, open and global society.

As has been demonstrated in the considerable literature on this period of Italy's turbulent twentieth-century history, the extraordinary economic and political recovery of Italy in the years after World War II was accompanied by a renaissance in cultural terms that had far reaching implications within Italy and far beyond.1 Across a broad range of media, including cinema, painting and sculpture, but also design, fashion and architecture, Italy rose to prominence in this period as one of the world's premier producers of visual cultures. Accompanying this was an unprecedented boom in output. To take some significant examples: Film production in Italy underwent rapid growth in this period, rising from 92 in 1950 to over 200 films per year in the 1960s, and Italian neo-realism, which became one of the world's most famous cinematic traditions, continues to occupy a central place in film histories, film festivals

and cine-club cultures internationally.2 A similar boom took place in the realm of fine art, with contemporary painters such as Alberto Burri and Lucio Fontana beginning to attract immense interest from international museums and galleries in Europe and the United States, commanding record prices in the art market both in the 1950s and 60s and in the present day.

As we have argued elsewhere, one of the distinctive characteristics of Italian culture in this period is the open, international exchange that underpinned this cultural boom, as filmmakers, artists and writers were drawn to the country and local producers sought out collaborative relationships with international creative figures from beyond Italy.3 In this paper we argue that a collaborative dialogue with American, European and Japanese art, typical at a broader level of the Italian response to cultures from around the globe in this period, was an essential component of the extraordinary post-war recovery of Italy at an economic, political and cultural level. In order to understand the impact of the incredibly diverse cast of creative figures on the Italian cultural scene, and its impact on questions of national identity more broadly, our method focuses on the social networks between producers and consumers that underpin works of visual culture, and examines the communities of art production and consumption as well as the works which were the outcomes of these exchanges.

Nearly 70 years later, it is, for many, hard to credit the circumstances that turned the defeated and depressed Axis powers of 1945 into the countries of economic miracle. This development was, perhaps, most miraculous in the Italian context. As Ginsborg points out, however, in the matter of post-war economic expansion, Italy was a major protagonist, radically reshaping itself from a peasant country to a major Western industrial nation. …