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Piero Fornasetti (18 November 1913, in Milan – 15 October 1988) was an Italian versatile and eclectic artist, characterised by an unstoppable creative flair that made him one of the most prolific figures of the 20th century, and difficult to ascribe to a specific movement.
Although Piero Fornasetti's works are produced as individual pieces, he was an important figure in Italian industrial design culture, to such an extent that his name is now better known on the international design scene than in any other fields. Fornasetti was, however, an artist actively involved in a variety of aesthetic disciplines, including painting, drawing, graphic design and product design: "It's rare to see such happiness in the act of making and producing, such a sweeping vision, free of any shadow of conflict in the moment of creation: a serene epiphany, an outpouring of inventions." In the course of his artistic career he created over 13,000 works and he was responsible for one of the largest outputs of objects and furniture of the 20th century, thanks less to the number of copies of individual pieces than to the diversity of his decorations. The sources of inspiration for his art (he began as a painter) were Piero della Francesca, Giotto, paintings from Pompeii, Renaissance frescoes and metaphysical painting, from which he never stopped drawing inspiration, making virtuosity the distinctive feature of his own art.
In the Fifties, Piero Fornasetti founded the design and decorative arts atelier in Milan that bears his name, Fornasetti, which today, under the artistic direction of his son Barnaba Fornasetti, is known throughout the world. One decisive factor in starting this activity was meeting Gio Ponti, who pushed him to develop his intuition: to produce everyday objects enriched by the kind of decoration that would bring art into ordinary people's homes. Thus the Fornasetti atelier was born. Today internationally renowned for the production of finely crafted furniture and accessories, it is a supreme example of the principle of "practical madness", where creativity is in perfect harmony with and inextricably linked to the utility of the object and the technical process through which it is made tangible. Precious porcelains, sophisticated pieces of furniture and furnishing accessories form the heart of the incredible variety of its output, which spans art and design: conversation pieces, visions to contemplate, but at the same time objects to be used.
"It has always been my notion not to make one-off pieces, but series of items": a true statement of principle. Fornasetti justifies it, depending on the circumstances, by referring to democratic principles, since beauty, by its very nature, is intended for all and must not be reserved for a limited circle of initiates, or by referring to the technical side of his work, since the printing of a motif, the common denominator of all his creations, cannot help but be enriched, refined and varied in intensity through multiple, random mutations, as the work proceeds. Out of all Fornasetti's ideas, one has imposed itself particularly powerfully due to the insistence of the infinite "variations" to which it has been subjected, so much so that it has become his true brand. This is the woman's face that is the subject of the series "Tema e Variazioni" ("Theme and Variations"), of which over four hundred versions exist today, with potentially more to come.
As an artist who was ahead of his time, establishing himself as a significant figure in contemporary culture, Piero Fornasetti has the merit of having contributed, with his work, to renewing taste and creating a unique and immediately recognisable visual language. Postmodern before the term existed, "the magician of precious and precise magic", according to Pablo Neruda's celebrated definition, Piero Fornasetti moved from canvas to page to furnished space, confusing perspectives, transfiguring space, reinventing time and giving life to a form of decoration that could be printed or deployed on any surface, from walls to display structures, from furniture to everyday objects, from books to posters to theatre sets. "All my work is based on drawing;" stated Piero himself, "drawing understood as a discipline, a way of living and organising one's own existence. (…) The artist must put things in order to create another world, a second nature, and as a way of continuously studying things and their essence...": this is the model of Fornasetti who, as Bruno Munari liked to say," can only be measured by the yardstick of Fornasetti".
Childhood and training
Piero Fornasetti was born in 1913 into a well-heeled, middle-class family in Milan and spent his childhood in the apartment building built by his father Pietro, in the Città Studi district, where at the time the city ended and the fields began. The first child in a wealthy bourgeois family, he found himself facing a predetermined future: his father, a Lombard entrepreneur, had decided that he would follow in his footsteps, taking on the family business. Contrary to family expectations, at the age of ten Piero was already drawing and displaying an innate artistic inclination: with practice, he began to produce landscapes, still lives, hot air balloons, mysterious ladies and architectural elements, many of the visual themes that would later recur in his work. "I will never forget the thrill when, as a boy, one summer morning on the lake, for the first time my pen began to trace the outline of a leg, then a body, then a face. I was astonished, ecstatic and in awe of this miracle, and am still always amazed every time at this blossoming of the image I have inside me, emerging all by itself from the page... ".
Piero quickly displayed a tenacious and unshakeable character, showing his determination to pursue his very specific aspiration. In 1932, Piero enrolled at the Accademia di Brera, but was expelled two years later for insubordination. He later enrolled in the Scuola Superiore of Arts Applied to Industry at Castello Sforzesco, also in Milan. Irremediably rebellious, he was unable to adhere to the dogma of any school. Endlessly curious, he continued to study, read, browse magazines, appropriating information and constantly expanding the horizons of his knowledge.
The Thirties, the art printworks
From the early Thirties, Piero began a phase of tireless study of every engraving and printing technique. Thanks to his constant practice and great technical skill, he was able to work with the greatest artists of the time, printing artist books and lithographs for them. From Alberto Savinio to Fabrizio Clerici, from Giorgio de Chirico to Massimo Campigli, from Lucio Fontana to Cascella to Berman, from Raffaele Carrieri and Carlo Bo: the Fornasetti Art Printshop became a benchmark or many artists of his generation. "He was the first to print lithographs by De Chirico in Milan, some considerable time ago" - wrote Raffaele Carrieri in "Epoca" in 1978. Through this constant experimentation, Fornasetti invented a printing method that allowed him to obtain unique graphic effects on silk scarves. In 1933, he proposed a series for the Milan Triennale V, which was rejected because it was off-topic but earned him the attention of Gio Ponti, whom he would meet in 1940 (on the occasion of the VII Triennale) and with whom years later he would enter into a very close creative partnership. The two of them were aligned not only on the definition and importance of decoration and the cultural heritage that it implies, but also on the whole notion of architecture, the relationship between man and his environment.
The Forties, the war and working with Gio Ponti
With his special culture and passion for paper, inks and lettering, from the early Forties onwards Piero Fornasetti produced a vast series of limited edition graphic works, with a refined and very precise style: calendars, Christmas gifts, advertising images, theatre programs, posters and magazine covers (including some for Domus, curated at the time by Gio Ponti). Editorial concepts designed and produced on commission or for pure pleasure, for clients, acquaintances or friends, which express - in various forms and to the highest standards - his notion of formal elegance, his sense of humour, his love of information, and his style as a communicator. During these years (along with Filiberto Sbardella, Aligi Sassu and others), he produced various sketches and drawings for the Esino Lario School of Tapestry. In 1940 he began to publish his own work in the design and architecture magazine Domus, edited at the time by Gio Ponti, and in Stile. From 1940 to 1942 he designed a series of almanacs commissioned by Gio Ponti himself. The first three almanacs, small publications designed and printed using previously unpublished themes, which started life as Christmas gifts, would inspire a longer series beginning immediately after the war and ending in 1950. On paper, intuitions were born, themes emerged, and characters were defined for a variety of subjects. And each image encapsulated a way of seeing and responding to the stresses of the time: at the origin of Fornasetti's great success, and its furniture, objects, and rooms, was that production of graphic images and drawings that attest to the originality and the true innovative scope of his style.
Called up on the outbreak of war, Piero Fornasetti initially managed to remain in Milan by getting the job of decorating the Sant'Ambrogio barracks. Later, in 1943, he took refuge in Switzerland, where he continued his artistic research and produced posters and lithographs for theatrical events and magazines. This period represented an unprecedented opportunity, during which he created oil portraits, watercolours, and drawings in ink, Indian ink and ballpoint pen, devoting himself to investigating intriguing points of view, mostly of the human body, on which he would later draw in his production of decorative graphic arts. During this period he created the sets for Albert Camus's Caligula directed by Giorgio Strehler.
This is the moment when the relationship with Gio Ponti also became closer. Their work together, which, on his return to Milan, would produce important concepts of interiors and furnishing, design and decoration for houses, apartments, ship cabins or cinema auditoria, was so felicitous that it would eventually induce Gio Ponti to declare: "If one day they write my life story, they'll have to call one of the chapters Passion for Fornasetti."
The Fifties, Lina Cavalieri and the "Tema e Variazioni" series
With the advent of the Fifties, the creative duo of Gio Ponti and Piero Fornasetti were able to put into practice their point of view: a home interior and furnishing style that they had long been promoting in theory. A method that envisages "the specific functionality of rooms and furniture", "the simplicity and sincerity of forms and materials", the worship of "sun, air, and light", and "unity of aspiration for all social categories". At the start of those years the pair designed and decorated the "Architettura" trumeau, which was then exhibited at the Triennale IX in 1951 and which in 1998, over thirty years after its original conception, was auctioned at Christie's for the sum of fifteen thousand dollars, a record at the time. An exemplary fusion of modern and ancient, rationalism and the Renaissance, architecture and furniture, structure and decoration, this piece of furniture has inevitably become an icon of Italy's design brilliance in the interwar years of economic boom.
Contrasting the wasted space, unused rooms and inadequate services of the traditional house with the reduced living spaces of the modern age, the two furnished and decorated the Casino of Sanremo (1950), an entire apartment that became famous as a symbol of their style, Casa Lucano (1951), and the first-class cabins and lounges of transatlantic liners like the Andrea Doria (1952).
In 1952 Piero Fornasetti began work on what would later become his most famous and iconic series: "Tema e Variazioni" ("Theme and Variations"). Starting from the portrait of a woman, he began a pictorial quest that was to accompany him throughout his life and to which Alberto Moravia dedicated a text. The timeless face is that of Lina Cavalieri, an opera singer who lived at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries and who was renowned at the time as "the most beautiful woman in the world": a true archetype of enigmatic, classical beauty. This work, which so captivated Henry Miller that he used it on the cover of his autobiography "My Life and Times", continues to be reproduced today by his son Barnaba Fornasetti on a series of everyday objects, not only porcelain, but also furniture and accessories, in endless new variations. In 2016, the first 100 illustrations from the series were collected in a completely handmade, prestigious, limited edition volume. During the same year, the series entered the world of theatre, becoming part of the sets of "Don Giovanni", the opera by W.A. Mozart presented and produced by Fornasetti.
Over the same period, in parallel with the development of his personal iconography applied to everyday objects, Piero Fornasetti continued unceasingly in his process of artistic reflection. 1958 saw the creation of "Stanza metafisica" ("Metaphysical Room"), a work composed of thirty-two hinged, wheelless doors, designed to form a congenial space for meditation, an early example of an artistic installation, first presented at the exhibition at the Tea Centre in London.
The Sixties and Seventies, a new cultural climate
At the end of the Sixties, the cultural climate changed. A strong ideological rationalism and the belief in purely functional forms took hold in architecture, applied arts and design. From this perspective, decoration was considered pointless and affected frippery. There appeared to be no place for craftsmanship, given the unchallengeable demands of the market and industrial production. While Gio Ponti kept up with the times, Fornasetti seemed to entrench himself disdainfully behind his own certainties and principles. The relationship between the two became colder, to such an extent that Ponti came to reproach Fornasetti for being unable to reinvent himself.
In this same period, Piero succeeded in shaping the conceptual side of his approach, inaugurating in the Seventies the space that offered him a way of giving continuity to his work with other instruments. In 1970, together with a group of friends, he ran the Galleria dei Bibliofili, where he exhibited both his own work and that of contemporary artists. Piero began painting again. The figures, heads, faces, and bodies made of bottles or fruits remained a part of his new pictorial style, alongside abstract compositions that highlighted an unexpected fascination for layers, interactions of colour and different techniques.
The Eighties, rediscovery and the London gallery "Themes and Variations"
After the death of Gio Ponti (in 1979), in 1980 the "Themes & Variations" gallery opened in London, on the initiative of Liliane Fawcett and Giuliana Medda. This revived interest in his work overseas too, where he was already widely known. Fornasetti's oeuvre began to be rediscovered beyond the ideological contrast of form/function and ornament/pointlessness, and in 1987 Piero collaborated with Patrick Mauriés on the first monograph on his work, accompanied by an introduction by Ettore Sottsass. The book was published posthumously - Piero Fornasetti died in 1988 during a minor operation in hospital. After Piero's death, in October 1988, his son Barnaba Fornasetti carried on with a part of his father's activity.
I believe that Fornasetti one day, when he was young, had an incredible vision. I do not know if it was during the day or at night, but he must have seen, all of a sudden, the whole world, all the deposits of figures and memories, being blown to pieces (...). He seems to have decided that if there was nothing left on the ground but a layer of debris and broken stuff, and if that was the only floor on which to walk, if he was obliged to walk on the soft ground of a sort of shapeless dump of fragments, shards, and symbols without context, then he, Fornasetti (...) would rebuild the world. (…) I believe that for Fornasetti it was a bit like this: that the set of people, animals, stones, mountains, trees, skies, rains, monuments, cemeteries, and other objects, which in our minds is organised into what we call the world, for him it had really all been blown to pieces. (…) Possessed of this immense baggage of figures and pieces of well-chosen, rigorously controlled and reorganised metaphors, in the end Fornasetti began to (..) draw this great, vast, poetic, infinite new metaphor.— Patrick Mauriés, "Fornasetti. Practical Madness"
The Fornasetti Style
I also consider myself the inventor of the tray, because at a certain point in our civilisation people no longer knew how to hand over a glass, a message or a poem. I was born into a family with the worst kind of good taste, and I make terrible good taste the key to the liberation of the imagination.— Piero Fornasetti
"The thing that always strikes me most in Piero Fornasetti's work is theatricality. Any piece of furniture is never just a piece of furniture: it is a piece of scenery, a decor, a set. An object that evokes a story, which offers a setting for a story," says Silvana Annicchiarico, who, as Director of the Triennale Design Museum, decided in 2013 to dedicate a first retrospective to him, which from Milan then went on tour to Paris, at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, and Seoul, at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza. Piero Fornasetti himself explained this aspect of his work as follows: "The public explained to me that what I was doing was something more than decoration. It was an invitation to imagine, to think, to escape from the things that surround us, which are too mechanised and inhuman. They were a passport to the realm of imagination." Although he nurtured a fierce desire for independence, and was keen to declare the uniqueness of his creation, we can only imagine him as an omnivorous reader and always well informed about the artistic developments of his time. In his endless body of work, one can trace imagery ranging from the Neo-baroque and the Neo-romantic to the surreal and the metaphysical, as well as an awareness of Italy's rich artistic tradition, married to a profound passion for the outdated and the anachronistic. His is a complete oeuvre, drawing on history and modernity, architectural epochs and artistic movements. It appears innovative, or at least evocative, because it is based on original, unexpected appropriations and recontextualisations of styles and trends. Fornasetti feels close to the discipline described by Eugen Herrigel in his little book "Zen and archery", to the idea that one should observe, study and internalise the real in order to be able to consciously forget it and recreate it according to the rules of intellect, imagination and design: "look at bamboo for years, then forget it, then you can paint bamboo. Internalise, create, produce". It is from the loss of reference that an essential characteristic of Fornasetti's style can be made - a loss of sources of inspiration, styles, perspectives. To subvert the sense of depth, to challenge it, to inscribe it in the register of illusion, to provoke dizziness in the viewer, represents one of Piero Fornasetti's evident desires.
- Fornasetti: The Complete Universe, by Mariuccia Casadio, Barnaba Fornasetti and Andrea Branzi, Rizzoli, 2010, ISBN 0-8478-3534-0
- "L'europeo" n. 6 anno VI dicembre 2007 - numero speciale per Triennale Design Museum - RCS Periodici spa
- Frescoes by Palazzo Bo of Padua (1942)
- Inside the casino San Remo (1950)
- In charge of furnishing the house Lucano (1951) part of "total furnishing and decoration"
- Participating in the interior decorating of the ocean liner Andrea Doria (1952)
- Creating 'Stanza Metafisica' (metaphysics piece) (1955 to 1958) in 32 modular panels of 16 meters in total length.
- Patrick Mauriés, "Fornasetti. Practical Madness," Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1991, p.14
- Barnaba Fornasetti, texts of Ginevra Quadrio Curzio, "Piero Fornasetti. One hundred years of practical madness," Corraini Edizioni, Triennale Design Museum 2013, p.37
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