Umberto Mariani’s Long-lasting Research: how those draperies become contemporary

From the Oggetti allarmanti to the Alfabeto afono and Piombi, the point on a great sage of contemporary art

Taking stock of Umberto Mariani’s work – born in 1936 and one of the last great contemporary sage – means going through the path of an artistic research that has also been social and cultural and which spans from mid- 1960’s until today. Common denominator: a significant willpower to understand the times without ever seeming nostalgic. He was the personal assistant of Michele Funi, but his first independent language was influenced by Constant Permeke and Graham Sutherland’s artworks: and if from the first he got an expressionist inclination to the everyday life, he adopted from the second a violent and surreal compositive vision which will be the main feature of his Oggetti allarmanti. The year is 1967 and the agglomeration of furnishing items like armchairs, cushions and sofas that he combines with female clothes of various sorts, becomes the trademark of a rapidly mutating society, symbolized by Milan. After all, Mariani never followed the artistic trend but he pointed out its contradictions: in the simple objects with a distinctive pop origin he sees the pervasive burden of the years to come and the difficulties in communicating his thought.

The drapery represents the classicism that is always part of his works, illusion and allusion to the underlying form

He gave birth to his Alfabeto afono during the age of terrorism in Italy, the years of uncertainty, when it was very difficult to communicate one’s thought. It consists of capital letters muzzled and wrapped in a painted drapery that erases their identity in the name of a total closure between the parts that can’t be ignored. Only the confidence brought by the 80’s can open to a change. In that moment, Italy leaves its past behind, Milan becomes famous for its drinking (and devouring) scene, the future is enlightened by a new cultural rebirth. It’s the right time for Mariani to dare. Each artwork he makes becomes a theatrical excuse, each installation – in which the painted drapery still remains as a key element – at the same time proposes concept and material, among a metaphysical intuition in the de Chirico’s style and some of his dearest (dis)organized accumulations. But this is not enough. So, he decides to make the leap.

"He enters the body of painting thanks to the teaching of the ancient authors, trying to retrieve its spirituality and sacredness" (Giovanni Granzotto) 

As Giovanni Granzotto clearly points out: “he makes the final choice which is to enter the body of painting thanks to the traces history left back and the teaching and the examples of the ancient authors, trying to retrieve its spirituality and sacredness through the tools given by classicism that he revisited, or rather, that he reconverted to the contemporary world”. Even today, after thirty years, his Piombi represent that alternative illumination that, more than others, reflects the meaning of a dialogue in balance between past and present which is a complex and instant analysis of the moment. The draping – that comes back – is the iconic classicism that never leaves him, illusion and allusion to an underlying form. The painting is now pure, perfect, uncorrupted tonality; but it’s also light and shadow in a suggestion of soft and conditioning games that never stop, between occasional symmetries and overlays. Finally, the lead – and who would ever recognized it – which, under the eyes of everybody, reinforces like anything else the idea of a physic presence in the artwork, in a highly volatile contemporary artistic landscape.

In May 2018 his personal exhibition entitled “Umberto Mariani. Fragments from Byzantium” was inaugurated in the Museo Nazionale di Ravenna; he also had a personal exhibition “Frammenti da Bisanzio” at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg in 2019. Curated by G. Granzotto, the exhibition consisted of thirty works covering the entire activity of the artist, from 1968 to 2018. Also, in 2019 he received the “Le Grandi Guglie” Award promoted by the Centro Studi Grande Milano, dedicated to those who have distinguished themselves in various sectors and for having enhanced the economic, scientific, social, artistic and cultural fabric of the Milanese metropolitan area. In 2020, again in Milan, at Le Gallerie d’Italia, (Banca Intesa San Paolo), 14 works and 6 Russian icons from the Bank’s collection were exhibited: this is the fourth exhibition by Umberto Mariani entitled “Fragments from Byzantium”, curated by F. Tedeschi. Umberto Mariani’s personal exhibition “Omaggio a La piega. Leibniz e il barocco” in October 2020 at the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua. Curated by G. Granzotto, the exhibition is temporarily closed. The Mantua exhibition will reopen In the course of 2021 with respect to the measures necessary to contain the pandemic. Other exhibitions are scheduled at MACA in Acri (CS), in an important museum in the Slovak Republic and in other spaces yet to be defined. 

The Author

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Francesco Raffaele Mutti. Milanese by birth, Tuscan by adoption. He is mad keen on the music of Prince, Japanese animation, cinema of all genres, classical literature, Shakespeare's theatre and that bizarre thing called “art”. He focuses on contemporary art because he believes in the importance of the hen of tomorrow. One day he met Carlo Pepi, who turned to him and said, in his whispered voice, “You have a bent for art”. And he believed it without asking questions. He lives in his car, driving around Italy, because he is convinced that curiosity rarely has a fixed abode.

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