A solo exhibition set throughout the palace, from the founding father of Italian Arte Povera
Michelangelo Pistoletto (b1933) is best known as a pioneer of Arte Povera, the term coined in 1967 to refer to a loosely connected group of Italian artists intent on using found objects, industrial scrap and natural materials as media in order to make statements about what the catalogue for his recent exhibition at the Louvre in Paris called ‘problems linked to consumerism’. This autumn Blenheim Palace will mount the UK’s largest retrospective of his work, from the early self-portraits that launched his career to several large-scale installations, which will be created specially for this show and integrated into the baroque splendour of Sir John Vanbrugh’s architecture and the surrounding park.
If it follows the model of the Paris show, the dialogues between his work, the object of which he has said, is ‘to produce a change in society through ideas’, and the stately home’s palatial interiors promise to be provocative. There his installations were displayed across the galleries devoted to Italian paintings, classical antiquities and Medieval art, as well as the sculpture courts. Juxtaposed with a statue of Venus stood a pile of rags, a work entitled Venus of the Rags as a comment on the dangers of consumerism and the extent to which nature and beauty are being subsumed by rubbish. While close to the Mona Lisa hung one of his distinctive ‘mirror paintings’, a body of work dating back to the early 1960s which uses figurative images traced from photographs on to tissue paper and then, almost hyperrealistically, painted in and affixed to sheets of mirror-finish stainless steel. Entitled Girl Taking a Photograph, it shows a tourist holding her camera aloft. ‘There’s always someone making a photo there,’ he told me. ‘People no longer look with their eyes… They just consume and take pictures. I’m making a connection between the antique and the life of today. I try to make people think.’
As is evident from his portraits and much of his sculpture, mirrors play a key role in his practice, both for their quality as reflective devices that ‘express truth and stimulate imagination’ and as an oblique reference to the fact that his father, a ‘very classical, very realistic’ painter is also a restorer of icons with their golden or metallic backgrounds. ‘The icon is a religious subject,’ says Pistoletto. ‘It represents humanity, divinity and infinity. But the gold ground doesn’t provide any answers.’ It’s purely decorative, just there to reflect the light and add ‘glamour’. By contrast, an actual mirror ‘provides answers. It reflects the universe; all society is there. It gives the work a reality.’
The idea of painting on mirror came to him, he says, as ‘the result of a series of self-portraits I’d been working on in order to explore my identity. When you make a self-portrait, you have to look at yourself in the mirror in order to reproduce yourself’. At first he ‘never thought about the mirror itself’, but over time he began to see the mirror itself ‘as a protagonist in the work just as much as I was’. He battled with the idea of how to reproduce this until ‘finally I found my identity’ when it occurred to him to make his paintings directly on to sheets of polished stainless steel, so that ‘the mirror becomes the canvas’