21 September 2017

Maurizio Cattelan - conceptual artist

Controversial work softened by irreverent humour

Maurizio Cattelan once said that he aimed to be "as  open and as incomprehensible as possible."
Maurizio Cattelan once said that he aimed to be "as
open and as incomprehensible as possible."
The conceptual artist Maurizio Cattelan, known for the dark humour and irreverence of much of his work, was born on this day in 1960 in Padua.

Cattelan, probably best known for his controversial waxwork sculptures of Pope John Paul II and Adolf Hitler, has been described at different times as a satirist, a prankster, a subversive and a poet, although it seems to have been his aim to defy any attempt at categorisation.

His works are often interpreted as critiques of the art world and of society in general and while death and mortality are recurring themes there is more willingness among modern audiences to see how even tragic circumstances can give rise to comedic absurdities.

Although some of his work has provoked outrage, more viewers have been enthralled than angered by what he has presented, and some of his creations have changed hands for millions of dollars.

Cattelan has said that his memories of growing up in Padua are of economic hardship, punishments at school and a series of unfulfilling menial jobs.  His artistic skills were entirely self-taught. He was designing and making wooden furniture in Forlì, in Emilia-Romagna, when he began his first experiments with sculpture and conceptual art.

Cattelan's controversial waxwork of Pope John Paul II felled by a meteorite
Cattelan's controversial waxwork of Pope John
Paul II felled by a meteorite
At the start, he set out to produce work that expressed his own insecurities and anxiety about not succeeding. What was meant to be his first solo exhibition in 1989, for example, consisted simply of a sign hanging from the locked door of the gallery with the words Torno subito or “Be right back,” while his contribution to a group exhibition was a ‘rope’ from a window made of bed sheets knotted together, signifying a hurried escape from his obligations.

On another occasion, in Amsterdam, again to create a metaphor for fear of failure, he stole the entire contents of another artist’s show from a neighbouring gallery to pass off as his own, although he was forced to return it under threat of arrest.

He used taxidermy in several notable creations in the 1990s, including The Ballad of Trotsky (1996) and Novecento (1997), both of which consisted of an embalmed horse suspended from the ceiling, its neck bent downwards and its hooves stretched out as if reaching for the floor, widely interpreted as symbolic of energy destined to find no outlet.

Cattelan sold the Ballad of Trotsky for $5,000 (€4,200). In 2004, it changed hands for $2.1 million (€1.7 million).

Cattelan's work is often humorous, as in this sculpture of himself
 peering at paintings by Dutch masters from a hole in the floor 
At the Venice Biennale in 1997 he assembled 200 taxidermied pigeons perched on the air conditioning pipes in the Italian pavilion, with droppings spattered on the floor below, in an exhibit entitled Turisti.

Towards the end of the 1990s he turned to waxwork and caused considerable controversy with La Nona Ora – “The Ninth Hour” – which depicted a prone Pope John Paul II, dressed in his robes and clutching the Papal Cross, having been felled by a lump of meteoric rock that has crashed through a skylight.

The sculpture provoked a lively debate as to its meaning but met with hostility when it went on display at the Zacheta Gallery of Contemporary Art in Warsaw – in John Paul II’s home country – where two members of the Polish parliament not only raised a petition, signed by 90 members, calling for the dismissal of the gallery’s director, but physically removed the rock and tried to stand the figure upright.

Nonetheless, Christie’s sold the piece for $886,000 (€745,000) in 2001. When a second version was auctioned by Phillips, de Pury & Company in 2004, it fetched $3 million (€2.52 million).

Cattelan's model of Hitler as a schoolboy kneeling
in prayer, on display in an alley in Warsaw
Similarly, not everyone appreciated his 2001 sculpture Him, in which a head clearly that of Hitler was mounted on the body of a schoolboy kneeling in prayer. The sculpture was frequently displayed at the end of a long hallway or at the opposite end of a white room, turned away from the viewer, so as to maximise the sense of surprise or shock when they advanced close enough to recognise the face.

Other waxwork sculptures included one of himself, or at least his head, created for a museum in Rotterdam, in which he is seen peering up through a hole in the floor at an exhibition of 17th century Dutch masters.

After the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York, Cattelan sculpted Frank and Jamie (2002), in which two New York City policemen are turned upside down and propped against a wall in a posture that has been seen to convey the unfamiliar sense of vulnerability that permeated the United States in the wake of the terrorist outrage.

Cattelan, who today earns at least $200,000 (€168,000) for every new piece, claims there is no difference between his more recent work and his older pieces, but that he used to be “treated as an idiot” where now he is appreciated. He claims he doesn't know what his work means, but says his aim is to be “as open and as incomprehensible as possible.”

The artist, who divides his time between homes in Milan and New York, announced his retirement after a 2011 retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where his work was displayed hanging from the ceiling of the rotunda as if wilfully and randomly discarded.

He came out of retirement for another show at the Guggenheim in 2016, in which one exhibit was a fully functioning toilet in 18-carat gold.

Giotto's frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel are one of the major attractions for visitors to Padua
Giotto's frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel are one of the
major attractions for visitors to Padua
Travel tip:

Padua, where Cattelan was born, is city of some 210,000 people in the Veneto, about 40 minutes from Venice by train. It has much to see for the visitor, with the frescoes by Giotto that illuminate the Scrovegni Chapel undoubtedly the biggest attraction, so much so that booking ahead is now almost essential. Well worth a visit too are the substantial Basilica di Sant’Antonio – known in English as St Anthony of Padua – and the Abbazia di Santa Giustina, both close to the beautiful elliptical open space, Prato della Valle, which was once the site of a Roman amphitheatre.  The city has a large student population yet on the whole Padua is a fairly quiet city, a good base for exploring the area and a better-value alternative to staying Venice.

Piazza Aurelio Saffi is at the heart of the city of Forlì
Piazza Aurelio Saffi is at the heart of the city of Forlì
Travel tip:

Founded by the Romans 200 years before Christ as Forum Livii, Forlì is located between Faenza and Cesena in the eastern part of the Po Valley, no more than 30-35km (18-22 miles) from the Adriatic coast. The centrepiece of the town is Piazza Aurelio Saffi, which features notable buildings from different eras: the Romanesque Basilica of San Mercuriale with its 12th century bell tower, the 14th century Palazzo Comunale and Torre Civica clock tower, the 15th century Palazzo del Podestà and 20th century Palazzo delle Poste, an example of architecture of the Fascist era, also evident in the buildings of Viale della Libertà and Piazzale della Vittoria. Forlì’s older history is represented in the palaces along Corso Garibaldi and Via Maroncelli.

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