29 August 2020

Ugo Nespolo - artist and designer

Painter and sculptor worked in theatre, advertising and literature

Nespolo's advertising poster for Campari themed on the 1990 World Cup
Nespolo's advertising poster for
Campari themed on the 1990 World Cup
The contemporary artist Ugo Nespolo, whose broad range of work includes paintings and sculpture, theatre sets and costumes, advertising posters, book layouts, commercial designs and experimental films, was born on this day in 1941 in the village of Mosso Santa Maria in the Biellese Prealps, about 70km (43 miles) northeast of Turin.

As well as an enormous output of artworks influenced by Pop Art, conceptual art and Arte Povera among others and numerous sculptures in glass and ceramic, Nespolo created unique set and costume designs for a number of major opera and theatre productions and was associated with several prestigious advertising campaigns, including for the drinks manufacturer Campari and the chocolatier Caffarel.

Nespolo is described as having an insatiable artistic and intellectual appetite and a belief that no artist should confine himself to a single medium. He is said to have inherited those characteristics from his father, whose restless nature compelled him frequently to change jobs and where he - and his family - lived.  His interest in art was probably nurtured by his father’s brother, himself a painter.

Nespolo graduated in modern literature after attending the University of Turin, where his studies included semiotics and art history. He also studied art at the Accademia delle Belle Arti in Turin.

He took a job in teaching at a secondary school but his ambitions lay well beyond the world of education.  In his spare time, he painted and in the early 1960s became part of Turin’s avant-garde movement.  He began to exhibit locally and realised his first important break when Arturo Schwartz, a Milan gallery owner, offered him a small contract and helped him to set up a show in New York.

Nespolo's painting Urbano, which featured letters and numbers
Nespolo's painting Urbano, which
featured letters and numbers
At the same time, he also developed an interest in experimental cinema, directing his first movie, Grazie, mamma Kodak, in 1966.  He has returned to film regularly, conceiving, writing and directing about 20 movies over a 40-year period, his work featured by institutions such as the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art, and Warsaw's Filmoteka Polska. 

Nespolo visited the United States for the first time in 1967 and thereafter became an increasingly regular visitor, particularly in the 1980s.  He became an admirer and acquaintance of Andy Warhol, at the time a leading figure in the Pop Art genre.

During that time, Nespolo was also becoming an advocate of Arte Povera, the movement in Europe that rejected the traditional media in favour of using simple, everyday materials to convey artistic concepts. 

Nespolo’s standing grew exponentially in the 1970s, when he exhibited all over Europe as well as in North and South America and Japan. He was sought after to visualise advertising campaigns, create title designs for television and book layouts for publishing houses. He made sculptures in ceramic and designed furniture and carpets.

He opened a 4,000-square metre atelier in Turin in a three-storey former factory building, incorporating an exhibition space, a workshop and a 40-seat auditorium and an office, in which he installed a traditional American jukebox.

Ugo Nespolo, pictured at an exhibition in 2017
Ugo Nespolo, pictured at an
exhibition in 2017
The 1980s, during which he spent many months each year in the United States, saw his first venture into opera set and costume design at a production of Ferruccio Busoni’s Turandot at the Connecticut Grand Opera in Stamford. Subsequently, he would be engaged for productions of Giovanni Paisiello's Don Quixote at the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma and Gaetano Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore in Rome, Paris, Lausanne, Li├Ęge and Metz. He designed the stage and costumes for Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly at the Festival Puccini 2007 in Torre del Lago.

Now in his 80th year, Nespolo remains an important figure in the art world and continues to receive invitations to collaborate on various projects.  One of the more recent ones was the unveiling of the latest of several watches he has helped design for the Swiss watchmaker Swatch, who hosted an exhibition of his work in Geneva to celebrate a long association with the company that developed from Nespolo’s fascination with numbers, a recurring theme in his work.

Biella's Roman baptistery dates back to the early 1000s
Biella's Roman baptistery dates back
to the early 1000s
Travel tip:

Ugo Nespolo’s home village of Mossa Santa Maria - now simply Mossa - is in the province of Biella, a town of almost 45,000 inhabitants in the foothill of the Alps, about 85km (53 miles) northeast of Turin and slightly more than 100m (62 miles) west of Milan. Its attractions include a Roman baptistery from the early 1000s and the church and convent of San Sebastian. Wool and textiles have been associated with the town since the 13th century and although the best years of the industry have now passed, with many mills and factories closed, in addition to Cerruti, brands such as Ermenegildo Zegna, Vitale Barberis Canonico and Fila still have a presence. 

Turin's Accademia Albertina has fostered the study of art since the 17th century
Turin's Accademia Albertina has fostered
the study of art since the 17th century
Travel tip:

Turin’s Accademia Albertina di Belle Arti can be found in Via Accademia Albertina, which links the Via Po and Piazza Carlo Emanuele II in the centre of the Piemontese capital, in the university district close to the city’s landmark Mole Antonelliana, the enormous structure - at 167.5m (550ft) the tallest unreinforced brick building in the world - originally built as a synagogue. In 1678, the academy was formally founded as the Academy of Painters, Sculptors and Architects (Accademia dei Pittori, Scultori e Architetti) by Marie Jeanne of Savoy. It was re-established under the name Albertina in 1833 by Charles Albert of Sardinia.

Also on this day:

1875: The birth of flautist Leonardo De Lorenzo

1967: The birth of singer Tiziana ‘Tosca’ Donati

1991: The shooting of anti-Mafia businessman Libero Grassi


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