The flyer for this exhibition opens with the line, ‘The harmonious and delicately-poised work of Fausto Melotti (1901-1986) is revered in Italy, yet surprisingly little-known in the United Kingdom.’ This is perfectly true; he is rarely shown here, and, indeed, this is the first institutional show to be dedicated to his work in Britain. Harmonious and delicately-poised are two ways of describing his work. Whimsical and lightweight could be another. Or dainty and precise. A couple of years ago, there was an exhibition at the Mazzoleni Gallery in London entitled ‘FONTANA/MELOTTI: Angelic Spaces and Infinite Geometries’, which juxtaposed Lucio Fontana’s fascination in physical and imagined space, illustrated by his slashed, vulvic canvases in a series called Concetti Spaziali, with Melotti’s intricate and spare use of materials within a space. They both studied under the Symbolist sculptor Adolfo Wildt at his Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan, along with another sculptor, Luigi Broggini, who designed the famous six-legged dog for Agip’s Supercortemaggiore brand of petrol.
Before he went to Brera to study sculpture, Melotti initially studied physics and mathematics at the University of Pisa, and then graduated in electrical engineering at Milan Polytechnic. He also studied the piano, and his knowledge of the mathematical principles of musical counterpoint is referenced in the geometrical sculpture he produced in the 1930s. There is certainly tension in his work, but there is also a sense of balance and geometry, which jogs alongside his interest in, and knowledge of, music. He was at the epicentre of the Milanese intellectual scene, mixing with musicians, poets and other artists, who were open to a wider avant-garde influence,including the doyens of European abstraction, Josef Albers and Wassily Kandinsky. He did a series of beguiling ceramic Little Theatres, of which only one is on show, Orpheus, alongside two drawings of the hapless musician, sketched twenty-odd years before. Most of the sculpture on show are made from metal, namely nickel-plated iron, brass, iron, stainless steel, nickeled brass and copper. One absorbing work, In The Swamp, depicts a little boat with a painted piece of fabric as a sail, afloat amongst coils of brass and skinny reeds, which sway gently as visitors walk past. His three iron spheres in Sculpture A (Pendulums) from 1968 were also minutely swinging in unity, as visitors walked past on the wooden boarded floor, but maybe that was unintentional, too. Another piece, Sculpture C (Infinite)comprises a 2m. high stainless steel rod on a bird-foot base, atop of which is a cross-member ending in a curlicue, which could be a bass clef, or simply the letter ‘C’? Melotti himself defined infinity as ‘a zero in reverse,’ and ‘Infinity contains infinite infinites. Infinity is a singular plural of itself.’
He was immensely prolific, producing hundreds of sculptural works, mostly metal, but also working in plaster, marble, clay and terracotta, bas reliefs, ceramics, jewellery, works on paper and canvas, as well as architectural projects, all of which are catalogued on the Fondazione Fausto Melotti web-site. His first solo exhibition was in 1935 at the Galleria di Milione in Milan, displaying 18 pieces in plaster, clay and metal, and in the catalogue he wrote,’ Art is an angelic, geometric state of mind. It addresses itself to the intellect, not to the senses.’ Whether one agrees with that sentiment or not, he certainly pushed the boundaries from his early references to Roman and Etruscan figurative art, through to modernism and abstraction, and on a path towards geometrical compositions, with the human figure also making a comeback. He died in 1986, aged 87, and the Venice Biennale awarded him the Leone d’Oro the day after he died. One of his more charming works is his brass L’amico leone from 1960, with a disc-like face on a spindly body, with a pair of brass balls trailing at the end of his chain tail, leaving the visitor wondering whether Melotti was being ‘playful.’
Fausto Melotti: Counterpoint
Until 7 April 2019