Under the city, within the underground walls of the Rocca Paolina (a fortress in the city of Perugia), which was not yet open to the public at that time, two of the most important artists of our time met and left two fundamental works in their artistic path: the six thematic blackboards «summa of the crypto-conceptual art» of the German Joseph Beuys and the Grande Nero, the monumental work made by Alberto Burri, the greatest contemporary artist in Umbria.
Describing these works and that meeting today, although the aforesaid artists differ from each other as well as in their views on art and aesthetics, just now that the earth is shaking and being in a state of uncertainty of events, we think that they are actually bound by a basic theme: the inevitable and essential relationship of man with the forces of nature.
The German Shaman
Joseph Beuys reached Naples for the opening of the exhibition where he met Andy Warhol at the Gallery Lucio Amelio on April 1st, 1980, so Italo Tomassoni took advantage of the Italian stay and organized the event in Perugia. The meetings between these great artists contributed to the new autonomy of the European artistic culture compared to the hegemony of the American pattern, which had been a custodian of the culture values since the years after the Second World War.
On the evening of April 3rd, in the Sala Cannoniera della Rocca, Beuys made his drawings, schemes and symbols straight off with a white chalk on six big blackboards. A “social sculpture” breaking any scheme with the traditional art. Being covered with glass cases, they are exhibited at the municipal Museum of Palazzo della Penna sequentially following the path shown by the artist in his performance.
According to Beuys, art is transformation, vital energy transmission within the continuum of the shapeless matter. As a teacher at the Academy of Düsseldorf, through didactics, he tried to bring out the creative faculties as a means of language refounding. Repeatedly defined as a “shaman” for the type of rites of his actions, he reveals the hidden force, the secret energy of the matter. One of Fluxus founders – Beuys – with his happenings goes in search of abstraction, the intellectual property right which the language is based on, he affects the spectator appealing to his senses and combines every type of materials and objects.
In the catalogue edited by Tomassoni, carried out for 2003 new exhibition, there is the description of each blackboard. For our purposes, the most typical one – and maybe the heart of Beuys’s thought – is Blackboard n.1, where he deals with the relationship with nature.
Tomassoni wrote: «art should be expanded in a socio-anthropological sense and economics and politics should be evaluated with the spirit metre. Beuys considers art as the most suitable means for solidarity that protects life instead of destroying it».
Two human figures on the sun: it is the City of the Sun by the Italian philosopher Campanella, where regulations and institutions are not the result of customs inherited from tradition, but the expression of the natural human reason. Beuys himself wrote: «If I want to give a new anthropological position to the man, I must also give a new position to all that concerns him, link him downwards with animals, plants and nature, as well as upwards, with angels or spirits […]. In my actions I have always exemplified art=man».
The Artist of Nature
Going beyond the ideological avant-gard concept that art means life, Beuys has become the artist of nature even thanks to several performances including the most famous, in 1982, at Kassel in Germany, on the occasion of Documenta VII: 7000 oaks, where 7000 oaks were planted over four years close to a basalt stele in an increasing rock-and-plant relationship. However, in my opinion, Beyus was able to better represent the deeper and tragic meaning of the relationship between matter and energy, the forces of nature and human creativity in 1981, on the occasion of the project Terrae Motus at the Galleria Amelio for the 1980 Irpinia earthquake: An earthquake in the Palace, which I saw in the reconstruction done at MADRE Museum of Naples in 2015. Beuys showed his human frailty while preparing a room with the work tools taken from the areas hit by the earthquake
Glass vases under the legs of the table and fragments scattered all around, an egg balanced on a deformed table: these pictures passed on a video projected on a wall. Beuys drew under a table the
seismic waves on an electrocardiogram paper, comparing the shake beat with the heartbeat.
Lucio Amelio wrote: «There was energy in the art to such an extent that it was in opposition to that one risen by the Earth.»
«Every man has the most valuable palace in the world into his head, in his consciousness, in his will» said Beuys, identifying in the human creative force the possibility of a new and real redemption.
Burri and the Continuous Metamorphosis of Man
While Beuys showed his blackboards, Burri chose the most hidden corner of the Rock vaults to place a black grand sculpture over 5 metres high, the Grande Ferro or Grande Nero. A mysterious and silent kinetic work trying to express the human condition, which is constantly developing after the wounds and changes inflicted by nature and history. This deep relationship with nature is expressed in a different way in Burri than Beuys: the bags and experiments with new materials are a research aimed to sublimate used and worn-out objects; it shows all the poetic charge as remains of human life.
Since the Seventies, his white or black “cracks” made with mixtures of kaolin and polyvinyl acetate look like a dried land and he has used them in his most important works, such as The Great Crack of Gibellina, a land artwork born in response to the destruction and disaster of the earthquake, but completed only in 2015. With architect Zanmatti, who had already acted as an intermediary in the meeting of Perugia, in 1984 he went to Gibellina, near Trapani, where the mayor considered art as a chance of redemption after many years since the earthquake destroyed the town in 1968.
Square kilometres of concrete form a huge crack above the old town. The visitor goes through the cracks, no more houses but white shapeless blocks, a surreal landscape after life’s end. After his inspection, Burri wrote: «I was close to tears and immediately I had a clear idea: well, I know that here I could do anything. I would do this way: we compact the rubbles that are a problem for everybody, we reinforce them well, and with the concrete we make a huge white crack in memory of this event».
For Beuys and Burri nature is not a destructive or an evil power, it is up to the man, through a renewed relationship with it, to create cleverer forms of life in common. Art can actually changes the world and our behaviour, make eternal the earthly things destined to transience.
More on Perugia
Guido Montana in «L’Umanità», 3 maggio del 1980
Italo Tomassoni, a cura di, Beuys/Burri Perugia, Rocca Paolina, 3 aprile 1980, in collaborazione con Lucio Amelio, Alberto Zanmatti, Litostampa, Perugia 1980.
Stefano Zorzi, Parola di Burri, Torino, Allemandi, 1995
Joseph Beuys: difesa della natura diary of Seychelles, testi di Lucrezia De Domizio Durini, Italo Tomassoni, Giorgio Bonomi, ed. Charta, Milano 1996
Italo Tomassoni, a cura di, Beuys a Perugia, ed. Silvana, Cinisello Balsamo 2003
Guida alla raccolta Beuys Museo Palazzo della Penna, Liomatic, Perugia 2008
Andrea Viliani, a cura di, Lucio Amelio dalla Modern Art Agency alla genesi di Terrae Motus (1965-1982): documenti, opere, una storia…, Mondadori Electa, Milano 2015