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Celebrating Italy’s true pop artist

A new exhibition at the Gallerie d’Italia – Napoli focuses attention on the career of artist and socialite Mario Schifano, separating his artworks from his image as a hard-living bon viveur


It’s fair to say that, in his heyday in the 1960s, the life of Mario Schifano resembled that of a rock star more than an artist. He used to drive around Rome in a Rolls-Royce and had countless lovers, perhaps the best known of whom was the model and actress Anita Pallenberg. 

He counted film-maker Jean-Luc Godard and members of the Rolling Stones as friends – and was even the inspiration for one of the band’s songs, Monkey Man on the 1969 album Let It Bleed. He was also part of a brief yet well-publicised love triangle with Mick Jagger and the singer Marianne Faithfull. (Referring to the artist’s struggles with drug addiction, she said in later life: “I could have loved this man but the deck was stacked against us.”) 

The public image of Schifano as an artist-rock star has persisted since his heyday. A new exhibition at the Gallerie d’Italia – Napoli, however, aims to refocus people’s attention on his art. 

“He deserves to be rediscovered internationally for the quality of his painting,” says Luca Massimo Barbero, associate curator of Intesa Sanpaolo’s collections of modern and contemporary art, who created the exhibition. 

“I think it’s important to shift the idea that we have of Schifano, to clear the field of the clichés we associate with him” – Luca Massimo Barbero, associate curator of Intesa Sanpaolo’s collections of modern and contemporary art

Held at Intesa Sanpaolo’s museum in Naples, Mario Schifano: il nuovo immaginario 1960-1990 (Mario Schifano: the new imaginary 1960-1990) features more than 50 works from across three decades of the artist’s career.

Born in 1934 in Libya – at the time an Italian colony – he moved with his family to Rome at a young age. On view are a handful of works from the series with which Schifano made his name: the Monocromi (Monochromes), each canvas consisting of an energetic field of a single colour. 

These include a fine example in red from 1961 called Analogo, which was part of the esteemed Luigi and Peppino Agrati collection before being donated to Intesa Sanpaolo in 2018.

After the Monocromi, Schifano went on to paint arguably the most famous works of all Italian pop art. Inspired by the proliferation of advertising posters on the streets of Rome in the early 1960s, he painted two sets of canvases in which he adapted and reworked the corporate logos of Coca-Cola and Esso. A few examples of these are on show in Naples.

“It’s worth remembering that in the 1960s he was one of very few Italian artists – perhaps the only Italian artist – who was as big in the United States as he was at home,” says Barbero. 

In 1962, Schifano showed alongside Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein in The New Realists, a landmark exhibition of pop art at Sidney Janis Gallery in Manhattan. (He also briefly moved to New York around this time and shared an apartment with the poet Frank O’Hara.)  

Around a third of the works in Mario Schifano: il nuovo immaginario 1960-1990 come from Intesa Sanpaolo’s collection. The rest are loans – with important cultural institutions such as the Museo del Novecento in Milan and the Galleria Internazionale d'Arte Moderna Ca' Pesaro in Venice among the lenders.

“After the highs of the previous decade, Schifano’s work from the 1970s and 1980s is often overlooked,” Barbero says. “We have tried to correct that imbalance.”

The show includes works, for example, from Paesaggi TV (TV Landscapes), his extensive series from the 1970s. For these, Schifano transferred various television pictures on to canvas using photographic emulsion, and then added paint. The pictures included stills from broadcasts of the Vietnam War, art documentaries and late-night erotica.

The exhibition is spread across two floors at the Gallerie d’Italia – Napoli, and Barbero has exploited the sizeable space in the Toledo Room on the ground floor by hanging large-format works from the latter part of Schifano’s career. These, in some cases, measure 7 x 6 metres and include the richly enigmatic Gaston a cavallo (Gaston on horseback) from 1986. 

Schifano died in 1998 aged 63. 

The Gallerie d’Italia – Napoli is one of four museums run by Intesa Sanpaolo, the others to be found in Milan, Vicenza and Turin. The current exhibition forms part of the bank’s Progetto Cultura, a long-term initiative aimed at improving society through cultural enrichment alongside economic enrichment. 

Manifested in countless ventures across Italy involving music, cinema, art, theatre and more, Progetto Cultura has no equivalent among other financial institutions in Europe. 

“Advancing knowledge of major Italian artists is one of the key elements of Progetto Cultura,” says Michele Coppola, the bank’s director of art, culture and historic heritage. “Intesa Sanpaolo is proud to stage this exhibition featuring Schifanos that count among the highest expressions of Italian painting in the second half of the 20th century.”

Mario Schifano: il nuovo immaginario 1960-1990 runs at the Gallerie d’Italia – Napoli until 29 October 2023

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