Mimmo Rotella

Extravagant experimental artist


Mimmo Rotella, artist: born Catanzaro, Italy 7 October 1918; died Milan 8 January 2006.

Nothing illustrates more vividly the hectic post-war art scene than the scintillating career of the Italian experimental artist Mimmo Rotella.

Rotella made his name in the 1950s by ripping posters of film stars from the walls of Rome by night and then transforming them into ingenious, provocative and amusing collages. They were mainly posters of Italian stars, for it was the period of the great Italian film-maker. So Rotella tore up works of varying quality, from Europa di notte, starring the yet unknown Henri Salvador and Carmen Sevilla, to La dolce vita by Fellini.

Strips and patches of the posters were wrenched from hoardings and given various kinds of treatment in the artist's studio before being assembled helter-skelter in dizzying Surrealist combinations stuck to the canvas. Lots of torn-up and rearranged starlets enjoyed a more-than-fleeting celebrity through these wry manipulations of their faces and figures, carried off with such malicious effrontery and artistic virtuosity.

Rotella was born into a modest middle-class family in 1918. His mother "took in sewing" and some of her materials would make appearances in her son's later works. He had art training in Naples, but his first job was in a minor post at the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications in Rome. He did military service in the Second World War, being demobbed in 1944.

For a while Rotella made a living by teaching art in his home town, Catanzaro in Calabria. But he soon returned to Rome, where he first made a name for himself as the inventor of "phonetic poetry", a forerunner of the concrete poetry of the Fifties and Sixties. He wanted to become a painter, however, and for a time hesitated between figurative and geometric styles to match his experimental poetry.

His first exhibition of abstract and geometric paintings in 1951 in Rome proved a total flop. So he sought artistic success in more broad-minded America, where he enjoyed a certain popularity through his experimental abstract poetry. It was the era of concrete poetry, wonderfully elaborated in the early works of the great Scot Edwin Morgan, who penned such artless ditties as

Pool

Peopl

e plop!

Cool.

(Fortunately, Morgan developed into a major British poet.)

Rotella wowed them at the University of Kansas City with his "percussive" poems. At Harvard he gave standing-room-only performances of his "phonetic" works. The Americans adored his quaint English and his warm Italian rapport with the newly liberated youth of the United States. Full of his American success story, he returned to Rome for his second exhibition in 1952 - this received another lukewarm reception that led to a long fallow period.

But artistic release finally arrived, although it took an unusual form. Rotella started stripping the walls of Rome of their cinema posters, in a technique that became known as "laceration". With a number of French artists in the "New Realist" movement initiated by the art critic Pierre Restany in Paris in 1949, Rotella began to be known in Italy, for he was the only Italian member of the group. Restany later coined the term "rotelliser" - to "rotellise" - to describe Rotella's working process.

There was method in apparent madness: he transformed his ribbons and rags of film posters into inscrutable jigsaw puzzles whose solution lay simply in the eye's enjoyment of their Cubist collage. His art became mania, though not manic. The next step was to "deconstruct" the torn-down posters even further by tearing the loose strips into crumpled rags and tatters and further distressing them in the studio - "double décollage". Then the bits and pieces were stuck haphazardly on a prepared canvas. The final effect was often rivetingly shocking and oddly touching in its injured beauty. He also experimented with a "recto-verso" technique in which he obtained recklessly vivid chromatic contrasts by exposing the reverse sides of certain fragments.

These experiments made of Rotella a living legend in a world of Italian art - fanatical, extravagant, unpredictable. He became like some possessed creature in an early silent movie roaming the streets and alleys of Rome and tearing at the walls. He was linked with other groundbreaking experimenters like Yves Klein, Arman, Jean Tinguely and César.

During the Sixties, Rotella started making "assemblages" - breath-taking amalgamations of the most various and heteroclite compositions, like his "Tapezzeria Romana" ("Roman Tapestry") which, in homage to his seamstress mother, he trimmed with passementerie. They were exhibited at Galerie J in Paris as well as at Cinecittà. In the late Sixties, there was another Galerie J exhibition of his new discovery, MecArt (from "mechanical art", also known as "mechanical painting"), created by the use of manipulated photography.

Mimmo Rotella's autobiography, Autorotella, was published in 1972. In 1980, he returned to acrylic painting and had exhibitions devoted to various subjects like his "marouflages" (with cloth or tape backings) - another tribute to his seamstress mother - and a series of "Blanks", posters covered by sheets of white paper.

James Kirkup

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