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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
FIFA President Sepp Blatter reacts during a news conference in Zurich June 1, 2011
news
News
people
Life and Style
food + drink
News
peopleKatie Hopkins criticises River Island's 'seize the day' bags for trying to normalise epilepsy
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family
film'I survived it, but I’ll never be the same,' says Arash Amel
Life and Style
Retailers should make good any consumer goods problems that occur within two years
tech(and what to do if you receive it)
Life and Style
healthIf one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
Life and Style
tech
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K YR1: SThree: At SThree, we like to be dif...

Guru Careers: Software Developer / Web Developer

£30 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Software / Web Developer (PHP / MYSQL) i...

Guru Careers: Account Executive

£18 - 20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: An Account Executive is needed to join one...

Guru Careers: Software Developer / Software Engineer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Software Developer / Software Engineer i...

Day In a Page

Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada