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
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
News
Sir David Attenborough
people
Life and Style
Young girl and bowl of cereal
food + drink
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Comic miserablist Larry David in 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'
peopleDirector of new documentary Misery Loves Comedy reveals how he got them to open up
Sport
football
News
i100
Life and Style
Virtual reality headset: 'Essentially a cinema screen that you strap to your face'
techHow virtual reality is thrusting viewers into frontline of global events and putting film-goers at the heart of the action
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Life and Style
David Bowie by Duffy
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
News
advertisingVideo: The company that brought you the 'Bud' 'Weis' 'Er' frogs and 'Wasssssup' ads, has something up its sleeve for Sunday's big match
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
i100
Environment
Dame Vivienne Westwood speaking at a fracking protest outside Parliament on Monday (AP)
environment
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

Recruitment Genius: Front End Web Interface Developer - HTML, CSS, JS

£17000 - £23750 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Liverpool based international...

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness