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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Buttoned up: Ryan Reynolds with Helen Mirren in ‘Woman in Gold’
filmFor every box-office smash in his Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. Now he says it's time for a reboot
News
people
News
Actress Julianne Moore wins the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award for 'Still Alice' during the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California
people
Sport
Ross Barkley
footballPaul Scholes says it's time for the Everton playmaker to step up and seize the England No 10 shirt
News
'We will fix it': mice in the 1970s children’s programme Bagpuss
science
Life and Style
2 Karl Lagerfeld and Choupette
fashion
  • Get to the point
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: Customer Service Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?