Obituary: Mario Schifano

Related Topics
Mario Schifano, painter: born Homs, Libya 20 September 1934; (one son); died Rome 26 January 1998.

Mario Schifano was one of Italy's leading modern painters. Urban signs were his chosen territory: the fuzz of the television screen, the blare of advertising. He loved to epater les bourgeois, using his conspicuous earnings to fund terrorist groups or experiment with various drugs - an extracurricular activity which earned him six prison sentences.

Schifano was born in Italian-occupied Libya in 1934. He was proud of the fact that he had never got beyond primary school, owing he said to an "involuntary masochism" that led him to "chew through the umbilical cord" that linked him to his family. Odd, then, that his first job should have been as his father's assistant in the restoration office of the Etruscan Museum in Rome; but Schifano would always defend his right to be inconsistent.

His first canvases were a series of "yellow monochromes", exhibited in 1959. At this time the artistic climate in Italy was dominated by the anguished rigours of informalism, as taught by Pollock and De Kooning, and as practised by Burri. Schifano was part of a younger generation of Roman artists - including Tano Festa and Franco Angeli - who believed that such experiments still smacked of the academy. It was the surface of signs that interested Schifano, not their hidden meaning; walking around Rome, he was struck by "those black-and-white poles used by surveyors to mark out the territory" and by "traffic lights, advertising posters" - the accidental semiology of the urban landscape.

By 1962 he had found his voice, with a famous series of canvases in which the Coca-Cola and Esso corporate logos were obsessively repeated and re- elaborated. But he was always uncomfortable with the Pop Art label - partly because he believed he had got there at the same time as the Americans by following a different route; but partly also because of a lifelong (and un-Pop) interest in his materials - which included acrylic paint, photos, plexiglass, lengths of film and branches ripped from trees in the Villa Borghese while painting en plein air.

In later years, Schifano would work in his Roman studio surrounded by televisions, each tuned to a different channel, with the hi-fi at full blast. His painterly elaborations of television images - which he began working on in 1967 - remain probably his best-known works. He made a number of short films and even stage-managed a rock group, Le Stelle di Mario Schifano, in the late Sixties; but his fortune as an artist was always linked to his canvases, which he turned out at breakneck speed, in batches.

In series such as Oxygen Oxygen (1967) and TV Landscapes (1969), he worked small variations on a theme, filling the canvas with blocks of colour; a legacy of Matisse, but also of the Italian Renaissance. Beginning with Futurism Repainted in Colour (1966), he often diverted himself by coming clean about the legacy before it was even spotted: Piero della Francesca, De Chirico, Boccioni, Picabia and Monet were just a few of the Masters done over by Schifano.

Women and drugs were his main weaknesses. He went out with Anita Pallenberg in her pre-Jagger days, and it was a relationship with Afdora Franchetti - later Henry Fonda's wife - which led to his first prison sentence; she was stopped at Fiumicino airport in 1966 with a packet of marijuana destined for Schifano.

Later, living up to his poete maudite image, he took to heroin, often paying his dealers in art. It took him a decade to emerge from the tunnel of addiction and throw himself back into painting; his artistic rehabilitation was marked by an important retrospective in Rome in 1980 and by his 1982 Venice Biennale show.

Schifano had a love-hate relationship with the market. He annoyed the galleries by giving away works to just about anybody who came to visit. In the late Sixties and early Seventies he helped finance extra-parliamentary groups on the far-left fringe, claiming this was the only option for someone who earned money "with such brutal ease".

In his determination to live on the edge, Schifano predated New York's enfant terrible of the Eighties, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Those who knew him well say it was a wonder he lived so long.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Jihadist militants leading away captured Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit, Iraq, in June  

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Robert Fisk
India's philosopher, environmental activist, author and eco feminist Vandana Shiva arrives to give a press conference focused on genetically modified seeds on October 10, 2012  

Meet Vandana Shiva: The deserving heir to Mahatma Ghandi's legacy

Peter Popham
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home