Toni del Renzio

Enfant terrible of English Surrealism

Friday 12 January 2007 01:00
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Antonino Romanov del Renzio dei Rossi di Castellone e Venosa (Toni del Renzio), painter, art historian and writer: born Tsarskoe Selo, Russia 15 April 1915; married 1943 Ithell Colquhoun (died 1988; marriage dissolved 1947), 1970 Doris Miller (two sons, two daughters); died Margate, Kent 7 January 2007.

Toni del Renzio was the last of the pre-Second World War members of the Surrealist group in England. He was also the enfant terrible of the movement, clashing furiously with its intellectual leader E.L.T. Mesens.

The ancestry of Antonino Romanov del Renzio dei Rossi di Castellone e Venosa goes back to the Russian Tsars. Born in 1915 in Tsarskoe Selo, he was barely two when the 1917 Russian Revolution forced his aristocratic family to flee for their lives, first to Yalta and then to Italy. After a schooling split between Switzerland and Britain, he went to universities in the United States and Italy and graduated in philosophy and mathematics.

As a student he had mingled in artistic circles - the latter-day Futurists, the Milan Abstractionists, the Movement for Rational Architecture. But creativity came to an abrupt end in 1935 when Toni del Renzio, as he had chosen to call himself, was conscripted into Mussolini's Tripolitan cavalry and packed off to fight in Abyssinia. To his horror, he discovered that the Abyssinians castrated their prisoners and he decided to abscond.

Disguised as a Bedouin Arab, he joined a camel caravan and fled across the North African desert. From Morocco he reached Spain, just as the civil war was breaking out. He took up arms against Franco and fought first in the Barcelona streets and then on the Aragon front. War-weary, he set off again and reached Paris in 1937.

There he worked as a designer and painter, mainly for theatres and ballet companies, and became immersed in a vibrant European avant-garde, frequenting Picasso and the Surrealists. He began painting in earnest, producing delicately coloured theatrical illusions inspired by the stage and dance. But, as Hitler was drawing closer to the French frontier in 1939, del Renzio took flight across the Channel.

During the Second World War, he was enlisted in "reserved" work connected with the Allies, including General Charles de Gaulle's Free French fighters, for whom del Renzio designed and co- ordinated a travelling exhibition. As everywhere else in Europe, the Surrealist movement in Britain was in tatters and, by 1941, it had come to a complete standstill. Roland Penrose, its chief founder, had become a captain in the Home Guard and camouflage designer of dubious merit, S.W. Hayter, Gordon Onslow-Ford and Sam Haile had all left for the United States, F.E. McWilliam had joined the Royal Air Force and E.L.T. Mesens had closed the London Gallery, the nerve centre for Surrealism in Britain, stopped publishing London Bulletin, the British Surrealist mouthpiece, and gone to work for the BBC broadcasting Allied propaganda.

Del Renzio decided to take the bull by the horns and revive the ailing movement. "War or no war, there was nothing being done about Surrealism. Hitler had to be defeated, yes, but Surrealism also had to carry on." In March 1942 he published a single-issue magazine entitled Arson, "to provoke authentic collective Surrealist activity", and within months he organised an important Surrealist exhibition at the International Arts Centre in Bayswater.

Seen as the movement's driving force, del Renzio was approached by the editors of New Road, John Bayliss and Alex Comfort, to compile a Surrealist anthology in 1943. Once it was published, a further offer came from Cyril Connolly's Horizon, for which del Renzio was to have edited a whole number. But all this was too much for Mesens, who was enraged that his leadership had been usurped. Unable to contain his anger, he scuppered the Horizon project and viciously attacked del Renzio in the press.

By 1944, all the Surrealists, other than Ithell Colquhoun, to whom del Renzio was by then married, had abandoned him. They even sabotaged a recitation of his poetry at the International Arts Centre by showering the stage with rotten eggs. Despite the hate conspiracy, no one could deny that, without del Renzio, Surrealism would not have existed during the war.

Del Renzio resumed freelance design activities, as well taking up a teaching post at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts. He designed the magazine Polemic and books for Pilot Press. He also did advertisement mock-ups which appeared in Graphis, Penrose Annual and Design in Britain. In 1948 he was appointed art director of the National Trade Press (NTP) . He also became involved with the English Constructivist scene.

The 1951 Festival of Britain approached him and drew on his "graphic" talents and he was asked to design a series of panels on the evolution of domestic kitchen machinery, a boom area at the time. But del Renzio yearned for more involvement in the finer arts and resigned from the NTP to go to Italy to study the latest trends of the Modern movement in architecture. On his return he joined the Institute of Contemporary Arts, then in Dover Street, as director's assistant.

He was in the perfect milieu for an artist: in 1952, together with the artists Richard Hamilton, Nigel Henderson, John McHale, Eduardo Paolozzi and William Turnbull, and the architects and critics Reyner Banham and Lawrence Alloway, he founded the experimental Independent Group, an "art of discussion, design and display". Its celebrated achievement was the exhibition "This is Tomorrow", which was opened in 1956 at the Whitechapel Gallery by a 12ft-tall Hollywood celebrity, Robbie the Robot, who was then starring in MGM's Forbidden Planet. "This is Tomorrow" emerged as a turning point of British art, with its fusion of popular culture and orthodox abstract art, "high" and "low" art, ideology and technology.

Then, an approach from Newnes and Pearson's women's magazine group whisked del Renzio into the world of fashion publishing. In 1957 he was special correspondent to The Times in France and Italy, but in 1958 joined Harper's Bazaar as art director, acting too as design consultant to Encounter and French, German and Italian magazines, as well as contributing to Lilliput and Flair. In 1961 he was appointed designer at Topic, but within weeks was transferred to Paris as its correspondent. From there he also contributed to Apollo and undertook research at an experimental French television centre, working on aesthetics and the theory of games. A new challenge, transforming the magazine Novità into Vogue Italiana, took him to Milan, where he also worked as a journalist for Time-Life, writing essays on Italian art, architecture, design and film, as well as carrying out extensive research for books on Leonardo and Marcel Duchamp.

By 1965 he worked increasingly in film and television. Besides designing titles and credits and making advertisements, he wrote scripts and dialogue, directed films and documentaries and even acted, notably in spaghetti westerns.

In 1967 and 1968 del Renzio visited California to lecture on art and media at Berkeley and Santa Cruz. There he witnessed the San Francisco hippie explosion at first hand, recounting his experiences in his 1969 book The Flower Children. Back in the UK, he continued to lecture at art colleges, including the Chelsea School of Art, the Courtauld Institute and Bath Academy of Art at Corsham, where he met his Estonian wife-to-be Doris Miller. From 1975 to 1980, he was head of the Art History department at Canterbury College of Art. In 1981, he took the post of Director of the British Studies Centre of the Institute for American Universities, his final administrative role. From then on, as well as fathering quads at the age of 70, he concentrated on his painting and collage, becoming increasingly innovative as the years passed.

At the same time, he restarted to publish Surrealist manifestos and polemical texts, the last of which, Alter Ego and Doppelgänger, was coming hot off the presses as he lay on his deathbed.

Silvano Levy

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