Mario Schifano was born in 1934 in Homs, Libya, and arrived in Rome with his family in the post-war years. He had little vocation for academic studies, and began work restoring ceramics (learning the trade from his father, an archaeologist and restorer) and drawing up plans of tombs for the Valle Giulia Etruscan Museum. He gave this up when his inclination towards painting became serious. The first time his painting was shown to the public was in a personal show at the Galleria Appia Antica in Rome in 1959, with works displayed which can be termed informal art, characterised by dribbles, great gestural expressiveness and the thickness of the materials used.
In 1960, with the collective show at the Salita Gallery Five Roman Painters: Angeli, Festa, Lo Savio, Schifano, Uncini, the artist began a fervid stage in his career which would last more than a decade, during which he was fêted by the critics and awarded prizes such as the Lissone Prize (Lissone, 1961) and the Fiorino Prize, La nuova Figurazione (Florence, 1963).
His painting tends towards the monochrome, expressed on paper glued onto canvas and covered with a very tactile single colour. The work is treated as a screen on which to display letters, signs, and new images produced artificially by industrial civilization.
This decade would see fervid activity for Schifano, with personal and collective shows in both public and private spaces in Italy (Rome, La Tartaruga, 1961; Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, 1966 and L’attico, 1967; Milan, L’Ariete, 1963 and Studio Marconi, 1965; Venice, 32nd Biennale, 1964; San Marino, 5th Biennale, Beyond Informal Art, 1963 and 6th Biennale, 1965;) and abroad (New York, Sidney Janis Gallery, The New Realists, 1962; Paris, Sonnabend, 1963; Pittsburgh, Carnegie Institute, 1964; Biennale, São Paolo, Brazil, 1965; Tokyo, National Museum of Modern Art, 1967). Importantly, during this period, he would also travel repeatedly to the United States (1962 and end of ’63 beginning of ’64) where he came into contact with Pop Art, and was struck with the work of Kline and Dine.
Examining Schifano’s work by thematic phases, these are the years of washed-out landscapes, canvasses on which the natural is depicted not as a directly lived experience, but is recalled through allusions, particular signs or fragments, by transforming a previously reproduced image.
From then we come to a series of famous pieces dedicated to Futurism, where the image is always taken from the mass media, such the photograph of the Futurist group in Paris, with the figures as mere silhouettes (as though evoked by memories) under panels of coloured Perspex.
In Schifano’s work, his interest in technology and in reproducing images, in music and photography, and the contemplative view of the city, come together with his interest in the cinema: the first half of the Seventies saw his first short films and a feature-length film (Anna Carini vista in agosto dalle Farfalle, Studio Marconi, 1967), and a trilogy of films (Satellite, Umano non umano and Trapianto, consunzione e morte di Franco Brocani).
With his artistic language somewhere between photography and television, this great Italian, and very European artist took off once more. He was a modern man very much of his own time, with a strong “sense of the contemporary”, also evident in his choice of media: industrially produced materials, enamel paints, etc).
He began the Seventies with a series of photographic emulsion pieces, where images taken from television are extrapolated and then subjected to colouring with nitrate paint, giving the work a new value, no longer ephemeral. Images of his Auxiliary Muse (television) with pictorial and photographic interventions retouched by hand would later be the stars of a travelling exhibition in Brazil (Fundaçao Memorial da America Latina, 1996), Buenos Aires (Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, 1997), Havana (Fondazione Wilfredo Lam, 1998) and Mexico City (Museo de Arte Carillo Gil, 1998).
His presence in personal and collective exhibitions remained considerable all through the following two decades, especially in Italy (Rome, Studio Soligo, 1970, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, 10th Quadriennale; Parcheggio di Villa Borghese, Contemporanea, 1973, curated by Achille Bonito Oliva; Parma, La Steccata, 1973 and Università degli Studi, 1974; Naples, Lia Rumma, 1973; Bologna, Galleria Nazionale di Arte Moderna, 1976; Venice, 38th Biennale, 1978; Ferrara, Palazzo dei Diamanti, 1979). However, this presence was less fruitful than before, due to the existential crises that the artist suffered from the end of the Sixties, which took him to the point of thinking of giving up painting altogether.
During these years of torment, Schifano expressed himself with works which as well as rethinking the great artists of the historical avant garde, from Magritte to de Chirico, Boccioni, Picabia, and Cézanne, reproduced his very own production (that of the Sixties). Then, almost as the new decade began, Schifano returned to the particular instruments of drawing and of painting, full of gestural expressiveness. The only material he used was paint – the pleasure of colour – on the two-dimensional surface of the painting.
The attention of the critics – for example Maurizio Calvesi and Germano Celant – led to his frequent participation in important exhibitions not only in Italy (Rome, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Arte e Critica, 1980; Venice, 40th and 41st Biennale, 1982 and 1984; Ferrara, Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea, 1989; Milan, Palazzo della Triennale, 1995; Verona, Palazzo Forti, 1997) but once again (especially during the Nineties) outside Italy (Paris, Centre Pompidou, Identité italienne, 1981; San Francisco, Museo Italo Americano, 1985; Oporto, Museo di Arte Contemporanea, 1986; Frankfurt, Kunstverein, 1987; London, Royal Academy, 1989; Brussels, Palais des Beaux Arts, 1989; New York, Solomon Guggenheim, 1994; Beijing, International Exhibition Center, 1997).
Of all these exhibitions, the ones that characterise Schifano’s work from that time, which displays a great interest in the prehistoric world and naturalistic phenomena – always reproduced filtered through memory – were the ones in Venice (Palazzo delle Prigioni Vecchie, Naturale sconosciuto, 1984), Aosta (Tour Fromage, 1988), Paris (Galerie Maeght, 1988), and Saint Priest (Centre d’Art Contemporain, 1992).
In 1997 Schifano was awarded the San Giorgio di Donatello Prize for the polychrome stained glass windows of the crypt of Santa Croce in Florence, made to commemorate the seven hundredth anniversary of its construction. Two years later the Venice Biennale paid homage to Schifano, who had died in 1998 in Rome.