Alberto Burri

graphic works

Combustione Tribute to Ungaretti


Combustione 2


Big black


Acqueforti (series of 7) - tavola 4


Trittico B - tavola 1


Libro Saffo - plate 7


Lettere - plate F


Written by
Cesare Brandi

Burri's graphic works appears at first sight to be a parallel to his paintings. If one wants to express it musically, like a canon, the graphics taking up the first voice with a dialogue that suggests the same theme but with a slightly different timbre. Put in this way however, one is left dissatisfied; one feels it to be true, but only up to a point. Above all it is the layout which is important. This, in the case of etching, means the background spacing, and here there is no comparison with painting which requires a frame or a passe-partout to blend its own space with that of the wall or room. It is not all one with the frame, even if this were there originally, and there are very few cases indeed where the frame has been called upon to collaborate as an integral part with the figurations. With etchings one realises very quickly that the white border goes much more with the image than the frame with a painting. A print without a border is for that reason of less value, also from a commercial point of view. This is because it is "amputated" in its space as an etching, not in that which it represents which remains intact. A similar contrast can be seen when comparing etching with drawing. In a drawing the outline is extemporary, always present and its greater merit is to surprise us with its internal-gestation of the image. On the contrary, the outline of the etching is in the past and nothing shows this better than the various stages of the etching itself. While a preparatory drawing goes towards an image which is forming on the horizon, one does not know if it will be produced or in the end how it will be produced. Every stage of an etching, announces only itself. The successive image re-absorbs and re-elaborates the previous one. With etching there is an irreversible past, with drawing a projection towards the future. This means that even the particular of the previous stage undergoes a change. One could say this contrast is valid for drawing and etching, not for etching and painting.

Painting too is in the past, its still, present state does not look to the future, but like etching to an unlimited present. Yet even this comparison seems simplistic, and there is nothing better than Burri's graphics to explain why. There are in fact in Burri's works, parallel series in which the same plastic theme is realised in both the paintings and the etchings, to such an extent that one might consider the etching to be a smaller version of the painting. The layout here is important. The background spacing on the paper focuses the image in such a way that the margin has no connection with the wall, as the frame has for the painting, but an indissoluble "field of" the image as if the etching carried with it its own invisible wall. The concept of this field then helps us to understand the particular structure of the image in the etching, which in its own spacing has more than one echo chamber, more than that, the very formality of apparition, like the silence which in the music of Weber is just as important as the note, in fact has almost more importance, away from any tonality, than the note itself.

If the etching can do without that background spacing, then we are talking simply of a reproduction, of a painting which though admirable in technique offers nothing extra and is, if anything, a feable copy.

Burri's works as a painter and his graphic work run side by side. In those rare and precious books of poetry by Emilio Villa (going back to 1953) Burri traced with his pen (besides small inserts some of which were in gold leaf) irreversible and unalterable lines as if he had done them with a burin: one could already see the difference in the form of these graphics compared with painting and drawing because the drawing itself was a prelude to the etching. With a painter like Capogrossi, graphics and painting are all one, because painting is thought of in graphic terms, and even if the painting has no border, the observer imagines one in the horizontal and transverse marks, the sudden cut that interrupts rather like the edges of a plate. Capogrossi's paintings give themselves space, they demand a surrounding white space. In Morandi, the figurative idiom elaborated in the graphics - "the colour of position" - can pass into his painting and confirm it in a single meaning of tone, but Morandi's graphic work is never a copy of his painting and not simply for the reason that he is using a different technique.

Let us look then at Burri's etchings in black and white. It is certainly not due to chance that the greater part of Burri's graphic activity took place from XNUMX onwards at the same time as his latest period of painting, when large black stains like Polyphemus' eye stand out against a white background or are surrounded by a veil of fog, a plastic membrane. These vague peremptory forms, non-gestural but fixed and unmistakable, can be compared to words that grammars now define as meaningless. But these words were not empty of meaning in a far off past. They had a precise importance in a remote stage of our language, even if now their role is simply to articulate speech. These empty words in Burri's concept of art seem as if they had been thought of with regard to print making rather than painting. Like houses and hillocks that rise out of the flood, they are centred in the print's white area which is the field where tensions, originated by the image, are balanced. The austere· image projected on the graphic plane is subtly internalised within a veil of plastic, the white background and the wide margin of the paper. The special effect in these prints is rendered by this sudden placement in depth, but like a closed book. The etching shows the spatial outcome, the undoubted figurative enrichment when compared with painting.

Compared with its pictorial matrix in the Cretto etching, the background spacing, although minimal and the frayed margins of the paper - while neutralising the depth of the cracks - place it in a planned graphic dimension. Even the play of light comes through in a modified form. The etched paper functions as a reflector, the light comes out as if it were projected by a glass dome. The ambiguity of painting "on mirrors" lies in this placing of the light behind the painting: it remains an if painted on an opaque surface. It imbues the etched paper with light and is seemingly transparent when reduced to its outlines. From whence comes the great brightness of Burri's etchings on a white background, not only in the "Plastiche" and the white "Cretti" but also in the "Combustioni" and the small silkscreen prints. These will come as a surprise to those who can only visualise Burri in his black and white works with their occasional use of a surly red or a smear of yellow as in the "Combustioni". It seems in fact impossible that Valter Rossi the printer, by using graphic techniques and overlapping plates, has succeeded faithfully in reproducing this "burnt residue", preserving all that is volatile and unstable in these "Combustioni".

The narrow border which surrounds the black Cretto is also black. Therefore the light which should be produced by the white edge disappears. It is substituted by a dense shadow which spreads across the cracked surface and rises over it like a deep tide to rest in the fissures. But it is clear that the tide the etching receives is the same, but the negative, a shadow like a light that has been extinguished.

These lines were written some eight years ago, when it was not possible to foresee what importance the small temperas would have assumed in Burri's work. The small temperas to which he devoted himself, appeared then to be an almost marginal exercise, a gentle almost secret diversion. I can still see him on the verandah of his beautiful house at Grottarossa with his small brushes and pots of paint, priming these small rectangles which were so different from the more plastic works he was realising at that time. Just as his work in that period was almost monochrome, a violent exchange of light and shade, of transparency and impermeability, of brightness and opacity, so these small temperas were brilliant and full of light, with a play of sharp, clear contrasts, with everything in the light and nothing in shadow. Even where an unexpected area of his beloved black placed itself to block the path of light, it was like a full stop closing a sentence, suggesting no new dimension.

I admit that I was mistaken in considering that exercise as something secondary, marginal to the great epic extent of his major works. It was rather like those suckers which begin to shoot at the base of large tree trunks; the plant before grafting. In other words, it was as if, escaping from his implacable rule of severity, the artist were allowing himself a pause in which to gather together again everything he had dismissed as an unlawful seduction. Colour in Burri's work had been reduced to an almost rigid dichotomy of black and white, with an occasional flash of red like blood. His work had been reduced to an opposition of light and shade, of the smooth and the granulous, of the bright and the opaque and now in the end, there poured forth in uncontrolled rivulets, the shades of yellow and violet of red and amaranth, the greens of the grass and of the sea, the blues of the sky and of young irises. These colours flowed out like the springs at Castellammare one so near to the other and yet so different, each one meant to cure a different illness from that being cured by its neighbour. Even the arcs described by these spurts gave the idea of irrepressible liquid jets; in short "it was a breaking out from strict confinement to the feet of the watchful sentry of abstractionism".

Let us be clear: there have always been hidden shapes in Burri's work and who has not spoken of craters, pustules and wounds? And who, even in the more recent large murals, does not sense those hidden biological regions? By now, however, they are reduced to abstractions, as in a figurative equation. In the temperas, instead, there is the revenge one might say of the substratum, Burri's original substratum as a painter, Burri who threw out colour, as if it were superfluous, retaining it only when it appeared as a shout, a tear, a sigh, rather than as a chromatic area.

In this way, colour becomes the form, it is not part of a form, and so it appears almost primitive, rough, even bare, but with what primitive impetuosity, with what substance. These small temperas kept apart, seem to burst into Burri's major works at a certain point. He began his work with cellotex, such a poor material, the poorest -much more so than the jute sackings with their refined and hidden colours - to venture forth directly as a colour, a colour without colour, an even more imperceptible exchange between the bright and the opaque. Cellotex was opaque glass which did not intercept light, but spread it at the expense of a shadow that had been cancelled. Even cellotex allowed certain black areas, but only to guarantee the luminosity of the whole, almost like the passage of a figure in front of a screen and then the figure becomes the shape, the groin, the form without a precise meaning, but full of obscurity, presaging something one might say.

On this large cellotex screen, and the artist's works become ever larger, murals in fact, the colour in them breaks out like a garrulous rear-guard which is no longer respectful. These are the colours that have been freed in the temperas and in the silkscreen prints. There has been in the last series of murals created for the exhibition at Orsanmichele in Florence, a step forward compared with the "Viaggio" of the previous year. There are soft green hues, sky-blues, brilliant yellows in patches, which come together in wide and circular sectors, precise, steady and motionless like sunspots. It is here that an interest in Burri's graphic work increases beyond measure, not only as something in itself, but for the undoubted reflection it has on his major works.

In this exhibition, compared with the last one in XNUMX, there are four silk screen prints of inexpressible technical difficulty, a difficulty which believe could only have been overcome by the ability and virtuosity of Valter and Eleonora Rossi. Three of these silkscreen prints form a triptych, but compared with the triptychs of the earlier Burri, the only common factor is the word itself. The colours, endless in the refined nature of their shades, succeed again in opposing one another in their diversity, not grouping themselves together from affinity. It is like looking at a collection of semi-precious stones, close together but unable to communicate with one another, a collection where each colour isolates itself from the next, almost with horror at the idea of joining it. They are no longer pure colours, but rather chosen in their most different and varied shades, remaining as pure colours in their own place like a brilliant "champleve". The result might even be called joyous, but I dare not use the word, because it is clear that in the very incommunicability of these colours .so near to one another there is still a warning, a trap: everything might reduce itself once more into ashes and return to the depths of the night.