Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting

A PARADOXICAL DILEMMA awaits the art restorer charged with repairing the damage done by time and mishap to an Alberto Burri painting, because his canvases were made by employing just those elements: aging, accident, and downright destruction. Trained as a doctor in his native Italy, Burri served as a medic during World War II, was captured in Tunisia, and was interned in a POW camp in Texas, which is where he began to paint. When he returned home, he found a culture beaten down by years of Fascist rule and a landscape blasted by Allied bombs. The ravages of war inform not only his technique and imagery but his choice of materials as well. A series titled “Sacchi” (Sacks) features discarded burlap bags whose secondhand utility and tactile roughness evoke postwar Italy’s poverty and moral debasement. Stitched, torn, stained, patched, and furrowed, the sacks are often juxtaposed with flat black or red expanses of paint to form bold, blockish patterns. An embattled, even injured, quality marks these works: They speak of violence, struggle, and tenacity. Burri’s treatment of the canvas as an active, contested realm, where the evidence of the artistic act isn’t hidden but rather foregrounded, distinguishes his entire oeuvre, and a career that continued well into the 1990s. His resourceful use of materials demonstrates a medical practitioner’s engagement with the sheer physicality of things, in this case metal, wood, plastic, tar, Celotex, and pumice. That notion of scientific experimentation might further be extended to understand the mutations he visited on these materials: He made paintings designed to fissure and crack (“Cretti”), sutured burlap (“Sacchi”), welded and hammered salvaged metal (“Ferri”), and burned plastic (“Combustioni plastiche”). Evincing an anatomist’s curiosity, Burri once wrote: “I have wanted to explore how fire consumes, to understand the nature of combustion, and how everything lives and dies in combustion to form a perfect unity.” Unlike a doctor (we would hope), Burri always remained open to chance and accident and often left the detritus generated by these various methods on the canvases; this calculated dishevelment, together with the kinetic nature of his techniques, produced works that appear to be happening in front of you, paintings that could be freeze-frames of laceration, detonation, and conflagration. It is difficult to look at Combustione plastica and not taste the smoking PVC, sense the heat from the blowtorch Burri used, and hear the crackle of the plastic as it nearly boils under the flame’s ministrations. The work registers the intense particulars of its creation and generates the illusion that the turbulence is ongoing; our awareness of this seeming incompleteness leads us to believe that the infliction of trauma is present, abiding, and ultimately unresolvable.

Alberto Burri, Combustione plastica (Plastic Combustion), 1958, PVC plastic, acrylic, fabric, staples, and combustion on canvas, 38 5/8 × 33 1/8".
Alberto Burri, Combustione plastica (Plastic Combustion), 1958, PVC plastic, acrylic, fabric, staples, and combustion on canvas, 38 5/8 × 33 1/8". © Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri, Città Di Castello/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome