In Milan, a Look Back at a Postwar Italian Artist's Struggle With Creativity and Practicality

Jan 12, 2017 2:07pm
After his Milanese atelier was destroyed in the aftermath of World War II, artist Fausto Melotti moved forward with a renewed sense of purpose. “I put myself not really to work, but rather, to trappolare,” he said at the time. “With some clay I have, I'm making little heads, big as fists.”
In Italian, trappolare means “to set a trap.” The phrase, which Melotti (1901–1986) wrote in a letter to his wife Lina in 1943, could be interpreted in more than one way. On one hand, the words suggest that, for Melotti, art wasn’t something to create out of thin air: it was an expression of the universal human experience. In order to make art that would resonate with his audience, he needed to find and interpret something intangible and undefinable, something mysterious and interior.
On the other hand, Melotti had practical considerations. In the dark postwar years, he needed to “trap” an audience. It was a goal he quickly achieved. Those “little heads, big as fists” marked the beginning of one of the most productive periods of his long career. For years afterward, he made ceramic and terracotta pieces that were met with commercial, if not critical, success.
Now, three decades after Melotti’s death, a Milan gallery pays tribute to that era. Currently on view at Montasio Arte in Milan, “Trappolando”—in translation, the act of trapping something— features thirty sculptures, ceramics, and bas-reliefs. Some, like Giraffa (1955) and a related series of animal-shaped sculptures, are representational of the natural world, while others like Annunciazione (1950), have religious themes. Still other works, like Vaso (1955) and Vaso (1958) are both decorative and functional.
The collection of works charts Melotti’s progression from purely creative to practical and back again. As a young man, he studied sculpture and piano in Turin. In the postwar period, he turned to a more lucrative medium. “Ceramic fed me and my family when nobody considered me,” he’d later recall in a 1984 interview. “I could become very rich but was ashamed, because I was born not for ceramic, but for sculptures. It's like asking a poet to work on advertising and nothing else.”
He would ultimately return to his first loves. Looking back on his career, Melotti is  perhaps best-known for his moving Surrealist sculptures and wire mobiles whose rhythmic structures reflect his longtime passion for music. Perhaps that’s what makes “Trappolando”—a reminder of the fact that even the most critically acclaimed artist needs to pay the bills, and that even the most financially successful artist still craves critical praise—so intriguing, and so relatable.

—Bridget Gleeson

Fausto Melotti. Trappolando” is on view at Montrasio Arte / Km0, Milan, Dec 1st, 2016 – Feb 24th, 2017.