Alberto Burri - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Friday, October 14, 2022 | Phillips
  • "Words do not mean anything to me: they talk around the painting. What I want to express appears in the painting."
    —Alberto Burri
    A defining example of Italian artist Alberto Burri’s iconoclastic practice, and a symbol of the radical experimentation of European post-war art, Sacco e Rosso is a work of exceptional harmony and poignancy, its textures and chromatic variances deeply evocative of the body and the trauma of the 20th century. Undoubtably Burri’s most prized works, the burlap Sacco e Rosso are exceptionally rare. Held in the same collection for over 30 years, the present Sacco e Rosso is one of only 15 such works in existence, one of which is held in the permanent collection of Tate Gallery in London. Emphasising its status as a defining piece of Italian post-war art, the work was once held in the personal collection of renowned art historian and Burri expert Cesare Brandi, and comes to auction with an extensive exhibition history having represented the Sacco e Rosso paintings on an international stage. Combining compositional simplicity and emotive power, Sacco e Rosso speaks lyrically to the incipient poetry residing in everyday objects, especially when combined with more expressive modes of abstraction starting to take shape contemporaneously.


    War Wounds


    Detail of the present work

    Highly tactile, the repurposed burlap sacks used by Burri between 1950 and 1959 in the construction of these works are charged with profound lyricism and emotional intensity. Deeply connected both to the artist’s experiences as a medic during World War II, and of his internment in an American prisoner of war camp in 1943, Burri’s stitched, torn, and burnt Sacchi are transformed under the artist’s hand into powerful corporeal metaphors that still resonate today and would have been viscerally felt in their immediate post-war contexts.


    A vital all-purpose material, burlap was used in the war effort in the construction of makeshift tents and camouflage, for the transportation of supplies and in the building of barricades on the front line. Like many other prisoners of war, Burri turned to art as a means of surviving the monotony and maltreatment of daily life, using whatever materials he found to hand. The ubiquitous burlap was quickly transformed under Burri’s treatment from inert material to a powerfully original medium, taking on added emotional weight when Burri returned to Naples in 1946 and understood the scale and impact of the destruction for the first time. Like the body on the battlefield, the city itself was blown apart, piles of dusty rubble and burnt out apartment blocks littering the streets, while the skeletal remains of bombed Renaissance churches tore at the sky.


    Left: Church of San Pietro Martire, 1943. Image: Carlo Maggio / Alamy Stock Photo
    Right: Alberto Burri, Sacco e Rosso, 1954, Tate, London. Image: © Tate, Artwork: © Fondazione Palazzo Albizzini Collezione Burri, Città di Castello / DACS, London 2022


    Trained as a surgeon before the war and having seen action at Yugoslavia’s bloody front line in 1942, Burri had a practical understanding of the body’s vulnerability, and of the tactile qualities of flesh and tissue. Rough to the touch, the Sacchi ‘have open, grid-like weaves and rough and nubby surfaces that he worked up with a painterly facture through stitching, tearing, patching, and gluing’, the powerful use of vermillion in these distinguished Sacco e Rosso works anchoring the fabrics dematerialisation while accentuating ‘the recessions of wounds and craters’.i Capable of producing multiple associations and sensations at once thanks to ‘their real, not simulated textures’, the Sacchi spoke viscerally to the devasting physical reality of war on the body and materialised the deep emotional trauma of conflict in European collective memory of the 1950s.ii

    "Burri transmutes rubbish into a metaphor for human, bleeding flesh. He vitalizes the dead materials in which he works, makes them live and bleed; then sews up the wounds evocatively and as sensuously as he made them […] He is an artist with a scalpel—the surgeon conscious of what lies within the flesh of his compositions and moved by it to the point that he can make the observer also sensitive to it."
    —James Johnson Sweeney
    Immediately arresting, the present Sacco e Rosso unfolds in sweeping passages of deep black, raw burlap, and blood red as colour, form, and medium are perfectly synthesised in the composition. Riven with pockmarked wounds and burns, the coarse burlap gathers in elegant folds towards the upper portion of the canvas, abutting the red passage, its torn and frayed edges amplified in the contrast. Drawing attention to these areas, Burri engages the tactile qualities of his material in a forceful appeal to the senses, shifting our experience from a purely visual one to a primarily tactile and emotional one and introducing an ‘increased psychological intimacy between artwork and viewer’iii Dominating the centre of the composition, the tear in the burlap here is especially evocative of this, immediately bringing to mind the theatricality of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s masterpiece The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, where looking alone is insufficient in eliciting feeling and empathy. As curator Emily Braun has suggested, while Caravaggio’s scene ‘enacts a narrative of touch’, Sacco e Rosso obliges ‘the viewer to probe the lacerations, whose depths are accentuated by the actual cast shadows.’iv


    Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, 1601 – 1602, Sanssouci, Potsdam

    A Matter of Materials


    The careful balance of perceptual, tactile, and metaphoric elements used to such powerful effect in Sacco e Rosso can be traced through the radically experimental approach to materials taken by certain artists through the earlier years of the 20th century. Instrumental in establishing a formal language for Cubism, the papier collé of Braque and Picasso introduced the material of everyday life into their compositions, while Kurt Schwitters Merz assemblages radically challenged conventional definitions of art and demonstrated the poetic and visual potential incipient in discarded material. Artists as diverse as Paul Klee and Paul Gauguin had already explored the possibilities of using burlap as a ground, but it was Burri who fully exploited its metaphoric possibilities.

    "In the sack I find a perfect compliance between tone, matter, and idea that can never be found in colour."
    —Alberto Burri

    A brief trip to Paris in 1947 shortly after his first solo exhibition with the Galleria La Margherita would prove decisive in solidifying some of his ideas around materials that he had already been developing in looking to Italian predecessors such as Enrico Prampolini. Amongst the Informel artists whose work he encountered for the first time on this trip, Jean Dubuffet - who incorporated soil, glass, gravel, and tar into his own compositions - would prove to be particularly instructive in validating Burri’s approach to materials and increasingly non-figurative work, the two artists sharing the understanding that ‘materials unusual in painting almost always accompany or narrate something else apart from themselves.’v


    Jean Dubuffet, Path Bordered by Grass, 1956, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo. Image: Albright Knox Art Gallery/Art Resource, NY/Scala, Florence, Artwork: © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2022

    Pushing materials to their extremes, Sacco e Rosso is an elegiac expression of the ineffable collective trauma keenly felt in those post-war years. Inflicting real damage onto his materials, it is deeply emblematic of both of the individual body and the scorched realities of a European post-war world. Nevertheless, within its scars and sutures, Sacco e Rosso carries itself with a quiet resilience and dignity equally evocative of the world from which it emerged. Ground-breaking at the time of its execution, in his Sacchi works Burri pioneered a highly personal style of Art Informel, and helped set the stage for Italy’s radical Arte Povera movement. Exhibited as early as 1952, Burri understood the significance of these works, and examples of his Sacchi are now held in the most eminent international institutions, including The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, and the Tate Gallery in London.


    i Emily Braun & Carol Stringari, ‘Materials, Process, Colour: Sacchi’, in Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting, (exh. cat.), New York, 2005, p. 157. 
    ii Emily Braun, Touch and Empathy’, in Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting, (exh. cat.), New York, 2005, p. 50
    iii Emily Braun, Touch and Empathy’, in Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting, (exh. cat.), New York, 2005, p. 50
    iv Emily Braun, Touch and Empathy’, in Alberto Burri: The Trauma of Painting, (exh. cat.), New York, 2005, p. 52. 
    v Bruno Corà, Alberto Burri: General Catalogue, Painting, 1945 – 1957, Volume 1, Perugia, 2015, p. 34.

    • Provenance

      Cesare Brandi Collection, Milan
      Galleria Erica Fiorentini Arte Contemporanea, Rome
      Nicola Carlo Luciani, Milan (acquired from the above)
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2005

    • Exhibited

      Rome, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Mostra d’arte per gli artisti esuli d'Ungheria, 15 April – 10 May 1957, no. 10, p. 7, n.p. (illustrated)
      XXIX Venice Biennale, 14 June – 19 October 1958
      Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo, Artistas Italianos de Hoje na 5ª Bienal do Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo, September – December 1959
      Milan, Galleria Lorenzelli, Alberto Burri “I sacchi 1952-1958” Mostra Omaggio ad Alberto Burri, 1 – 28 February 1979, p. 8 (illustrated, dated 1955/1956)
      Milan, Rotonda di Via Besana, Artisti e Scrittori, November – December 1984, no. 1, p. 86 (illustrated)
      Parma, Galleria d’Arte Niccoli, Alberto Burri, la pittura come materia vivente, opere dal 1949 al 1966, 30 October 1993 – 5 January 1994, p. 45 (illustrated, dated 1955)
      Milan, Galleria Blu, Noi non abbiamo paura. Artisti contro, April 1997
      Luino, Palazzo Verbania Civico Centro di Cultura; Milan, Galleria Blu, Burri & Palazzoli, La Santa Alleanza, 19 May – 8 November 2001, pp. 76-77 (illustrated)
      Rome, Galleria Erica Fiorentini Arte Contemporanea, 20 anni, 16 April – 31 May 2012, n.p. (illustrated)

    • Literature

      Claudio Savonuzzi, “Nella pittura di Burri il miracolo di S. Gennaro”, Il Resto del Carlino, 26 May 1957
      Cesare Brandi, Burri, Rome, 1963, no. 187, p. 203 (illustrated, dated 1955-56)
      Nemo Sarteanesi, Burri: Contributi al Catalogo Sistematico, Città di Castello, 1990, no. 370, pp. 94, 482 (illustrated, p. 95, dated 1955)
      Roberto Tassi, “Alberto Burri sacco per sacco”, La Repubblica, 27 November 1993, n.p. (illustrated)
      Rachele Ferrario, “Alberto Burri – Niccoli”, Flash Art, no. 181, February 1994, p. 100
      Elena Pontiggia, Quarant’anni in Blu, Milan, 1996, p. 67 (illustrated)
      Roberto Tassi, La Collezione Barilla di Arte Moderna, Parma, 1993, n.p. (illustrated)
      Martina Corgnati, “Burri & Palazzoli un ‘sacco’ amici nel nome dell’arte”, La Repubblica, 16 June 2001, p. 18
      Bruno Corà, ed., Burri: General Catalogue, Volume I, Painting, 1945-1957, Città di Castello, 2015, no. 478, pp. 200, 306 (illustrated, dated 1955)
      Bruno Corà, ed., Burri: General Catalogue, Volume VI, Chronological Repertory, 1945-1994, Città di Castello, 2015, no. 478, p. 96 (illustrated, dated 1955)
      Scalpendi, ed., Alberto Burri nell'arte e nella critica, Milano, 2017, pp. 46-47, 49, 120 (illustrated)

Property from an Exceptional Private Collection


Sacco e Rosso

signed, titled and dated ‘Burri 56 Sacco e Rosso’ on the reverse
burlap, combustion and acrylic on canvas, in artist's frame
68.2 x 101.5 cm (26 7/8 x 39 7/8 in.)
Executed in 1956.

Full Cataloguing

£3,000,000 - 4,000,000 ‡♠

Sold for £3,047,500

Contact Specialist

Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4060

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+44 20 7318 4099

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 14 October 2022