Gio Ponti and Piero Fornasetti - Modern Masters London Tuesday, April 26, 2016 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Private collection, Washington, DC
    Adam A. Weschler & Son, Washington, DC, 'Fine Art & Twentieth Century Decorative Arts', 13 September, 2003, lot 661
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Exhibited

    'Piero Fornasetti: 100 anni di follia pratica', Milan Triennale, 13 November, 2013-9 February, 2014 and then travelled to Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, 11 March-14 June, 2015

  • Literature

    Patrick Mauriès, Fornasetti Designer of Dreams, London, 1991, illustrated pp. 168-69
    Irene de Guttry and Maria Paola Maino, Il Mobile Italiano Degli Anni '40 e '50, Bari, 1992, illustrated p. 170, fig. 20
    Barnaba Fornasetti and Mariuccia Casadio, Fornasetti: The Complete Universe, New York, 2010, illustrated p. 359, figs. 47-48
    Patrick Mauriès, ed., Piero Fornasetti: Practical Madness, New York 2015, illustrated pp. 120-21

  • Catalogue Essay

    On The Door And In The Door: A Reveal In Ponti & Fornasetti's Wardrobe Spaces

    Within the series of collaborations between Gio Ponti and Piero Fornasetti that took place from 1940 to the mid-1950s, the present wardrobe from 1948 stands out for a number of reasons. It marks the only time in their long working relationship together in which Ponti designed the entire unit and contributed to the exterior images. Fornasetti's role was to design and execute the hand-painted interior scenography. Marked by figurative illusionism it establishes a sharp contrast with Ponti's exterior, which is filled with abstractions. Together the two produced a nuanced synthesis that involves a complex spatial game that hinges on the readings of outdoor and indoor space, as well as metaphysical dimensions that, for their part, reveal a ludic sensibility.

    In this commission Ponti chose to emphasise the diamond pattern, one of his most treasured leitmotifs. However, the diamond form here is endlessly fragmented into pyramidal and obelisk-like shards that are set in a disquieting constellation on all four of the front-door panels. In addition, inverted obelisks schematically appear in the six brass sabots set into the wooden legs in their lowest zones. Within a few years, Ponti was to publish his theory of architecture in a 1957 book titled Amate l'architettura (‘Love Architecture’), one of whose alternate titles was Architettura è un cristallo (‘Architecture is a Crystal’). The dust jacket of this volume is adorned with numerous drawings of triangles, pyramids, obelisks and diamonds, all of which feature multiple facets to further celebrate and underscore the crystalline theme (pictured). The facade of the 1948 wardrobe already distils his obsession with the obelisk, so that one might even identify it as a kind of hermetic manifesto for his fascination with diamond-like, pointed crystalline forms. This approach is summed up in his own words: "The obelisk teaches architecture. It is perhaps the very symbol, the pure symbol, of architectural expression from which a song arises, the lines of which do not pose, do not sleep, do not merely stand but are statics in motion - the ecstasy of movement." (Gio Ponti, Gio Ponti: In Praise Of Architecture, New York, 1960, p. 108)

    Fornasetti's contribution to this surreal work is visible in the hand-painted work on the interior. The theme and composition chosen is an adaptation of one of his earliest works: the Harlequin of 1931, painted when he was 18 years old (pictured). In this reprise, the Harlequin is not alone but engages in silent dialogue with a young man in contemporary attire. In both paintings the positioning of the left foot is similar, however in 1931 it is resting on a musical drum, whereas in the 1948 wardrobe, it rests on an actual cabinet, thereby establishing a clever example of illusionism. Ponti designed this cabinet so that it appears to be floating: on its surfaces Fornasetti has hand-painted scenographies featuring musical instruments, a mask, draperies, and a witty nod to Caravaggio's Canestra di frutta (circa 1599), unquestionably Milan's most renowned still life (pictured). This subject of the Harlequin with trophies was brought to thematic conclusion a year later in 1949 when Fornasetti embellished the foyer walls of the newly constructed Arlecchino cinema in Milan.

    Patick Mauriès has astutely observed the powerful influence of Metaphysical painters Giorgio De Chirico and Alberto Savinio on Fornasetti's art. The writer sees him "as the last embodiment, remote and unrecognizable perhaps, of this twentieth-century Italian sensibility." (Patrick Mauriès, Fornasetti: Designer Of Dreams, London, 1991, p. 16)

    The entire surface of the image is painted in grisaille, in a sophisticated choice of vert de gris, shifting the concept into a dreamlike dimension. Reality is only allowed to return when actual ‘colourful’ domestic artefacts are set in place. Where Ponti provides that space with both an upper shelf and a lower cabinet, Fornasetti distorts the space with painted illusions: walls built of stone recede in diminishing perspective and a reveal offers a view into the harlequin's cassone.

    This particular spirit was subsequently amplified three years later when Ponti and Fornasetti were commissioned in 1951 to create their greatest collaboration, the interior of the bar and patisserie Dulciora, just off the Piazza Duomo in Milan. The effect must have been hallucinatory with the compounded plethora of pictorial and actual sugared delights at every turn.

    It is a fair guess that the present joint venture of 1948 is a sort of dress rehearsal for concepts amplified in the Dulciora bar and patisserie. A similar effect of inside/outside is at play when the exterior door panels are folded, and concertinaed, setting in motion a comparable set of metaphysical dynamics in which Ponti's beloved abstracted diamonds effectively disrupt the hermetic narrative of Fornasetti's interior.

    In short this wordrobe marks a synthesis of art and architecture from these two Milanese masters, a collaboration which culminated in one of the most enigmatic and singular achievements of mid-century Italian design.

    Brian Kish,
    March 2016


Unique 'Arlecchino' wardrobe

Lithographic transfer-printed wood, hand-painted wood, wood, brass.
201 x 240 x 55 cm (79 1/8 x 94 1/2 x 21 5/8 in.)
Together with a certificate of authenticity from the Gio Ponti Archives.

£80,000 - 120,000 

Sold for £98,500

Contact Specialist
Madalena Horta e Costa
Head of Sale
+44 20 7318 4019

Modern Masters

London Auction 27 April 2016