Lucio Fontana and Roberto Menghi - Design London Tuesday, September 23, 2014 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Private collection, Turin

  • Literature

    Andrea Branzi and Michele De Lucchi, eds., Il Design Italiano Degli Anni ’50, Milan, 1985, p. 160, fig. 506 for a similar example
    Irene de Guttry and Maria Paola Maino, Il Mobile Italiano Degli Anni '40 e '50, Bari, 1992, p. 35 for a similar example
    Laura Falconi, Fontana Arte: Una Storia Trasparente, Milan, 1998, p. 98 for a similar example
    Enrico Crispoliti, Lucio Fontana: Catalogo ragionato di sculture, dipinti, ambientazioni, vol. 2, Milan, 2006, illustrated p. 911, fig. 52 V 2
    Franco Deboni, Fontana Arte: Gio Ponti, Pietro Chiesa, Max Ingrand, Turin, 2012, fig. 261-62, for a sketch and a period image of a similar example

  • Catalogue Essay

    To be included in the forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné of Lucio Fontana's ceramics, currently being prepared by Garth Clark.

    This remarkable table is the fruit of the collaboration between Roberto Menghi, one of postwar Milan’s most inventive architects and designers, and Lucio Fontana, one of Italy’s most important 20th century artists and ceramicists. The two began collaborating in 1947 on a multi-use building in Via Senato, Milan (jointly designed by Menghi and Marco Zanuso) which had raku ceramic spandrels designed by Fontana. The most intense and fertile period of their collaboration occurred in the early 1950s, when this table was made. Combining Menghi’s sense of grace and proportion, which was often manifest in elegant interpretations of basic geometrical figures such as spheres and circles, with the imaginative force and material density of Lucio Fontana’s ceramic artistry, the table clearly deserves the epithet ‘singular’. Indeed, in its ability to fuse disparate frames of reference drawn from the contemporary worlds of art, design, and architecture, and in its sensitivity to the diverse qualities of the materials and the meticulous formal articulation of the various parts, the table stands out as a powerful example of the Italian postwar ‘synthesis of the arts.’

    Regarding Menghi’s approach Carlo Bertelli has observed that, “elegant in itself, it refused to follow fashions”, even if it took its cue from the postwar Rationalist ambient; at the same time it carved out a niche for itself within the dynamic world of Italian design in its willingness to experiment with new materials at a variety of different scales (Carlo Bertelli, Roberto Menghi, Milan, 2000, p. 8). The Rationalist reduction to essentials and taste for transparency is manifest in the glass top through which the brass circle becomes visible from different angles. As for Fontana, his ceramic production stands out within the field of 20th century design, not only in Italy, both for the force of its lyricism and the sheer energy of its material expression, which hovers at the boundaries between form and formlessness, figuration and abstraction, and, for that matter, between art and utility (On Fontana’s investigation of dynamic aspects of ceramic sculpture, which are connected—as is the table in question—with the phase of his work that has been identified as ‘Barocco’, though clearly also paving the way for the full-blown Spazialismo of the 1950s and 1960s; Enrico Crispolti, Lucio Fontana: Metafore Barroche, exh. cat., Galleria d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, 2003, 16ff.).
    Correspondence between Fontana Arte and the client shows that the client left Fontana ample artistic freedom in designing the ceramic sculptural base, both in terms of form and subject matter. It is not surprising, therefore, that in this work, the marriage of the two great design minds yields a powerful example of intra-aesthetic synthesis, which may also be said to have an extra-aesthetic dimension as it demonstrates how a work of art can be integrated into a utilitarian object.

    This apparent paradox resulting from the nesting of art in design is the effect of multiple features that become evident when one studies this striking sculptural table more closely. Within Fontana’s œuvre, there are many parallels but no real precedents for the swirling energy, polychromatic richness, and organic dynamism manifest in the sculpted base. One thinks in particular of the chimney in the living room of the ‘Casa Immobile’ of Osvaldo Borsani, Varedo of 1940 to the early 1950s, adorned with the artist’s characteristic ‘battaglia’ motif, showing warriors on horseback scattered almost randomly and abstractly like bouquets of strewn flowers across the vertical inclined surface of the chimney piece. These add a disconcerting narrative element to the fantasy and material density of Fontana’s art (Abitare, no. 8, 1993, n.p.). One should also recall another somewhat similar table by Fontana and Osvaldo Borsani from the late 40’s whose surface treatment and dialogue between glass and ceramic elements is however quite distinct, particularly in light of the fact that no figuration can be seen in the base of the Menghi/Fontana piece, and an almost marine, swirling wave like motion has taken over, in contrast to the more vegetal forms of the Borsani/Fontana piece (Enrico Crispolti, Lucio Fontana, Milan, 2000, p. 911, fig. 52).
    In any case, the sculptural base of the table presents significant formal and stylistic affinities with such autonomous sculptural works from the late 1940s as the ‘Via Crucis’ of 1947 by Fontana, which disclose a radical exploration of new dimensions of ceramic and a preference for swirling, organic and polychrome elements (Crispolti, 2003, ibid, 16ff.)

    In addition, the Menghi/Fontana table is characterized by a unique language that counterbalances the competing impulses of painting, sculpture, and design alongside subtle architectonic references. The thick tempered green glass of the top establishes a visual rhyme with the dark swirling green, dark turquoise, and pale yellow and white of the seaweed-like clumps of glazed ceramic beneath, evoking a dream with marine associations. The entire composition is framed by the shiny brass plate which extrudes as a lip at the bottom of the base, from which the metal circle is divided by a circular groove, while at the top the thick glass rests neatly on the metal circular surface. A metal rod inserted along the table’s central vertical axis links the glass, metal, and ceramic elements, holding the entire work together. The overall form of the piece evokes, in a general and abstract way, the base, shaft and capital of a Doric column, though this particular analogy could only come about due to the framing effect of Menghi’s contribution, i.e. the brass and glass elements. The ceramic shaft was signed prominently by Fontana at the base, near the point of juncture with the brass plate, demonstrating that in every sense he considered this contribution to be a work of art in its own right.

    One can say that the table’s uniqueness as an experimental piece situated between sculpture and design derives in large part from the tension between the dynamic forces unleashed by the ceramic base and the calm, almost restraining quality of the tempered glass top and circular brass rings. These provide structural and spatial mediation between floor and base and base and table top, framing the sculptural portion. Taken together, these highly crafted glass and metal elements allow the eye some respite from the swirling journey it must follow in order to fully appreciate the curvilinear motion and chromatic richness of Fontana’s base.

    Dr. Daniel Sherer
    Assistant Professor of Architecture (Adjunct) at Columbia University GSAPP
    Lecturer in Architectural History Yale University


Unique centre table, model no. 1295 A

Earthenware, glass, brass.
71.5 cm (28 1/8 in.) high, 125 cm (49 1/4 in.) diameter
Manufactured by Fontana Arte, Italy.
Base incised with l. Fontana/52.

Together with a copy of correspondence from Luigi Fontana & C. Sp.A. Archivio
Luigi Fontana number N 2740/1.

£140,000 - 180,000 

Sold for £152,500

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Ben Williams
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London 24 September 2014 2pm