Sensitive Surface: Pavatex and Arturo Bonfanti's Rilievi
The second half of the 1960s saw the beginning of an extremely important passage in the work of Arturo Bonfanti, marking both a broadening and deepening of his abstractionist language; a language that matured in the course of almost four decades, with a slow gestation period that saw the transmutation of the initial figurative reference point into ever more autonomous and concrete geometric forms.
His quest, which began at the end of the 1920s and followed through until 1978, can be read as a process of gradual synthesis in which the forms are stolidly distilled into an original and highly recognizable alphabet of figures, letters and grapheme; an alphabet that reaches an abstraction characterized by a constant and obstinate zeroing in on formal solutions arrived at in solitude and mindful of the solidity and vividness of the great Italian artistic tradition, which the artist considered both indispensible and fundamental.
After his move from Bergamo to Milan in 1926 Bonfanti, in fact, was able to take in the climate of the Return to Order advocated for by Margherita Sarfatti's Novecentisti, but he remained aloof from the political consequences that it entailed and, instead, looked toward tradition with a modernist point of view, discarding the dangers of the rhetoric of the regime in order to concentrate on the formal and chromatic intuitions of masters such as Giotto and Piero della Francesca who, in their turn, observed figurative masters of their time with a diverse vision.
Bonfanti was not interested in movements of return rather his intention was to rediscover what was universal and timeless in the lessons of the great Italian masters, in order to reaffirm those values in the present with a language and materials of the present.
His approach to tradition remained ever pure and free from an archeological mindset and was, if anything, a kind of interior and discreet dialogue with the past that he translated into the quest for a subtle, quiet and balanced order in which one can legitimately, at times, perceive echoes of Morandi-like metaphysics as well as the chromatic sensibility of Paul Klee.
This dichotomous aspect, both modernist and respectful of tradition, helps us to understand why, at a certain point, the expressive register of Bonfanti's language underwent an extension, furthermore in coincidence with his interest in sculpture which goes back to the mid 1960s and that expresses itself not only in white lacquered wood pieces in the round but also in monochrome relief in which his painting, generally highly sensitive to chromatic and tonal values, reaches a kind minimalist resetting.
In Rilievi, a numerically reduced group of work executed between 1966 and 1968, Bonfanti's geometry presents itself as an alternating progression of triangular, rectangular and square thicknesses dialoguing between themselves by way of fine lines of shadow projected onto the outline of the shapes. They are works in which the protruding dimension is delicate and mobile, dependent on the incidence of light in relationship to the position of the observer. One could almost say that the Rilievi, in a certain sense, anticipate the theme of the physiology of perception that will become dominant in successive Italian optical and kinetic research even though Bonfanti's primary interests remain in the equilibrium of formal autonomy.
The Rilievi precede his paintings on Pavatex by a few years; the so-called AC Murali (AC Murals), called such because the mottled painting support evokes the consistency of the surface of the skull or other bodily cavities. Pavatex is, in fact, an insulating material generally used to line roofs and floors, and is composed of pressed and glued wood chips that give the material its characteristically irregular texture. It is inexpensive and industrial and the artist immediately intuited its intrinsically pictorial character and potential.
On these rough boards, left so in order to accentuate the texture of the painting surface, Bonfanti's sensibility for light becomes both more stringent and more evident. The artist works with a reduced and minimal chromatic range, calibrating his palette with variations of light earth tones, allowing occasional parts the original Pavatex surface color to show through.
Like the old masters, he uses patinas to adjust the different variations of a single color, thus creating a harmonic whole of an exquisitely musical nature.
In this dense dialogue between material and light Bonfanti seems to arrive at a more rarified language. His typically precise and compact coats become airier, almost transparent, and the light acquires a more intense vibration, slipping across a surface of chipped corpuscles.
Pavatex is not just any painting support material for Bonfanti; its very surface constitutes a first layer pictorial element; a sensitive material on which he modulates successive interventions.
The chromatic temperature of the Pavatex pieces varies from the first ones painted in oils and thus warmer thanks to the live, organic nature of their color, to the Acrilici Murali (Acrylic Murals) in which the surface undergoes a tonal lightening and cooling.
It is above all in this mature work that the subtle sensibility and reticent and meditative nature of his painting emerge; ever allusive to a condition of intimate, dreamy, interior contemplation. The light, elegant colors along with a softly geometric articulation in which the perimeters seem to slide one on top of the other forming new and unpredictable static arrangements, are elements that create a clear and decisive counterbalance for the introduction of powerful counterweights such as dark or black figures (or letters).
Arturo Bonfanti is a master of balance and measure, capable of calibrating the relationships between line, surface and color in a perspective of clear and crystalline, albeit Romanesque, order, reminiscent of Piero Della Francesca.
The painter uses the evocative and eloquent Pavatex painting support material in order to dominate it through the rigor of geometry and the poetics of color. He introduces, for the first time in his painting, that tactile sensibility which he anticipated, in part, in Rilievi. His discovery, which, unfortunately, he made near the end of his artistic production, is a kind of spiritual testament, a successful attempt to translate his formal and compositional motifs into a new spatial dimensionality that will wholly and indelibly mark his artistic quest, thus imposing a rereading of his entire artistic trajectory; a trajectory, as has been often noted by his critical interpreters, that is solitary to the point of being cloistral; as steeped in tradition as it was stylistically projected into modernism to the point of being intuitionally, in some cases, in the vanguard of abstract artistic experimentation.