Annalisa Rosso reviews the Fornasetti show at Milan's Triennale

The Legendary Fornasetti

By Annalisa Rosso

Quotations from and about the late, great Piero Fornasetti pepper the exhibition 100 Years of Practical Madness, the most comprehensive retrospective of his impressive oeuvre to date, currently on view at the Triennale Design Museum in Milan. One of my favorites comes from design maestro Ettore Sottsass: “It is as if Fornasetti repainted all the existing world… everything seems so beautiful, so smooth, so magic, and mysterious, as you might imagine the infinite depths of the cosmos to be.” Although Fornasetti’s work existed primarily as interventions upon the surfaces of objects and spaces, his vision penetrated into our collective unconscious. It’s about time this complex and controversial Italian figure received a grand institutional treatment.

Curated by Fornasetti’s son Barnaba in celebration of the centenary of his birth, the show has a flavor of reconciliation. Milanese-born Fornasetti, who died over 25 years ago, likened himself to a Renaissance man; a moniker justified by his prolific output and diverse talents, working interchangeably as a painter, illustrator, engraver, craftsman, and decorator. Despite his popularity, particularly in the U.S. and U.K., and especially during the postwar years, the Triennale and other delegates of the international design establishment long marginalized his work.

For most of his lifetime, rationalist modernism dominated the cultural discourse, and nearly every form of decoration became an act of kitsch or defiance. Fornasetti remained undaunted by this party line, however, creating more than 11,000 designs across a spectrum of products, one-offs, furniture, and interiors. In terms of sheer volume, Fornasetti's production is one of the most significant of the 20th century.

Photo © Antichità Brighenti Fausto
The exhibition tries to capture the breadth of Fornasetti’s creativity through more than 1,000 objects drawn from the family archive: paintings from his early career; sketches and studies; furniture and clothing; reconstructed interiors; and a wealth of his most iconic plates, ashtrays, screens, foulards, and trays. “It has been hard to restrain, and choose what not to bring,” explains Barnaba, who successfully carried on his father’s work after his passing.

Among the most fascinating rooms is one dedicated to 100 trays, each displaying a unique and intricate design, or perhaps the corridor of self-portraits that demonstrate his deft draftsmanship. Of course, the signature Themes & Variations series is well covered. Dedicated to the beautiful face of opera singer Lina Cavalieri, which Fornasetti first encountered in an old newspaper, this motif became a sort of Fornasetti alter ego that adorned over 350 different objects. The ambiguous female gaze draws the spectators into a kaleidoscope of adaptations, nine of which are signed by Barnaba, including one in which the classic visage has a pierced tongue.

During the exhibition's opening, Fornasetti’s many friends and collaborators shared fond memories of the old shop in Via Brera, which always attracted a noteworthy crowd of creative talents and collectors. Fornasetti’s social circle aside, it seems that all Italians—myself included—have affection for Fornasetti’s work, even if they don’t know his name or the story behind it. He was a genius of unrestrained, fantastic invention, as well as a rigorous technician, and his novel imagery has been sewn into the cultural fabric of the nation. The exhibition’s organizers are currently investigating the possibility to travel the show internationally. Fingers crossed…

  • Text by

    • Annalisa Rosso

      Annalisa Rosso

      Annalisa is a freelance journalist, trendsetter, and independent curator often hired as an Italian correspondent on design and contemporary art. She is curious about everything, always looking for something new. Because unrest is a good engine.

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