To mark the 2nd International Festival of Contemporary Engraving (FIG), programmed from 28 November to 1 December in Bilbao, Uncharted Sardinia: The engraved sign is to be mounted in Room 33 at the Museum. The exhibition includes a wide-ranging selection of the graphic work of ten artists from the Italian island of Sardinia. Of the 133 works on show, 109 are by five members of what is generally known as the Sardinian School of Engraving, which flourished in the first half of the last century. The other 24 are by five contemporary artists from the island.
This latest exhibition is the result of ongoing cooperation between the Museum and the Festival. It began last December when more than 250 prints by master engraver Giovanni Battista Piranesi were displayed in the rooms of the old Museum building. The exhibition ran until March this year.
The first part of the exhibition is devoted to the works of five engravers active in the late 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century and who reached a much wider audience after exhibiting on a number of occasions at the Venice Biennale. The current exhibition includes one hundred-plus engravings, from the collections of the Civic Museums of Cagliari, by Giuseppe Biasi, Mario Delitala, Stanis Dessy, Carmelo Floris and Felice Melis Marini. Generally speaking, etchings (engraved from metal plates) were favoured in achieving deeply lyrical landscapes, while the xylograph (engravings from wood masters) is often used for portraying Sardinian characters, either in groups or individually in penetrating realist portraits that, on occasion, focus on elements of the local folk culture. All five took the landscape and the anthropological peculiarities of the island as themes for their prints.
Following this, the exhibition then moves to the contemporary scene, showing a range of prints by the most innovative, experimental Sardinian artists now at work: Veronica Gambula, Vincenzo Grosso, Gabriella Locci, Rosanna Rossi and Andrea Spiga. Traditional and experimental techniques jostle together indiscriminately in the works in this section, occasionally combining with other idioms, including photography and digital technology. As in the earlier case, the careers of all five have been significantly aided by successful participation in the Venice Biennale and other major international art forums. Many of these works are on the large scale and come from the artists’ own studios or from the Casa Falconieri collection. Founded in Cagliari in 1992, Casa Falconieri is a research centre dedicated to exploring the engraving as an art form. Some of the other works on display were produced specifically for this exhibition.
The Sardinian School of Engraving (first half of the 20th century)
Giuseppe Biasi (1885-1945) introduced the xylograph, or wood engraving, to Sardinia. His decoratively-driven narrative prints portray characters, rituals and the daily routines of the traditional Sardinian world. Mario Delitala (1887-1990)’s work is more epic in tone; his output, especially his allegorical themes, follow the classical modes of the engraver’s art and describe, almost reverently, a milieu populated by a weighty, serious humanity. Among his works are also four original wood plates for xylographs. Stanis Dessy (1900-1986) analyses reality through his masterful use of black and white contrasts. In his wood engravings and etchings, Carmelo Floris (1891-1960) concentrates on the human figure, which, from the nineteen fifties onwards, he portrays in smooth, atmospheric tones. Finally, Felice Melis Marini (1871-1953) created some profoundly lyrical landscapes rendered with complete technical mastery. He also contributed to graphic art through the publication in 1916 of a manual on engraving entitled L’acquaforte. Manuale pratico (The Etching; A Practical Manual).
Contemporary Sardinian engravers
Through the works of Veronica Gambula, Vincenzo Grosso, Gabriella Locci Rosanna Rossi and Andrea Spiga, the second part of the exhibition gives one account of how contemporary idiom and technique have developed. All five are outstanding exponents of the drive to redefine the engraving in Sardinia. Traditional printing is based on the use of small sheets of paper, shorter or longer print runs and a fairly limited number of techniques. But the contemporary artists chosen for this exhibition have an idea of the engraving in which the variety of techniques, whether on their own or in combination with others, has been greatly enlarged; prints are much larger and the single print has replaced the print run. This experimental urge is particularly noticeable in the works of Gabriella Locci and Rosanna Rossi.
Veronica Gambula (Carbonia, 1980) contributes two works to the exhibition. In the two large prints a recurring motif acts as the basic unit for large compositions. Being part of a crowd, the tiny character is stripped of any narrative connotations and transformed into something that structures the image and a metaphor for the contemporary confrontation between the feeling of being part of a huge mass and the individual conscience. In the other, book-sized prints, the artist creates subtle feminine portrayals of the kind popular in the 1990s and that were based on a stylised, somewhat tenuous figure.
Vincenzo Grosso (Nuoro, 1977) is drawn particularly to issues touching on the social context. His work features broad urban views with a visionary air to them, in which modern buildings are seen as ghostly apparitions. The distortion of the values of mass and volume, the low perspective, empty skies and the sheer density of the engraving turns them into threatening ruins that Grosso uses to critique the obsolescence of power as represented by architecture.
Gabriella Locci (Cagliari, 1950) works in an abstract mode based on the freedom of signs and the energy of the creative gesture that she deploys in outsize formats or in sequences. The powerful blacks shape dark hollows, lit by shafts of white light or red shinings. On occasion, black huddles in compact forms of great dramatic force. In some works she also introduces narrative elements through the actual engraving, photography or painting. She also calls into question the two-dimensional nature of the print by adding visual effects that exaggerate the tendency of the image to expand into the surrounding space.
Rosanna Rossi (Cagliari, 1937) explores the surface of things. Like her paintings, her engravings feature heavily a small but incessant vibration of light. The formal properties of the image, the proliferation of the sign and the pulse of light-colour convey an urge to break out beyond the limits of the support. One surprising thing about her work is that she achieves the tremor of light, which curls the paper into a wave-like appearance, using xylography, never the easiest technique for producing such subtle effects.
The human figure is the predominant theme in the work of Andrea Spiga (Cagliari, 1972),. Spiga focuses in particular on the face, in self-portraits and portraits, in which a painstakingly analytical, almost photographic line is used to describe people’s features. The realism deployed in the execution of his engravings is in sharp contrast to the decontextualization and fragmentation of the image. Spiga treats his faces as if they were collages, simulating non-existent folds and overlaps. The violation of the body’s integrity, coupled with the intense expression of the characters portrayed, does not however suggest drama or existential angst. On the contrary, Spiga manages to annul individual expression beneath these heavily-featured masks.
In the image:
Mario Delitala (Orani, 1887-Sassari, 1990)
Il Ballo di Torpè (Dancing at Torpè)
Musei Civici Cagliari Collection