I became enamored with Fornasetti’s mind and imaginative creations from the moment I laid eyes on one of his hypnotic illustrations of Lina Cavalieri’s face. Her gaze was expressionless, with melancholy eyes that stared unflinchingly back at mine, and beguiling like that of the Mona Lisa, except more feminine. Lina Cavalieri, a 19th century Italian opera singer and seductress of the Belle Epoque, was considered one of the most beautiful women of her time and her allure was not lost on Piero Fornasetti, the whimsical Milanese painter, designer, sculptor and interior decorator who depicted her in endless variations over the course of his prolific life.
Piero Fornasetti (1913-1988) was an artist ahead of his time. With an imagination that blurs the lines between illusion and reality, his surrealistic and – dare I say – psychedelic works are always unexpected and catch you by surprise. Fornasetti’s art challenges our preconceived notions of common objects and traditional symbols by presenting them in unexpected ways, captivating your attention and inviting you to consider the works a little while longer.
Lina was Fornasetti’s undisputed muse and he created over 500 whimsical designs of her face for his series “Temi e Variazioni” (“Themes and Variations”) which appear on limited-edition collector plates that run upwards of €200 per dish. This iconic body of work demonstrates the artist’s endless font of inspiration and talent for reinvention: some illustrations depict Lina sipping tea, winking, or wearing masks while others are even more imaginative, with her face turned into a hot air balloon, split in half or featured as the sun.
Although Fornasetti is best known for his graphic black-and-white ceramics, he worked with a variety of textiles including glass, fabric and wood and many of his productions can be purchased at the Fornasetti Store in Milan, today managed by his son Barnaba. He loved symbols and repetitions, trompe l’oeil designs and humor, resulting in a truly imaginative and ironic body of works.
Fornasetti was also heavily influenced by ancient motifs from Greek and Roman architecture so I was thrilled that an exhibit with over 800 of his works was going to be hosted at Palazzo Altemps, co-produced by the Italian publisher Electa Editore. The exhibition, “Citazioni Pratiche” (“Practical Quotes”) marks the 20th anniversary of Palazzo Altemps and juxtaposes Fornasetti’s surrealist pieces alongside the gallery’s permanent collection of classical sculptures and Renaissance works in an ironic and inventive way. Throughout the frescoed rooms and grand halls, the parallel objects seem to “speak” with each other, creating a dialogue between the works that play with the imagination and invite the viewer to venture into a land without rules or preconceptions.
Decorative objects like bicycles, blinds and guitars are arranged beside fine sculptures, self-referential illustrations that speak to works in the room are hung on the adjacent walls and broken plates lay untouched beneath an installation. On the upper floor of the museum, a series of room are dedicated to Fornasetti’s intriguing furniture with rooms laid out in an ornamental mid-century style.
“I believe neither in periods nor in dates. I refuse to define the value of an object in terms of its era. I will not limit myself,” Piero Fornasetti once remarked and”Citazioni Pratiche” is an exhibit that truly captures the essence of his vision. By juxtaposing art across millennia and presenting it to a modern viewer, the works continue to be given a new life and exist outside the structures of time in which they were created.
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Livia Hengel is an Italian-American writer, photographer & digital strategist based in Rome. She helps small-businesses and beautiful brands share their stories online through social media, digital storytelling, content creation and more. If you’re interested in working with her, you can reach her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.