We open this collection of reviews and critiques that have been published on the work of Gian Berto Vanni with two essays by Giorgio Di Genova, an Italian contemporary art historian, critic and curator that has followed Vanni’s work for over fifty years. Di Genova has written the History of Italian Art of the Twentieth Century, the most exhaustive study of twentieth century Italian art. The sections dedicated to the work of Vanni open this selection.
Gian Berto Vanni settled in Paris in the fifties, after continuing his study of painting in Holland, attending the studio of Friedrich Vordemberge Gildewart. In 1952, he won a Fullbright scholarship to study with Albers at Yale, in the United States.
In the French capital Vanni abandons the play of luminous abstractions projected on a grid of darker values that characterized his oil painting in 1952. The splinter-like forms of 1954, although Klee-ian, tend to become the protagonists of his small paintings, which began to present fissures and crackle in other work all based on variations of the color red. However he too is influenced by the aesthetics of the Informale movement, especially in a group of works of 1959. Here fields of color, with a preference for ochre, were either streaked, or marked by a small-scale gesturalism, given that in the fifties Vanni never exceeded the 40 x 60 cm format and often kept away from it.
The morphologies of Gian Berto Vanni are complex and multi-faceted. His metamorphic fantasies are made of cosmic moments, organic references from phytomorphic to histological, sudden flashes of light, fluid and mysterious shadows, sensuality of color, strong graphic instinct and some fragments of Cagli-like forms, like the ones in the Siciliane series. In fact, Cagli highly appreciated Vanni's work. Clearly, what interested him was Vanni's stylistic-formal mobility, as well as his imaginative richness. An imaginative richness that the long wanderings of Vanni through the world did not deplete, on the contrary.
Vanni has always cherished a multilevel language, each of which is introduced into the painting with an interactive function with all the others. This gives birth to his sumptuous visions, in which cuts, tears - images and fragments – erosions, eruptions coexist in a continuous compress, expand, destroy - and then reconstruct, to use the artist’s own words; who also speaks of his personal museum (which forgets, and remembers, and scatters, and associates - at his choosing), from which he draws the conceptual, formal and spatial material of his works.
In his American Paintings we find the golden glow of Byzantium’s mosaics next to the drippings of Informale art, the neo-secessionist graphisms of Klimt alongside the analytical spirit of Klee. Empty placentas chase butterfly wings, morphing into forests and misty wetlands; coveted geometries and their transgressions caused by an uncontrollable impulse to metamorphism; stalagmites of chromatic liquefactions and the oval crowned with multicolored cells on the inner edges. Those remotely resemble certain eyelashes of Domizio Mori's ovals, which, however, never reach Vanni's technical and expressive refinements. In short, Vanni, also in this series of works continues his journey into the wonderous inner world of the painterly dream, where labyrinths are transformed into peacock eves, rainfalls in color streams, color theories in strings of snails, ciliated tissues in flowerings with mysteriously colored red tips. Everything is something else, every substance is appearance, and appearance is painting, a sumptuously bejeweled art of formal and technical inventions.
In Vanni’s work the grammar of the Informale movement coexists with other formal instances, and this can be explained by the fact that he, living in the United States, ended up absorbing the local culture, without however losing the memory of his European being.
Giorgio Di Genova, Italian Art History of the Twentieth Century – Generation 1920s, Edizioni Bora, Bologna, Italy, 1991, pp. 133, 135, 190-191
The painting of Gian Berto Vanni is rooted in a multitude of different experiences, even outside the art field. During his early years Vanni was fascinated by the discovery of the microscopic world, which he was studying at the laboratories of his father, a professor of parasitology at the University of Rome, Italy.
The discovery of a biologic microcosm, so close to the forms of the Informale movement of the post-war years, nourished his painterly imagination and encouraged him to move forward after his experimentation with geometrical abstractions under the guidance of Vordemberge Gildevart in Holland in the early 1950s, and a little later at the Yale University, where he studied with Josef Albers as a Fullbright fellow.
His full acceptance of the Informale happened in Paris, in spite of the fact that his work was still partially influenced by memories of Klee, memories that kept coming back over the years. In the 1960s these memories helped to stimulate his undeniable decorative sense, together with the remembrance of Roman Baroque splendors, the golden mosaics of basilicas and the visual impact provided by constant visits to his beloved Greece.
The polyvalent structures of his language enable him to create sumptuous free associations of disparate chromatic and pictographic elements resulting in a symphonic mode. We could say that in his compositions one can follow the progress from andante con moto to allegro vivace, from crescendo to andante misterioso.
We should not be surprised by this parallel with music. Vanni is gifted with a dialectic of talents that enable him to orchestrate unusual and free rhythms of chromatic elements fluctuating between gravity and joy.
Undeniably, his approach lets him explore his inner world of organic forms and other forms of nature that are blended in his personal vision. His ways have set him apart from general trends, and his choice to stay away from the gallery circuits has helped make him become a sort of uncontaminated Lone Ranger in the art scene. In spite of that - perhaps because of it - he has built his own public of admirers.
Vanni's visionary world is based on A personal museum that at will remembers, forgets, builds, destroys, associates and divides. using cuts and rents, images, fragments, eruptions, erosions, according to the artist's own words.
In Quadri d'America all these elements coexist. This book represents a conspicuous body of work where one can see--one next to another--the shiny golds of Byzantium, dripping paint in the informale style, hints to the graphic neosecessionism of Klimt and to the analytic spirit of Klee. Floating placentas, butterfly wings, transfigured forests, misty swamps.... Yet, like in filigrain, one can catch a glimpse of geometries half submerged by a metamorphic pulsing that takes over under the shape of stalagmites of liquefied colors, of ovals whose perimeter is crowded with iridescent cells. They are all halting places on a journey through the marvelous inner world of a pictorial dream that transforms everything into something else. A labyrinth becomes a peacock eye, the rain turns into dripping paint. The chromatic arrays are a procession of snails, a fringed material creates a magic growth of red summits that reflect an amazing wealth of inflections. And this is what Vanni's work is about: it is nourished by its own making, and in the elaboration process it grows on itself thanks to a freedom of execution and a rare and precious inventiveness.
Giorgio Di Genova, Gian Berto Vanni, in Contemporary Artists, edited by Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast, Vol. 2, St. James Press, Farmington Hills, Michigan, 2001, pp. 1730-1733
Gian Berto Vanni exhibits abstract works of considerable interest at the Schneider Gallery (Rampa Mignanelli 10 [Rome]). One appreciates his series of geometrical constructions that would encroach into surrealism if Vanni was not attached as he is to the poetics of abstraction, away from literary digressions. Nevertheless, the painter adds even here a touch of adventure, creating the spirit, if not the actual image of stairways, palaces, cities, labyrinths of gigantic proportions. Alongside these themes, the artist places other more abstract subjects, fragments and cutouts of forms on gentle and vibrant backgrounds, in the manner of Paul Klee, an artist for whom Vanni has a deep consideration. Sometimes one seems to see in the canvases of the young man the reflections of youthful and whimsical figures that appear in kaleidoscopes. Among the works that I have been most interested in are Glimpse on the City, Flight of Birds, Birth of a Rock and Baroque Garden.
Marcello Venturoli, G. B. Vanni da Schneider, Paese Sera, Rome, Italy. April 7, 1955
GIAN BERTO VANNI was born in Rome in 1927. He first studied to be an architect but turned early to painting. His talent was immediately recognized and he received scholarships for travel to Holland and to America where he studied with Josef Albers at Yale. His first exhibition, given last year at the Gallery Schneider in Rome, was highly praised; his second will be presented this November at the Trabia Gallery in New York, where he now lives. Of Vanni, the noted French editor and writer, André Bay has said.
The son of a professor of biology, Vanni often gazed through his fathers, microscope at the world of the living cell. This world, both geometric and dynamic, was one of the sources of his inspiration. The fragile constructions of his pen seem like precise notations of the visible, rising from the impenetrable whiteness of the infinitely small. Later, Vanni spins his delicate crystallography out into the night sky—the microscope is joined by the telescope, and the observer seems to see in these drawings familiar images threatened by nothingness and measureless space. Constantly developing, his work reveals the transmutation of original perceptions and values into an authentic art of great promise.
Vanni has said of his art. I will be happy if my paintings carry with them no single emotion or effect—all emotions or none. The result should be an organized bundle of forms at once dynamic and immobile, never without a sense of enchantment.
C.E., Vanni, The Paris Review, Paris, France. Summer 1958
A month before his one-man show in 1960, Vanni abandoned the geometrical style that had been his, in favor of pronged, bark-colored forms oscillating: over a white field which, at second glance, seemed to become a tentacular mass invading the dark area. The forms remained clearly outlined though, with sharp edges stressed by the contrast between the dazzling white and the colored areas. Geometrical forms had been abandoned, but the clear-cut geometrical spirit prevailed.
Since then, Vanni has constantly strived to give weight to his forms, abandoning linear outlines for tonal transitions in the color. The impasto is heavier and the brushwork becomes more and more apparent. The snow-white background now tends to be veiled with color and toned-down in intensity: it no longer flattens out the surface with its brilliance but blends in with the other forms. Carefully distributed touches of pure white become the pulsating centers of the composition as in Knossos. The palette is sometimes strictly limited to white, black, gray and touches of tan (Medusa) but the dark zones are often enhanced by delicate shades of green and blue (Encounter and Struggle). Exploring the white field of Medusa the eye encounters spots of bare canvas fully integrated into the composition. In Ariel the under-coat has been left visible in the space between the agile, dark brushstrokes that give it form, so that it plays the same role as the white areas in the other paintings. It is something like the technique employed by the decorators of the red-figure vases who used the black surface to define the figures left unpainted in the natural color of terracotta.
Looking at Vanni’s work one receives an impression of relentless dynamism, of constant struggle between the light and dark elements which both have equal value, each one being capable of assuming the dominant role. Sometimes the forms dare vertically or horizontally oriented, sometimes knotted-up, about to spring out into space, (Knossos). Often the composition is centered upon the intersection of circular movements. In Knot , a whirlpool seems to be sucking towards it a series of diagonal, stretched-out forms.
Recently much attention has been devoted to the correspondences between natural forms and those appearing in contemporary art. It seems especially true of Vanni’s painting. One is reminded of enlarged segments of microscopic life, or the infinitely ramified forms of the coralline undersea world. At times, his paintings give the impression of light playing over the rippling surface of water. In his more dramatic composition, such cs Genesis whirlpools appear, and the solid forms seem to melt away into rushing currents. One thinks of Leonardo’s drawings, now at Windsor Castle, on the theme of the Deluge.
Denis Schneider, Gian Berto Vanni, Exhibition catalog, Galleria Schneider, Rome, Italy, October 1961
Gian Berto Vanni exhibits his most recent paintings at the Schneider Gallery, with the presentation by Denis Schneider. His more recent canvases seem to evoke branches or roots of ghosts, streams of light and forces, diagrams of mineral or vegetable masses. This is a singular condition of Vanni's painting, which, in addition to a drastic almost monochrome pictorial graphism - by virtue of which the chiaroscuro and romantic suggestion of nature should be reduced to a pure tactile or decorative value - he accompanies a tenacious naturalism: so that water lines, gorges and plains seem to have passed through a meat grinder and rearranged in an abstract mode. This does not represent an obstacle to the great interest of Vanni’s painting, its own dynamism and tensions created by this internal contradiction, by the strength of his suggestive journey.
Marcello Venturoli, Vanni alla Schneider, Paese Sera, Rome, Italy. November 7, 1961
An interesting exhibition is underway at the Rizzoli Gallery in via Veneto of the paintings by Gian Berto Vanni, who studied in Holland and the United States with Josef Albers. After a long stay in France, he returned to Italy, where he resides. Giorgio di Genova writes at length in his analysis of Vanni's artistic language that his work is formed on Klimt, Schiele, Klee, Mirò, Cagli. This reference must be experienced as a vision of our own cultural memory, rather than a transfiguration of these elements into an iconic reference. Vanni’s mental lucidity expresses itself in the understanding of the pictorial surface and in the rhythmical marks that his euphoric rush through culture leaves on the canvas. In some of his works, the vision materializes in surfaces and signs, flowing in the stream of a creative fantasy enriched by poetical motives; in other works, instead, a more existential, less meditated freedom predominates, whereby the pictorial signs cover the whole painterly space.Considering his work in depth, Vanni searches within this ambivalence for a clear visual synthesis formulated in terms that become more poetical than existential.
Arturo Bovi, Vanni, Il Messaggero, Rome, Italy. April 7, 1968
Gian Berto Vanni exhibits at the Rizzoli gallery, in Via Veneto 66 [Rome], where narrative and oneiric elements continuously merge in his artwork. For Vanni, language is more important than the contents, to the point that his honed technical skill becomes the leading motif of his figurations. [Giorgio] Di Genova [in the presentation he has written for the exhibition’s catalog] speaks of polyglotism; I would rather define Vanni's painting as a kind of Esperanto, where many languages, often in opposition, are forcibly put together to form a conclusive harmony. There is a bit of everything in Vanni's works: from expressionism to surrealism, from figuration to abstraction, from informal to pop, and there is dripping, frottage, imprint, assemblage. Consequently there are also many masters, from Dubuffet to Pollok, from Ernst to Hundertwasser. Yet, Vanni remains himself, with the furor of his color, his abhorrence of void and stasis, his experimental enthusiasm, all contributing to give his work, despite the contaminations, a resounding note of authenticity.
Lorenza Trucchi, Vanni alla Rizzoli, Il Momento Sera, Rome, Italy. April 13, 1968
GIAN BERTO VANNI (Galleria Rizzoli, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele [Milan]) - studied in Holland, where he met Corneille, Hundertwasser, and the Cobra, then in the United States with Albers. Joyful abstract painting of a very remarkable level for the beauty of its colors and the decorative imagination that plays in dizzying arabesques, labyrinths, opalescences, explosion of bubbles, nervous filaments. Just as on a single wall, paintings by different artists can, perhaps even through violent contrasts and contradictions, merge into a successful harmony, so too Vanni juxtaposes two, three, four sections in every canvas, which, considered on their own, might seem to be by different artists. A dry geometrical structure, for instance, next to an organic melting, an arid texture compartment next to a dazzling chromatic eruption. On these counterpoints the eye lingers with sensual joy.
Dino Buzzati, Il Corriere della Sera, Milan, Italy. May 1, 1968
The Il Nuovo Carpine Gallery presents a vast anthological exhibition (1950-1977) of Gian Berto Vanni’s works, characterized by a fruitful inventiveness of sign, a decisive evolution from the geometry of the inlays of his youth to the subsequent free unraveling of the line in labyrinthine contortions and the partitioning of the canvas in multiple themes. The show, consisting of seventy-nine works, testifies of a journey pursued tirelessly and never running out of creative impetus, indeed intensifying the fantastic flow according to ever new experiences.
The works do not follow the Informale movement theories, but present open forms, constantly decomposed and rearranged, coagulating and dissolving, evoking within the Observer thousands of possibilities and analogies. Despite this, they remain logical to themselves, their variations in rhythms and spatial arrangement; here the agglomeration of amoeba-like filaments, there decoration accents shine with self-pleasure; somewhere else a valid coherence with a pre-formal outlook. There is a tendency to constitute new organisms, and then they are seemingly abandoned to themselves in the process of being created. The self-assertive presence of texture has an important role. Indeed, it almost acts as an objective break to the invasion of the impetuous graffiti penetrating everywhere and proceeding, curving, and folding in on itself; to ultimately return to describe larval forms ready to dissolve, yet at that precise moment thickened, tightened and floating.
All this makes of Vanni an unforeseeable artist who offers a wealth of possible solutions following one another. He juxtaposes them within the same work as different frequently contrasting approaches to a same theme, which are mirrors of an emotional plethora. They are representations of stories that jump among different subjects, combining the relative differences for the sake of change with spontaneous ease, becoming a multi-faceted art. The numerous works exhibited here never generate boredom, precisely because of the tireless and vital alternation of rhythms and colors, of lines and textures, producing a myriad of images sharing a common transcendence from the empirical domain to the realm of dreams and the whim of the senses.
Gualtiero Da Vià, L’Osservatore Romano, Rome, Italy. June 22, 1977
Gian Berto Vanni is one of those lucky painters who have been able to expand their figurative culture at ease, grafting experiences that intertwine one continent with another. A pupil of Vordemberge Gildewart, he was influenced by Albers and Klee at the right time. The opportunity of living in Holland, the United States and Japan has infinitely spurred his creative research, with a marked preference for a sumptuous abstraction and joyful colors with deep echoes. Looking at his paintings, one finds themselves impelled to think of precious exotic woods, agates, onyxes with sinuous veins, petrified forest whose structure ends to crystallize. The result are paintings where the human and natural merge, composing Japanese elegance with raw American energy, and also a bit of extenuated Central European elegance, like a Klimt passed under numerous filters to make it unrecognizable and elusive.
Enzo Bilardello, Il Corriere della Sera, Rome, Italy. April 10, 1989
In Gian Berto Vanni’s work we witness the abandonment or, at least, the reduction of formal structure in favor of chromatic richness. In this kind of composition the colors, finely honed, cease to represent a defined subject. They become an aesthetic maneuver, where colors exist only in light of their mutual relationship.
Gian Berto Vanni’s creations come from an inner drive which brings him to paint tonalities in the form of streaks, meanders, or other figures close to geometry. This creates a chimerical reality which, by its orderly construction, gives the illusion of concreteness.
One has the impression that Gian Berto Vanni aspires to a stage where stripped-down aesthetics create a dynamism that influences the painting’s meaning, without which the same content could seem static because of the repetitive succession of colors.
Gian Berto Vanni's canvases tend to demonstrate that by repeating identical formal and tonal elements, the powers of colored matter increase in intensity. This process magically creates a deep resonance. Thus the components are not just born in the right tonality but are also enriched with new and original attributes. The expressions become more intense due to an overflow created by the stripping and the vibrations obtained from the intervals between the grooves.
Rich Andry, Gian Berto Vanni. Galerie 88, Tageblatt, Luxembourg, December 6, 1989
Gian Berto Vanni is a painter in his own right. A loner who approaches his art as a one-way journey. This Mediterranean artist - living in New York - draws the elements of his work from his personal mythology, from the layers of a memory where these intimate landscapes persist. His whole body is involved in these landscapes - spirit and matter, hearts and elements: plants and minerals, that lead him in his investigations, to the cosmic energy that inhabits nature and man.
The spectator will enter, depending on the painting, into a world of telluric forces or a sensual stimulation. Here, heaven and earth are clashing, there they meet in the silence of nature or that of the waters. We try to take a path, we discover a river: the artist constantly diverts us from a too obvious approach by always taking us elsewhere.
He tells us stories of stones and water, but also of vegetal growth, of mineral formation, sometimes he hides a human figure in vegetal fibers or strata, in cracks, and ruptures. All images of time reinvented, but above all metamorphosed, by this march of the centuries which always leaves traces in the work of Gian Berto Vanni.
Gian Berto Vanni (born in Rome in 1927) lives in New York where he is professor of Fine Arts at the Cooper Union School of Art. He reconciles an artistic career in Italy (Schneider Gallery in Rome) and in the United States where he exhibits in New York, Washington and Seattle. He spends a few months each year in the Island of Kythira, Greece, where he works and absorbs the timelessness of the Mediterranean which permeates his work.
Joseph Paul Schneider, Forces telluriques et vibrations charnelles, Luxemburger Worth, Luxembourg, December 7, 1989
Gian Berto Vanni, who was born in Rome, attended the School of Art and Architecture in Rome; thereafter, he studied on a scholarship in Holland, then came to the United States to study with Josef Albers at Yale, on a Fulbright Grant. Here, he began to appreciate the idea of employing a coexistence of multiple styles within one canvas, so long as a formal coherence is carried throughout the work..., which has since become his leitmotif.
After Yale, Vanni spent years in Europe and New York developing paintings of fragmentations in space gradually replacing geometric fragments by the organic, eventually recovering shapes, and experimenting, among other ideas, with partitioned canvases, silkscreen printing and bas reliefs.
After exhibiting widely in Europe, Vanni felt the need to return to New York, where his primary residence has remained ever since. Vanni, who works on his canvases at first from all sides, flat on the ground, has traveled the globe to see and study art from the four corners of the world, and is convinced that harmonies unforeseen from these ancient creators are the representation of life itself, and our possibility to believe in something, and its opposite, to realize life cannot be conceived under a single unifying banner.
A faculty member at The Cooper Union for many years, Vanni has had many solo and group shows throughout Europe and the United States. His works are in public collections in Italy, Germany, and Holland, and at the Seattle Museum of Art in Washington.
Cynthia Maris Dantzic, 100 New York Painters, Schiffer Publishing, Atglen, PA, 2006, pp. 212-213<
It is a thrilling yet perplexing treat to discover an artist’s comprehensive oeuvre that for no particular reason, other than a lack of public exposure, has remained relatively unknown.
The work of the Italian artist Gian Berto Vanni is such a case. During a conversation with the artist on the eve of his current retrospective at 45 Greene Street, he stressed that avoiding the New York gallery system was a conscious choice based on several bad experiences, such as his work getting lost, and belated payments and ones not made at all.
Instead, he preferred to handle the exhibition of his work privately, hosting a biannual open studio in Soho, where he established himself when he arrived in New York in 1978. It is no exaggeration to say that this new retrospective in Lower Manhattan, which is not organized by a gallery but privately, is this city’s long overdue opportunity to be introduced to Vanni’s work.
The critic’s challenge is discussing a wide-ranging body of work created over an entire lifetime without falling into the trap of superficial generalization. Approximately 70 works are exhibited, gathered from private collections as well as the artist’s inventory, spanning the period from 1943 to today. Included are a monumental 55-foot canvas, paintings from the 1950s and ’60s made in Europe, and works from what Vanni calls his American Period.
The work encompasses many tendencies and loose references, ranging from Redon to Gorky and Matta, and the show follows the artist navigating different styles and techniques. The exhibition is installed on three floors, and studying the works separately, as well as in relation to each other, one can’t help but be awestruck by the evident passion and lifelong commitment. It is important to drop any conventional expectation of a white-cube viewing environment and embrace the diversity that makes this particular display unpredictable and enticing.
What unifies all the works, no matter the period, is Vanni’s devotion to spatial concerns. Most of his works are purely abstract. They can be gestural or employ geometric as well as patterned elements and detailed ornamentation reminiscent of Klimt. Vanni’s compositions are animated by the exploration of counterpoints and moments of friction. Interestingly, he cites Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936) as his main artistic influence. Pirandello wrote plays based on the investigation of frictions between rational truth and socially accepted truth.
Vanni’s works are atmospheric, and can appear as dreamscapes, vast horizon lines, flames, blood streams, or aerial views of an unfamiliar planet’s surface structure. Nature is a predominant theme, but rather than present reflections of nature as found in the world outside us, Vanni’s work speaks to the inner nature and interior life we all experience.
Vanni was never associated with any art movements, but he was exposed to two strong proponents of abstract art during his formative years. After receiving a rather traditional art education at the University of Rome’s School of Art and Architecture in the 1940s, Vanni continued his studies in 1949 in Amsterdam at the atelier of the De Stijl member Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart.
After receiving a Fulbright grant, he went on to Yale, where he studied under Josef Albers.
Vanni’s work has nothing of the strict geometricized forms that characterize both these teachers’ works – in seeking influences in Vanni’s early work, Paul Klee’s is the most evident – but it reveals his trust in abstraction as the most potent visual language to communicate feelings and to depict places and experiences.
The strong sense of energetic eclecticism characterizing Vanni’s oeuvre corresponds to the arc of his life, which has been rich in extensive travel and long periods spent in different countries. Born in Rome in 1927, he began his voyage while in his 20s. For most of the 1950s, he spent his time between Rome, Paris, and New York. Another constant in his life has been the Greek island of Kythira, where he bought a plot of land and built his own studio.
His travels have also led him to southern India, including the palaces of Mysore, the deserts of Rajasthan in northwest India, the shrines of Bali, and the Egyptian royal tombs of Luxor.
Vanni’s paintings might serve as snapshots of what he has gathered here and abroad – the noise, the silence, the different light and colors specific to each locale.
In Vanni, we find these elements internalized, processed, and spun into their own microcosm.
Stephanie Buhmann, The Inner Life of Dreamscapes, The Villager, Volume 78, Number 40, New York, NY. March 11-17, 2009