Three Notes on Liberatore’s ‘Environmental Sculptures’

Gillo Dorfles

1993: Rome, Castel Sant’Angelo

Not so much sterile mimesis – an area artists have never gone to other than in such “tricks of the eye” as trompe l’oeil or Zeusix’s legendary grapes – as the re-creation or creation from scratch of an imaginary universe in which Artifice takes the place of Nature, and where the artificial medium becomes naturalized, because in the words of Goethe, “auch das Unnatüralich- ste is Natur”, that which is unnatural is still nature. This is the kind of return to nature that seems to me to be one of the most justifiable current day trends after so much anti-figurative abstraction and so much objectivity borrowed from the panorama of everyday objects. And it is perhaps this that we find most convincing in this huge exhibition of Bruno Liberatore’s works being held in the sublimely “artificial” setting of Castel Sant’Angelo and the “natural” but humanized environment of Rome that lies at its feet, with the resulting appearance of an inseparable whole composed of the architecture of the Castle and Liberatore’s sculptures.
The artist’s aspiration to emulate the environment with his sculptures has perhaps been attained in the latest hard-fought developments of his work. His desire to transform geometric forms (pyramids and rhombi) into living telluric organisms was often restrained in the past by his excessive constructive rigour. Today, however, Liberatore appears in this impressive exhibition to have ‘liberated’ himself from that rigour, and accepted – indeed sought – the formal spontaneity (or rather the matterist restraint) that allows his sculpture to become ‘living’ organisms. That these works now appear so suited to the environment of Rome is, I feel, a quality that is far from negligible: it is not easy ‘to match’ Rome’s grandeur, be it classical or romantic, romanesque or baroque. And the fact that these works – which are often large scale (but even when they are maquette size) – can rise to such a comparison seems to me to be quite a feat.

Many of these works date back to a previous period and are among the ones so poignantly analyzed by Enrico Crispolti when he said: “These ‘environmental sculptures’ aim to create an urban reality in the sense of a plastic art landscape in which one can enter and walk around, much as one can do in a city “. But whereas the works dating back to the seventies and eighties were still marked by an excessive emphasis on geometry and perhaps an overly evident desire to achieve technical perfection, in many of the more recent works (Islands, Crests, Élan Vital, Pyramid in Crisis) it is clear that the artist wishes to emphasize not only the formal and plastic aspects of his work but the material too. What I mean to say is that in many of the latest sculptures, his abandonment of compositional rigour, his use of less polished, more ‘spontaneous’ surfaces one can see coming into play that factor of ‘naturalization’ to which I alluded in the first few lines. It can be seen – among the works I feel are more mature – in the two Crests, in this case more reminiscent of an organic form than of the usual orographic or geologic matrix, and also in the unusual and sensual composition in iron and terracotta (bronze can sometimes be dangerously lofty!) Pyramid in Crisis (1987–1988), where the juxtaposition and combination of the two materials makes for a decidedly more naturalistic vision and one that is also richer in chromatic nuances. Another example is Island, a kind of oval concretion whose mostly horizontal dimension provides an effective contrast to the other prevalently vertical works.
To sum up, Liberatore has freed himself of his excessive concern for geometry which in his more typical ‘environmental sculptures’ was in danger at times of undermining his imaginative vein, and has sought what we can in fact consider to be the invention of a new independent and native universe. This is not only because his new materials (less polished bronze or even plaster of Paris and concrete) are more reminiscent of those of our environment (I am thinking of the Balze Cliffs near Volterra, the clay soil of the Bologna hills, and Apulian calcarenite) and it is perhaps no coincidence that during his teenage years Liberatore absorbed the influence of certain Abruzzi hills, but also because through this renewed and more sensual technique, the constant sculptural landscapes that are the true inspiration for all his work emerge more vividly.

1999: Dresden, Pillnitz Castle

The desire to project his works upwards that had made many of Liberatore’s sculptures rise up like peaks (or pyramids?) and mountains (or dolmens?) towards a new undiscovered horizon and which in some works such as Idea for a Bell Tower, or In the Current had overcome all prior mimetic urges, has now reached, with these latest works, the next step in its logical evolution. But, at the same time, it demonstrates that in a certain sense, an important cycle of his work has come to an end. In fact, anyone who observes, for example, Womb, or Terrestrial City and Celestial City, or Eruption straight away notices the explosive charge that has allowed the artist to give life to plastic forms that have been completely renewed compared to previous works. His bronzes (albeit evidently derived from a skilful maquette in clay) have acquired a new and greater tension than in previous works. Not only that, but a kind of material ‘explosion’ (which, for example, in Womb presents an almost ‘uterine’ naturalness) has highlighted the hidden forces, certainly more intense than those present in the pyramidal and often decidedly rectilinear forms of previous sculptural cycles. In other words, I think that Liberatore has been able to find, in the works of his last period, that identity between material and concept which is and always has been at the basis of every true work of art whether or not it seeks to emulate – but not to exceed – nature’s secret forces.

2007: Saint Petersburg, the Hermitage Museum

Sometimes the real matrix of a work of art can be emptiness: active emptiness; emptiness as the raw material of form before it is transformed into ‘fullness’. I do not need to convert to the Zen aesthetic to underline the importance of this morphologic constant in many works of Japanese art, not to mention several modern Western works. I began with the concept of emptiness to talk about a sculptor like Bruno Liberatore who throughout his career has always been an advocate of fullness: of metal sculptures that are often evocative of a ‘craggy fullness’ translated into bronze (who does not remember all those ‘landscapes’ furrowed by craggy paths in his metal sculptures). But today, in his late period, Liberatore has opened up to another path of inspiration: that, as I said of emptiness; of the plastic negative that incarnates a renewed body, turns to clay and translates into the extremely rich series of terracottas (with some interesting examples such as Closed Space and Void of 2000 in two versions; or Flow in Space of 1995–1997). Another fruitful road seems to me the one where metal and terracotta combine (for example in Arch and Wall of 1997), where iron, bronze and terracotta provide a contrast between themselves, together exalting their expressive nature of each one. I believe that these works, where metal takes on more importance than those in terracotta only, could constitute an excellent basis also for a future evolution of Liberatore’s art towards different materials, providing that the works are rooted in his usual originality.