Early works: the investigation of self-portraiture
Contact with the advertising world, a world that was open and receptive to contemporary art at the time, prodded Pistoletto to follow the activity of Turin galleries, which offered a fairly timely presentation of international developments in art. Having rented an attic in Via Bava to paint, Pistoletto saw in the inquiries of contemporary artists the need to find a personal answer to the existential questions expressed in the various artistic currents.

“Renaissance art is the basis of my work’s entire evolution. I really had a revelation in front of Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation [a work the artist saw at eighteen, during a visit with his father to the Ducal Palace in Urbino]. The conflict between abstraction and representation was raging at the time. It was the hot topic, the great debate of the moment. But in front of that painting I understood that Piero della Francesca was both abstract and representational. I saw that the problem was another one entirely, or at least that it had not been expressed clearly. I felt, then, that this painting offered me a grand solution. I got a similar impression from Antonioni’s Avventura. It’s clearly a film with characters; nonetheless, it’s an abstract film. I cite only two important works of Italian art. Antonioni’s film isn’t a painting, but in a certain sense it’s painting made of light and images, a film that shows the point of convergence between abstraction and representation, the point that was already there in Piero della Francesca” (Michelangelo Pistoletto, interview with Giovanni Lista, in Ligeia, nos. 25-28, Paris 1999).

At the same time, Pistoletto perceived a path more consonant with his own education and background in representational art. Self-portraiture was the instrument he picked to respond to his needs, and it has been the focus of most of what he has devised and produced since.
With a self-portrait Pistoletto began his exhibition career, in 1955, at the Circolo degli Artisti in Turin, where his father had been accustomed to present his works. Between 1956 and 1958 Michelangelo painted large-scale self-portraits in a thick, abstract idiom. In these paintings the face occupied the entire surface of the canvas; in 1957 he made two self-portraits, Priest and Saint, large works in which the canvas was no longer filled by the face, but also bore references to Christian iconography. Both paintings were reproduced in the journal Presenze, published by Pistoletto and a group of young artists and intellectuals in Turin. The same issue of this periodical carried an essay by Pistoletto focusing on the situation of abstract art at the time, on the danger of the reduction of that art to a sterile formalism, and on the importance of recovering art’s essential social and spiritual function. Marzia Calleri, whom Pistoletto married in 1955 and with whom he had his first daughter, Cristina, in 1960, wrote another essay that appeared in the magazine. Both women were subjects of some of the early mirror paintings. In the years since, Cristina has pursued a career in the performing arts as a soprano and has worked with her father on several projects.
The subjects of the 1958 self-portraits are painted full-figure and life-size. The relationship between the subject and the surrounding space compelled the artist to come to grips with the making of the background. In this same year Pistoletto had his first contract with a gallery, Galatea in Turin, and won the San Fedele Prize in Milan.

“At the crossroads between abstraction and representation, where I think every young painter today has passed or remained, I chose the representation of humans, because I feel it best suited to realizing my need to express particular feelings and situations of the human condition, what for me is the most vital and burning issue of all time” (Michelangelo Pistoletto, catalogue of the exhibition, Premio Morgan’s Paint, Palazzo dell’Arengo, Rimini 1959).

Meanwhile his inquiry focused increasingly on the problem of how to treat the background in his self-portraits.

“Between 1956 and 1958 I made the portraits, which became larger and larger over time, with an increasingly big head…. Later, the heads got smaller to leave room for the body and the surrounding space. In this reduction of the figure to life size I was helped a lot by Bacon’s show at Galatea. Seeing Bacon I perceived that my problem and my drama were there already, made explicit, in a man in search of his own dimension and his own space, an impenetrable glass cage, in which the man lived in a state so dramatic it suffocated him, deprived him of voice and space. He was blocked, hunted, sick, destroyed, anguished—splendidly painted but, in this state, terribly isolated…. I continued my inquiry, honing my work in on man, but seeking to do just the opposite of what Bacon did: to remove all expression and all movement from the figures in order to cool their drama…. I continued to play with the relationship between the mass of this person and his background—which brought me to gold grounds and black grounds. I made backgrounds that wanted to be all light (whence the window), or absolutely automatic and inexpressive backgrounds. They were thousands of little lines or linoleum-like surfaces—that is, anonymous decorative backgrounds—and from this anonymity of the background I expected to see something happen” (Michelangelo Pistoletto, interview with Germano Celant, in Pistoletto, Electa, Firenze 1984, 23).

click on the thumbnails
to enlarge
Self-Portrait, 1956
Self-Portrait, 1956
Priest, 1957
Man on sofa, 1958
Experiment, 1959
Linoleum Self-Protrait, 1959
Gold Self-Portrait, 1960
Silver Self-Portrait, 1960