The 61-year-old abstract sculptor Lucilla Catania is a friend of animals, a lover of nature and always sees the world through art-tinted spectacles. Catania is a well-known Italian sculptor and has been a sculpture teacher for more than 30 years. Lucilla is a Roman artist through and through – born in Rome, still working in Rome and cannot imagine living anywhere else. As a young girl, she would be full of admiration for the magnificent antique Roman sculptures and fountains she would pass as she sauntered through the streets, dreaming of creating such works of art herself. “I used to make little sculptures at home and school when I was only 10 years old. I really loved that. I walked all over Rome, looking about me. I felt so inspired to be living surrounded by all these wonderful sculptures, I had a great admiration for all kinds of Roman art – the palaces, the museums and the art galleries.Sadly, it’s not the same place anymore: it’s been taken over by the materialist businessmen and politicians – it’s a true disaster! The whole city is so dirty, we don’t even have a Mayor: the last one, Ignazio Marino, was replaced last October by a commisioner appointed by the government, and we’re not due to have elections for the new Major until the spring.
“These are difficult times for Roman culture,” Lucilla says, “for artists, workers, managers – in fact for everyone who lives here. Milan, on the other hand, is growing and developing. Everything works better there, because they have a strong Mayor. I wouldn’t mind living in Milan, but my links with Rome are too strong. I was born in this neighbourhood, I grew up in these streets. Tutta la storia di Roma è qui. (The whole history of Rome is here). Rome is the cultural capital of the world, the capital of Classical art – that’s why it’s so important for me to live here. World history begins in Rome. Roman culture used to stretch as far as Constantinople, making Rome the cultural capital of the world in ancient times. But today things have changed and Italy is no longer what it was in the 15th and 16th centuries, a collection of rich city states with powerful rulers who were patrons of great artists. Nowadays, the law of the jungle rules. Politicians have no interest at all in art. I am ashamed to be Italian, but I feel obliged to raise my voice and say that the country is in the hands of people who do not have its best interests at heart. They only think about themselves.”
Now a famous artist, Lucilla Catania lives and works in three different places: in a cellar next to her house in Rome; in a country cottage near Viterbo 80 km north of Rome, the home of various Popes through the ages; and sometimes she stays in Pietrasanta, a little mediaeval town on the coast some 300 km north of Viterbo. Pietrasanta is sometimes called the ‘City of Artists’, because of the flourishing community of artists who live and work there, and ‘Little Athens’ because of the many marble studios and monuments it contains. Surrounded by dogs, cats, geese and her 23-year-old horse Bruna and in the middle of a beautiful landscape, Lucilla finds the peace and quiet she needs to work on her sculptures in her cottage near Viterbo. She is free to do what she wants there: work in marble or granite, make as much noise as she wants, with no neighbours to complain. Lucilla speaks passionately about her love of animals and nature: “Nature is my greatest source of inspiration. I love living with animals because they are so different from people. I love the variety: every animal – a cat, dog or a horse has its own character and its own appearance. I work in the country every weekend, when I’m making big sculptures. But when I’m working on really huge sculptures for exhibitions, weighing 30 or 40 tonnes, I go to Pietrasanta. There’s an excellent workshop there, the Cooperativa Versigliese, with higly skilled craftsmen who do much of the heavy work on my sculptures I cannot do myself. I’ve been working with them for 20 years now.”
Lucilla Catania had just turned 18 when she went to the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome, where she studied sculpture for five years under Professor Emilio Greco, the renowned Italian sculptor, writer and illustrator, much of whose work has appeared in various exhibitions. Together with Giacomo Manzù and Marcello Mascherini, he represented the Italian wave of sculpture after the Second World War. “I didn’t learn all that much from him,” says Lucilla. “He was too figurative for me. I was more impressed by Brancusi, Jean Arp and Henry Moore – and Alberto Viani, he was a really fantastic sculptor. All their work made an instant visual impression on you: you knew immediately what they were trying to say without thinking about it. Brancusi’s works give you a vision of what the bare bones of sculpture can be. They resonate directly with the viewer. I may have learnt a bit of design from Greco’s work, but our approaches to art were too different for there to be much meeting of minds. I am an abstract artist, while he was a figurative sculptor. An important one, of course, but too closely linked to the classical Roman model to my liking.”
Meeting in Paris with César Baldaccini, the creator of Compressions and Expansions
After she had completed her studies in Rome, Lucilla visited César Baldaccini in his Paris studio. The famous French sculptor and jewellery designer, usually simply called César, is mainly known for his series of Compressions andExpansions, and his trademark sculpture Le Pouce (The Thumb), a gigantic representation of his own thumb. His early work used soldered and welded metal and junk material, and by 1960 he was regarded as one of France’s leading sculptors. In that year we saw a mechanical crushing machine in operation during a visit to a scrap merchant in search of materials, and he decided to use this in his art. His first Compression, consisting of three crushed cars, caused a sensation when it was displayed at the XVIth Salon de mai in 1960. He saw his provocative act as a protest against the conformism of abstract art. César selected different types and colours of cars to crush, which enabled him to vary the surface structure and colour schemes of his Compressions. The next step was a series of Expansions, based on techniques he had developed for working in expanded polystyrene.
Lucilla was impressed by César’s personality and work, and phoned him at his Paris studio to ask if she could visit him there. He agreed. “I thought he was fantastic,” says Lucilla. “I knew him mainly from his metal sculptures and his Compressions, huge objects made by crushing old cars. It’s a kind of pop art. I went to his studio because I wanted to meet him personally. He was very friendly. I only met him once. He had a look at my work, and praised it. He was working with a group of Japanese students at the time, and didn’t want to have pupils from other countries. So I studied for a while at the Académie des Beaux-arts in Paris under Georges Jeanclos, one of the greatest French sculptors of the 20th century.”
The start of a career: an exhibition in a small Roman art gallery
When she returned to Italy in 1981, Lucilla began her career with an exhibition of terracotta statues in a little art gallery in Rome. “I worked in terracotta because I couldn’t afford stone: that was much too expensive. I didn’t want to make installations, just three-dimensional works usually without a base – simply standing on the floor.”
The switch from terracotta to granite and marble
After working with various artists’ cooperatives in Italy and abroad, Lucilla Catania showed her work in the exhibition “Nuove trame dell’arte” (New Directions in Art) in Rome in 1985, curated by Achille Bonito Oliva, an art critic with an international reputation. “It was a great honour to take part,” says Lucilla, “since I was still a young artist. I showed two big works, and it did a lot for my career.” Lucilla stopped working in terracotta in that year, and moved on to granite and marble. These would be her main materials for the next 20 years. The compactness, definition and formal perfection that could be achieved with marble speeded up her search for ways of stripping away formal redundancies to overcome materiality and gravity. “I needed a change,” emphasises Lucilla. “It was time to find other stimuli.”
First one-woman exhibition at Galleria Artra in Milan
Lucilla held her first one-woman show at the Galleria Artra in Milan in 1988, and later the same year some of her works were shown in the collective exhibition Modi della scultura curated by Filiberto Menna, and in Geometrie dionisiache, (Dionesian Geometries) organised by the art critic and curator Lea Vergine. In 1989, Lea Vergine curated an exhibition of Lucilla Catania’s Statues at the Oddi Baglioni Galleries in Rome, and in the same year Lucilla also participated in the collective exhibition Orientamenti dell’arte italiana dal 1947ad oggi, curated by Simonetta Lux, in Moscow and Leningrad.
Lucilla was invited to exhibit in the “Open 90” section of the 53th Venice Biennial, curated by Giovanni Carandente, in 1990, and in 1991 the Klavniho Mesta Galleries in Prague invited her to set up a solo exhibition there. Later the same year, she showed her work at the prestigious exhibition Kunstlandschaft Europa-Roma (The landscape of European art: Rome), curated by Peter Weiermeir at the Kunstverein in Frankfurt. Her work was also on show at La Scultura Italiana del XX secolo in Japan in 2001. Anna Imponente, the curator of the Museo Nazionale d’Abruzzo, has installed Lucilla’s sculpture Naturale (2007) as a permanent exhibit in the atmospheric courtyard of L’Aquila’s 16th century castle that hosts the museum. Lucilla Catania’s work has also been exhibited at various prestigious sites throughout Europe in the years since then. For example, in 2009 she and her bosom friend Cloti Ricciardi, a well-known Roman artist from the ‘sixties and ‘seventies, held the dual exhibition “12 Disegni per 2 Sculture” (12 sketches for 2 sculptures) in the gardens of the Austrian Institute of Culture in Rome. “We wanted to show how different initial designs of a single sculpture can throw light on different aspects of the work and deepen its significance.” At present Lucilla is preparing two new exhibitions that will be held in Rome in 2017.
Rainer Fuchs, curator and Deputy Director of the MUMOK Museum of Modern Art in Vienna commented, “The confrontation between sculpture and space in the works of Lucilla Catania occurs very subtly, discreetly, with no evident pathos, without conquering and invading the landscape, without estranging it and swallowing it as a sheath for the sculptures. The objects adhere to the floor, extend horizontally and barely stand out. Swollen shapes, waves of marble or gushes of cement. Hence a heavy material, hard by nature or stiffened, nonetheless seemingly vibrates, because of the shape given by the artist, mocking smoothness and malleability. In spite of their independent forms as sculptures and their discreet occupation of space, the works are strongly related to the place where they are presented.” And Maria Giuseppina Di Monte was equally complimentary: “Catania is not only a very able sculptor, but also a talented designer.”
An interlude: combining terracotta with marble
Lucilla Catania embarked on a new cycle of work towards the end of the ’90s and the beginning of the new millennium, again taking up the use of terracotta, but this time in conjunction with marble. After having expanded the scope of her oeuvre by working in marble, travertine and cement, she rediscovered the merits of terracotta for small and medium-sized works. In this period she used a dark terracotta in bas-relief, glazed and processed to look like wood. High relief, in terracotta and alabaster, (see photo on left) is a particularly fine example of this approach. “I took up terracotta again, because I wanted to try working with two different materials. Terracotta is soft, you can shape it, with your hands, while materials like marble are hard and much more difficult to work with. You get interesting results by combining the two. I don’t think there are many sculptors in Italy who do that. I tried out this experiment between 2000 and 2006, but then I gave it up because most of my collectors prefer marble or granite on its own.”
‘Drappo rosso’ (The red scarf) in the gardens of the Passionist Convent in Rome
‘Drappo rosso’, (The red scarf) is an impressive work that Lucilla Catani created in 2010 in the gardens of the Passionist Convent near the Holy Stairs (Scala Santa) in the heart of Rome. It represents a huge terracotta scarf, apparently slung carelessly over the branch of a tree. “I spent a month on it,” says Lucilla, “and painted it with ferric oxide to give it a special red colour. The idea is to suggest that a huge supernatural visitor left its scar behind on the tree after calling on the sisters in this secret garden, a silent memento of a mysterious presence.”
“I have often seen scarves or shawls that people have draped over a chair somewhere and forgotten. I liked the idea of using this theme to suggest that this quiet garden in such a holy spot is not without its own special visitors. The red scarf will remain hanging in the tree as a permanent exhibit. It was commissioned by a firm of architects. It will not been seen by many members of the public, as this is a private garden belonging to the convent.”
Lacrima (1992) – A frozen tear
“I created Lacrima (Tear) in 1992. This work weighs between 200 and 300 kg. It is made of a special black Carrara marble with white and grey veins. It represents a frozen tear, a tear that falls from the eye and freezes into a geometric shape. The idea came spontaneously to me: of course, I have never seen anyone crying a tear like that. My works come from my eye, my mind and my heart, all working together. It is a visual, but also psychological process. Lacrimawill be placed in the garden belonging to one of my collectors. Most of the collectors who buy my work come from Liguria (the region around Genoa), in particular Savona. There aren’t so many from Rome.”