A child of fascism I was born in 1924 in Livorno, Tuscany, a port town by the Tyrrhenian Sea. I grew up immersed in the fascist mass hysteria until its fall, in 1945. My father was a renowned syndicalist, the director of the industrial union in Livorno, close to the government. He supported the idea of the mainstream superhero models typical of that historical era, and I was brought up in that environment.
To get closer to the fascist government, we moved to Rome in 1934. We lived in a large, bright flat right in front of Palazzo Venezia, Benito Mussolini’s residence. From our windows, we could see him addressing his speeches to the nation from his balcony. He was short and stout and gave me an unpleasant feeling every time I saw him. I was only 10 at the time, and it didn’t take long before I broke free from my father’s rigid beliefs.
Visions of war When I was 19 years old, I took my chance and ran away from Italy following my uncle – a diplomat – on his way to Odessa, Ukraine. There, carrying a diplomatic passport, I started to write and draw, documenting the retreat of the Italian army by the Don River. I witnessed death, pain, defeat, sorrow. Endless writing and drawing were my way to process all these emotions and reshape my vision of the world. In those challenging months, I began to develop my visual language. But when I got back to Rome, feeling lucky for being alive, I decided to complete my law studies at the university and tried for a couple of years to run my dad’s business. And I realised that art was my only possible direction.
First impressions I never had a proper arts education. I never went to art school or had art teachers. I just started painting my own way. At the beginning, I used my fingertips. I would look at small details of objects that were part of my daily life, like the blade of a knife, and transfer the impression of it onto paper, with my bare hands. I would do that thousands of times, almost non-stop.
My first official engagement as an artist happened in 1962, when I rolled up all of my paintings and drove my grey Ferrari with red-leather interiors from Rome to Paris, where I managed to get an appointment with one of the biggest art dealers in town, Daniel Cordier. His gallery was located in front of the French president’s residence. I parked my Ferrari right on the pavement of the Élysée (Palace), a restricted area, and walked up the gallery entrance carrying my best works. Cordier was waiting for me in an empty, carpeted room. “Put everything you have on the floor,” he said. And I did. He bought it all. On that day, I officially became part of the most influential art market.
A meeting of minds In Paris, I used to live in a little bohemian attic near Jardin des Plantes, on the Rive Gauche, a place I still own. It was in Paris that, for the first time, my works were displayed at a collective art exhibition, “Collages et Objet”, together with those of some established painters like Rauschenberg and Picasso.
During those exciting French days, I made a circle of good friends, most of them artists from South America. In summer, some used to spend weeks playing chess with Marcel Duchamp, in his Spanish retreat in Cadaqués. Marcel was obsessed with that game while I hated it. I was not part of the chess-maniacs entourage. But one day, it was September 11, 1962, I got a phone call while in my Paris flat: “Gianfranco, we are having lunch with Duchamp today. Do you want to join?” My South American friends were in Milan with Marcel and his art dealer. I jumped on a plane from Paris and flew there, just to meet him. That was the beginning of a long, true friendship and collaboration.
Art without boundaries After Paris, I flew to New York with Arne Ekstrom – a Swedish merchant associated with Cordier – and debuted at the Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery. Those were the years of great intellectual ferment, and I started being involved with moving images and visual art.
In 1964, with my friend, (film director) Alberto Grifi, I bought a truck loaded with 150,000 metres of discarded cinematographic reels: they were film clips from Hollywood movies, dating back to the 1950s. We watched them, and cut and pasted some sequences to re-edit a new film: Verifica Incerta (1965). It was a movie with an exceptional cast: from the already famous Duchamp, who contributed to the idea, to my friend John Cage, who presented the movie at MoMA (the Museum of Modern Art) and the Guggenheim Museum, in New York. For many intellectuals, Verifica Incerta marks the beginning of the Italian visual art movement.
Two years later, I travelled to New York with one of the great Italian writers and novelists, Italo Calvino, and his wife, Chichita. In those years, art had no boundaries, and painters, directors and writers could influence each other.
Grounds for inspiration I have always had a slightly anarchic attitude, and the farming experiment of Agricola Cornelia is one of the clearest examples of it. In 1973, I decided that active politics, in which I had been involved in the previous couple of years, didn’t fit my inclination.
I had inherited a huge villa from my family on Rome’s doorstep, with more than 20 acres of abandoned land, Villa Cornelia. I decided there was way more political value to farming this uncultivated land than to discussing theories as an intellectual activist. So, I moved to Villa Cornelia with my family, and we sowed 5kg of seeds, out of which we harvested 85,000 beetroots in the first year. We extracted sugar out of them, and also raised cattle and sheep. As a farmer and artist, I have produced endless pages and drawings of this agricultural experiment.
Creativity still flowing, at 93 Villa Cornelia is now the headquarters of Fondazione Baruchello, the art foundation that my wife, Carla Subrizi, a professor of contemporary art history at La Sapienza University, in Rome, founded on nearly 20 years of work and research through my immense and chaotic archive. Carla also works on new projects involving young artists. She has set up artists’ residencies in the park of Villa Cornelia, where the artists can follow their creative flow while immersed in nature.
Following the creative flow is the core of being an artist. I am 93 and still get up to work eight hours a day non-stop, just because I need to do it. Not only does this exercise keep my art alive, it also still takes me around the world. Like today: I’m here in Hong Kong, with my first art exhibition in town, my first Asian experience. To be able to be surprised at 93, in this incredible city, is truly a great gift and I have already made some sketches that were inspired by the Chi Lin Nunnery, in Kowloon.
Gianfranco Baruchello was in Hong Kong for the exhibition “Gianfranco Baruchello, Marcel Duchamp”, at the Massimo De Carlo gallery, in Central.