Amerigo Tot (1909-1984)
Exhibition On View: 24 October - 25 November 2022
Private View on: 21 October 2022, Friday 6 pm
Dr. László Baán, Director General of the Museum of Fine Arts
The name of Amerigo Tot is well known among Hungarian art lovers: alongside Vasarely, he is the other artist who emigrated, and whose 1969 exhibition in the Kunsthalle allowed him to return to the Hungarian public consciousness and enrich the palette of Hungarian public sculpture with several works. Many people also know that he was a movie star-like character, having played an episode role in The Godfather; his physique and gestures embodied the idealised figure of the modern artist for many.
We know well the main stages of his life's work, which unfolded primarily in Italy: the words of Antal Szerb’s ’Journey by Moonlight’ can be read as a strange prophecy - a young Hungarian sculptor who came to Rome without any money but with great ambitions, who barely ten years later won the competition for the monumental frieze of the façade of the Termini, the main railway station in Rome; this was followed by many other important commissions in Italy, but later also in his homeland. Thus, we didn't really expect him to be able to surprise us anymore, but he did, as not many of us knew that he had created such painterly and modernist experiments with ceramics as the ones we can see in the exhibition opening today at Einspach Gallery.
Perhaps the most successful period of Amerigo Tot's work in Italy was the 1950s. Around this time, he had a steady stream of commissions and well-known artists visited his studio in Rome, including Picasso and Chirico. During this period, he has won numerous prizes, participated in competitions and created several public sculptures. A special chapter of his work is his projects with architects and his experiments in architectural sculpture, in which he experimented with different techniques (including concrete casting and metal reliefs).
His ceramic works also belonged to this - so to speak - "peak period". In 1950, Giuseppe Ragazzini persuaded Tot to take over Vincenzo Pinto's ceramics workshop in Vietri. The two years spent there gave the artist new opportunities: on the one hand he could work with architects on building decoration (in the modernist spirit of the reconstruction fever), and on the other (following Picasso's footsteps) he could try himself in decorating everyday objects (vases, plates and other ornaments).
In addition to the wall and home decorations of the "Vietri" period, he freely explored the possibilities of the genre. As a result of these, the series of 1952 now presented, which came to the Einspach Gallery from a private Italian collection, can now be seen for the first time by the Hungarian public. And in many ways it is a revelation.
The pattern, made up of small tiles, but two metres wide overall, is a spectacular demonstration of what Tot had in mind on the system of interlocking abstract forms, reminiscent of plastic elements. In the same year, he also made tile-picture compositions of a similar size, reinterpreting antique group paintings in a similar format, so it is not a coincidence that we can identify a reductionist arrangement of figures behind this pictorial construction.
These works are Amerigo Tot's paintings fired on ceramics, they are autonomous images, connected to the use of sculptural materials. Let's look at them in this way: as closed compositions whose forms (like those of antique friezes) fill the horizontal format. These works also prove Tot's mastery of visual and formal structures: overlapping shapes create a network of emphases and eye-catching lines, a dynamic that can be viewed over and over again.
The character and art of Amerigo Tot means something different (more) to us than it does to Italians or even to art history in general. As an artist, he embodied a figure whose internationalism and broad-mindedness made him a part of the Italian art world. He was always envied by others, but his optimism, positive outlook on life, cheerful and entertaining character enabled him to overcome the difficulties of integration. The versatility of his work is an example for today's generations of artists, as this exhibition proves.
But what exactly is on the ceramic panels? Dynamic compositions of figures struggling with each other and with themselves? Or just an interesting arrangement of peculiarly shaped boulders? Crooked, spatial projections of intersecting line systems? Maybe none of them, or all of them at once. The answer is up to you, but there is no need to look for the only valid solution: welcome the works in this exhibition with an open mind and the joy of surprise, and simply admire their ingenuity and versatility.
Thanks to the gallery, which has found and brought home a piece of the world created by the artist, who has gone far away and then returned, a piece of his world full of creative energy that we have never known before.
Thank you for your kind attention.
Dr. László Baán
“If God turned me into a sculptor, I would ask for Arp’s eye, Moore’s ability to draw, and the strength in Tot’s thumb,” said Picasso once. It is no wonder that as a sculptor, he would have asked for the robust fingers of Amerigo Tot, an artist of Hungarian origin living in Italy – as Tot could deploy them with devilish ingenuity. He modelled, drew, poured and sculpt- ed, choosing at his will. He was a Picassoesque character, a lively hedonist, a roisterer and a bragger, yet a universally beloved figure who could speak in many styles over a half-century career. He understood the aesthetics of ancient art just as well as mid-century design. He was a sculptor but also created ceramics, working for the Italian state, the Hungarian Com- munist Party and the Pope. In the meantime, he even found time to play Don Corleone’s bodyguard in The Godfather. An adventurous Uomo universale of the twentieth century.
Amerigo Tot – christened as Imre Tóth – was born in 1909 in a small Hungarian village and grew up in Budapest. His gendarme father wanted him to become a lawyer but he chose fine arts. He graduated from the Hungarian Royal Drawing School, and in the meantime, became involved with the Munka (Work) Circle, led by Lajos Kassák, the straight-talking, never-negotiating, core member of the Hungarian avant-garde. As a member of this left-wing society, he beat up far-right demonstrators in Budapest in 1930, for which he was imprisoned by the authorities. After his release, he headed for Germany, where he was accepted into the best school of modern art, the Bauhaus in Dessau. He travelled by foot to the Bauhaus – which was run by Hannes Meyer, an avid proponent of the institution’s left-wing years – and was taught by masters such as Josef Albers. After a brief but influential period of study in Dessau, he wandered the North Sea as a sailor before returning to the classroom, studying under the supervision of Otto Dix in Dresden. In 1933, he was arrested and interned by the Nazis, but made an adventurous escape and eventually fled to Italy. This would be his chosen homeland from then on. In Rome, he worked on sculptural commissions of a classical nature, mainly for the church, and then as a trained paratrooper partisan and a member of the National Libera- tion Front, he fought the Germans. His restless nature didn’t waver following the war: he tried himself at automobile racing and also appeared in films. His most successful creative period was in the 1950s when he created his monumental frieze for Termini Railway Station’s façade in Rome. Completed in 1953, the large-scale relief, comprising riveted aluminium sheets, con- sists of an organically fluttering yet geometric abstract pattern. Tot was at his peak during these years, regularly exhibiting at the Venice Biennale and winning numerous state com- missions for the realisation of public works. It was during this period, in 1952, that the seven murals, each two metres wide and composed of glazed ceramic tiles, were made, all of which will be exhibited by Einspach Fine Art & Photography in the near future.
Tot, like Picasso, discovered the ceramic technique in the late 1940s, not in Vallauris, however, but in a workshop in Vietri, near Naples. Then, Tot, who had previ- ously worked in an impeccably elegant neoclassical style, radically simplified his formal language. Following the venerable doctrine of analytic cubism, he abstracted the Greek human figures sweeping across the friezes until they became nonfigurative shapes, only partially evocative of spatiality – most akin to the formal universe of Abstraction-Créa- tion. In the meantime, he became acquainted with Giuseppe Ragazzini, the renowned dealer in majolica decoration who introduced many modern Italian artists to ceramics. Ragazzini asked Tot to take over the management of a ceramics factory in Vietri sul Mare in 1949. He produced countless pieces during the few, but productive years he spent there.
“The most beautiful works of art of the Vietri period,”wrote Péter Nemes, a dedicated re- searcher of Tot’s oeuvre, “are undoubtedly the ceramic panels, made up of several pieces with geometric decoration. Their technical and formal antecedents are found in the nonfigurative sgraffitos Amerigo Tot made in 1948–1949 to decorate the pavilions and exhibition spaces of major Italian fairs. First, the artist painted a white wall surface black, then, using a spatula, scratched in the contours of the forms and finally, using the same spatula, he scraped off the background to reveal the underlying layer. Tot followed the same procedure for the panels of 20 × 20 cm tiles but used a glaze instead of paint.” To this day, we are not aware of the exact location for which these works were initially made – it is a certainty, however, that they are tinglingly vivid reminders of mid-twentieth century modernity.