Interview with Ilaria BERNARDI: “Visitors will see real works that are usually contemplated only in contemporary art history textbooks”

Curator and PhD in Art History, Ilaria Bernardi has specialized in the Italian art of the ‘60s until today and is simultaneously interested in international contemporary art, with particular regard to African art. She collaborated, among others, with Germano Celant and, at Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, with Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. She has curated exhibitions for renowned exhibition spaces in Italy, including Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Palazzo delle Esposizioni and Auditorium Parco della Musica, in Rome; Villa e Collezione Panza, Varese; Museo del Novecento e del Contemporaneo di Palazzo Fabroni, Pistoia; Magazzino Italian Art, Cold Spring, New York; Italian Cultural Institute, New York; Keyes Art Mille, Johannesburg; 6 Spin Street, Cape Town.
She is the curator of the Genesis Project. Art and Human Rights, an itinerant exhibition promoted by Associazione Genesi and supported by the Italian Ministry of Culture. She has authored several monographs on Italian art of the ’60s and ‘70s, including Opere e archivi. Mara Coccia e Daniela Ferraria, Silvana Editoriale, Milan, 2020; La Tartaruga. Storia di una galleria, Postmedia Books, Milan, 2018; Giulio Paolini. Opere su carta, Prinp – Editoria d’Arte 2.0, Turin, 2017.

This year, Ilaria Bernardi is coming to Bucharest to curate the most important exhibition dedicated to Arte Povera presented so far in Romania, aimed at enhancing the extraordinary vision and collection of one of the most important gallery owners of the 20th century, Ileana Sonnabend (1914 – 2007). Born in Romania, she left the country in the ‘30s after meeting Leo Castelli in Bucharest, whom she later married. Ileana Sonnabend has devoted her entire life to contemporary art – moving back and forth between United States and Europe – becoming a true “Ambassador for the New”, to quote the title of an exhibition dedicated to the famous gallerist by MoMA New York in 2013.

Luciano Fabro, Italian Cultural Institute, New York, 2024

Irina Ungureanu: Ileana Sonnabend & Arte Povera is the title of the exhibition that will be inaugurated in mid-June at the National Museum of Art of Romania. On the occasion of the centenary of the birth of the great collector and gallerist, the Italian Embassy and the Italian Cultural Institute in Bucharest join to offer the Romanian public a double privilege: to see Ileana Sonnabend, born Schapira, “return” symbolically” in her country of origin, and at the same time, to discover the exceptional vision that led Ileana Sonnabend to promote the young Italian artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s, in particular the prominent representatives of that extraordinary art research that will remain in history as Arte Povera. How did the idea of the exhibition come about, and what can we expect to see in Bucharest from the Sonnabend collection?

Ilaria Bernardi: The exhibition was conceived with a double purpose: on the one hand, to pay tribute to the excellent work of a Romanian-born woman who, in the ‘60s, embraced a cosmopolitan dimension, becoming an icon of 20th-century international art while her country was closing itself off to the Western world under the curtain of the communist regime; on the other hand, to promote abroad the most relevant and international Italian artistic research after the Second World War: the Arte Povera movement.
The exhibition includes works by the Arte Povera artists promoted and supported by Ileana Sonnabend: Michelangelo Pistoletto, Gilberto Zorio, Mario Merz, Giovanni Anselmo, Pier Paolo Calzolari, Giulio Paolini, Jannis Kounellis. As a foreword to the focus on Arte Povera, the exhibition pays special tribute to Mario Schifano, as he was the first Italian artist that Ileana Sonnabend exhibited, which marked the beginning of the link between the Sonnabend gallery and Italian art.

I.U.: We are sure that our readers will have the curiosity to understand what it means to prepare an exhibition of this extent. Could you tell us how it was for you to research on the life story and the archive of Ileana Sonnabend?

I.B.: Preparing an exhibition of this kind requires first a solid background in the Italian and international artistic context of the ‘60s and ‘70s. I specialized in this topic, specifically on Arte Povera: I worked with some of the Arte Povera artists, to whom I dedicated some of my writings, and I also collaborated with the movement’s theorist, Germano Celant. In 2023, I curated the first exhibition on Arte Povera at the Wits Art Museum in Johannesburg, which was, in fact, the first exhibition on Arte Povera ever organized throughout the African continent. At the end of June, I will curate an important project in Italy once again dedicated to Arte Povera and, in particular, to Michelangelo Pistoletto and Alighiero Boetti. This experience and knowledge have certainly helped elaborate on the exhibition project.
In addition, the constant dialogue with the artists, especially with Ileana Sonnabend’s heir, Antonio Homem, was fundamental to reconstructing her personal history and the exhibitions she organized. I love working closely with artists, archives and heirs (as in this case), making shared choices with them. I believe this is also a way of showing respect for their artistic path and their work. I wish that my projects are always in line with the protagonists they are dedicated to. Of course, this continuous sharing means a lot more work for me, but it’s worth it!

Arte Povera 1967-1971 exhibition, Wits Art Museum, Johannesburg, 2023

I.U.: For over 50 years, Ileana Sonnabend has promoted the new avant-garde, and her bond with Italy has become strong and special. First in the United States and then in Europe, Sonnabend has turned into a spokesperson for Arte Povera, offering ample space for expression in her gallery to artists such Jannis Kounellis, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Pier Paolo Calzolari, Mario Merz, Piero Manzoni, Vito Acconci, Mario Schifano, to name just a few. How the selection of artists and artworks that will be presented in Bucharest has been made?

I.B.: The selection of artists was based on the choice to dedicate the exhibition to Ileana Sonnabend’s relationship with Arte Povera rather than to Italian art in general. Focusing only on Arte Povera allows us to highlight the vision of the gallery owner, who foresaw in that group of artists a response to the American artistic movements and, therefore, an implicit internationality that time has confirmed fully since then.

The exhibition is not only the first that Romania dedicates to the Romanian-born gallerist but also the first dedicated to her, which is not based on the works currently belonging to her collection, the Sonnabend Collection. To differentiate itself from previous exhibition projects and to emphasize the strong bond between Ileana Sonnabend and Italy through Arte Povera, the exhibition at the National Museum of Art of Romania includes works still today owned by the artists or their heirs, as well as by museums, foundations, private collectors, Italian gallery owners: but these are works that have been exhibited by Ileana Sonnabend at her gallery or shown by her in other art spaces.

I.U.: Can we expect to meet in Bucharest some of the artists on display, representatives of the Italian Arte Povera?

I.B.: Unfortunately, some of the artists on display are no longer alive (Giovanni Anselmo, Jannis Kounellis, Mario Merz). As for the others, we hope to be able to bring them to Bucharest if not for the opening anyway during the exhibition.

Claudio Abate, MAXXI, Rome, photo from the exhibition dedicated to the Italian arts of the 60s, among them Arte Povera

I.U.: The “frisson of the new” was the engine that animated Ileana Sonnabend in her research in discovering and enhancing artists who were always a step ahead of their contemporaries. What does her vision teach us, and how relevant is the approach of this gallery owner who, in addition to the new, confessed to also seeking the “nascent classicism” in the art of her time?

I.B.: Unfortunately, today, the art world is often moved by the mere search for market success, promoting the works of young artists for a few years and then moving to search for other young artists, and so on. What Ileana Sonnabend and the generation of Arte Povera artists teach us is to focus on quality, on building continuity in the relationship between an artist and a gallerist, as well as on international relationships capable of weaving real networks of exchange and collaboration.

I.U.: How long will the exhibition be open? If you were to make a quick imaginary guide within the exhibition, what would be the points not to be missed by the visitor?

I.B.: The exhibition will remain open until September 22. After the first room, which, through historical photos and texts, reconstructs the story of Ileana Sonnabend and her relationship with Arte Povera, the other rooms are intended to showcase the works of the artists who are part of the movement, while the last room will screen a documentary on the subject, produced specifically for the exhibition. Not to be missed are obviously the rooms with the iconic works exhibited by Ileana Sonnabend in her gallery. This is an important opportunity for the visitor to see real works that are usually contemplated only in contemporary art history textbooks.

Credit cover photo: Guglielmo de Micheli.

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