Becoming an artist - this is the dream of the young man from Lugano. Goal achieved in both Zurich and Paris.Text | Works
Upon finishing his compulsory education, Mario Comensoli becomes an apprentice hairdresser, a workshop apprentice and a labourer in the Mulino Nuovo district of Lugano. He begins to paint portraits of the tourists who come to Lugano until René Daetwyler, owner of the Hotel Esplanade, recognises his artistic qualities and provides him with a small studio in the annex of his hotel. He attends the nude evening school by Carlo Cotti and the atelier of the painter and sculptor Giuseppe Foglia, making frequent trips to Italy and deepening his knowledge of the twentieth century masters, thanks to his friendship with Giuseppe Martinola, the cantonal archivist and art scholar. With Martinola - also an apprentice painter - he paints numerous landscapes. Taking advantage of a scholarship from the Torricelli Foundation, he moves to Zurich where he attends painting and architecture courses at the Kunstgewerbeschule and the ETH (Polytechnic).
PARIS - THE PICASSO ATTRACTION
Leaving Switzerland after the war, the young artist saw Picasso's original works in Paris. It was an event that had important consequences.Text | Works
Following the advice of Giuseppe Foglia, a mine of information on the Parisian scene, Comensoli goes to Paris in 1945, as soon as the borders open once again, which he visits regularly until 1953. These are relatively long stays, for two or three months at a time. His enthusiasm for Picasso, to the point where he visits the most important exhibitions, is attested to by the letters addressed to his wife Hélène Frei in Zurich, whom he marries in 1945. Captured by the Cubist phase, Comensoli submits himself to a hard discipline that, for him, will mean the capture of bodies in space. A lesson that he will never forget in the various successive phases of his pictorial narrative.
LA PEINTURE DU MOUVEMENT
In Paris he met the post-cubist Giuseppe Orazi with whom he elaborates a language that is characterized by a lively and fascinating graft of shapes and colors.Text | Works
During his stay in Paris, Comensoli gets in touch with various artists, from Mirò to Borès, the brothers Alberto and Diego Giacometti, and Edouard Pignon. Along with a now-forgotten artist, the Italian Giuseppe Orazi, "Horace" to his French friends, he shares an apartment and the studio in Montparnasse: a fruitful meeting because the two begin a pictorial phase that "Lettres francaises" defines "La peinture du Mouvement": "Colori e forme" - refers the literary sheet - participate in a construction that forces the gaze to move, to follow the lines that are not simple Arabesques but that trace the trajectory of a feeling, of an action." For Comensoli, this is his longed-for conquest of space; he now abandons the easel and the live landscapes and, between Zurich and Paris, he furthers his imagination and his chromatic enjoyment by creating large canvases with choral representations (dances, battles, activities on building sites).
These canvases, in addition to some works from the Picasso phase, are taken by Comensoli to Zurich where, at the suggestion of the future director of the Kunsthaus, René Wehrli, the city opens the doors of the Helmhaus Museum to him for a major retrospective. Critics enthusiastically greet him, but the echo of this success arrives in Paris where Horace does not appreciate the fact of having been forgotten by the critics and in the catalogue as co-star of the Peinture du Mouvement. In an article in the Lettres francaises, a friend of the painter goes so far as to accuse the Swiss artist of plagiarism and even to threaten legal action. The crisis, however, will have a positive outcome, that is, it will be instrumental in the birth of a new Comensoli, now freed - to use his own words - from the infantilism of the avant-garde, a definition from which he now distanced himself.
Sculpture was a short-lived passion for the young artist.Text | Works
At the beginning of the 1950s there is a phase in which Comensoli tries his hand at plastic arts. His master is the sculptor Emilio Stanzani (1906-1977) who lives between Zurich and Paris, where he has his studio at the Cité Falguiére, an assembly of ateliers constructed from material from the 1906 world exhibition and where Modigliani, Soutine and Foujita all lived. Some valuable creative works by Comensoli, the evidence of a promising talent who unfortunately interrupts his career too early, are preserved at the Comensoli Centre in Zurich.
THE WORKERS WORLD
1953 is the breakthrough year. Comensoli frees himself from the classic Parisians and through the instruments of realism gives life to the original narration of his «workers in blue».Text | Works
During these years, a massive emigration from Italy is profoundly changing the face of Switzerland. Official statistics that do not take into account the large number of seasonal workers, but determine that in just seven years - between 1965 and 1972 - foreign workers with annual residence permits go from 377,000 to 721,000. Thus, while Swiss painters celebrate the triumph of geometry or take refuge in the limbo of abstract expressionism, Comensoli discovers the "new aesthetic" of immigrant workers, representing them with an intense interest that can only be explained by going back to the roots of his existence, to the years of his difficult childhood. "They changed our reality, questioned our customs, provoked us. The whole of society”, says Comensoli in an interview with journalist Frank A. Meyer - he had to suddenly confront the lives of these men who unexpectedly appeared on the construction sites, in the restaurants, in the stations. “They bewitched our daily lives. For me they were the new aesthetics. I couldn't avoid them, I had to paint them. In the paintings they turned themselves into poetry.”
Carlo Levi, the author of "Cristo si é fermato a Eboli", is impressed by Comensoli's pictorial narrative and invites him to Rome and to the San Luca gallery for an exhibition where Comensoli clashes with the master of Italian realism, Renato Guttuso: the reason? Guttuso reproaches the Swiss painter for his modest, poorly elegiac tone, for the melancholy everyday life of the protagonists, that is, those who should represent the "sun of the future". According to Levi, however, "Comensoli tells us in a simple and austere way the fate of his characters. The tone is fraternal, the point of view is that of those who live and feel on the same level and seek not curiosity but a similarity."
Mario Comensoli also paints his father Albino, ill for some time and dies in hospital at the age of 82. The mattress maker had addressed many postcards to his son expressing pride for his work as an artist.
New stimuli come into play in his work. Also experimenting with new pictorial techniques, the artist presents the other side of society: the rich, the petty bourgeoisie that, thanks to its economic well-being, takes on the characteristics of a fake and awkward aristocracy.Text | Works
These are the years of the economic boom. And Comensoli turns his gaze towards its protagonists, narrating also their inevitable frustrations, boredom, alienation, the neuroses linked to the philosophy of possession. In 1962 he exhibits the paintings of "Begegnungen 62" at the Walcheturm gallery in Zurich, which bear witness to a sick society oriented towards the spasmodic search for the superfluous.
THE YOUTH UPRISING
The rediscovery of colours (that creative joy that already manifested itself in different forms in La Peinture du Mouvement), the total sense of freedom of expression, the repudiation and denouncement of conventions: for the artist 1968 is a stimulus to rediscover and regenerate himself.Text | Works
In 1968, the youth uprisings from Paris, Berlin and Zurich to the university campuses of the United States affect the entire western world and create the conditions for radical changes in the social fabric. Mario Comensoli cannot remain uninvolved to the upheavals he experiences in Zurich at first hand. The artist who previously described the marginalization of immigrants and with a critical and ironic look at the bourgeoisie of the economic miracle was captured by what he considers a revolution, that of the so-called Globuskravalle, the youth demonstrations in the square that demand an autonomous meeting place in the abandoned department stores of Globus, a few steps from the central station.
Thus was born a participatory testimony of those events that also represents a turning point in the manner of his pictorial narrative, thanks to an audacious and obsessive use of shapes and colours, partly dependent on the teachings of pop art.
Exasperated by modern advertising techniques, consumerism makes itself look like real fictitious needs: for the artist he takes the opportunity to exercise his irony on society at large and victim of this new phenomenon.Text | Works
In 1971 Mario and Hélène Comensoli go to Ischia and are confronted with the first signs of mass tourism. Even before turning his gaze towards the destruction of the environment by supporting ecological campaigns, the painter targets consumerism in its most aberrant forms. However, he does so only by following his instinct, appropriating the symbols of everyday life and overturning their meaning, creating a promiscuity of values, objects and people, disrupting hierarchies and dispelling ideologies. The result is an itinerant exhibition called Tell 73 in which Comensoli, through his large canvases, creates a sort of ironic counterpoint to the myths, heroes and stereotypes of pastoral Switzerland.
POWER FOR WOMEN
The emancipation of women, following on from 1968, leads women to increasingly numerous and important achievements. The female status is at the centre of an exhibition that the artist brings to both Zurich and Paris.Text | Works
The theme of militant feminism, of power for women, was one of the components of the uprising of '68 and this theme is appropriated by Mario Comensoli in his own way by creating the Chapel of the Unspeakable Contradictions with the gallery owner Jamileh Weber in 1975. In Zurich's gallery of feminist-inspired canvases, debates are held on television with the participation of sociologists, housewives and parliamentarians from Bern. "The representation of Comensoli,” writes Guglielmo Volonterio on this occasion, “is everything and its opposite: male and female, optimism and pessimism, sexual performance and relative disempowerment." Following the success of the Zurich exhibition, Pro Helvetia will reconstruct the exhibition in Paris two years later in the rooms of the Porte de la Suisse.
In the cycle dedicated to cinema, the protagonists are not Hollywood celebrities and stars but young cashiers and movie theatres masks that overlap their destinies, their recitals, staging an illusion of reality, an escape from the dullness of everyday life.Text | Works
And here once again Comensoli is drinking from the fountain of youth, who are now the children of those emigrants who came to Switzerland twenty years before with their cardboard suitcases. The Swiss call them "the Italos." Among them they express themselves in an Italian with southern accents, a sort of lingua franca dotted here and there with Swiss-German terms, they are sharp and sufficiently versatile to enter the folds of the Protestant world without losing their identity, they form a group, they work in the factories and in the pizzerias that emerge like mushrooms in the cities supplanting beer halls and tea rooms and they are the heroes of Saturday evening in the discos on the outskirts of town. In a series of paintings intended for an exhibition organised as part of the Locarno Film Festival in 1978, Comensoli dresses these youngsters with the solemn livery of the ushers and of the popcorn sellers and makes them act against the magical backdrop of the cinematic stage. They have oxygenated blonde hairstyles to signify their insertion into the German world, but boldness, agility and mockery come from the south, from the Commedia dell'arte. "In painting, Italianism is perhaps the very essence of the dynamic." Comensoli notes. And in fact the contrast between the illusion maker that Comensoli represents using collages of cinema posters evoking a mythological reality and the insolent vitality of these young people create surreal and sarcastic effects. With equal success, Mario Comensoli takes his world from the Grand Hotel in Locarno to Zurich, to the Kunstgewerbeschule, and to France, to Poitiers and to the Cagnes-sur-Mer festival.
The youth universe of discos is told by the artist in the series «Discovirus». The excitement of the dynamics and movements reaches here a sort of paroxysm.Text | Works
"I happen to observe," Comensoli recounts, "a young electrician working on a construction site. He comes and goes, showing off like a little Travolta . With a black leather jacket, jeans and tennis shoes, it looks like he has stepped out of my paintings. In Zurich they ironically call them "The Oerlikon Travoltas" (Oerlikon is an industrial suburb) and they are "italos" who feel very close to Brooklyn's Italo-Americans: they apply themselves with passion to dancing and imitate the heroes of the "Saturday Night Fever", seeking redemption from marginalization. The theme of dance has been a constant in Comensoli's work since the 1950s when he collaborated in Amsterdam on the choreography of a ballet.
These are important years in which the artist elaborates the series perhaps best-known today, «Youth in Ferment», dedicated to the figure of the metropolitan punk, the young alternative on the margins of society.Text | Works
In the 1980s, Zurich was shaken by the "no future" youth protests. And Mario Comensoli, this seismograph of the most important social changes, cannot remain indifferent to a protest that is also a hope for change. The young people of the so-called Bewegung, who distance themselves from the "old Hippies" of '68, ask for "free zones", autonomous spaces in which to live their counter-culture. This is how the series that Comensoli calls "Youth in Turmoil" was born, paintings in which punks give life to a parade of characters, boys who improvise disrespectful dances around the bonfires of bourgeois beliefs. "These marginal young people, their stories, their poetry, give visibility to that what we do not see or do not want to see: ourselves." In an antithetical role to these characters Comensoli also paints the world of those who seek in financial success their illusory fulfilment, the ass-kissed world, the slick executive "yuppies".
THE LAST YEARS
It is as if the artist felt the approach of the end just as his atelier is almost besieged by drug dealers. This omen of death turns into a peremptory and powerful cry, into an invocation to pity for the victims of that huge catastrophe.Text | Works
At the end of the 1980s, the so-called "open scene" of drugs was born in Zurich at Platzspitz, the National Museum's park near the central station, which was renamed "Needle Park" by the world press. The desperate orphans of the Free-Zone, a wreck of the youth uprising infiltrated by the drug dealers and then closed down by the authorities, came here. Expelled from the Platzspitz, the drug addicts from all over Europe had then camped, followed by their "dealers" in the abandoned station of Letten, along the Limmat river, just two hundred meters from Comensoli’s atelier. In his study of Rousseaustrasse, Comensoli notes a passage from Pasolini's Lutheran Letters; Pasolini being one of his favourite writers: "The children we see around us are children punished: "punished" in the present, by their unhappiness, and then, in the future, from who knows what, from what carnage...."
If the boys of the paintings dedicated to "no future" still had a connection, the clothing and hairstyles that connected with the real world and expressed a message - if we want - of an optimistic innocence, now his characters assume an indefinite and dramatic dimension. The fragile and arrogant brazen physicality of the figures is lost in an opaque fading from which emerge damned white and larval angels who have the bleak elegance of a prophecy.
Both painting and charcoal drawing come easy for him and Comensoli, with a very agile hand, draws characters with a rapidity and expressive happiness that are only a desperate attempt to spend those months in the best way possible, those days that still remain to him. Death catches up with him in the atelier on June 2, 1993: he had asked too much of a fatigued heart, neglecting care and doctors who he feared more than the dangers of an angina pectoris.