Gio Ponti: A Guide for Contemporary Use Salvatore Licitra

By Salvatore Licitra

Excerpts from the catalogue.

Illustration for “Una piccola casa ideale”, 1939
© Gio Ponti Archives, Milan

I believe that the decision of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris to organise an exhibition dedicated to Gio Ponti, today, responds to both a basic need, as well as something more urgent. There are many reasons for this choice: Gio Ponti’s long relationship with the museum’s supporters and directors (…) and the acknowledgment of the importance of Ponti’s oeuvre, for which French culture was an important point of reference. This is not a case, therefore, of presenting an account of “Italian arts”and of a figure from a past and bygone age, but rather a way of looking at the present, and at the sources to which important contemporary expressions of creativity refer and look for inspiration. Our intention was that this exhibition on Ponti be comprehensive, a setting in which all the varied expressions of his long creative career could come together. (…) Concerning this “Pontian universe,” finally, and the renewed attention it is attracting today among artists, designers and architects, there are two terms that I feel it necessary to make explicit at the outset of this initiative. These terms are interrelated, describing the same subject from two different points of view, and are useful in illustrating how Gio Ponti’s work is being looked at today.

The first is “the gaze as measure.”

Letter with drawings to Lisa Ponti, around 1960
Felt-pen on paper. Milan, private collection
© Gio Ponti Archives, Milan

If you observe many of Ponti’s architectural plans, you will notice they are strewn with eyes and pierced by lines that trace the visual field. This is architecture that is formed and modelled not only based on the functions and availability of spaces, but on the visual experience of the people who will inhabit them. Gio Ponti started out as an artist and loved defining himself as an artist who had fallen in love with architecture. His work contains a refined play of composition expressed in three dimensions, extending out to include vast portions of reality such as building facades, or focusing in on decorative details, walls, openings, lights, the juxtaposition of materials. (…) Gio Ponti’s ability to make visual perception into one of the pillars of his work, with the detachment worthy of a director/composer and the freedom of a true artist, is one of the elements that most contributes to the consideration of his oeuvre as a forerunner of a contemporary mode of perceiving architecture, colours, spaces and design. (…)

Refraction

How does Ponti’s activity evolve over time? What is the most appropriate way to describe its development over his six-decade career? Inevitably any itinerary of this sort is, by its very nature, chronological. This allows us to create connections between Ponti’s work and the historical and cultural context in which it arose, and this is significant. Yet if we wish to avoid being distracted by the“context,” precisely because of the peculiarities and marked artistic slant of Ponti’s work (…) we must distance ourselves from this chronological vision and imagine another, in which each individual work provides us with the elements necessary to relate it to the others. Refraction, then, in the sense that the element that interests us is atemporal, intrinsic to a single work, and seemingly recognizable in previous or subsequent projects (the theory of mirror neurons comes to mind).

Fresco “Scala del Sapere” created by Gio Ponti, Palazzo del Bo, University of Padua
© Tom Mannion

Thus emerges a network-like system of references, forms, archetypes, and terms that describe the Pontian universe. A sort of keyboard with which Ponti “composed” his works, whether the ceramics of the 1920s, the architecture of the 1950s, or the furnitureof the 1970s. (…) Ponti certainly visited Etruscan museums and made notes about the décor, redesigned and reproduced Phoenician vases at Richard Ginori, developed a passion for Palladian obelisks, spoke to us enthusiastically about Serlio ... yet in Ponti’s career there is no “Etruscan,” “Phoenician,” “Palladian,” or, much less, “16th century” period. These suggestions, and many others, participated in Ponti’s work and shaped its creative impulse, but he then consciously transfigured them thanks to the distance an artist maintains from the colours on his palette, the vibrations of which he values and knows, but which he uses with the freedom and inventiveness necessary in new ideas. (…)

In conclusion, I hope that among the people who visit the exhibition and read this catalogue, there will be some, perhaps the most curious or the most restless, who adopt the approach that Gio Ponti certainly would have, disobeying and all but disregarding the chronological layout. Doing so will allow them to string together similarities and cross-references between the works of design, painting and architecture that were the “expression of Gio Ponti” (as he used to title his work), to comprehend their spirit but also, and above all, to experience the reasons why so many contemporary artists, designers and architects from all over the world look to the Pontian universe for inspiration.