1908 – 1999
Franco Grignani travelled through the whole length of the Twentieth century. The Italian artist was born in 1908 and died in 1999. He experienced and participated in all those art movements that took place in his country throughout the century: the second period of Futurism followed by geometric Abstract art and, after the Second world war (where Grignani was mobilised as an Officer in the Italian army), he turned to the applied arts and typography to which he dedicated himself entirely by focusing intensely on pictorial experimentation. These two latter activities were initially complimentary to his other work yet during the 1960’s Grignani became the forerunner of Kinetic art and grew close to the main players in the New Tendency movement as well as being the creator in 1964 of one of the twentieth-century’s most famous logos, the one created for woolmark.
Franco Grignani was active throughout his entire life and was consistently in search of new visual expressions. He regularly exhibited his works in the most renowned galleries in the north of Italy and became famous on an inter- national level on account of his work as a graphic designer. Nevertheless, his fame as a painter of paintings never left the confines of Milan so it is time now for a reflection on this part of his curve. Franco Grignani started off on an artistic path from the very beginning of his career. At the same time, he was pursuing his studies in architecture in Turin, he started to draw and paint in a Futurist style that was marked, in particular, by the machine-oriented shapes and forms of Fortunato Depero and the spasmodic style of Vorticism. In 1933, he was accepted as a participant in an exhibition organised in Rome under the aegis of Marinetti, entitled the Grande Mostra nazionale futurista. He soon settled down in Milan and in his paintings he began to employ – from 1935 onwards – the language of Abs- traction as witnessed in his geometrical compositions and in the paintings of Mauro Reggiani, Manlio Rho and the members of the Como Group. Such an artistic evolution underlined the artist’s audacity as well as his independence in a country that had only just turned towards Abstract art forms and where, it must now be remembered, Mussolini’s dictatorship was holding sway.
Whilst continuing to paint during the war, Franco Grignani became interested in photography and, in particular, interested in the possibilities of expression offered by such an artistic perspective: detail, blurredness and distortion. Towards the end of the 1940’s, he turned in the direction of Paul Klee for a short period, as witnessed in his water- color composition entitled Tensioni angolate (1948) that was realised in India ink on paper. The work was made of chevron-patterned parallel lines where the artist focused on the repetition of the pattern and the depiction of movement.
From his artistic beginnings, Grignani showed himself to be both logical and confident in his approach. He nevertheless did not take part in the foundation of those various art groups that occurred after the war: for example, the Movimento d’Arte Concreta (MAC), Forma I or Origine. It was in such art groups that the most famous Italian Abstract painters of the second half of the Twentieth century created their own special œuvres. His own artistic interests jolted him along a sort of parallel path upon which he gave rein to his creativity and upon which he used the experience he had accrued. He was necessarily thorough and his work in graphic design and publicity took up all his time transforming him into a maestro in this particular field. The period following the Second world war as well as the economic context kept him in Milan since this city was the industrial and commercial capital of Italy – a city in which the working environment was stimulating and innovation was the order of the day in all fields. The capital of Lombardy was already the center of architecture, applied arts and industrial aesthetics as well as, of course, of the fashion sector. The exhibition at the Milan Triennale4, the publication of the magazine Domus5 and the products of Olivetti were all symbols of this artistic flourish. The art of typography had also forged its own place in all of this, since the publication of the review Campo grafico6 before the war had proven along with, of course, the work undertaken by the famed Studio Boggeri.
After the war, the situation flourished. Franco Grignani enjoyed a primary role alongside Max Huber, Bruno Munari and Giovanni Pintori who were responsible for publicity for Olivetti and he joined the Alliance graphique internationale (AGi)7. He created posters, advertising inserts and visual pro- ducts for a variety of companies: Dompé8 in the pharmacy world, Alfieri & Lacroix9 in printing and Penguin Books and the magazine for the association Pubblicità in Italia in the publishing world. in this latter publication, Grignani became the chief editor. In terms of style, his work was in line with the work of the Swiss graphic designers, Max Bill, Richard-Paul Lohse, Herbert Matter and Hans Neuburg who, towards the close of the 1940’s, inherited the legacy of the constructivist typographical design that had burgeoned in the two previous decades. Grignani resorted to an orthogonal grid in order to arrange the different elements of his compositions in a more functional way. He used fonts without serifs and regrouped, simplified and ranked information. He employed geometrical forms, straight lines and flat colour tints and he favoured the technique of photoshopping as his work for Dompé revealed. His publicity work for the medicine Artrosil in 1950 showed the same aesthetic style as his work or the Flums Grossberg poster in 1940 that had been created for a winter sports resort by the painter and graphic artist from Zurich, Carlo Vivarelli. Grignani continued to work in this area for many decades following the war and towards the beginning of the 1960’s he came to a decisive turning-point which would award him international recognition. The reason lay in the radical change that he began to undertake in his work as a painter.
It had all begun to change, however, much earlier, at the beginning of the 1950’s. At that particular point Grignani decided to abandon not only his painting but also his techniques when he threw himself into a phase of total experimentation. His strictly Abstract works no longer presented any sort of composition or motif, no center and no sort of periphery. without any such limitations, the same form, more or less complex or developed, was repeated identically or with variations inside of a regular orthogonal grid according to the “all over” principal. A magnificent example of this work is the painting Campo Scalare from 1975 in which the same vertical element with the variable width is systematically repeated along a horizontal line in an upper or lower position in order to take up in a uniform manner the whole area of the picture. Secondly, Grignani chose to abandon his craftsmanship, material and colour in favor of a more precise execution of his work that would become more anonymous and mechanical thus allowing him to achieve more distinct forms, in black or white instead of the various shades of grey accomplished by the application of series of lines.
The work was presented behind a plaque of industrial glass that had been more or less finely grooved forming a screen which would thus modify the perception of the work and reinforce the neutral and impersonal character of the whole ensemble. His œuvre Progressione Strutturale Alternata from 1952 has a chiaroscuro effect with black and white strips, alternating vertically and punctuated with square elements that are more or less in shades that run from black to white. These elements shift horizontally in a repetitive and systematic fashion with the aim to forcefully combine a structure with movement. No inspiration, no sensitivity and no improvisation in Grignani’s methods that were the opposite of reflection, calculation, precision, approach and a control of technique. All this was new and he strove to achieve a more sophisticated effect that would exude a more perfect sense of accomplishment.
During the same period, Franco Grignani was continuing his quest for new artistic means in which he would be able to put into practice his experimenting in the field of photography. By using a lens applied onto an enlarger and a negative of one of his photographs, Grignani printed in a dark room an image upon an emulsified piece of canvas which he developed in the same way as a classic photograph on paper. This particular process, closely resembling the photogram technique used by Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy enabled the artist to realise (as before) a work that was mechanical and which would achieve a more impersonal effect. Ordine e inconscio from 1950 has a motif which has been obtained from a blurred photograph of a Venetian blind. it was turned into an abstract image that evokes forms and movement in space.
Starting off from these new directions, from the middle of the 1950’s and throughout the two following decades, Grignani methodically established a repertoire of forms and of combinations that he grouped according to subjects and that he realised in systematic series with no other intention apart from continually referring to structure and addressing perception. In Grignani’s art, there was no place either for inspiration or for any sort of sensitivity. All that mattered was form and geometry. His vocabulary was made up of lines, parallel strips, units and black and white. His subject matter was made up of outline, depth, movement and stability as well as positive and negative elements and chiaroscuro. His rules were orthogonal structure and his grammar was repetition, progression, superimposition, permutation, interference, a moiré effect and boundlessness. His means were calculation, exactitude, mastery of technique and perfection of the final effect. His final results were rhythm, saturation, flickering, instability, deformation, ambiguity, illusion, lack of clarity, disorder and chaos.
Franco Grignani explored all the various possibilities that came his way within this artistic language. One of his themes revolved around vibration. His painting Vibrazione Crociata was painted in 1959. Its effect was startling to say the very least. Starting off with two axes that formed a central cross Grignani alternated a sequence of diagonal black and white lines which ended in points and optically vibrated, grouping the black lines in the middle and making the white lines radiate towards the exterior of the painting. The work strikes the spectator on account of the meticulousness of detail in its execution. The artist chose a rigid square support and a sheet of thick, smooth and white cardboard that was made in Germany12. After having conceived and prepared the design of his work, Grignani prepared it in pencil with the utmost exactitude. He thence drew with a ruler the contours of each form in fluid back paint which he undertook with the aid of a ruling pen equipped with a small cartridge. Following this, he filled the form with a paintbrush. The white sections were held in reserve. This artistic approach along with its simplicity, the application of 45 ° diagonal lines, their tapering approach, their inversion, their density and their impeccable execution provoke an optical effect of vibration and radiation which made the artist a precursor of Kinetic Art and, in his later works, he thus became one of the main representatives.
From 1960 onwards, Franco Grignani exhibited his works in the most renowned galleries in the North of Italy and a whole host of public institutions as often as he could. He exhibited at the art gallery L’Elefante in Venice and, in 1966, at the il Cenobio art gallery in Milan. He exhibited in 1970 at Bergamo’s Lorenzelli gallery and during the following year he was present at the San Fedele gallery. In Reggio Emilia he exhibited at the city council in 1979 in a retrospective. A retrospective was also held for him in 1965 in Chicago, followed in 1968 by a similar one in Stuttgart. Italy most important art critics recognised the worth of his artistic production and included the likes of Guido Ballo, Umbro Apollonio, Giulio-Carlo Argan, Germano Celant, Gillo Dorfles and Lara Vinca Masini. Despite the precedence and the multiplicity of his works and his never ending research, he did not take part in any of the great exhibitions.
That were to mark the 1960’s and which put Kinetic Art into the forefront of the art movement and established the decade as one of the most effervescent decades of the latter half of the Twentieth century: The Paris Biennales in 1963 and in 1965, Documenta in Cassel in 1964 and in 1968, the Venice Biennales in 1964, 1966 and in 1968, the Licht und Bewegung exhibitions at the Kunsthalle in Berne in 1965, The Responsive Eye at the Museum of Modern Art in New York the same year, Kunstlichtkunst in Eindhoven at the Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum in 1966 and Lumière et movement the following year at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Most of the Italian artists that were artistically close to him took part in these exhibitions. His success, however, and his recognition were obtained in his other activities – in his work as a graphic artist that he had never abandoned and that he enriched with all of the research and artistic knowledge that he had gained.
For those different companies that Grignani worked for, such as Alfieri & Lacroix, Penguin the editor, the magazine Pubblicità in Italia, he realised posters, illustrations, book and magazine covers all of which became some of the graphic art world’s masterpieces on account of his use of Kinetic methods and artistic effects that he had honed over the years. His work is recognised all over the world13 and won the highest of accolades in 1964 with the creation of the logo of the woolmark company14 which was the transformation into a stylised ball of wool of the geometric interlacing and movements witnessed in his paintings. in its own particular artistic area, this creation soon became universal.
Franco Grignani’s art, with its two components that are consubstantially connected, as we have seen, is imbued with diversity, complexity and considerable richness. This only came about on account of the creativity of the artist who produced it, his ideas and convictions, his quest for research, innovation and experimentation, his dedication to his work and, lastly, the harmony he enjoyed with his own artistic period. All his creations throughout the 1950’s and the following decades showed him to be at the same level as his contemporaries or his immediate predecessors. His œuvre Tensione nei quadrati from 1965, with its deformed concentric structures dealt with the very same problem that had been expressed by Josef Albers in his series of Graphic Tectonic in the 1940’s.
Deformation was one of his favored themes. He treated it in a number of ways and constantly insisted on the development of a motif, an inscription or a structure that would lose any trace of recognition. His work Sviluppo di tensioni dal centro induttivo from 1958 went in precisely the same direction as works by Raymond Hains and by Jacques Villeglé focusing on vision and pre-announcing experiments that were later carried out by the likes of Julio Le Parc in the Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV) by means of multiple optical devices and light Kinetic apparatus.
Grignani abandoned colour since he retained it to be too subjective and changeable and soon became more interested in the contrast between black and white and the nuances of colour without needing to resort to relief and, from that point, he also became interested in the definitions and the limitations of form. His painting, Quattro cubi (2 cubi + 2 parallelipipedi) from 1963 shows us how he treated these particular questions by exclusively using black and white vertical lines, parallel as well as alternate, of a varying width. This graphic usage of lines and contrasts was inspired directly from the work of Victor Vasarely: his painting, Taymyr from 1958-1959 (Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans – van Beuningen) is made up of an ensemble of identical forms which would later be used by countless artists such as Jeffrey Steele and Günter Fruhtrunk.
For Grignani, who rejected both the notion of sensitivity as well as that of inspiration, the systematising of his work became fundamental. It enabled him to pass mechanically from the work’s conception to its execution and offered in addition a means of explanation and comprehension of the œuvre. His Alternanza progressiva from 1961 is therefore a representation of nuances of colour passing from the blacks on the outside – the periphery – of the work to the whites that progressively filled the center. This phenomenon of sliding gradation of color is also seen in the work of Vasarely, as his painting, Novae B from 1959 (formerly Paris, the Galerie Pascal Lansberg), demonstrates.
Structure formed the foundation of Franco Grignani’s oeuvre. From the middle of the 1950’s, he positioned each of his paintings inside regular orthogonal grids, often strengthening and reinforcing his approach or disrupting the grids by introducing variations. With his uniform grid which takes up the whole painting and which carries on in a virtual fashion beyond the painting, Grignani started using, from 1955 onwards, regular outlines which were able to translate the principle of the abandonment of the composition as well as the disappearance of the center and any sort of pattern. His painting, Interferenze lineari del campo from 1974 is an illustration of this concept of painting which he shared with many other young abstract artists of the period who were associated, to various degrees, with the German Zero Group and the Dutch Nul Group (that were exhibited at Milan’s Azimuth gallery or in the exhibition Antipeinture in Ghent). These artists played a role in the beginnings of Kinetic Art and, by 1961, were all brought together in the exhibition entitled, Nouvelles Tendances, in Zagreb. François Morellet was the most illustrious representative of this family that included Franco Grignani who would have felt in time the full weight of such a firm artistic commitment18, as shown in the unity and the neutrality of his painting, 3 simples trames 0°-22°5-65° from 1960.
The systematic usage of structure would open up the path to multiple and new circumstances. The most important of these would be the phenomenon of vibration – already witnessed in the work of Vasarely who had been the first to employ this new effect. Nevertheless, his work still preserved an idea of composition whereas Grignani, in his work, Vibrazione scalare from 1963, in which he used an outline, treated the question in a more radical way and extended it throughout the whole pictorial area. The whole ensemble – without flaw, without interruptions and without empty spaces – enters into a state of vibration in the eye of the spectator observing the work. This phenomenon would become one of the leitmotifs of all Kinetic Art since it would also be found in the works of artists who were both varied in style and from differing origins such as Ludwig wilding, Alberto Biasi, Toni Costa and, furthermore, Julian Stanczak, Richard Anuskiewicz, Francis Celentano as well as Jesús-Rafael Soto and Carlos Cruz-Diez. Walter Leblanc took part in the Zero Group and pursued an identical artistic approach by acting upon the support that he twists and slashes. His painting, Torsions Mobilo-Static from 1963, with different means being employed, led however to an identical sensation.
Structure combined with the mechanisms of perspective offered a great variety of prospects in which ambiguity, the sensation of dizziness and the loss of references came into play. This is what the deformations reveal in his painting, Rettangolo quadrato from 1987 with its sequence of forms passing from the background to the foreground and contracting or augmenting in an illusionistic manner. This method was found in the work of Hans Hinterreiter Study for Opus 38 from 1951. Vasarely would resort to it constantly throughout the 1960’s as does Hans-Jörg Glattfelder nowadays.
Franco Grignani played with depth by still managing to stay in within the work. He strove to create deformations in his work that would result in ondulations. By bringing together curved and counter-curved lines and by accelerating their movements, the artist created virtual pleats that awarded the work an impression of movement. His painting, Trauma fluttuante from 1965 is characteristic of his search for the disruptive effects that were manifest in Kinetic Art; a further example of this is Bridget Riley’s painting, Fall from 1963 (London, the Tate Gallery). Nowadays, it is Philippe Decrauzat who is pursuing this path with his figures in loops and pleats.
Gyrating forms also interested Grignani. Starting from one or two centres, he spread out lines directed towards the inner part of the work or towards the periphery, thus creating a whirlwind effect. This is a phenomenon that is pre- sent in his painting, Strutturazione centrifuga – centripeta from 1965. Angel Duarte also researched the effects of rotation in his works, as seen in his work V 32 from1963 (Milan, Getulio Alviani Collection). By using structure, series and repetition, Grignani often shifted the stress on the transformation of form and pushed it as far as its actual alteration. in his painting, Permutazioni rombolineari orizzontali su 40 rettangoli a reticolazione matematica from 1962, he used horizontal dashes spread out in lines and systematically deformed which provoked an impression of total disorder. This was the very same spirit which animated Vera Molnar in her work that was entitled Horizontales 5 from 1972-1973 (Rennes, Musée des beaux-arts, the storerooms of the FRAC Brittany).
During the course of more than two decades starting from the end of the 1950’s, Franco Grignani showed himself to be a highly fertile creator as well as a coherent contributor to Kinetic Art in its purely optical sense. Interested in form and perception, as well as being particularly cognizant of the theories concerning the « Gestalt » (as had also been, simultaneously in Milan, Mario Ballocco) Franco Grignani had envisaged everything, experimented with everything and achieved everything – with a high dose of method, by pursuing all processes to their very extremities and by accepting all the consequences. Consequences that encompassed and included visual agression, the loss of references, sensorial discomfort, the chaos of forms – all elements that created incomprehension as well as bewilderment (even confusion!) before some of his works. There was terribilità – « terribleness » – in his art. His painting, Illusorio spaziale from 1965 is not so very distant from the effect provoked by the gigantomachy in the works of Giulio Romano at the Palazzo Te’ in Mantua which made the ceilings and the walls appear to crumble down over those present at the beginning of the Sixteenth century. And, five hundred years later, the very same sudden shock has happened all over again.