“Fontana is now considered Baroque; he is partly Baroque because this is the very nature of ceramic, which is essentially the Baroque of sculpture, and partly because of the temptation to embellish, which is intrinsic to the handling of a material that can express so many values”
- Lisa Ponti cited in: ‘Prima astratto, poi barocco, ora spaziale’, Domus, No. 229, Vol. IV, Milan 1948, p. 36.
This statement by the daughter of Gio Ponti, with whom Fontana collaborated on numerous occasions, is a telling primary record for two reasons. Firstly, because it underscores that the contemporary response to Fontana’s ceramics was already very receptive to its associations with Baroque art. Secondly, it positions the Baroque sensibility not as a stylistic stratagem, but as a creative attitude, which Fontana married without conflict to his later Spatialist research.
This extraordinary feature of Fontana’s practice is evident in this 1949 Crucifixion, hailing from a private Italian collection and shown publicly only once, at the XXV Venice Biennale in 1950. There, it was purchased by the family of the present owner, entering a renowned collection of Italian ceramics stretching as far back as the Renaissance. Without question, it ranks among the most significant works made by the artist in the critical years following his return to Italy from Argentina in 1947.
Fontana had first worked with ceramic in 1935 at the Milanese studio of lifelong friend and fellow ceramicist Fausto Melotti, where he had access to a small kiln. Beginning in 1936, Fontana initiated an enduring collaboration with the renowned ceramic studio led by Tullio Mazzotti, whose family business in the seaside town of Albisola had already attracted numerous Italian and international artists since the beginning of the century.
With Mazzotti, Fontana conceived a dazzling repertoire of oceanic creatures, marking his first mature production. The Vongola e corallo piece on show, made in 1936, is a key work exemplifying Fontana’s ingenuity in that period, and was included in the seminal 2019 exhibition on Lucio Fontana at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. In 1937 Fontana visited Paris and persuaded the director of the Manufacture nationale de Sèvres to allow him to work for a few months in its fabled workshops. The remarkable successes that followed were interrupted by Fontana’s departure to Argentina at the onset of the war, in 1940.
Fontana immediately returned to this medium upon his arrival in Italy in 1947, and the importance of Fontana’s Milanese post-war ceramic production cannot be overstated. Thinking through this work, Fontana sketched out the ground-breaking philosophy of space outlined in his 1947 Manifesto dello Spazialismo, which in 1949 would inspire the first Ambienti and Buchi, leading to the mature decades of the 1950s and the 1960s.
Further examples of Fontana’s post-war ceramic production may be found in distinguished private and institutional collections in Italy and abroad, including Fondazione Prada in Milan, which showcases an extraordinary frieze originally made for the Cinema Arlecchino in 1948, and a remarkable Head of Medusa begun in the same year, among other notable works.
FONTANA AND RELIGIOUS ART
The principal figurative themes that Fontana predominantly investigated in the round beginning in 1947 were Harlequins, battle scenes and religious episodes such as the Crucifixion and the Via Crucis.
Lucio Fontana’s interest in religious subject-matter may be traced to the beginning of his training at Accademia di Brera, where, under sculptor Adolfo Wildt, he had created a number of small ceramic works, in addition to lucrative funerary commissions for Milan’s Cimitero Monumentale. While religious subjects became less frequent in the 1930s, upon his return to Milan Fontana reprised this strand of his work with vigour. This is exemplified by his involvement, beginning in 1950, in a public competition for the fifth ceremonial door of the MilanCathedral, the subject of which was to be the origin and history of the Cathedral itself. Fontana’s name had been already put forward before the war, in 1939, but the project stalled. Between 1950 and 1952, Fontana worked laboriously on various iterations of a twelve-part design which was well-received but eventually rejected in favour of a more conventional idea by Luciano Minguzzi.
It is likely that Crucifixions in particular engaged Fontana’s imagination not only for their inherent narrative drama, but also for their potential for spatial development, emphatically expressed by the vertical and horizontal axes of Christ’s limbs, echoed in the cross. These were forcefully rendered in a 1948 Crucifixion in the collection of MoMA, featuring jagged, irregular extremities.
The present Crucifixion was made in 1949. Fontana here elevates the dynamism of the Crucifixion’s vertical format to sensational effect, with Christ's body emerging forcefully from what appears to be a formless mass. This block of cold, glistening polychrome clay is dramatically contrasted by the white stylized Christ, defined by his sinuously contoured limbs, drooping head and loincloth fluttering in the wind. His body is abstracted in the pressings and mouldings made by the artist’s fingers, and its materiality is countered by the shifting, shimmering colours of reflective enamelled surfaces. The distinction between the body and the cross is nearly dissolved. Fontana’s figure hovers ambiguously between palpable flesh and reflected ethereal light—an expression of literal and spiritual transfiguration, and of Christ’s dual nature as God and man.
This radically reimagined actualization of depth and space was already introduced by Fontana in his 1946 Manifesto Blanco, where he stated: “Baroque artists made great progress in this respect – their style of representation had a grandeur which has remained unsurpassed, imbuing the plastic arts with a sense of time. The figures appeared to leap out of the flat surface and to continue their represented movements in actual space.” As Enrico Crispolti correctly states, this had been previously documented in the 1930s, when the Baroque was already considered “an archetype of Fontana’s vitalistic, sculptural work: flaming, glowing, luminescently mobile, colorful sculpture, following the late Cubist suggestions of Alexander Archipenko.”
 Enrico Crispolti, “The Latin Axis in the Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde,” in Iris Candela, ed., Lucio Fontana; On the Threshold (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art), 64.
Lucio Fontana, Crucifix, 1949: Glazed ceramic, 58 x 26.5 x 8.5 cm