Mimmo Rotella

With a Smile


Not on display

Mimmo Rotella 1918–2006
Original title
Con un sorriso
Printed papers on canvas
Support: 1540 × 1320 mm
frame: 1555 × 1335 × 25 mm
Presented anonymously 2008


With a Smile is composed of brightly coloured pieces of torn film posters glued onto canvas. Within the multiple layers of text and imagery, fragments of Italian words, suggestive of the locations or dates of film screenings, are discernible. For instance, Roma (denoting the city of Rome) appears in red near the top of the canvas, while the bottom left-hand corner includes a section which seems to feature clipped versions of the words maggio (the month of May) and domenica (Sunday). A drawing of the smiling face of the American actor Cary Grant, from which the work appears to derive its title, is framed by the letter P in the top right-hand corner, and a character from the genre of swashbuckling films popular at the time of the work’s creation holds a fencing sword atop an area of deep blue at the bottom of the canvas.

The Italian artist Mimmo Rotella began to develop his interest in collage techniques in 1953 when he moved back to Rome after two years in the United States. He became a key figure in the development of décollage, a technique which involves removing or tearing pieces of an existing image, rather than building up an image in the manner of conventional collage. Rotella explained how the ripped posters that lined the walls of Rome inspired his work:

I was literally spellbound, and even more so because at that time I was convinced that painting was finished, that something new had to be unearthed, something alive and modern. So in the evenings I began to tear the posters, ripping them from the walls, and take them back to my studio, creating compositions and leaving them exactly the way they were, exactly the way I saw them. That is how the décollage came to be.
(Quoted in Alberto Fiz, ‘Décollage, A Metaphor for the World’, in Mimmo Rotella: China Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing 2003, p.9.)

Rotella also claimed, in a 1957 statement, that the development of décollage was a response to ‘the gray of houses, sky, faces, roads, dust, feelings, all the great gray things’ that defined his childhood in the southern Italian city of Calabria, remarking that ‘to tear posters down from the wall was the sole compensation, the only means of protest against a society that had lost its appetite for change and transformation’ (Mimmo Rotella, ‘Statement, Rome 1957’, in Taylor 2008, p.15). While the early works Rotella labeled décollages were largely abstract, from 1958 he began to use one or more figures, typically a film star such as Ava Gardner or John Wayne, to consolidate his compositions. The glamour of the American actors Rotella featured – including Cary Grant in With a Smile – held particular resonance during Italy’s recovery from the Second World War, but his work also reflected the success of Italian cinema in this period, highlighting figures such as Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni.

With a Smile forms part of Rotella’s first Cinecittà series, created by the artist between 1958 and the mid-1960s (he later produced a second Cinecittà series in 1984), and inspired by mass media, advertisements and especially popular cinema. The title of the series refers to Rome’s Cinecittà film studios (a name which translates into English as Cinema City), a major site for both domestic and international cinematic production, especially in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1962 works from the first Cinecittà series were shown together with Rotella’s more three-dimensional works, including sculptures derived from ‘found’ objects, in a solo exhibition at Galerie J in Paris titled Cinecittà Ville Ouverte.

The fragmented text in With a Smile may be linked with Rotella’s broader interest in language. In 1949 he developed an experimental form of poetry based on phonetics, and he continued to write and perform poems throughout his career. He also joined the Ultra-Lettrist group, formed in 1958, which explored poetry’s relationship with other media, and which had split from the original Lettrist movement, which was founded in Paris in 1945.

Given its engagement with mass media imagery, With a Smile might additionally be viewed in the context of pop art. Indeed, in 1961 Rotella was invited by the French critic Pierre Restany to join the Nouveau Réalisme (New Realism) group he had founded in 1960 with the artist Yves Klein, a movement which is often considered as a European counterpart to American pop art. In particular, Rotella’s use of ripped posters can be closely aligned with works by other Nouveau Réalistes such as Jacques de la Villeglé’s Tapis Maillot 1959 and Francois Dufrêne’s La Demi-soeur de l’inconnue 1961, which are now in the collection of the Centre Pompidou, Paris.

Further reading
Tommaso Trini (ed.), Mimmo Rotella: Cinecittà, Prato 2006.
Germano Celant (ed.), Mimmo Rotella: Selected Works, Milan 2007, pp.234–6.
Brandon Taylor, Urban Walls: A Generation of Collage in Europe and America, Manchester, VT 2008.

Iris Balija
February 2014

Supported by Christie’s.

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Display caption

In the early 1950s, Rotella began to rip posters away from the walls of outdoor hoardings in Rome, and used them to create elaborate collages. Many of these were film posters but he also used advertisements for appliances and other goods, so that his works became a commentary on the post-war consumer boom. In the studio he would mount the poster fragments onto canvas, rearranging the pieces into new compositions but also stripping away further layers to accentuate their distressed appearance.

Gallery label, March 2010

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