Michelangelo Pistoletto recalls the figure of his father Ettore P. Olivero


Far more than simple historical photographs” is how Michelangelo Pistoletto defines the 14 works painted by the Piedmontese artist Ettore Pistoletto Olivero between 1952 and 1953. They depict phases in the construction of the Panoramica Zegna road through the mountainous terrain above Trivero between the ’30s and ’50s, a large-scale social project designed by the Biella entrepreneur Ermenegildo Zegna to help develop the territory and the wellbeing of its inhabitants. They give us actual, first-hand views of an historical event that was unique and which Michelangelo Pistoletto (then just 19) saw for himself on long walks with his father, who did the paintings “on location”. Closing your eyes, what are the first images of that period you manage to visualize? In those days I’d already been working in my father’s studio for a few years. He was both a painter and a restorer and had already worked with Ermenegildo Zegna, on those huge paintings illustrating “The art of wool working in the Middle Ages” now hanging in the Picture Room at the Zegna Wool Mill. For this reason, and because of the familiar sort of relationship he enjoyed with Ermenegildo Zegna, he came to be seen as pretty much the “family painter”. I remember perfectly, one morning, taking my father to the top of the mountain over Trivero in a green and black Topolino (I’d just got my driving license) and left him there the whole day with his oils and knife to immortalize scenes of work on the Panoramica Zegna, the new road being cut with great fatigue out of the hard rock of the mountain. A massive enterprise requiring enormous effort as well as visionary planning. This exhibition – “Ettore P. Olivero: Panoramica d’Artista” – is the first public display of these works by my father. It’s a logical sequence of paintings that trace the progress of the road works with all the passion my father had for the mountains, because it was where he was born and bred. He chose the views to immortalize, though he often discussed them with Ermenegildo Zegna, who was always there when work was being done. Looking at all the paintings together, you can see the special relationship between art and society, the vision of life animating them, but also the ambition that the two men had in common. Your father used to say that simplicity and wealth can be one and the same thing and that even a common, day-to-day image can arouse the highest of feelings. How important in this vision was the deafness that struck him at age 8? When he lost his hearing through meningitis, my father passed his school days copying a fresco of the Madonna he could see from the classroom window. From then on he started to see the world through painting, and art became his splendid victory over his handicap. Immersed in silence, he wandered the plains at the foot of the Losa mountains and the woods pressing in on the modest little villages, contemplating the nature that he painted out of love of it. His painting was realist. It was important for him to be able to speak with people, find out how they lived, find out about local history and tradition. This is why, when he started on the project for Ermenegildo Zegna, he would often stop and chat with the men building the Panoramica and the people in Trivero who were to benefit from that great social initiative. According to the Cultural Heritage Code, the landscape is a “living organism” in continual evolution, shaped by the forces of nature and humankind and their interactions. What sort of landscape grew out of the construction of the Panoramica? In Ermenegildo Zegna’s vision, the road was built to enable the local community to get real experience of the mountains, enjoy walking in the woods, in contact with nature, breathing pure air. In those times, tourism as we know it was still in its early days, as people were starting to have time for themselves. Ermenegildo Zegna gave them an alternative, making nature a goal to reach, almost as if it were a temple or sanctuary. With his enormous foresightedness he enabled people to have easy access to a unique place, the mountains over Trivero, by building the Panoramica Zegna, well aware of the fact that if a mountain is isolated it will die. How important was the figure of your father in your artistic development? He taught me to draw when I was still little. When I was 14, I started working in his studio. The restoration work I did in that period was the best school I could have had, because it allowed me to live the history of art moment by moment. My father always wanted me to paint, but I had decided I would never be a painter. I was good at drawing and Armando Testa had asked me to join his advertising studio. It was there, perhaps, that I realized I was conceiving a passion for contemporary art. After a year I decided to open a studio of my own, which I kept for a few years, because I wanted to be independent, although I continued to help my father. For a time I did these two opposing jobs, both based on drawing, colors, images, but one was total conservation and the other propulsion. I’m convinced that my mirror paintings stemmed from that experience. My father was always very interested in my work. In June 1973, in fact, we put on an exhibition together at the Galleria Sperone in Turin. I persuaded him to produce some stuff that related to my work, still lifes depicting metallic objects that reflect the surrounding space, including himself in the act of painting. On that occasion my father became my pupil. In the year of your 80th birthday, the Louvre in Paris is showing a personal exhibition of yours for the first time. Do you see this event as a tribute to your father? My father provided me with the tools to make myself into what I am. In our exhibition together in Turin in 1973 I became his observer, I provided him with an echo of what was happening in the world of art, that striving for the independence of art with respect to images that was typical of modernity. Through modern art I managed to develop in ways that were hidden from my father, since he took no part in the fervent debate then going on. I’m proud that today, without knowing it, he too has come to the Louvre with me. Find informations about “Ettore P. Olivero: Panoramica d’Artista” exhibition

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