Destroy to rebuild. The process behind Rotella’s décollage aesthetics.

There is something vital in destruction. Well, it looks like a contradiction but every end involves a new beginning. Looking at philosophic and aesthetic theories, the idea of destruction as an inevitable phase to approach innovations and new possibilities is a well-established thought. There are no geographic limits and, considering the last centuries, we can find the same attitude moving from the Nineteenth Century Germany to the contemporary Japan.

Focusing on the 1800s Germany, it is possible to extract this procedure in the Kantian school of thought. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is known as one of the most influential minds of the occidental modern philosophy and, in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781), he actualizes his personal destruction-reconstruction method. Without going into specific details, which are simultaneously interesting and complicated, the Prussian philosopher moves beyond the precepts of traditional philosophy and, in particular, metaphysics. Generically, Kant rejects the past theories about human experience and expresses new ideas synthesizing empiricism and rationalism. His thought, basically, put an end to the theological-metaphysical tradition about the proof of God’s existence. Proposing a new way of thinking and taking position against habits, Kant has marked a significant change. The choice to destroy a common mindset to rebuild something free from preconceptions is more frequent than people think and closely concerns the art world.

In White (2008), for example, Kenya Hara proposes another point of view about the destruction-construction theory. In fact, the Japanese artist and writer, in contrast to Kant, finds in the visual and philosophical traditions of his country the best premises to examine the value of “emptiness”, which is schematically the first consequence of “destruction”. For this reason, it is important to explain a cultural-philosophic aspect of the Shinto, the main religion in Japan. Shinto is devoted to the worship of kami (“gods”), which are spiritual essences able to manifest themselves in many forms. In Shinto, animals, trees, rocks, people and also objects can possess the pure nature of kami.

The fact that a kami can appear everywhere has deeply influenced Kenya Hara’s language, and the White theory is the fruit of this inspiration. Following the idea that everything can be “filled” with something, Hara decides to use the color white as a symbol of emptiness. According to Hara, emptiness doesn’t mean “nothingness” but it is just a phase of boundless possibilities. Simplifying, what Hara says is that removing any accessory element, like the color, from an object you create the opportunity to “refill” it with anything. Emptiness is not a limit; it is just a situation that gives you unlimited chances. Removing all the excess from his creations, the artist actualizes his “destruction” and finds, in the consequent emptiness, the chosen field for a free beginning showing us how the end of something can be seen as the origin of something new.

The Italian master Mimmo Rotella

Considering emptiness as main consequence of destruction, we can see how destroying something seems necessary to mark a change in the ordinary way of thinking. We can “destroy” ideas, traditions and preconceptions, but also aesthetic ideals and standards. This is the essence of the avantgardes, the will to reformulate the common trends. However, contemporary art history teaches us, through the work of Mimmo Rotella (1918-2006), that the concept of destruction-construction can be explored both metaphorically and aesthetically. Known worldwide for his iconic style, the Italian artist has been one of the most interesting and creative minds during the second postwar period. Rotella proposed his destruction-construction idea through his well-known décollages. The décollage is, basically, the opposite of the collage and is created by removing and cutting pieces of existing images. This technique is connected to the lacerated posters practice and became famous during the 1960s.

Looking at Rotella’s production we can easily find a visual expression of the binomial destruction-construction, but what he did was more than a physical act. In fact, it is important to say that the idea of décollage was born during a phase of “creative crisis” for the artist and it is interesting to observe that he explicitly chose to destroy something already existing to rebuild his own personal language. Seduced by the aesthetics of the ‘50s - ‘60s posters, Rotella decided to destroy bills both to celebrate the taste of the period, giving artistic dignity to common objects, and innovate his artistic approach. The end of the posters, represented by cuts and tears, is the beginning of the décollages. Thanks to Rotella’s work, the “destroy to rebuild” theory reached its amplest acceptation and a cut-torn poster became the symbol of eternal rebirth.