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THE SAD CLOWN: Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan

THE SAD CLOWN: Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan
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Photo by Pierpaolo Ferrari


Not so long ago, a banana taped to the wall made so much noise on social media that its author, Maurizio Cattelan, was probably the only one who didn’t know about it. Once again, hot arguments about what is art and what is not, how art should look like, what it should mean, and what function it should perform, began to flow from every kitchen.

But you and I know that art owes nothing to anyone and that only really great artists can make such simple but loud statements and gestures like the banana on the wall. People like Maurizio Cattelan.


THE SAD CLOWN: Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan
The Comedian, 2019


Cattelan was born and raised in northern Italy in a family far from art – his father drove a truck and his mother worked as a maid. Maurizio had poor schooling and was constantly in the middle of all kinds of trouble.
After years of struggling with illness, his mother died when Maurizio was barely 20 years old, and researchers write that since then, Cattelan has felt a certain guilt towards his mother for his cluelessness [1]. It is with the themes of death, remorse and failure that the artist would work most often.

Cattelan abandoned his studies, engaged in various unskilled jobs: in the post office, in the kitchen, in the morgue – labor as a phenomenon the Italian did not like, and somewhere there he decided to be an artist. His family did not approve of this choice, for them the concept of “artist” was identical to the concept of “slacker”. Maurizio perceived everything in his own way and put his laziness in the most advantageous light.


THE SAD CLOWN: Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan
L.O.V.E., 2010


For example, Cattelan founded the so-called Oblomov Foundation, dubbed after the indecisive character in the novel by Ivan Goncharov. The literary Oblomov is synonymous with the slacker who hardly gets up from his couch, paying no attention to any external circumstances, but who eats well and indulges in dreams and meditations.

Cattelan found patrons of the arts who supported his idea, as a result of which the Oblomov Foundation announced a respectable grant of $10000 to the artist who in exchange for this money will not create new works or participate in exhibitions for a year.

Here we are not talking about laziness as such, but about a strong fear that haunts every artist – the fear of not being able to create, the fear of being mediocre, the fear of defeat and failure. These are the fears that plague Cattelan himself and that have a tangible effect on his art.

No one has ever been awarded a grant from the Oblomov Foundation. None of the artists took advantage of the opportunity to do nothing. Cattelan himself would hardly agree to it, he can’t create, but his impostor syndrome is incredibly strong.

Because of it the artist is constantly trying to escape from everything: from work, from responsibilities, from the public, from boredom, from himself. Once he even tied up sheets and threw from the window of the gallery this saving rope – a symbol of escape known to everyone.

In 1991 Maurizio was invited to participate in a group exhibition in Milan. However, he did not create anything, but filed a police report on the theft of his work. Carabinieri had no choice but to draw up a report on the theft of an object of art. Cattelan framed this document and exhibited it as his own work [2]. He subsequently managed to sell it as well.


THE SAD CLOWN: Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan
Untitled, 1991. Police report on a stolen invisible work of art


In 1993, Cattelan had the opportunity to present his art at the prestigious Venice Biennale, but he could think of nothing better than to rent out the space allocated to him to an advertising company that placed a billboard advertising a perfume in the gallery. Cattelan called the act “Work is a foolish business” In this way he simultaneously escaped both the need to invent a new work and the obsessive fear of failure, absolving himself of all responsibility.

In 1996, for an exhibition at the Amsterdam Art Center, he simply stole all the objects of a now unknown artist from a nearby gallery and exhibited them under his own name. The police dealt with him and forced him to give the exhibits back, but the precedent took place and it has a name – “Another Damned Ready-made.” In general, Cattelan is known for scandals and provocations, which tend to be sarcastic.

Knowing that, it becomes much easier to put up with a banana glued to the wall, because this includes Cattelan’s unwillingness to produce more objects, which the planet is overflowing with, and his satire on what can be considered art and whether placing something within the gallery walls guarantees it the status of a masterpiece. It is also a critique of the art-market bubble. And the overwhelming fear of failure, which Cattelan once again joked about.


THE SAD CLOWN: Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan
Him, 2001


Certainly Cattelan has many more subtle, serious and profound works. For example, the performance Mother, in which the performer is buried in the ground, leaving only his hands closed in prayer on the surface. Or a schoolboy kneeling, also as if praying, who suddenly turns out to have Hitler’s face.

Or the “hanged children” that the artist has placed on a tree in a public park. But even these works prove to be an examination of seriousness, provoking us to push the boundaries of what is allowed to be laughed at, ironizing the most macabre, important topics, changing the angle of their perception. And Cattelan is masterful at transforming his phobias and shortcomings into lively, witty, vivid art.


[1] Maurizio Cattelan, Bio, The Art Story

[2] Description of the “stolen” work, Perrotin Gallery


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