QUEST Magazine, September 1981
THE WORLD OF BRAJO FUSO
by ROBERT CREASE and CHARLES MANN
ROBERT CREASE teaches contemporary civilization at Columbia University.
CHARLES MANN is a free-lance writer in NewYork.
The name is unknown, his works rarely seen. Sadly, only his recent death will alert the public to this artist’s startling treasure
Between Rome and Florence stand the ancient hilltop towns of Umbria, graceful medieval citadels that seem to dream their lives away in the peaceful highland sunshine. They are places of stone and mortar, tranquil villages that have almost forgotten they were built to withstand siege and bloodshed. People lead quiet lives in them; they mind their own business. The regional capital, Perugia, is the sort of place to work in well-mannered seclusion, so it should come as no surprise to discover that an important figure in 20th-century art spent his life there in almost total obscurity, dedicating his entire artistic career to one of the grandest and most eccentric bodies of work on the continent.
The work is the Fuseum and estate of Montemalbe, an enormous and compelling monument to the imagination of its creator, Brajo (BRAH-yo) Fuso. Crammed into the estate’s gardens and sculpted forests are thousands of reliefs, statues, paintings, hangings, and constructions – in dozens of styles with every conceivable kind of material, all a testament to Fuso’s inexhaustible curiosity and drive. The individual pieces themselves are striking, but it is the estate as a whole that is truly overwhelming, for it is nothing less than a world to itself, created and tended by its owner.
For nearly 40 years, Fuso the artist labored with little public recognition, never traveled outside Italy, and only rarely exhibited, when coerced by friends. If he is generally unknown, it is because he followed his inner vision, forgoing the art world quite literally to cultivate his own garden. Last December 30, 81-year-old Brajo Fuso died. Very soon, according to the terms of his will, the world that Fuso left behind is scheduled to open to the public for the first time.
Fuso came to the world of art relatively late, in mid-life, after he had already gained a reputation as an oral surgeon, university professor, inventor, and author of children’s books. Born in Umbria in 1899, Fuso was, by his own account, a rambunctious boy with a stubborn sense of the way he wanted to do things. At age seven he was sent to a boarding school whose Somaschi priests were reputed to be especially good at dealing with ornery children like Brajo. But Fuso fled three times to an uncle who, after applauding the boy’s instincts, returned him to the boarding school to meet his punisrment.
With the onset of World War I, he went to the Austrian front as a naive flag-waving patriot; it was an experience that changed him for life. During the first assault the young Fuso spent the entire time buried face-first in the mud of the trench. Confronted with his cowardice, he burst into tears in front of his commanding officer. Though he eventually overcame his horror – and won a medal for courage under fire – he developed a permanent hatred of warfare.
Thanks largely to this aversion to violence, Fuso decided to study medicine and graduated from the University of Rome in 1924 with a degree in general medicine. With his practice set up in the tiny Umbrian farm village of Brufa, Fuso ran into trouble almost immediately. His first delivery so alarmed him that he took the mother’s pulse six times, wiped his brow, and abruptly announced that the case’s extreme complexity made it necessary to fetch a gynecologist from the hospital.
When Fuso returned with the specialist, he was greeted by howls of laughter; the baby boy had been born after one of the easist parturitions in the villagers’ memory. Fuso decided to return to school and become an orthodontist. But even a busy dental practice, plus a professorship in medicine, could not satisfy the restless Fuso’s compulsion to work.
During the 1930s he spent much of his time tinkering with various dental devices, patenting a few until he produced, in 1938, his triumph: a prototype of the modern dental chair. Fuso incorporated an instrument stand into the arm of the chair, designed a special headrest and frame, and hooked a spittoon to the side. A photograph from the period shows him standing proudly beside his invention, its spidery arms extending out in a manner reminiscent of some of his later sculptures.
Meantime, Fuso had married a respected Perugian painter, Bettina. It was Betty – as she was known to her friends – who first encouraged him to paint. But initially Fuso was too busy with his growing practice and inventions to take her advice. He didn’t pick up a brush until he came home from World War II with a shoulder wound acquired during service as a medic. It was 1943, and Fuso was 44.
“I found myself for the first time in front of a completely white canvas,” he explained in an unpublished autobiography finished a few months before his death. “What did I feel? The canvas looked back at me, and I didn’t have the courage to assault it. Then a sudden force came to me and I went on the attack: a point, two lines, a blot – and I had painted a woman.”
But he didn’t paint women for long. Impatient with drawing people and places, Fuso felt inside him something “that wanted to explode in another way,” into another realm. His fascination with texture and this desire “to do something more, something much more,” led him to quickly jettison what he called “anything that could even be the memory of a figure, threw away the brushes and began to use melted color. I dripped it from above.”
Though Fuso didn’t know it, the art world was then on the brink of a shattering reappraisal. Living in Umbria, totally isolated from the main currents of painting – for 20 years, Mussolini’s Fascist regime had banned news of the avant-garde -Fuso nevertheless began simultaneously to explore the same realm of abstract color that was making Jackson Pollock such a sensation in New York City.
Fuso, in fact, arrived at completely non figurative “action” painting – the well known splashes and splatters of color – totally ignorant of Pollock’s work. In the early ’50s Fuso moved beyond action painting and began to create compositions from found objects and junk, steering a highly personal path through any of the artistic movements that would highlight that decade and the next.
“Without doubt,” says the noted French critic Andre Verdet, “Fuso is one of the greatest contemporary Italian artists, one of the pioneers of relief, chance effects, and the object, yet … the most unrecognized, the most unknown, and the most solitary of them all.”
Though many artists are not recognized during their lifetimes, it is generally not through lack of trying. But Fuso neither advertised himself nor tried to stay a jump ahead of the mode. He was that rare breed too often dismissed by cognoscenti as a romantic fiction – an artist who simply did what he wanted to, expending enormous amounts of energy and time on projects that, for all he knew, might vanish the day he died.
” Today I find myself an esteemed professional [in the field of medicine] who has worked for 40 years,” he wrote. “But in the field of painting, where I have given all of myself, I am unknown to most people. I have a miserable portfolio as a painter: a few shows, five real ones in big galleries, but nothing more. Do I have any regrets? No.”
The reason for his self-assurance is apparent at Fuso’s estate – the 12,000 square meters of wooded hilltop in Montemalbe that he bought in 1957 and immediately began to form and sculpt. At the top of the drive the visitor is greeted by a courtyard ringed by jazz musicians made from moped gas tanks, blowing toy saxophones.
Above is a low, 130-yard-long gallery, which coils over the hill and merges with Fuso’s house, La Brajta. Both buildings were constructed by Fuso himself, using designs and materials that local architects scorned. Wind blows through the area, rattling, banging together, and clinking the sculptures that Fuso hid among trees and the bells that hang from the branches.
When Giulio Carlo Argan, one of Europe’s foremost art critics, first saw the garden,he exclaimed, “Brajo, it looks as though you even sculpted the trees!” Actually, Fuso had.
He kept a little chain saw around the villa for pruning the trees into desired shapes. In some ways the Fuso estate appears like other private utopias created by individuals. American examples of such handmade universes include S. P. Dinsmoor’s Lucas, Kansas, version of the Garden of Eden and Clarence Schmidt’s Journey’s End in Woodstock, New York. However, most of these creators did not consider themselves artists nor their products works of art. They were recluses and eccentrics who experienced a sense of personal disarray and loss of control over their environment; they sought to withdraw from the pressures of social life, often literally into the woods, and set out to create a world according to their own intuitive notions.
Fuso, on the other hand, was not interested in hiding from the modern world that lay beyond Perugia. Rather, the Fuseum was an embracing of and a commitment to that world. Everything there is made from contemporary junk – the refuse of consumer society – mixed with natural elements like sand, leaves, and wood. Fuso cared little for the distinction between natural and technological objects: he used everything he found, even human teeth, which now adorn the comb of a metal bird. He called the result of this mix “Debrisart.”
The Fuseum’s Debrisart is a struggle for a synthesis of an individual point of view and the frequently indifferent world. “What are the reasons one makes this stuff?” Fuso asked about his own work. “People who love pretty little figures, still lifes, and nudes can’t accept pieces like mine. [Contemporary] music, poetry, painting, and sculpture will never be understood if they aren ‘t heard, looked at, listened to, and judged in rapport with the times that produced them. I did my work after a world war, in the time of jazz and pop music, in the days ofpunk and drugs, during the epoch of kidnappings and the Red Brigades. It was, in short, a disturbed world, and my work represents it. I wanted to enrich these times with compositions full of broken, bent, and rusted iron, [works about] war and automobiles- all put together with today’s materials. They are works that represent the tormented souls of all of us, living now with all the weapons we’ve made beneath the nightmare of a new war. … Nice world, no?”
Fuso was perfectly aware of the perils of portraying that nice world in his own way. Having neither seen nor heard of abstract expressionism himself, he was chary of showing his strange abstract constructions to a potentially hostile public with a similar lack of exposure. And he was right: as late as 1962 a professor at the famous Accademia in Venice announced to Fuso that his work was porcate, a vulgar Italian expression related to pig by-products. Nevertheless, Fuso’s wife and friends encouraged him to persevere, and he spent over a decade producing 30 pieces, enough for a 1960 exhibition at Rome’s Galleria Schneider. Fuso was so nervous that he had to be forced to attend the opening.
Once there, however, he discovered that the world had finally caught up to him. Argan and the new abstract critical establishment lauded his work. Exuberant over the favorable reviews, he stayed up all night, nervously smoking and pacing along the Tiber with his wife while he considered abandoning Perugia and moving to Rome, where he would be closer to the critics, galleries, and buyers. Visions of the fame and, best of all, the intellectual respectability of being a crusading modern artist filled his head. But in the morning it was all gone. The whole idea seemed profoundly foolish, especially to a man whose patients had cavities to be filled. “Ovations are fleeting pleasures,” Bettina counseled her husband. “The passion in your heart and your painting – cultivate it, make it grow – but moderate your enthusiasm.”
Fuso never tried seriously to show his work again. Instead, he returned to his own ‘garden,’ continually spading through his ideas in search of the perfect way to put together the confusion he saw around him until, in July 1980, Fuso suffered a stroke that paralyzed his right side. He had been working that day on a new piece, one filled with coffin like shapes, that seems now both like the beginning of a new departure and a harbinger of his death. This proud, raucous man, who loved to dance until the early hours of the morning, was suddenly unable to walk or paint, and could barely speak.
While he sat in his studio, directing a family assistant in the task of putting together new compositions, his mind kept slipping in and out of conjunction with the real world. It was a process he understood in his lucid moments; now it terrified him. He was not consoled by the first stirrings of real critical acclaim.
Two months before Fuso’s stroke, Argan had organized the only exhibition of his estate ever held, in the process saying that the dentist from Perugia was the nation’s greatest living artist. Nevertheless, the ailing Fuso still refused to modify his almost anti-intellectual stance toward his work. “I have always believed there is only one thing for us to do in this world – to work, to use what you have, all of it, all the time.”
On December 30, 1980, Brajo Fuso died in his bedroom, the fragments of a new construction on a table beside him.
“In the hours of dusk, my mind flies always to Montemalbe, my Montemalbe to which I am so desperately attached. There is most of myself – my life: the Fuseum, the long gallery that watches over many of my pictures, and, to a side, La Brajta, my tiny house . … ”
– Brajo Fuso, September 7, 1979
Pur se meno noto è sicuramente da accostare a due altri grandi personaggi come Gerardo Dottori e Alberto Burri con i quali forma una triade di artisti umbri assolutamente d’eccezione e di livello mondiale.
Un bel giorno questa grande eccitazione ha trovato la sua regola proprio nella cosiddetta arte informale, e dentro la quiete geometrica della tela ho visto che cerca della materia trasparente che ha della crisalide e l’occhio la trapassa come un vetro ma resta un palpito di medusa in noi, ho visto che cerca il secondo il terzo il quarto strato della materia, va giù come una talpa non per sfuggire la luce ma per vedere a qualunque costo che cosa c’è dopo. Non è un tipo da rifiutare quello che questa avventurosa trivellazione gli offrirà, voglio dire che se vi si imbatterà, magari al decimo strato, non scanserà i vecchi pagliacci con l’ulcera, i cavalli rossi, le figure cioè, ma forse, risorti a mano a mano che avverrà il passaggio di Brajo fra tutto quello che c’è di possibile nella vita delle cose (siano sacchi legni fili alghe o qualunque altra cosa di cui davvero in questo momento mi sfugge il’ nome) i suoi vecchi miti ce li farà riapparire diversi e uguali, come saremo del resto anche noi uscendo dalla nostra lunga esperienza.
E’ senza dubbio pittore, scultore, “oggettista”, accumulatore ed assemblatore di un sontuoso delirio plastico, dalla “verve” instancabile, la cui opera abbondante e ricca nella molteplicità è messa in posizione di perpetua “provocazione” rispetto ai criteri abituali della creazione, per quanto avanzata fosse nell’avanguardia.
Arte strana che rientra negli estremi di un barocco moderno, in cui il minimo oggetto, sia esso nuovo, vecchio, usato, industriale od artigianale, il minimo utensile, ricco, povero, misero o disusato, pratico o di lusso, acquisteranno per la geniale manipolazione di Brajo Fuso, una sorprendente gloria artistica nella totalità del realizzato “assemblage”.
E si, sembrerebbe che Brajo Fuso, in molte sue creazioni si sia divertito a confondere gli dei stessi mostrandosi allo stesso tempo angelo demonio.
Successivamente Brajo ha creato il Mobloggetto, usabile come oggetto e nello stesso tempo partecipazione nel disporre, ordinare oggetti qualunque nello spazio interno. Il Mobloggetto rappresenta il punto di arrivo di un lavoro sorprendente al di fuori di ogni speculazione, senza chiasso, intenzionando la materia, seguendo la tecnica dell’elenco o dell’accumulazione – direbbe Umberto Eco. Le operazioni di Brajo consistono appunto nel ridimensionare gli elementi, dopo averli demitizzati e attribuendo loro, a sua volta, un valore semantico. Con altre parole il Mobloggetto o altro che sia è un oggetto i cui elementi costitutivi sono stati colti dall’artista al termine della loro parabola storica e collocati in un altro contesto.
Questo volevo dire in breve, proprio perché il mobloggetto realizzabile da più individui, implica una considerazione quanto mai pertinente. Basti dire per esempio che nella scuola artistica italiana non è possibile lavorare in gruppo, infatti contano le virtù personali esplicabili isolatamente; ovvero viene a mancare la capacità di formare il creatore di oggetti. La proposta didattica di Brajo, se bene ho capito, sta nel fatto che i suoi Mobloggetti sono il risultato di un incontro, di un dialogo.
Egli propone nientemeno che la formazione dell’utente. E’ una lezione di metodologia tanto nei confronti della strutturazione dell’oggetto, quanto nei riguardi della preparazione dell’utente, come ho già detto.
Dire oltre quanto è stato scritto da autorevoli critici, sarebbe superfluo per un artista così autentico ed originale come Brajo Fuso.
Egli si pone con la sua produzione organica ed articolata come uomo del suo tempo, sempre presente a registrare e catalogare il prodotto dell’uomo, fino al elevarlo, attraverso la creatività, ad opere d’arte.
Osservatore perspicace, anima sensibile, narratore incantevole sembra dialogare con gli altri nelle sue opere mediante quel “disordine-razionale” che rivela emozione, coinvolge interamente per quel gioco sottile delle cose piccole e semplici recuperate dalla vita di tutti i giorni.
Padre indiscusso di un’arte che non ha precedenti B.F. si esalta nella paziente registrazione reale di perimetrare le cose trovate/ritrovate nel tempo. Quindi l’indissolubilità tra l’elemento finito: l’uomo ed il Tempo: l’infinito. La sintesi per entrambi è la modificazione spirituale ed il logorio della materia più volte sopraffatta dall’azione del divenire e quindi dalla mano dell’artista. l pezzi scomposti di meccanismi inerti sono concetti di una “filosofia” di ricerca di un uomo profondamente immerso nel “suo” tempo e cosciente costruttore di opere fantastiche che offrono voli di liberazione e lanciano messagggi/presagi da leggere comunque nel senso giusto. Un’attenzione particolare è rivolta ai ragazzi ai quali Fuso dedica alcune favole fino a coinvolgere il lettore al completamento dell’opera e renderli coprotagonisti.
Ma nessuno tranne i pochi intimi sapeva dell’attività poetica di Brajo Fuso. Una manciata di poesie ben custodite da Marcello Fringuelli che sono complementari alla sua attività artistica. Per chi conosce l’arte del nostro non c’è sorpresa alcuna nella lettura di questi versi ma nel testo vi trova anzi un’altra chiave che certamente apre dubbi e chiarisce le confusioni di quanti ancora non abbiano compenetrato l’opera di Fuso. l versi ci svelano l’altra parte di quell’animo inedito, e ci fanno abitanti del mondo dell’artista, forse a Monte Malbe, nel Fuseum, dove il sognatore si trasferisce in opera e si conserva incontaminato lontano dai rumori delle piccole e grandi guerre quotidiane.
Non parlerò né di stile né di contenuti e lascerò ad altri questo compito, ma qualche cenno sui versi credo sia necessario farlo.
Pur nella semplicità dell’espressione, la sua voce diventa forte e chiara quando uscendo allo scoperto accusa i guerrafondai e si interroga sul suo viaggio di uomo solo, tra tanti, ma solo: pieno di fede ma insicuro si rattrista per il “degrado” dentro e fuori di sé. Ma Brajo Fuso è giovane nello spirito perché ama e soffre con i giovani ed i loro problemi: con chi è vittima della droga, con chi muore di fame nella società opulenta del benessere. Il poeta canta la natura nel ritmo incessante delle stagioni ed annota il trascorrere del tempo senza restame vittima, affronta le tempeste della vita come un capitano di nave, giocando con la sua nave/vita che, se saputa guidare, approderà certamente al porto sicuro, al riparo delle tentazioni di lasciare tutto e tutti.
L’amore è il leit-motiv dominante e prevalente nell’opera di Fuso, sentimento che affiora sempre da quel connubio felice tra colori e materia in un’arte povera fatta di rottami ma soprattutto espressione di rottura con il vecchio modo di fare arte. Infine, attenzione notevole, va posta all’uso della parola, sempre semplice ma incisiva, comprensibile ma carica di quella potenzialità di lasciare il segno perché piena del suo vero significato. La parola che diventa gioco e che come nei suoi quadri si lascia scomporre ed usare in una geometria che rende il corpo della poesia opera d’arte essa stessa.
Non c’è violenza ma rispetto della forma e gioco compiaciuto dove il poeta ed il suo prodotto sono unicità di quel segno che è parte di Storia dell’uomo e del Mondo. Brajo Fuso si fa portavoce di quanti subiscono le angherie del potere e grida contro il loro strapotere, difende la diversità del colore della pelle e si schiera dalla parte di chi soffre, patisce e muore per una idea di giustizia.