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Variations on a Surrealist's Theme

'Creation, destruction and rebirth' still drive Enrico Donati.

October 25, 1998|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

'Before we start the interview I'd like to tell you something about my work," said Enrico Donati, the 89-year-old Italian-born painter who is the last surviving member of the expatriate Surrealist group that settled in New York during World War II. Speaking by telephone from his studio in New York--a few days before he was scheduled to come to California for an exhibition at the VSA Gallery West in Beverly Hills--he launched into an explanation of how he found the metaphor that has guided his work throughout most of his long career.

"Everyone else was painting so well and wonderfully, I wanted to say something different," he said, recalling the period in the 1940s when he had established himself as a painter but was in the shadow of older, much better-known artists. "Yves Tanguy was associated with the sea, Max Ernst with the woods. I thought I needed to create a world of my own if I was going to be part of the scene."

Eventually he drew upon memories of a myth about the mandrake, or mangora, a plant that was believed to have magical powers. "In the 16th century, men were hanged naked," he said, recalling the legend of the mandrake root. "During the hanging, drops of their sperm would fall to the ground. Roots sprouted where the sperm fell, and the roots were thought to have human features. I don't believe this, of course, but it's a good story."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 27, 1998 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 4 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Art show--The wrong hours were listed for Enrico Donati's exhibition at VSA Gallery West in last Sunday's Calendar. The gallery, at 184 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills, is open Mondays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., and Sundays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

What particularly appealed to Donati was that the myth concerned the cycle of a person living, dying and then living again in a different form. "That gave me a metaphor of life, death and life, and the concept of rebirth and regeneration has been the theme of my work ever since," he said.

A consummate storyteller, Donati proceeded to recount another auspicious tale, about finding a fossil on the beach in Dover, England, in 1947. He showed the fossil to Tanguy, who told him how to hammer all around its edges, so that it would split open and reveal what was inside. When Donati opened the fossil, he discovered images in the stone that closely resembled those he had been painting.

"Stone is the most pure form of nature," he said, adding that his experience with the fossil--which had gone through its own process of evolution--reinforced his interest in the theme of "creation, destruction and rebirth."

Since then, Donati has created a large body of abstract paintings, ranging from darkly mysterious, organic images rich in associations with natural processes, to relatively crisp, geometric compositions more evocative of man-made structures. Although largely known as a Surrealist, he has ventured far beyond the dreamlike images most commonly associated with that style.

He is, as he readily admits, "a colorist" who pulls out all the stops in an instinctively selected palette that embraces hot pinks, smoldering reds and sizzling yellows. Yet during the 1950s he painted somber compositions of large, rectangular shapes in black, white and gray or earth tones. Still, however restrained they may appear in comparison to his vividly colored paintings, they are far from neutral.

"Black is a color; white is a color," he says emphatically, referring to the liveliness of even his quietest color schemes.

Texture is another standby in his work, although it has evolved slowly from his flat surfaces of the mid-1940s. Beginning with drips, blobs and spatters of pigment, in keeping with the Abstract Expressionists' physical style of painting, Donati later removed dirt from vacuum cleaners and mixed it with pigment and glue to create rough surfaces. This led to a variety of mixed-media works with crusty expanses that contrast sharply with smooth passages. In some of his recent works, he has returned to relatively flat surfaces and fanciful, dreamlike imagery that sometimes suggests still lifes or urban landscapes.

Donati's exhibition, "Six Decades and a Full Circle," which opened last week, is a succinct survey of his career. Presented by his Los Angeles-based representative, Alter & Gil, at the VSA (Very Special Artists) Gallery West, the show includes a wide variety of paintings and an example of his Surrealist sculpture. "Fist," a 17-inch-tall bronze made in 1946, replicates a clenched human fist but also resembles a grotesque head, with bloodshot glass eyes glaring out at viewers.

Donati was born in Milan in 1909 and displayed an early aptitude for art but earned a college degree in sociology and intended to be a musician. He moved to Paris in the early 1930s to pursue a career as a composer, but with no success. At the same time, he continued his interest in art, doing some painting, meeting artists and visiting museums and galleries.

The museum that interested him most, however, was the Musee de l'Homme in Paris, known for its anthropological collection. Donati became so fascinated with a few Native American artifacts at the museum that he took his first trip to the United States in 1934, immediately heading for the Southwest.

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