The Center For Italian Art in SoHo traces the history of ads, featuring brands such as Campari and Barilla, at a fascinating exhibit, “From Depero to Rotella: Italian Commercial Posters Between Advertising and Art.”
Italian food and drink ads are often clever, playful and, in many cases, works of art in themselves. This is no accident. Italy has a legacy of marketing products with avant-garde illustration and photography. Brands such as Pirelli, Illy and Campari have become as well known for their advertisements as for their tires, coffee and spirits (respectively). The artists who created these early forms of branding have become institutions themselves.
Now, The Center for Italian Modern Art in New York City is tracing this rich Italian history in a show, “From Depero to Rotella: Italian Commercial Posters Between Advertising and Art,” that runs through June 10, 2023. The title references two of the most influential artists in the genre, Fortunato Depero, the futurist designer and artist whose early work includes ads for Campari and San Pellegrino; and Mimmo Rotella, the important postwar artist known for cutting-edge collages made from shreds of posters.
I recently visited CIMA for a walk-through of the show with Executive Director Nicola Lucchi. The 4th floor gallery space is set up like a contemporary urban apartment, with several rooms to showcase the art and a kitchen for gathering and events (such as a forthcoming aperitivo hour with Campari). Lucchi started Appetito’s visit in the entry alcove, where two of Depero’s works from the 1920s introduce the show.
From there, the primary gallery room puts the inspiring works of other featured artists on display, with incredible examples of futurism, cubism and graphic design elements from the 1920s and 1930s. There are posters for Italian cruise lines, typewriters and automobiles, as well as side-by-side comparisons of 1926 Campari ads with different logo treatments—from a century before the familiar version today, with its heavy serif typeface. Illy Caffé from 1934, by Xanti (Alexander) Schawinsky, offers foreshadowing of the Italian coffee company’s pressurization storage system (in the left bottom corner of the poster) and of the brand’s affinity for supporting lyrical, important art.
From the main gallery, Lucchi explained the evolution of Italian poster art, focusing on Pirelli and Olivetti ads before stopping to point out Erberto Carboni’s Barilla (1952), a poster for the Italian pasta brand, which playfully showcases pasta shapes amid a fork and a spoon. The show concludes with two Rotella collages from 1963 that should be seen in person, in part for their visual commentary on American commercialization of food products.
For now, I’ll leave you with some of the food and drink–related art from the show, and encouragement to visit CIMA while the show is on display to see these great works in person—as well as to visit this hidden gem of an art institution. “From Depero To Rotella” through June 10, 2023, Center For Italian Modern Art, 421 Broome St., 4th Floor, New York, NY 10013. $15 general admission (more ticket information and opening hours here).