The Artist Piero Fornasetti: A Timeless Celebration of Surrealism and Whimsy

Piero Fornasetti - Collection of Twelve Tema e Variazioni Plates. Sold: AUD 1,920 via Shapiro Auctioneers (May 2020).

With an imagination as wide as his oeuvre, Piero Fornasetti’s overwhelming creative flair helped the Italian artist to become one of the most prolific figures of the 20th century who was known for his whimsical motifs that reinterpreted classical elements in a style that was distinctively and unmistakably, Fornasetti.

It’s not easy to define the art and designs of the Piero Fornasetti. Through a style that’s incomparable, the Italian artist and designer carved out a place in Italian culture that made him synonymous with the classical beauty of the Italian operatic soprano, Lina Cavalieri. And it was Cavalieri’s face that enraptured the artist and helped propel him to worldwide fame in his typically surreal and whimsical style.

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Piero Fornasetti inside the Stanza Metafisica, one of his creations (Wikimedia Commons)“It’s rare to see such happiness in the act of making and producing, such a sweeping vision, free of any shadow of conflict in the moment of creation: a serene epiphany, an outpouring of inventions”

Art critic and collector, Patrick Mauriès

Crossing the boundaries between art, design and crafts, Fornasetti’s diverse creations led the viewer into the depths of his imagination with snapshots of Italian fortress cities, visions beneath the surface of the sea, constellations of steampunk ships, and a broad variety of surreal designs that not only helped to shape his approach, but created his signature style.

During his career, Fornasetti created an estimated 13,000 works across a wide range of media, which included furniture, ceramics, textiles, and glassware. What began with illustrations for magazine covers in the 1930s would propel Fornasetti to fame thanks to his hypnotic combination of surrealism and neo-classicism that fused traditional and modern aesthetics. International recognition followed in the 1950s and 1960s with the help of the operatic soprano Lina Cavalieri, whose face he used in his famous Tema e Variazioni series (translated as Themes and Variations), which featured over 350 variations of Cavalieri on different objects.

The Face of a New Beginning

Lina Cavilieri

Lina Cavilieri (Wikimedia Commons)

It began in 1952 when Fornasetti happened upon a picture of Lina Cavalieri in magazine from the late 19th century. Celebrated as the most beautiful woman in the world during her lifetime and the subject of a 1956 Robert Z. Leonard film, Cavalieri was an Italian operatic soprano and actress who was killed in 1944 during an Allied bombing raid that destroyed her home in Florence.

Even in death, her legacy and beauty lived on thanks to Fornasetti’s fascination with her face. It became an emblem of his art, as her image was repeated in myriad seductive, alluring, and mysterious poses, as well as in surreal images in which she’s sporting a moustache, depicted as an Egyptian deity or sun, wearing glasses, a balaclava, and a crown in what became his famous Tema e Variazioni series.

Henry Miller, My Life and Times. Sold for $100 via RR Auction (May 2011)

Henry Miller, My Life and Times. Sold for $100 via RR Auction (May 2011)

Such is the appeal of Tema e Variazioni that it continues to be reproduced today by his son Barnaba Fornasetti, who follows his father’s fondness for a broad variety of canvases, as the series is produced on a variety of everyday objects, including furniture and accessories. Cavalieri’s face was even introduced to a potential new audience in 1971 when the novelist Henry Miller chose one of the decorations from the series on the cover of his autobiography, My Life and Times.

Early Alliance

While Lina Cavalieri helped to establish Fornasetti as an artist of international repute, it was a collaboration with one of the most influential Italian architects and designers of the 20th century that helped him to early success. A proposal for a series of graphic effects on silk scarves submitted at the VII Triennale di Milano caught the eye of the modernist master designer Gio Ponti, and by 1940 the pair started a fruitful collaboration that produced some of Fornasetti’s most recognised and beloved works.

Piero Fornasetti, Architettura trumeau.

Piero Fornasetti – Architettura trumeau. Sold for $8,000 via Wright (June 2019)

The pairing was of mutual interest. Fornasetti’s neo-classicist motifs and designs that emphasized Italian heritage appealed to Ponti, while Ponti gave Fornasetti a solid base from which to push the boundaries of his surrealism and whimsy. At the 1951 Triennale the pair unveiled what is perhaps their most successful collaboration. An exemplification of Fornasetti’s burgeoning style, the Architettura series of architectural models and patterns that have adorned furniture and kitchenware blends his love for the artistic and the technical. Based on antique architectural prints, they are today recognized as an icon of Italian artistic design. The hand-silkscreened and lacquered neo-classical building façades and interiors play with perceptions of volume and surface and this interaction between two and three dimensions became central to Fornasetti’s designs, which continue to be handcrafted in a limited edition today.

Ponti was a driving force in Fornasetti’s life and he pushed him to develop his intuition and produce everyday objects that would bring art into ordinary people’s homes, which can be seen in his Tema e Variazioni series of plates. Even as the pair’s collaborations made way for individual expression, the influence of Ponti is Fornasetti’s artistic evolution was still evident in 1958 with the creation of Stanza Metafisica (translated as Metaphysical Room, which can be seen at the top of the page). Designed as a space for meditation made of 32 doors, it was a pioneering example of an early installation that was first presented at the Tea Centre, London.

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Everything and Nothing

Piero Fornasetti ashtray. Sold for €1,560 via Piasa (February 2017)

Piero Fornasetti – Ashtray. Sold for €1,560 via Piasa (February 2017)

Blending elements of surrealism and neo-classicism with traditional and modern aesthetics, Fornasetti’s art continues to influence modern design trends that appeal to collectors and design enthusiasts alike. A measure of his enduring appeal is represented by the continuing success of the Fornasetti Atelier, which following the death Piero in 1988 was continued by his son Barnaba Fornasetti, who preserves and produces new pieces based on his father’s original designs.

Barnaba ensures that his father’s legacy continues through the atelier, but it’s Fornasetti’s artistic vision that has left the greater legacy on the design world and made him an influential figure in decorative arts and interior design, proving that it’s not just his illustrations that have had a lasting impact.

It’s the face of Lina Cavalieri that will forever be associated with Fornsetti, as not only were his depictions of the Italian opera singer beguiling, but his decision to repeat the same motif showed the evolution of his whimsical, mystic, and creative mind and allowed his art to remain highly collectible today. “It’s something old-fashioned and very fashionable. It’s not modern or antique. It’s not surreal, but it is,” explained Barnaba Fornasetti of his father’s style. “It’s everything and nothing at the same time,” and that whimsical dive into the imagination of Fornasetti’s charmingly surreal world continues to enchant collectors and enthusiasts.


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Sources: | Pamono | Artnet | Architectural Digest | Lyon & Turnbull | Catawiki | Milk Concept Boutique