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Field News
07 Jun 2020

From the Collection: Carlo Zinelli

As was customary in Italian villages, Carlo Zinelli left school at the age of 9. Sent to work on a farm, the diffident boy took comfort in solitary walks. A subsequent move to Verona to work as a butcher’s helper left Carlo disoriented. When he was sent to the front at the beginning of World War II, he began to exhibit symptoms of mental illness and was discharged to his family’s care. In 1947 he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for hallucinations, terrors, and an increasing inability to use language. 

Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and autism, Zinelli spoke for the rest of his life only in strings of neologisms and nonsensical syllables. In 1957, however, the hospital opened an art studio where, for almost twenty years, he painted eight hours a day. He expressed himself in an evolving style built upon an enigmatic graphic vocabulary—silhouetted figures, circles, geometric objects, letters, and private symbols that he often repeated in multiples of four.

Horse with Figures, a double-sided work, exemplifies the simplified, dramatic compositions of the final phase of Zinelli’s artistic development. A few large silhouetted figures stand out against a ground of pale color, black dashes, and calligraphic lettering. The human figure to the right, shown as three separate elements—head and torso, buttocks and legs, and feet—recalls earlier paintings in which detached body parts refer to Zinelli’s war experience. The vibrating, overlapped words, both real and invented, are decorative rather than communicative. His need to establish order is evident in the graphic images in multiples of four, such as the blue circle against a yellow-green ground and yellow circles against a blue ground. The painting on the reverse is similar in composition: larger objects—a delicate flower and a horse—are surrounded with repetitions of calligraphic letters and dashes. With their refined coloring and masterful draftsmanship, Zinelli’s are haunting works.

Interested in learning morning about Zinelli? Explore AFAM’s 2015 exhibition Carlo Zinelli (1916-1974) and read Edward Gomez’s review of the show in Hyperallergic.