The art of Carlo Zinelli, usually known only as ‘Carlo’, is art of isolation and traumatic experience, of a man stricken by mental instabilities coupled with the horrors of war and the unbearableness of institutionalization. His compositions developed rhythmic patterns likened to music, and replaced the verbal faculties which his disorder caused him to eventually lose. His inability to communicate by conventional means left him to find a path that became a personal language and the repository of his experiences and thoughts.
Carlo was born on July 2, 1916 in San Giovanni Lupatoto, near Verona, Italy. He was the sixth child of seven in a family headed by his father, Alessandro, a carpenter. His mother, Caterina Manzini, died when Carlo was two years old. As a child, he was fond of animals, but reticent around people, preferring to be alone. This characteristic was consistent throughout his life; in his adult years, he preferred the company of his dog to anyone else.
At the age of nine, young Carlo left school to work as a farm laborer, taking care of horses’ stables, and in 1934 he moved to Verona with his sisters, taking a job in a slaughterhouse. He was extremely fond of music and dancing, and boating.
However, Carlo’s family was decimated by tragedy and disease. He had a brother who died in 1929 of tuberculosis, then in 1938 and 1940 the same disease claimed his father and a sister respectively. Another brother had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital for trauma experienced as a result of military service in 1935-36, and he died in 1941.
Carlo himself experienced the military, having volunteered to fight in the Spanish civil war in March, 1939. The exact nature of his enlistment is unclear; he was there for a short period of time but it was extremely harrowing. He was also drafted into the Italian army during World War II which proved to be psychologically devastating. During the next eight years, his mental condition deteriorated to the point where he was placed in an asylum due to aggressive and delirious behavior. He was diagnosed in 1947 as schizophrenic, and suffered from a quasi-autistic condition which left him virtually unable to verbally communicate.
According to author Maria Azzola, “Carlo was placed under restraint in the asylum in Verona where about 1,200 human beings were housed in separate wards, according to their levels of madness. He was incarcerated in the fifth ward where the worst cases were treated. Here in total isolation, progressively unable to relate verbally, his communication deteriorated into a mixture of words without logical connections, often perceived as pure sounds through which his internal world found confused expression.”(1) These vocalizations were often mixed with scraps of folk songs and opera, remnants of Carlo’s love of music. He is described as having “suffered from an extreme solipsism or autism with a consequent breakdown of communication (dialogue was impossible), a radical dissociation of ideas and loss of logical faculties, loss of emotion, and language disorders. He spoke only in truncated, fragmented sentences of chopped up words, neologisms, and mutterings and repeated certain symbolically significant words and phrases such as “the end of the world”.(2)
It wasn’t until 1955 that Carlo began to draw, first using bricks and nails to incise the surface of a wall in an outdoor courtyard. Carlo’s work found a patron through the Scottish sculptor, Michael Noble, and the Countess Berletti who provided funds for an artists’ studio on the grounds of the institution. It was here that Carlo spent much of his time.
According to Maria Azzola, four periods may be seen in Carlo’s work. The first phase, from 1957-60, shows pictorial space populated by small figures, often isolated but arranged in groups. From this point, Carlo moves on to produce works with larger structures and figures (1960-4). Fragmentary and nonsensical writing appears in his work in the third phase (1965-7) along with the ubiquitous figures, but their arrangement is not as strictly governed by the grouping mechanisms Carlo used before. Finally, the years 1968-74 see his most mature and sophisticated work: complex compositions that bring together his common themes to present dramatic works. Briefly in 1962, he had an interest in collage, collecting natural found materials and cigarette packages to create works combining paint and three-dimensional elements. Aside from this, his pieces are done mainly in pen, gouache, and pastel. His oeuvre includes about 3,000 pieces, many are sheets of paper with drawings on both sides.
This inclination to fill both sides of the paper may be likened to Carlo’s predilection, especially in earlier pieces, to fill the entire space of the composition with figures, gradually becoming smaller and smaller to accommodate the shrinking space. The figures and motifs most often seen, animals and farm figures, soldiers and vehicles, allude to the disparate experiences of his early and later life. The rhythmic repetition of figures and the visual cadences of their arrangements and relations can be likened to musical structures and harmonies, especially in the complexities of his later work. The use of letters and linguistic devices is a foil to his inability to communicate conventionally, but their jumbled and repetitive nature take them far from the realm of readable language and back to the closed and private nature of Carlo’s personal systems. These elements do not reference speech as we know it. They are isolated and devoid of linguistic significance, but are powerful as pictorial elements.
Maria Azzola, who has studied Carlo extensively, writes of the meaning inherent in Carlo’s work: “It is a true language expressed in painting, not just a body of signs of uncertain significance. Figures, forms, signs and colour stains that form the individual works represent a chosen and arranged lexicon following the rules of a particular grammar, a grammar that is pictorial and ideographical, as well as alphabetic, phonetic and musical. It is also capable of expressing ideas and states of mind.”(3)
Azzola, Maria. “Writing in Painting, Recitar Cantando” in Raw Vision, #29 Winter 1999-2000. Trans. By Susan Haskins.
Petullo, Anthony. Self-Taught and Outsider Art: The Anthony Petullo Collection (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001)
Thévoz, Michel. The Art Brut Collection, Laussanne (Zurich: Swiss Institute for Art Research, 2001)
Tuchman, Maurice and Carol S. Eliel. Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art (Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Princeton University Press, 1992)
(1) Azzola, pg 24
(2) Thévoz, pg 281
(3) Azzola, pg 25
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