Review of Calder and Melotti: Children of the Sky at Ronchini Gallery, London

The influence of Surrealism is as wide and varied as Surrealism itself. This was always likely – Surrealism was configured to swallow up anything anybody could deem as good by its designed combination of precision and vagueness in praising “the imagination”. It seems to have been so successful in this that “Surrealist” has basically become a synonym for “imaginative”; as though people weren’t imaginative before 1924. Either that, or people mean “looks a bit like Dalí”. It is possible it coined a word to draw together disparate things. So the wide influence of Surrealism on what art looks like, broad church that it was, takes an odd turn when we think of these artists: Calder and Melotti, currently showing at the Ronchini Gallery.

As pointed out in the press release, both men ‘were attracted to working with iron and malleable alloys’, ‘both men were trained in engineering before turning to art and were interested in music and dance.’ The American Calder moved to Paris in 1926 and there met Miró while Miró was painting the colourful results of night-time hunger hallucinations. Calder lifted Miró’s “subconscious” and made it into mobiles (thus inventing them), before returning to the U.S.A. in 1933. Italian Melotti studied engineering in Florence before falling with a group of Milanese abstract artists interwar which included Lucio Fontana.

Post-war, Melotti began to put human figures or faces into his work as seen in most of the pieces on show, like the screaming ghoulish head weaving around heads on spikes in Untitled (c. 1980), and started to make what he called teatrini – little theatres – where the figure/s is/are enveloped in a scene bigger than themselves. The Ronchini shows a small one, Insonnia (Insomnia) (1964), in which a stick man has a small bell suspended above his head by a piece of machinery resembling a gallows. And so already we begin to see the difference between Calder and Melotti, between a pupil of Miró and an imagination slightly like Max Ernst’s, or Giacometti. The imagination as an abstraction versus the imagination as a poltergeist.

Calder’s work is about colour and balance. The colour is Mediterranean, in heavy iron shapes that hang down like mysterious plants, or sheet black in his “stabiles” (still sculptures), a still, metal, darting form, light despite it being heavy (his first is on show here – Maquette for the Teodelapio (1962)). His work always seems to be light as a feather, or rather a feather balanced on a wedge, but the knowledge they are made of metal brings them down to earth – they are solidly fixed. Although people speak of Calder’s work as having “a fragility”, these things have rivets, they are build Ford-tough, in the American way. They are not fragile, they are precarious but stable, held in equilibrium by a solid knowledge of the mechanics of levers. Crucially, nobody ever thinks they are going to fall over. Even a little joke of his, the flimsy Spider (1965), looks solid.

Melotti is all about lines and wire and disorder. He works in bundles and poles of thin, brittle-looking brass, with a small, pained human head or two dotted around, agonised but not surprised anymore at its own plight. Melotti presents a world where things fall over, despite on first glance looking the less precarious, where the only thing imaginable is the worst, that could happen. Where Calder’s work has a persona, an individuality, is a player in this world, Melotti with the depth of a Russian novel quietly knows that there is only ever one lead actor: the all-dominating, uncompromising nature of the world.

Jack Castle

Calder and Melotti: Children of the Sky, 11 October until 30 November, Ronchini Gallery, 22 Dering Street, Mayfair, London, W1S 1AN.

Image: Installation view. Courtesy Ronchini Gallery.