What is Arte Povera?

Posted by Robert Lange on

Arte Povera is an art movement that emerged in Italy in the late 1960s. Its representatives used simple, everyday materials as a voice of rebellion. Arte Povera was all about rejecting traditional artistic conventions and, above all, commercialism. For the artists involved in this movement, Arte Povera was a way to challenge the established norms of the art world and explore new forms of expression. Want to learn more about the movement and its artists? Read more!

Table of Contents

Where Does The Name Come From? A Little Bit of History

Let's start with the name, as it tells us almost all we need to know about this movement.

In 1967, the Italian art critic Germano Celant used the term "arte povera" for the first time to describe the works of a group of Italian artists whose characteristic feature was the exposure of the rawness of materials—metal, branches, glass, stone, newspapers, and rags. The use of common objects was a departure from the traditional so-called high art. Arte Povera means "poor art" in Italian. What did Celant mean by that? Partly, his perspective was about the looks of said art: it's not pretty, it's not colorful, or aesthetically pleasing. But maybe it was also about his understanding of the movement. It was not supposed to look good, and it was not meant to please.


what is art povera


Arte Povera: Key Concepts And Techniques

Let's take a look at what (and how) Arte Povera wanted to achieve.

Use of Everyday Materials

Artists used materials such as earth, rags, wood, rocks, and other found objects. Not expensive paints, not perfect high-quality cotton canvas. This choice was a deliberate move to cut off from traditional materials like oil paint and marble, aiming to break down the boundaries between art and life.

Process and Concept

The process of creation and the ideas behind the artwork were often more important than the final product. Artists focused on the transient and evolving nature of their work – that's why Arte Povera wasn't supposed to awe you with its beauty; it was supposed to make you stop and think.

Arte Povera as Political and Social Commentary

Arte Povera was a reaction against the industrialization and commercialization of the art world. It often contained political or social commentary, reflecting the turbulent political climate of 1960s and 1970s Italy.

Rejection of Commercialism

By using inexpensive materials and avoiding the polished finish of traditional art, Arte Povera artists rejected the commercialization of art. They sought to create work that was accessible and could exist outside the traditional gallery system. At the same time, it was simply a criticism of art being inaccessible.

Exploration of Nature and Time

Many Arte Povera works explore themes of nature, time, and transformation. Artists incorporated organic materials and natural processes into their work, blurring the line between art and the natural world.

The Most Known Artists From Arte Povera Movement

Arte Povera was a strictly Italian movement, especially important to Turin artists. Other cities worth mentioning are Milan, Rome, Genoa, Venice, Naples and Bologna.

Giovanni Anselmo

Giovanni Anselmo was an Italian artist born in 1934. He is best known for his use of natural materials such as stones, earth, and plants in his artworks. Anselmo's work often explores themes of gravity, tension, and the passage of time. One of his iconic pieces, "Untitled (Structure that Eats)," features a lettuce leaf held between a granite block and a smaller stone, emphasizing the natural processes of decay and transformation. His installations and sculptures challenge viewers to contemplate the inherent forces around us.

Jannis Kounellis

Jannis Kounellis was a Greek-Italian artist born in 1936, and a prominent figure in the Arte Povera movement. Kounellis's work incorporates raw materials and organic elements such as coal, steel, fire, and even live animals. His installations aimed to create a direct, visceral connection with the natural world and the material reality of existence. For example, his 1969 work "Untitled" (12 horses) involved twelve live horses tethered in a gallery space, blurring the boundaries between art and life.

Mario Merz

Italian artist born in Milan in 1925. He is renowned for his use of everyday materials such as neon lights, newspapers, glass, and organic elements to create his artworks. One of his most famous motifs is the igloo, a recurring form in his sculptures that symbolizes shelter and the fundamental human need for protection and interaction with nature. His igloos are often constructed from various materials and inscribed with Fibonacci numbers, reflecting his interest in natural growth patterns and mathematical sequences.

Michelangelo Pistoletto

He was a leading figure in the Arte Povera movement. Pistoletto is best known for his "mirror paintings," involving reflective surfaces that engage viewers directly by including their images within the artwork. These pieces challenge the traditional boundaries of art by making the observer an active participant in the experience. If you'd like to challenge yourself and find out more about human identity, our society, and the relationship between art and everyday life, you might want to see Pistoletto's "Venus of the Rags" series, which juxtaposes classical sculptures with piles of discarded clothing, commenting on consumerism and the passage of time.

Other Notable Artists:

  • Piero Manzoni
  • Pino Pascali
  • Alighiero Boetti
  • Pier Paolo Calzolari
  • Luciano Fabro
  • Marisa Merz
  • Giulio Paolini
  • Giuseppe Penone
  • Emilio Prini
  • Gilberto Zorio

Let's Sum It Up:

  • Arte Povera artists believed in the power of simplicity and the raw, unmediated experience of materials.
  • They aimed to strip away the excesses of traditional art to reveal something more fundamental and authentic.
  • This movement was as much about philosophy and life as it was about creating art, challenging both the artist and the viewer to rethink the role and value of art in society.
  • Mario Merz, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Jannis Kounellis, and Giovanni Anselmo are among the most important artists.

Read also our blog article on art in public places.

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