Interview between Andrea Büttner and Bina von Stauffenberg

In regards to the exhibition of Andrea Büttner at Collezione Maramotti in Reggio Emilia we publish some extract of an interview between Andrea Büttner and Bina von Stauffenberg, the guest curator. The exhibition is in conjunction with the Max Mara Art Prize for Women in collaboration with the Whitechapel Gallery, London. The award of a residency in Italy afforded Büttner the opportunity to spend time with early Renaissance painting, most particularly the realist frescoes of fourteenth century artist Giotto. She visited monastic communities that pursue lives of simplicity and devotion. She also visited Reggio Emilia, home of the Maramotti Collection, where she encountered the work of artists such as Alberto Burri, Enrico Castellani and Piero Manzoni, whose use of ‘poor’ materials prefigures the Arte Povera movement. The influence of these encounters is clearly evident in The Poverty of Riches and in this conversation.

Bina von Stauffenberg: Your new work sets out to explore the notion of poverty. You have become particularly interested in the life of St. Francis of Assisi, whose birthplace you visited during your residency in Italy. The title of your show The Poverty of Riches references a book of the same title by the academic Kenneth Baxter Wolf.1 The author questions the benefit of St. Francis renouncing all worldly goods and living his life in poverty. How has this critique influenced your work?

Andrea Büttner: In The Poverty of Riches Kenneth Baxter Wolf discusses how voluntary poverty opens a path to spiritual regeneration, and how ultimately it is a route to salvation for wealthy Christians like St. Francis himself. The poor however cannot make this choice; therefore this path of a ‘spiritual economy’ is closed to them. I am interested in poverty not only in relation to monastic movements but also in relation to artistic movements, in particular to Arte Povera, the Italian art movement of the 1960s, which literally translated means ‘poor art’. The choice of poverty in monastic movements echoes the choice of poverty in Arte Povera – ‘poor’ implies an art that is opposed to the ‘rich’ apparatuses of mass media, style, meaning, or the art market.

The other parallel drawn by your work is between poverty and shame. How is your exploration of poverty a continuation of your interest in shame?

If you look at the sociological history of emotions, then shame is a recent reaction to poverty, or to unemployment more specifically. In the nineteenth century, rage was the emotional reaction to poverty or unemployment. Rage has to do with a sense of entitlement. It resulted in the development of unions, the development of Marxism. Nowadays we live in a culture in which every man is considered the architect of his own fortune, therefore poverty or unemployment means failure. Poverty and shame are linked in a very specific way in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries; with poverty being one main cause for shame. Of course this is arbitrary; there could be many different reasons for shame – or rage. Shame is a negative emotion, an unpleasant emotion. I am interested, however, in shame as positive, productive experience. Productive meaning that shame serves as an agent for artistic decisions. Shame is a heuristic emotion; it is learnt from and also teaches us about the norms of our culture.

I wanted to look at poverty in the same way. Poverty is a negative state to be in, but in monastic movements in the twelfth century, in Arte Povera, and Grotowski’s Poor Theatre for example this negative state is embraced or redefined.3 As with my interest in shame, I share with those movements an attitude toward poverty: the negative state or emotion is looked at from a perspective of affirmation.


Maybe we could talk about one of the key materials of your show; fabric or cloth. You have produced a series of monochrome ‘paintings’ by putting canvas fabric on stretchers. Could you talk about the formal references here?

I have produced a series of monochromes, like those made in the era of High Modernism when art was considered autonomous. I am thinking of Malevich and later Yves Klein or Ad Reinhart. These monochromes are made with the kind of fabric that is used internationally for work uniforms for those in the public services. I became interested in fabric for several reasons. Firstly, there is a narrative level; the wealth of Francis of Assisi’s family came from his father’s business as a cloth merchant. Secondly, there is a symbolic importance to the coarse tunic worn by monastic orders. Historical theology has shown there is a symbolic identification of saints articulated via a certain kind of uncomfortable fabric used for the tunic, a type of exteriorisation of a spiritual decision.

Then, if you look at the Fioretti4, stories that were collected shortly after St. Francis’s death, these include dressing and undressing as a significant subject. A key moment in these stories is of course when St. Francis rejects the family wealth, undresses publicly and returns his expensive clothes to his father, a scene also painted by Giotto. In Giotto’s fresco [1296-1304] in the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi, which is iconographically very famous, the bishop of Assisi covers up naked St. Francis. My interest in fabric derives from its narrative associations as well as its symbolic codification of wealth and poverty.

On a different level, when I was producing work for the Bienal de Sao Paolo5 I became interested in fabric through the work of Brazilian artists like Hélio Oiticica. There is a re-occurrence of a performativity of fabric in Brazilian modernism, which refers to the prevalent social fabric of Brazil.

I wanted to relate this back to early Renaissance iconography where there is also a performativity of fabric, for example that is inscribed in the Giotto frescoes depicting Francis in Assisi.

Can you talk about the three Arte Povera works from the Maramotti Collection that you have mentioned as a significant influence on the development of your work: Alberto Burri’s Sacco e Rosso (1954), Enrico Castellani’s Superficie nera n.2 (1964) and Piero Manzoni’s Achrome (1959-60)?

Whilst in Italy, I became aware of a very Italian take on Modernism and painting, for example of Lucio Fontana violating the canvas, but also the proto- Arte Povera works you are mentioning. I think the Italian discourse of modernist painting is related to the presentation of fabric in Christian Art History, for instance Christ’s body wrapped in fabric, or the cloth covering the table at the last supper; paintings of these religioussubjects and representations of fabric are everywhere in Italy. The relationship of the pieces you mention to my own work is very formalistic. Burri’s early works with hessian are a marker for the coarse Franciscan tunic. In the Manzoni painting I see the tablecloth covering the table in paintings of the Last Supper, and of other tables laid ready for dinner. The painting by Castellani is a shaped canvas, just fabric on stretchers becoming a sculpture, becoming a corner piece. Thus the discourse of fabric and painting relates back to my interest in shame: the corner is often used as the position of shame, Martin, ab in die Ecke und schäm dich [Martin, Into the Corner, you should be ashamed of yourself]6 is just one example.

Image above: Vogelpredigt, 2010 - woodcut on paper -  dyptich 180 x 117 cm + 180 x 117 cm

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All works: © Andrea Büttner
Exhibition views, Collezione Maramotti Ph. C. Dario Lasagni