It was 1957 when Wifredo and I arrived in Italy for the first time together. Enrico Baj, Roberto Crippa and Lucio Fontana, who had told us so much about Albisola during visits to Wifredo's studio in Paris, were there to meet us at Milan's Stazione Centrale, accompanied by Sergio Dangelo and Piero Manzoni. Our arrival at the Station was magical. A whole welcoming ceremony had been prepared. Manzoni recited a sort of "poem-manifesto" with those huge, round, startled eyes of his, while each member of the assembled group handed us an enormous box of Panettoni Motta. We were extremely touched and slightly embarrassed by all our bulky gifts. In order to continue our journey a few days later, we would hand our Panettoni over to the hotel maid. She was very happy, and so were we…
In 1954, Asger Jorn and Tullio Mazzotti had organized an International Ceramics Meeting in Albisola. Wifredo, who was spending the winter in Cuba, only received the invitation on his return to Paris. He left immediately for Albisola but arrived too late. All the participants had already left. This only made him even more determined to return. We were brimming with curiosity. In the 1950s we were all hungry for travel and new experiences. There was something in the air: The end of World War II was still fresh in our minds and everyone was seeking new horizons and wanted to discover other countries.
People in Milan talked about Albisola as a center for ceramics and for artists in general. There was true "Albisolamania". Most notably, the Futurist Manifesto had been drawn up in Albisola. The first of the important people to have brought Albisola into the limelight were Lucio Fontana, San Lazaro (editor of the magazine XXè Siècle), Tullio Mazzotti (poet, friend of the Futurists and owner of a large ceramics factory) and Carlo Cardazzo (an art dealer based in Milan and Venice) and his wife Milena Milani.
All of the factories in Albisola, large or small, were famous for producing majolica and umbrella stands for commercial distribution. However, there was also a lot of scope for experimentation by modern artists. There were the Surrealists, the painters from the Cobra group, Informalists, Lettrists, Situationists, painters from the Spatialist and Phase movements, as well as the Nuclear movement, and numerous independent painters. Asger Jorn was the great Scandinavian guru, the theoretician behind not only the Cobra group but also the Movement for a Bauhaus Imaginiste and later, along with Guy Debord, the Situationism and the Institute for Compared Vandalism.
During the summer we went to Rapallo with Baj. There we met a group of painters and friends who were eager for us to visit Albisola. We left with them to spend the week with Crippa and his family who were renting a large house up in the hills. The following summer, Wifredo and I would in turn rent a house in the hills around the Zona Bruciati, near Jorn's house.
Jorn and Wifredo had been friends for a long time. Wifredo recalled it was André Breton who had originally introduced them to each other in Paris, before the war. Jorn had arrived in Albisola some years before us. In 1958 he moved into the house of Pope Julius the Second, not so much a house as a ruin with most of the roof missing. Jorn carried out the various repairs with his friend Berto Gambetta, the only person from Albisola to have survived the Battle of Stalingrad. Jorn would pay tribute to that fact with a painting titled Stalingrad No Man's Land. A few years later, the house was transformed and marvelous. There were terraces, verandas and Jorn's inventive ceramic constructions just about everywhere. Between Jorn's house and his studio was an old well, a reservoir of water where the toads would croak melancholically all evening.
When Jorn was working on the large "mural-relief" in ceramic for Aarhus in Denmark, he used to walk down to the San Giorgio factory at four or five in the morning when the kilns opened. Sometimes, some pieces had broken and it was very difficult to piece them back together. Legend has it that Jorn used some twelve tons of clay and the relief was made up of one thousand two hundred fragments of ceramic. I remember him working the material with Ansgar Elde, driving over the still-wet glaze on a motorbike in order to create patterns.
Afterwards, Jorn, Salino, Poggi and Pastorino left for Aarhus in a special train filled with all the various pieces of the mural (I imagine they were all individually numbered). It is said that an extra wagon had been loaded with spaghetti, the Italians fearful of the culinary prospects of the great North.
At one point, Jorn asked me to help him write a letter to the Danish authorities regarding a tribute he wanted to make, at his own expense, to Tycho Brahe, the great 16th-century astronomer who lived on the island of Ven between Sweden and Denmark, not far from another house belonging to Jorn. In honor of Tycho Brahe, Jorn intended (this is, at least, what he said) to build a tower on the island of Ven twice the height of the Eiffel Tower. The letter we sent was perfectly serious, accompanied by the relevant sketches, plans, models, calculations, and explanations from Jorn concerning the building of his Tower. Jorn wanted to annoy the Danish Minister of Culture who had once refused him financial assistance for a large study with a number of volumes about Nordic Viking traces in the architecture of churches in Normandy and Brittany. The reply from the Danish government took months to arrive, so to calm Jorn who was getting nervous, I sang him an old song, a sort of ballad, my mother had taught me when I was a little girl:
"On the Isle of Ven, where the king
When the reply eventually arrived it was, of course, negative, explaining that a tower of that height would pose a threat to air traffic using nearby Copenhagen airport.
During those first summers in Albisola, Jorn had given Wifredo a thorough initiation into ceramics. Jorn loved what he used to call "collective projects," "collective" was a word that was constantly on his lips. For a short period, they worked together. When, later on in his life, Wifredo became truly involved in ceramics, he too would show up every day, for many months, to work at San Giorgio on the Curva Della Morte (Death Curve, which no longer exists today).
Salino was the head of the factory and Wifredo worked principally with Poggi and Silvana. He was obsessed with his work. There was always the build-up to the opening of the kilns: Had the colors come out as he had expected, had anything broken? The Museum of Ceramics held a fine exhibition of part of his work in 1975.
It was Jorn who convinced us that we should get a house somewhere. And we really liked Albisola. At the time, Paris was a difficult place for foreigners to live because of the war with Algeria. Eventually, Wifredo bought a house only partially built on a hill next to Zona Bruciati. We were going to need to add a large studio and a downstairs apartment. The man who had started to build the house had not planned for a kitchen since the eventual buyers, he assumed, would inevitably be foreigners and would therefore be quite happy to eat tomatoes on the beach. Consequently, we had to build a kitchen on the ground floor next to our large music room. We also put a roof on a small hunter's lodge, la Casa de Cacciatore, where we would put up friends.
As was the case everywhere in this mountainous area, we had to terrace the land. We planted lots of trees that soon grew very tall. Wifredo, who collected African and Oceanic art set up some striking totems from New-Guinea along one of the terraces. On the lawn we placed the huge Jon Jon, some five meters high-a magnificent totem made of rare wood and finely sculpted all round. The Jon Jon dominated the hill and watched over all of us. Near it, we made music: Jorn on the violin, Wifredo on his African tom-tom, the rest of us creating inventive rhythms on children's toys, the whole scenario accompanied on those warm nights by the fireflies. You could see the sea wherever you looked. Wifredo used to say he had made the same journey as Christopher Columbus, only backwards; the constant sight of the sea made him feel he could take off whenever he wanted.
Why Albisola? It is not Venice. It is not a particularly picturesque place; it has no particular charm. Like so many other small villages along the Ligurian coast, various uninspiring modern buildings have sprung up around a small historical core. Yes, the sea and the ceramics were omnipresent, but there was also a fervent internationalism. Artists from all over the world would come back year after year, the North Europeans on their way down to Rome, Naples or Sicily. They would stop off to spend a few days in Albisola to make ceramics which they could pick up a few weeks later on their way back from their Italian holiday, all baked and ready. Such organization, it was perfect!
However, the most important thing was being able to barter, which was very "in" at the time. You could quite easily rent a room or an apartment in return for a painting or a piece of ceramic. For a short time, in exchange for their work, artists could eat for a month or more at some of the little restaurants in Albisola, Savona or Ellera. The visiting artists, often with a family in tow, could afford a relatively cheap holiday near the beach, and, at the same time experiment with ceramics.
The place where all the more or less friendly debates were carried out was, of course, Bar Testa, which, at the time, extended almost the whole length of the square. It was invariably full during the summer. Then there was "Il Cantinone". There was no getting around "Il Cantinone" because there were two doors, one on the main street, the other on Via Aurelia. It was thus impossible to pass by unnoticed without being called over by Ansgar Elde who, at the time, had virtually made the place his general headquarters, along with Irene Dominguez, Carlos Carlé and his wife Laura, Eva Sörensen, Vandercam, Dr. Gigi Fontana, Gherasim Luca and Micheline, among others. It was the perfect place for an impromptu picnic in the shade whenever it got too hot on the beach. Then there was Mario's, great for fish, or, better still, Pescetto's at Capo. We were often to be found there with Jorn, who was occasionally accompanied by black north-American singers or art dealers such as Lefebre or Streep from New York, or Agostini from Paris. At the time, the train used to pass right alongside the restaurant. As the tables were outside during the summer, the noise would break up our conversation every half-hour for a few seconds or minutes, depending on how many wagons the train was pulling….
In the 50s and 60s, Albisola was a bit like Montparnasse in Paris, or The Village in New York, a toad's chorus of artists, croaking away, day and night. It was at the same time amusing, tiring, droll, boring, enriching, nightmarish, comical, troubling, serious and crazy. That is why we loved and still love Albisola.