The incredible Vittorino Meneghelli, art collector and humanist born Mirano, Italy 1915 - died Monday night, 08 February Johannesburg 2010.
Vittorino Meneghelli with his companion, Tito. Image Totem Gallery
From an extract of the Book Launch: My Life My Collection
(2007) at The SA National Gallery by Professor Pippa Skotness
Vittorio Meneghelli was born in Mirano in 1915 spending his school years in Venice. He was enchanted by the art of Venice even though appalled by the supplications expected by the Catholic Church.
As a young adult he became an accountant, left Venice and moved to Mestre. There he met the lovely Paolina whom he married in 1941 on the shores of Lake Garda.
Her family owned a broom and brush factory in Chirignago, for which the catalogue from the early 19th century appears in the book.
Vittorio began a venture to make shoes, a great Italian tradition, and during the last years of the war he made and traded the standard issue army boot, travelling at night to evade machine guns from the Allied forces.
At this time Vittorio met the professor and sculptor Alberto Viani who would be a friend and an enormous influence, and the reason he attributes his inaugural interest in and love of the arts.
His home was host to many and a place of discussion and debate about art, the ineptitude of gallery owners, the philistine behaviour of some Italian collectors, the artists of Paris, and art objects were often exchanged for food or shoes with the artists Vittorio admired.
At the same time his interest in African art was aroused in particular because of its influence on French painting of the earlier part of the century.
After the war Vittorio sold up the shoe factory and travelled to South Africa with the thought of emigrating. He immediately loved the country and wanted to succeed here.
His family joined him and though this new business did not thrive he eventually set up a factory that would use hogs hair to create brushes.
This led in the end to the production of rope, a thriving factory 'Academy Brushware' and new projects to make batik fabrics and dresses which Paolina worked on and avante garde furniture.
Vittorino Meneghelli with a Dogon tribe in Mali, 1968 during a fertility ceremony
It was in the later 1960s that Vittorino made his first trips through Africa and launched Totem Meneghelli, an art gallery, in Johannesburg.
This was an historic moment in the cultural life of Johannesburg, for as Karel Nel, who contributes a text to the book says, in Totem the Meneghelli's exposed South Africans - both black and white to Africa's cultural heritage, to its power and beauty and the contributions that the art of this continent had already made in Europe.
It seems strange to think about it now, but then there was almost nothing of Africa's creative life to be seen in the urban areas of South Africa and very little elsewhere except, of course, in the great colonial museums in Europe.
Today, Vittorino says there is probably more African art in the world now than ever existed. An extraordinary thought.
In the 1960s, 70s and 80s the Meneghellis attracted a lively and generous collection of artists, poets and others to their Sunday lunch table.
An artist himself, Vittorino worked directly with others such as Aileen Lipkin and poet Sinclaire Beiles, and his friends included Cecil Skotnes, Eduardo Villa, Lucy Sibiya, Norman Catherine and Tito Zungu, the latter unknown then but well known now for the drawings of aeroplanes he made on envelopes.
At Totem he exhibited both collections of art from the rest of Africa and curated exhibitions of local artists -- indeed he was one of the very first curators who understood the social and creative energy of curatorship and generated lively projects in which many artists enthusiastically participated.
All the while Vittorino continued travelling and buying art in West Africa. There he made friends with merchants and traders in Mali, Cote d'Ivoire, Togo, Congo, Gabon, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Benin, Cameroon and elsewhere.
He became familiar with the markets in places such as Abidjan, Bamako, Accra, Lome and Timbuktu. He has had an unerring eye for the pieces of traditional mastery and beauty but also for finding wonderful forms of contemporary innovation and quirky expressions of creativity.
His collection of Nok ceramic sculpture from the first millennium and Benin brasses almost took my breath away when I saw them in his factory in Johannesburg a few years ago.
The strings of beads he has located are deeply appealing, and resonant, capable of revealing revised histories of Africa by tracing their continental and global movements.
He collected brass and bronze beads in the most extraordinary shapes and patterns, amber and resin beads, bone and tooth, glass and stone, shell and ivory, and gold beads made and traded across Africa.
His other collections included European beads from Murano, resin beads resembling amber imported from Germany and sold throughout the continent, used as barter currency for spices, gold, ivory, timber and slaves to be shipped to the Americas.
These have been tracked and traded, bought and brought to be strung in a factory in Germiston by an Italian couple and worn by me, and my mother and a thousand others who carry this history, of which Vittorino is a part, unknowingly around their necks.
A Life Lived Through Art: Vittorio Meneghelli’s La Mia Vita, La Mia Collezione
La Mia Vita, La Mia Collezione (My Life, My Collection) by Vittorio Meneghelli is the record of a life lived through art. Meneghelli’s collection – possibly one of the largest private collections of African and Italian art in the world – is a record of the passionate and personal impulses that drove his search to understand and describe his experience.
Leaving Italy after the Second World War, Meneghelli settled in Johannesburg (where he opened the Totem Gallery in 1968) and began his travels ranging across Africa.
Eschewing the commercial African art centres of Cairo and Cape Town for the more remote areas of Gabon and Congo, Nigeria and Mali, Meneghelli collected with tenacity and verve, viewing the collecting of art as a creative endeavour in itself. As he has said: “I consider art to be rebellion. I don’t want to know dogmas.”
Long before African art became fashionable in the galleries of Europe, Meneghelli had begun to establish a comprehensive record of his experiences of the aesthetic world of the African continent, its rich tradition of artists and its diverse art forms.
Meneghelli’s vast collection of traditional and contemporary work continues to grow on many fronts, running hand in hand with the patient work of ordering, classifying, and selecting and reselecting of objects by a connoisseur delighting in his chosen field of expertise.
The collection, populated with sculptures, masks, jewels, drums, paintings, textiles, exotic and ethnographic objects, antiques and books, mirrors the eclectic tastes of Meneghelli.
It shows extraordinary freedom from any defined fashions or trends, and he never misses the chance to include objects that are ironic or humorous.
The works represented in this book have value not only through their undoubted aesthetic qualities, but through the personal stories attached to the discovery, the chase, the negotiation, and finally the coveted acquisition of each piece.
These compelling stories are presented in the book in parallel Italian and English texts.
Supplemented with essays by long-time friends, artists, and fellow-academics, La Mia Vita, La Mia Collezione is a uniquely personal and historical document, the result of decades of loving dedication to art and the artistic impulse.