“Only fun can validly oppose the system”
The Cobra Museum of Modern Art in Amstelveen displays an extensive selection from the works of the Italian artist Enrico Baj (1924-2003). Enrico Baj: Play as Protest is a simultaneous re-introduction in the Netherlands of this freespirited artist’s work. The exhibition displays about 100 of the artist’s works dating from the 50s, 60s and 70s.
Enrico Baj’s works look playful, colourful and humorous, but simultaneously show his sharp socio-critical, even anarchist, attitude. Baj himself stated that “only fun can validly oppose the system”. Baj used play as a form of engagement and creation as a form of protest. His work was a protest against fascism, totalitarian systems, the power of the ruling class and the potential annihilation of the environment (the then new nuclear threat). The exhibition shows how Baj playfully used the strategies of satire and deliberate disrespect as means of protest against a society that seems to be on the constant verge of self-destruction.
Baj developed a highly original visual language with assemblage paintings bursting with fun. Just like the Cobra artists, Baj loved to experiment with materials and media, and the exhibition includes not only paintings but also ceramics, Meccano sculptures, assemblages, publications and manifests. The exhibition begins in the 50s with works from the period by the Movimento Arte Nucleare, founded by Baj. Asger Jorn, co-founder of CoBrA, would later participate in this movement. Jorn also had a special bond with Baj. He wrote in 1953, “Dear Comrade, this is the first bond of friendship I’ve entered into after my years of isolation. It would be my pleasure to work together.”
The exhibition includes Baj’s series Generali (Generals) from the first half of the 60s, with which he also participated in the Venice Biennial in 1964. The Generals are absurd characters that partly consist of found objects like belts and medals. Works from the 70s include sculptures from Meccano toys, which provide a commentary on the improvident use of technology and the automation of humans in society.
The exhibition closes with the 12-metre wide work I funerali dell’anarchico Pinelli (Funeral of the anarchist Pinelli) from 1972. This work was a reaction to the real events and was censored in Italy at the time, but then shown internationally in other museums like Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (1973).
Unfortunately, we must conclude that threats similar to those against which Baj protested still exist in today’s society. In an interview between artist Maurizio Cattelan and Baj, made especially for the catalogue, the comparison is made with the war in Syria and the current real danger of environmental issues. For these reasons, the Cobra Museum also looks to contemporary protest groups. On 23 April the museum will collaborate with the Vrije Bond and hold an Anarchist BAJ gathering dedicated to lectures, poetry, anarcho folk music, documentaries and a tour of the exhibition by art historian and anarchist Dick Gevers.
Enrico Baj: Play as Protest is curated by Carrie Pilto in collaboration with Luca Bochicchio in the role of research consultant and with the generous cooperation of Archivio Enrico Baj, Vergiate and Fondazione Marconi, Milan. Theatre maker Beppe Costa has put together an audio tour especially for this exhibition.
The works in the exhibition are mainly from the Archivio Enrico Baj and from Fondazione Marconi in Milan. There are also valuable additional loans from private collections and from the S.M.A.K. in Ghent and Museo d’arte moderna e contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto.