For the Love of Art

Destroying paintings in order to save them

Antonio Manfredi, director of the Contemporary Art Museum of Casoria, stands outside the doorway of his exhibition space. In one hand, he holds a torch made from a wad of white cloth tied to a piece of wood. Next to him, on a square stand of bent rebar, he has hung a painting. The clouds are low. The air holds a hint of rain. With a bottle of lighter fluid, Manfredi wets first the torch and then the painting. He passes the stream across the front of the canvas, over its back, and three times along the bottom of the frame. He uses a cigarette lighter to set the torch on fire. And then he gently transfers the flame to the painting.

At first, the canvas doesn’t burn. Painted in 2007 by a German artist named Astrid Stöfhas, it depicts four women from the Bayern Munich female soccer team embracing in celebration of a goal. The style is expressionist. A mass of soccer uniforms—red slashed with white—dominates the foreground. Above, the players’ faces are blurs of brushwork. The auto-da-fé has attracted three television crews and a handful of photographers, and for several seconds the only sound is the clicking of cameras. Smoke ripples across the painting’s surface like mist on a lake.

Manfredi inaugurated the museum in 2005, at the request of the then mayor of Casoria, a Mob-infested suburb in the Neapolitan hinterland, one of those all-too-typical zones of Italian degradation where garbage casually piles up on the sidewalk, and lost tourists wonder if they haven’t stepped into the Third World. The promised funding never arrived. Six months after the museum threw open its doors, the Casoria city council closed its own doors; the national government had dissolved it, following suspected infiltration by the Mafia. Manfredi decided to press on, using as a display space what was originally meant to be a temporary location: the rough concrete basement of a local school.

The city didn’t ask for rent, or payment for the utilities, but the museum received no other government support. Manfredi, an artist himself and a native of Casoria, called on friends and connections to gather a collection, which today includes more than a thousand works of art from as far away as China, Chile, New Zealand, and Burkina Faso. “I didn’t want to create an IKEA museum, with always the same 200 artists from the big galleries,” Manfredi says. “I wanted to create a museum that was dynamic, open to new trends, and to give … artists that don’t have a big market at their back a chance to express themselves and be inside a museum.” He kept the place open by begging favors and even selling his own artwork. But with the recession, his limited supply of local donors dried up, and he concluded that he could no longer afford to care for the works he had acquired.

Italy’s economic troubles have cut hard into both private and public funding for museums. In April, the Maxxi, Italy’s flagship contemporary-art museum, which opened to great fanfare in 2010, was taken over by the government, after auditors said they found a $1 million shortfall in the previous year’s budget. Across the country, theaters, archaeological parks, and other cultural institutions are feeling austerity’s pinch.

In despair, Manfredi decided to try to call attention to the peril facing Italian culture by turning his own collection into a flock of “sacrificial lambs.” He took pictures of the museum’s collection and sent photocopies—a brick 1,000 pages high—to Italy’s culture minister and to the president of the Campania region, around Naples. The package was a ransom note. If he didn’t receive assistance, he warned, he would set the pieces on fire, one by one. “It’s simple,” he told me. “If nobody cares about the art that’s inside the museum, then I’ll burn it.” In February, he started the burning with one of his own creations: a series of five life-size, full-body posters of Mafia fugitives, which had been displayed in the Italian pavilion of the 2011 Venice Biennale.

Stöfhas’s painting is the fifth work Manfredi has put to the torch, and the fourth in less than a week. Inside the museum hang the remains of a painting of a flower by the French artist Séverine Bourguignon: blackened crossbars, with fringes of canvas peeling back from the edge of the frame like flesh around a wound. Another work, a wood sculpture by an Italian artist named Rosaria Matarese, now consists of two chunks of carbonized wood, one impaled by a large blackened nail. Of the others, only ashes are left.

Before destroying a piece, Manfredi gets permission from the artist. Stöfhas is watching her painting burn via Skype from Germany; her face is visible on the screen of a laptop held aloft by one of the museum’s volunteers. The first part of the canvas to succumb to the flames is the figure on the left. A fissure opens where her shoulder had been. Then the fire rends a smaller hole in the painting’s upper-right corner. The stink of burning acrylic surges toward the photographers. Two boys of middle-school age approach from the side to get a better look. Other than the press, they are the only members of the public to show up.

In the age of YouTube and Twitter, Manfredi’s protest has resonated across Europe. Artists in the U.K., Germany, Hungary, and northern Italy are burning their works and sending him videos in solidarity. “Maybe this was the spark,” Manfredi says. “Remember, revolutions need fire, like what happened in Tunisia. That fruit vendor set himself on fire, and then everything exploded.”

Journalists are waiting to speak with Manfredi, so he heads inside, the cameramen and photographers following him. The two boys are gone. For a few minutes, what’s left of Stöfhas’s Soccer remains alone. It continues to smoke from the bottom, until a gust of wind knocks it flat on its face.