Luciano Benetton’s “Imago Mundi”: Tiny Art of Giant Proportions

Luciano Benetton’s “Imago Mundi”: Tiny Art of Giant Proportions
Luciano Benetton
(Photo © Ashton Cooper)

During one of the hottest weeks of the northern Italian summer I arrived in the charmingly provincial city of Treviso, which, located about 20 miles north of Venice, birthed prosecco, tiramisu, and retail mogul and art collector Luciano Benetton. Fashion photographer Oliviero Toscani once likened Benetton to a “modern Medici,” and the fashion entrepreneur’s history of arts patronage has reached ever more ambitious proportions with his new global art mega project, “Imago Mundi.” The exhibition, which is a collateral event to this year’s Venice Biennale and opens just before the Venice Film Festival, presents over one thousand works from contemporary artists in Australia, India, Japan, South Korea, and the United States at the Fondazione Querini Stampalia in Venice.

Although Benetton has always collected art, especially Futurist and Aboriginal paintings, his ambitions did not extend to commissioning such a vast number of works until he retired as President of the Benetton Group, bought a yacht, and set out on a world tour. On his journey, he began to collect miniature art works, 10 x 12 centimeters (3.9 x 4.7 inches) each, that functioned as cartes-de-visite from the artists he met in places as disparate as Latin America, Eastern Europe, Russia, China, and Mongolia. “Our guiding principle is really to map out the current art situation in a given country,” Benetton explained through a translator as he showed me the micro-artworks that compose “Imago Mundi.”

Benetton is a tall, broad-shouldered man with an orb of white, Einsteinian hair. He looks ten years younger than his 77, which I’m told is due to a habit of rowing in his younger days. Although he is one the wealthiest men in the world with a $2 billion net worth, he is approachable and friendly, even through the language barrier. Benetton’s personal collection is composed of big, expressive paintings, many of which are by Aboriginal artists like George Ward Tjungurayi. Benetton has a soft spot for artists who are self-trained or operate outside the confines of a traditional art world. The self-creation story that seems to drive Benetton’s collecting is not unlike the legend of his own life. At age 14, after his father’s death, Benetton went to work in a clothing store until he sold his bicycle to buy United Colors of Benetton’s very first knitting machine in the early 1960s. This genius myth (not unlike a story Ive heard about a certain shepherd boy-turned-master painter named Giotto) is told often to explain Benetton's rise from humble origins to become Treviso’s golden son (and major employer).

The “Imago Mundi” collection began with a chance interaction with a South American artist who instead of leaving a business card with Benetton gave him two tiny 10 x 12-centimeter paintings. Those first pieces sparked the whole project. “What came to my mind very naturally was to ask other artists I did not have time to meet to send visual visiting cards, so that I could take them with me and get back in touch with them in case I was interested,” Benetton said. By the end of 2008, artists had sent Benetton 280 pieces.

Not your typical souvenirs, the tiny pieces are partially inspired by a 15th-century Flemish tradition in which artists painted miniature works for travelers. Although all of the artworks are on canvas, they run the gamut from painting to mixed media to sculptural relief and the project mutates to suit the region from which the pieces originate. “The novelty about Africa is that African art is much geared towards sculpture,” Benetton said. “There are going to be sculptures for the first time [from Africa], but always with the 10x12-centimeter limitation.”

Presented in five gridded, Tobia Scarpa-designed display cases that fold up for easy shipping, each of the collapsible displays is devoted to a particular country and functions as a portable cabinet of curiosities for the globalized world. Benetton plans to eventually bring the exhibition to every continent. “Through this project, we want to “draw a geographical map of contemporary art all over the world in all countries, no matter whether they are topping the contemporary art charts, whether they’re close or far, or renowned from an artistic standpoint or not,” he said.

Once the scope of the project began to grow, Benetton recruited curators to work with him on shaping the selections from each country. Curator Diego Cortez, who is best known for organizing PS1’s “New York/New Wave” show in 1981, spearheaded the American contributions and solicited work from places as varied as Jack Shainman Gallery in New York and the Library Street Collective in Detroit. The resulting collection features work by well-known and obscure artists, as well as some participants who aren’t visual artists at all. Included are a sketch of a mix tape by musician David Byrne, a marker drawing of a penis by Ari Marcopoulos, a Polaroid collage by stylist and designer Maripol, a mixed media portrait of Brigitte Bardot by filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, and a blockprint by Swoon. “I wanted to choose people who were not only painters, but I wanted to ask people from other media so photographers, filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh, and musicians like David Byrne and Laurie Anderson,” Cortez said in an “Imago Mundi” promotional video.

The exhibition is an international smorgasbord of artworks. The Australian section consists of entirely abstract paintings by Aboriginal artists including all-stars George Ward Tjungurayi and Ngoia Pollard Napaltjarri. Installation artist Hema Upadhyay, who has shown at The Saatchi Gallery in London and Nature Morte in New Dehli is part of the Indian collection, along with more traditional painter Thota Vaikuntham. The South Korea portion includes new media artist Heekyoung Song and New York-based multimedia artist Buhm Hong. Nihonga artist Keizaburo Okamura and sculptor Tetsuya Noguchi are two of the artists who make up the Japanese segment.

Benetton plans to collect the work of 10,000 artists from 60 countries by the year 2016, which is fitting, as the show’s title, “Imago Mundi,” is a Latin phrase that means “image of the world.” He is looking forward to contributions from North Korea, Tibet, and several African nations. While Benetton doesn’t see the project as having a particularly political aim, he hopes that it will have a peacemaking and educative function. “By definition, an art project is a peaceful endeavor and a strong statement to encourage a better knowledge of otherness,” he said. Ultimately, the exhibition is a lighthearted and populist approach to distilling the frenetic pace of the globalized art world into miniature artworks by artists great and small.