The Emperor of Presumption

History has seen to it that the number of artists we’ve never heard of far outweighs those which we have, and positively dwarfs, like a supercluster to a matchbook, the number which we revere. This is doubtless as it should be since every aimless young person without quantifiable interests or skills seem to eventually shuffle (or be herded) into the arts seeking refuge from reality. From among these ranks of artists destined to be forgotten I bring you the somewhat interesting case of Guglielmo Achille Cavellini, the self-styled “emperor of presumption,” who undertook a determined campaign to be remembered in the annals of art history.

Cavellini was born into an Italian merchant family and ran a dry goods store, which in the post-war years following World War II he transformed into a thriving department store. In the late 40’s he began using profits from the family business to buy art. This is how his initial inroads into the art world began, as a collector and early (albeit decidedly amateur) proponent of Modernism. It wasn’t until about 1960, when he’d exhibited and sold much of his collection, that he began trying seriously to transition into becoming a creator of art rather than just a collector.

This was not, strictly speaking, his first foray into art-making however-

Quote: “At 15 he was dressing windows for the family shop and skillfully using brush and ink to letter price cards for the vitrines. This new-found graphic facility inspired some youthful experiments with sketching and caricature which continued during his army service and led to his being charged with lettering Mussolini’s slogans on corridor walls. A chance encounter with a local painter, Domenicao Mucci, resulted in some informal instruction in fundamentals. Right after the war Cavellini tried his hand at drawing landscapes, self-portraits and other figurative subjects. The wealth of art that he saw in the museums and ateliers of Paris during his 1947 trip persuaded him to abandon his paltry efforts, but about 12 years later he felt compelled to make art once again.” —Marcia E. Vetrocq, Art in America, 1993.

Now, just because you are compelled to create does not mean you are creating anything of particular interest to anyone else. I am of the opinion that if creating art fulfills you then the act of creation itself, its rush, its internal convolutions, its compelling emotional peaks and valleys, its ability to keep you engaged and distracted from self destruction, is reward enough. You may proclaim “I am an artist” in crowded rooms all you like, or you may work in a vacuum and never let on. Little matter, so long as you are actively fascinated and successfully avoiding the great emptiness at the center of it all, then positive outside valuations of your work are a luxury, comfy and gratifying but ultimately inessential. Cavellini did not seem to agree. For him, joining the canon was the only goal.

Public response to his work was tepid at best. He cycled quickly through styles and traditions seeking to find a voice which others might actually want to hear. He worked on abstractions, gestural pieces, collages, imagery of pop culture Icons, assemblage, etc, etc. Ultimately, the words which best describe his output to this point, however, are reproduction, homage, and appropriation. His work was “openly and blissfully derivative of the artists whose works he admired or collected.”

Quote: “Cavellini’s aggression toward the system of art, stoked by experiences of rejection both as a collector and as an artist, was expressed in acts of comically flagrant plagiarism accompanied by outrageous claims of authorship, in the seemingly endless reproduction and recycling of his own and others’ imagery, and in unabashed gestures of self-promotion.” —Marcia E. Vetrocq, Art in America, 1993.

He had 6 gallery shows between the years of 1962 and 1970 which by his yardstick were total failures, resulting in only two sales and total critical silence. It was this period of failure which inspired the conceptually self-referential “Autostoricizzazione” or “Self-Historification” which would occupy the rest of his artistic career, and find him trying desperately to “enter Olympus without asking anyone’s permission.”

Quote: “The biography of an artist is frequently written after his death, imperfectly and incompletely. Since I don’t want any such biography to be written about me, I’ve decided to write my own.” —G.A. Cavellini.

This autostoricizzazione put him at the center of a fictional art history in which he was a towering figure. He created a fake encyclopedia entry for himself , posters announcing centennial exhibitions of his work at museums around the world, and a series of postage stamps honoring him in the context of the great masters. He created frontispieces of fictional works like Dante’s Divine Cavellini, Leonardo’s Treatise on the Painting of Cavellini, and Nietzche’s Thus Spake Cavellini. He commissioned portraits of himself by better known artists which he used in his own work, he travelled with a “court photographer,” and created a seemingly endless amount of self-portraiture.

This was all the tip of the autostoricizzazione iceberg, for Cavellini had become more than anything a conceptual artist and the one concept he explored, over and over and over, was himself and his own towering position within the history of art.

Quote” Here in Italy, perhaps, there are still people who want to label me «the famous collector,» or to think of me as a rich provincial who amuses himself with sophomoric experiments in making art. «Self-Historification» may still be too far ahead of the times; people still aren’t ready to take it seriously since they find it paradoxical, anomalous and full of presumption. They act as though they considered me an artist «to be kept under observation» as though I were still waiting my turn finally to «make it». Perhaps my way of doing things is still unclassifiable, and even though I’m no longer a young artist, I’m simply never mentioned whenever the critics try to put together a show of the most significant developments in art in recent years- Either criticism has no eyes to see with or else it thinks of these free-wheeling operations of mine as belonging to a world of the future that’s still to be materialized. The critics don’t want to admit or to understand that I’m a new Duchamp.”

“For quite some time now, I’ve been receiving daily testimonials in the form of art works that give praise and pay homage both to «Self-Historification» as a phenomenon and to me as a person. Nothing like this has ever happened to an artist before. This material is all destined to go into a «Cavellini Museum,» and scholars will sooner or later be forced to study and consult it, since it’s an entirely unprecedenied phenomenon in all of art hisiory, and it’s not likely ever to happen again.”

“By now, an incredibly large number of facts and circumstances has grown up around my process of «Self-Historification» and I feel that I have every reason to be convinced that it’s destined to be a great deal more than just a meteor that flashes for only an instant through the skies; slowly but surely, «Self-Historification» is destined to become one of the most firmly fixed stars in all of art hisiory. (It) has already proved to be an indication for the construction of a new civilization and an entirely new way of thinking.” —G.A. Cavellini, from Autoritratti, 1981.

Cavallini went on “self-historifying” himself right up until his death in 1990, leaving behind a mountain of works and papers, all designed to help him storm the annals… so let me ask you, had you ever heard of him before now?

Personally I’m not particularly bowled-over by Cavellini’s works pictorially speaking, though some are compelling, nor am I much interested in conceptual art of this kind. I do find his quixotic quest interesting however.

It strikes me that though most of us may never have heard of Cavellini, he has had a modicum of success at attaining his goal of artistic immortality. I am, after all, writing about him right now and extending his post-humous reach. And though I purchased his book of self-portraits in the Strand’s bargain bin, it was there to be purchased.

To me Cavellini is a bit of a sad clown character because the lengths to which he took his joke seems slightly tragic. Rather than the sly wink and implied mystery which many self-aggrandizing artists employ to better effect, Cavellini seems to me more like a hammy vaudevillian.

The analogy which immediately comes to mind is that Loony Tunes cartoon, called Show Biz Bugs, in which Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck are competing for an audience’s applause. Bugs does a simple dance and gets wild applause. Daffy meanwhile goes all out, dances with visible effort, slides toward the audience on his knees with arms outstretched in expectation… and is greeted with the sound of crickets. For me that dance is Cavellini’s career. 

And yet as I said, he is remembered to some degree. Why? I would have to contend that in much the same way world history remembers, to spite itself, particularly potent screw-ups and villains, so too does art history make allowances for others than its paragons. In Cavellini’s case I’d say he took a certain brand of conceptual buffoonery to previously unknown levels, and so must be remembered as one of its giants. It’s only fair.

The irony is that today, very similar kinds of buffoonery regularly spawn millionaire art celebrities who are whole heartedly embraced by the art intelligentsia. Indeed in many respects he is conceptually a forefather of postmodernism. So perhaps Cavellini was ahead of his time, just as he said he was, and merely had the misfortune of being born in an era when the art world still had something like accepted standards one was expected to measure up to.

In any case, it’s all subjective now isn’t it? He says “emperor of presumption,” I say sad clown, you say potato. We’re all right and Art just keeps on chugging along.


Most of the biographical information in this post was adapted from Marcia E. Vetrocq’s Art in America piece, Dispatches From the Jungle of Art. If you are interested in the artist I recommend reading it as it goes into much deeper detail.

The images were all scanned from Cavellini’s book Autoritratti.

You can see more of Cavellini’s work at The Cavellini Archive Foundation website.