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Enrico Baj, painter,
born October 31, 1924; died June 15, 2003
Obituary by Christopher Masters

The Italian artist Enrico Baj, who has died aged 78, engaged directly with topical issues - from the threat of nuclear war to the advent of Silvio Berlusconi.

He did not share the international renown of his most famous collaborators: his figurative paintings and collages are not as instantly Inforable as Yves Klein's monochromes or Lucio Fontana's slashed canvases, let alone Piero Manzoni's cans of Artist's Shit. But his vivid, often nightmarish, images and outspoken writings were a constant challenge to artistic and political orthodoxies.

Born into a prosperous Milanese family, Baj showed a rebellious streak from an early age. As a boy, he fell foul of the local police for standing to mock attention in front of visiting fascist officials, and, in 1944, he fled to Geneva in order to avoid conscription. After the second world war, he simultaneously studied at the Milan University law faculty and the Brera Academy of Art, though neither seems to have left much of an impression.

Inevitably for an avant-garde artist of his generation, he was inspired by the free, bold techniques of his contemporaries in France and America, frequently blotting or dripping paint rather than using a brush. But despite the comparisons with abstract expressionism, Baj's images, with their mushroom clouds and devastated landscapes, had an obvious political relevance. This is also reflected in the name of the arte nucleare movement he cofounded with Sergio Dangelo in 1951, initiating a period of cooperation with leading artists in both Italy and abroad.

Baj's obsession with the atomic age even led him to apply the term "heavy water" to the emulsions of enamel paint and distilled water that he used in the late 1950s. The evocatively textured, mottled Mountains series also include collage - in this case, incongruous backgrounds made from fabric - a recurrent feature of his work.

The most enjoyable examples of this are the Generals, ludicrous characters made in the 1960s out of buttons, belts and military medals, which were followed by a series of Meccano figures based on Alfred Jarry's fin-de-siècle play Ubu Roi. Like the surrealists before him, Baj was attracted to pataphysics, the jokey anti-philosophy underlying Jarry's absurdist writings, in which "the laws governing exceptions" were set against the inductive methods of conventional science.

Baj was particularly close to the pioneers of dada and surrealism. With Man Ray, among others, he founded the Pataphysic Institute of Milan in 1963. Still more important was his friendship with Marcel Duchamp, with whom, in 1965, he collaborated on a provocative version of the Mona Lisa, in which Duchamp's decidedly unfeminine features were superimposed on the world's most famous painting. The image parodied the original picture and Duchamp's celebrated "ready-made" of 1919, which had adorned Leonardo's sitter with a moustache and goatee beard.

Baj became increasingly convinced that mass consumption had produced a culture in which artistic invention was replaced by endless repetition and kitsch. His response was to create his own copies of great modern painters, from Seurat to De Chirico and Picasso. In place of contemporary art's stultifying unoriginality, these free adaptations exemplified his talent for imaginative association and collage.

His use of motifs from Picasso's works, especially Guernica, culminated in the monumental Funeral Of The Anarchist Pinelli (1972), which satirised the supposedly accidental death of an activist in police custody. Its proposed exhibition in Milan was banned after the assassination of the officer widely regarded as responsible for Pinelli's death.

Undaunted, Baj continued to make highly political images on an immense scale: Nixon And Kissinger At The Columbus Day Parade (1974) was followed by Apocalypse (1978-83), in which he expressed his horror at the corruption and environmental degradation of the planet. This disgust reached a climax in 1994 with the first election of Italy's current premier, and the production of Berlus-kaiser, a sardonic painting populated, like Apocalypse, by grotesque silhouetted figures.

Baj's publications included Automitobiogafia (1983) and Kiss Me, I'm Italian (1997). His proudest honour was his appointment by the College of Pataphysics to the high office of Analogic Emperor for Italy, Padania, Albania and the campanile of San Marco (1997).

He had five children from two marriages.

Published in: The Guardian, Manchester - Wednesday July 9, 2003

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