Enrico Donati is the world’s last living surrealist.
“They’re all dead. I’m the only one alive,” he said in an interview at the Weinstein Gallery in San Francisco, where a major exhibition of his work is on display.
There is no sense of urgency to the statement. It is what it is, as far as the 98-year-old Donati is concerned, an attitude that permeates stories he can tell about his friendships with Marcel Duchamp or Andre Breton, or about his works such as the seminal piece “Fist.”
As ghoulish as Donati’s attitude may be, it’s true that when he dies, so will a fixture in an art movement characterized by conscious, temporary will.
Retrospectives of his sculptures and paintings on display at the de Young Museum in “The Surreal World of Enrico Donati” as well as the Weinstein Gallery illustrate nearly 60 years of his vivid, pulsating work.
Yet the mild-mannered artist does not regale listeners with overblown tales about the soul-searching required to cement his wild imagination to canvas.
Rather, he ends most of his stories with “so that’s it,” even if he’s talking about something as important as “The Fist,” his 1946 bronze sculpture of a fist punctuated by two eyeballs.
Born in 1909 in Italy, Donati survived fascism, came to the United States and studied at the esteemed New School for Social Research, where he staged his first show, an event that failed to draw anyone.
“I was alone, alone, alone,” the artist recalls.
Fate smiled kindly upon Donati when he was noticed by famous art critic Lionello Venturi.
“You are a surrealist,” the critic said to him.
The chance visit led to a personal introduction to the godfather of surrealism, Breton, whose endorsements gave Donati the kind of sound footing that plays out like a fairy tale; in other words, surreal.
Life, death and rebirth play significant roles in Donati’s work, and like many surrealists, he worked with the myth of the Mandragora, a family of plants believed to have supernatural powers because the roots resemble male and female figures. Lore says the roots of the plants are nourished by the sperm of a hanged man. When pulled from the ground, the plants scream so loudly, anyone within earshot dies.
“That’s the history of surrealism. You pick up something, a root, and you make it an object, it becomes something. We all did it and we had a good time,” Donati says.
It is without nostalgia or sorrow that Donati reflects upon those days. At the same time, the artist has little to say about art being made today.
“They have no imagination,” he says when asked about young artists. “People think they’re geniuses. They stand in their studios and look like little Napoleons. They think, ‘I’m a genius.’ I don’t think I’m a genius at all.”
The Surreal World of Enrico Donati
Where: de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, except until 8:45 p.m. Fridays; closed Mondays; through Sept. 2
Tickets: $6 to $10; free first Tuesday each month
Contact: (415) 863-3330 or www.deyoungmuseum.org
Where: Weinstein Gallery, 383 Geary St., San Francisco
When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays; 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays through Saturdays; through Aug. 16
Contact: (415) 362-8151 or www.weinstein.com