Paolo Serra was born in Morciano di Romagna in 1946. His father was a shoe designer, who worked out of a small shop in the centre of Rimini. In 1955, Serra moved with his parents to Northampton in England, where he lived for twenty-seven years. Thanks to an elementary school teacher, he began to learn about and to appreciate Italian art, in particular that of the Trecento. From a very young age, he was attracted by museums and galleries, with two exhibitions making a particular impression upon him: Picasso at London’s Tate Gallery in 1960 and Art Alive, an exhibition of European contemporary art held in Northampton the following year.
Serra had his first solo show in 1962 – he was not yet sixteen – at the Century Gallery in Northampton, receiving the plaudits of the Guardian newspaper in an extensive review. In the years that followed, he won a number of scholarship grants from the Arts Council of Great Britain, whom also bought one of his works. Subsequently, after contributing to several group shows, he put painting to one side in order to focus on non-artistic materials like Plexiglas, with which he produced assemblages and artefacts that he called “constructions.” Around 1969, he once again became very interested in the painting of the Old Masters, an interest he cultivated assiduously through frequent visits to the National Gallery in London. From then on, partly as a result of his discovery of Cennino Cennini’s fundamental treatise, Il libro dell’arte, the art of the Trecento and Quattrocento became a fixed point of reference for him.
Serra started showing his work again at the beginning of the 70s. He had solo exhibitions in various European cities, including London and Amsterdam. In Paris he participated at the Salon Des Réalités Nouvelles, and in 1973, at the age of twenty-seven, he contributed a work entitled Light and Shade to the English Pavilion of the 12th São Paulo Biennial in Brazil. In this period, he was chiefly using the egg tempera technique, which he still occasionally adopts today. With it, he produced works that have a spatial and perspectival organization of Renaissance derivation which, combined with the Nordic abstraction of Mondrian and Malevich, became attuned to the minimalist North American artists who were principally concerned with surface values.
Of particular significance for Serra’s career was the period from 1975 to the beginning of the 80s, during which he had numerous solo shows not only in England but also in Holland. In 1976, he produced a 24-square-metre fresco for the chapel at All Saints Middle School in Northampton. In the same year the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, after organizing a group show to which Serra contributed, acquired one of his works. A number of museums, financial institutions and foundations followed suit, including the Nuffield Foundation, the Milton Keynes Development Corporation and the East Midlands Arts Association in England; the Rembrandt Society, the National Bank of the Netherlands and the Amro Bank in Holland; the National Versicherungen and UBS in Switzerland; the French-German Banquiers Dreyfus & Cie; and Sammlung Biedermann and the Museum der Stadt Waiblingen in Germany.