Italian Novecento painting

Carrà - Marina 50x70 1941

[Image: Carlo Carra, Marine (1941), oil on canvas, 50 x 70 cm. Courtesy of Tornabuoni Art]

This exhibition catalogue accompanied an exhibition at Tornabuoni Art, London (12 February-18 April 2020). This review is from the catalogue.

The 1920 to 1950 was an eventful period in Italian history. It saw the aftermath of World War I, the rise of Fascism, World War II, military occupation and defeat, a resurgence in Communist sympathy and the beginning of economic reconstruction. In the plastic arts, there were conflicting tendencies. The Futurist movement – with its bellicosity, militarism and adulation of technology – was discredited following the horrors of World War I. The rappel de l’ordre (call to order or return to order) was a movement advocating a return to realism, traditionalism and regional/national schools of art, mainly French. This movement of traditional figurative art (inflected by Modernism) derived from Metaphysical Art was called Novecento (“Twentieth Century”).

This exhibition selects art by leading Italian painters from the inter-war period. The curators describe critic Margherita Sarfatti (who was also Mussolini’s lover and biographer) as a lynchpin to the Novecento group, following its inaugural exhibition in 1922 at Galleria Pesaro, Milan. Prominent painters in Novecento were Giacomo Balla, Pompeo Borra, Anselmo Bucci, Achille Funi, Gian Emilio Malerba, Ubaldo Oppi, Fortunato Depero, Massimo Campigli, Carrà, Felice Casorati, de Chirico, Filippo De Pisis, Piero Marussig, Morandi, René Paresce, Ottone Rosai, Gino Severini, Mario Sironi, Ardengo Soffici, Mario Tozzi and others. Some of these were former Futurists. The Futurists were politically aligned to Fascism. Balla dropped his commitment to Futurist aesthetics in order to follow Fascism. Severini turned from Futurism to Cubism during World War I and then briefly to Neoclassicism before blending Cubist and Neoclassical styles and elements. Severini amalgams are some of the satisfactory painting in this exhibition. Marinetti – leading Futurist theorist – was not a practicing artist.

Writer Flavia Frigeri claims: “[…] the style of the works on view was far from unified. Heterogeneity was, in fact, at the heart of the Novecento project.” She cites Sironi claiming that the primary original figures in Novecento were independent painters who formed a loose alliance and that Novecentismo style only came later, with minor painters forming a style. However, even in these major artists in this exhibition, we can detect certain consistencies. The chief subjects of Novecento featured in this exhibition are landscapes, still-lifes, portraits and nudes (mainly female). Women are portrayed as passive. Most of the paintings of women in this exhibition are nudes, excluding the many portraits and maternities that can be found in exhibitions of the time. Novecento paintings are distinguished by their simplicity, clarity and solidity and the utilisation of the flat picture plane and inclusion of Cubist aspects (pattern, abstraction, planar aspects). There is a deliberate attempt to make art that was recognisably Italian and also timeless, avoiding references to contemporary life. We can discern a number of specific precursors, such as the portraits of women by Camille Corot portraits, Pablo Picasso (of his pre-Cubist and Neoclassical periods), Giotto, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca and the Italian Primitives. Sarfatti cast Novecento as aspiring to the Quattrocento. Novecento painting has the restrained chalky colours of fresco painting.

As has been pointed out in numerous studies, Italian Fascism had a very different character to Nazism. The attitude to the arts in Italy was much broader than the stylistic prescriptions of German Fascism. The Italians not only permitted stylistic diversity, they encouraged it, stating that the strength of the nation under Fascism was great enough to resist the divisive effects of plurality of voices, as long as they did not conflict with the unity and good of the state. Thus, the Italian state in fine art did not impose requirements upon painters. (The situation in architecture is slightly different but this falls outside the parameters of this review.) Sarfatti rejected the excesses of Futurism – in style, breaking tradition and cultivating individualism – and she saw Novecento as an asset to nationalism and Fascism in its realism and reduction in individualism.

For enthusiasts of moderate Modernism, there is much here to give pleasure. Marussig’s Vase of Flowers (1917) is redolent of Gauguin’s still-lifes, with its restrained use of powerful separated by rough drawing and neutral-tone ground. Balla’s light-drenched landscape is atypically loose and focuses on the optical. One of the defining features of the Novecento is the tightness of drawing and the dryness of paint application. Novecento has a pre-Renaissance attitude rejection of later developments in art, such as the play of light, reflection, transparency and cool shadow. Overall, Balla’s landscape and Soffici’s smudged townscapes look out of place in this company.

Novecento art is static. None of the figures portrayed seem caught in movement. Novecento presents figures with pre-Renaissance hieratic stances. Even the nudes are rather inanimate. Severini’s Fashion Over Time (1945) typifies the Novecento’s borrowings from Braque and Picasso repurposed as a cosmetic addition to a composition that is unambitious. The rare, early Morandi portrait is as static as his still-lifes. Other Morandis are more familiar still-lifes and townscapes. Morandi reverses the expectations associated with landscape painting by making his landscapes horizontally orientated.

De Pisis’s painting of Venice seems an adaptation of Dufy. Carrà’s landscapes are disappointing: slight, blurred, chromatically muzzy. They lack the mystery of his Metaphysical period. Campigli seems to reach back to Etruscan funerary monuments and late Roman-period Egypt funerary portraits in encaustic for his portrait of 1950. His highly stylised figure paintings are deliberate rejections of both modernism and realism, constructing a personal archaism that turns away from the Italy of his own time. (Ironically, for all its archaism, it is very much of its time and could have met common comprehension and acceptance throughout the non-Fascist West.)

Added to the variety of Novecento is Sironi’s faux-naïf paintings that gather fragments, drawn in paint in quite a crude way, that steers a course equidistant from the sophistication of Futurism and the sophistication of Renaissance art. His paintings aim for timelessness of Roman murals made by a modern-day hermit. Viewers will have to decide whether they consider them persuasive. An early townscape parallels Beckmann. Sironi was the most ideologically committed to Fascism. Sironi aimed for his art to be politically persuasive. Given Fascism’s intention to combine modern technology and means to revival and extend long-standing collective nationalist identity, this blend of classical imagery and Modernist style makes sense. It also shows the distance between Italian Fascism and German National Socialism in the arts. Sironi’s art would have been inconceivable in Germany, certainly as art exhibited or in any way sanctioned by the state.

Casorati - Nudo di schiena

[Image: Felice Casorati, Nude Seen from the Rear (1939), oil on canvas, 160 x 74 cm. Courtesy of Tornabuoni Art”]

Casorati’s art is some of the best shown here. His Nude Seen from the Rear (1939) benefits from its simplicity, muted coloration and shallow picture space. It is both tender in tone while being severe in its stylistic austerity. The two other nudes are also strong. The bust of a nude woman (1942) recalls Beckmann in its uses of black and strong shadows lightly modelled. There is another picture that looks effective. Unfortunately, the page gutter of the catalogue obscures the pivotal figure of the painting, making it impossible to view accurately. This is a flaw in book design. Casorati’s 1922 portrait of Silvana Cenni is an iconic portrait of the movement, the period and Italian traditional art. Casorati is described as a Magical Realist.

chirico new (1)

[Image: Giorgio de Chirico, Still-Life (1930), oil on canvas, 53.5 x 74 cm. Courtesy of Tornabuoni Art.]

De Chirico’s art as a pictor classicus was not completely congruent with Novecento but Sarfatti’s inclusion of de Chirico’s still-lifes and nudes (and the art of Carrà) was perhaps a matter of prestige or credibility. In truth, their art is not dissonant in this company. Certainly, these two artists were deeply engaged with classical art, localism and a rejection of overt Modernism, which is Novecento at least, even if de Chirico’s engagement with Baroque art and Romanticism run counter to the austerity and primitivism of Fascist art. De Chirico’s nudes (including one exhibited here, dated 1923) and Carrà’s paint handling is more sensuous the other art in this catalogue. Morandi attached himself to Novecento because of a need to exhibit and sell art. He had the approval of Carrà’s positive approval in print in 1925. Sarfatti may have selected Morandi for his first Novecento group exhibition on the basis of this review.

The catalogue is in English and Italian and contains biographies of artists, facsimiles of documents (with translations) and a bibliography. Full-page illustrations face pages with comparative figures, often of pieces that were included in original Novecento exhibitions. Data gives information about the literature and exhibitions relating to the exhibits. This catalogue will help to spread knowledge of art beyond the well-known movements of Metaphysical Art and Futurism; that makes it a useful addition to any library covering Novecento and Modernist Italian and European art generally.

Flavia Frigeri, Janet Abramovicz, Morandi, Balla, de Chirico and Italian Painting 1920-1950, Tornabuoni Art, 2020, hardback, 175pp, fully illus., English/Italian text

For more information and buy the catalogue visit Tornabuoni website here: https://www.tornabuoniart.com/en/

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art