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

“Reading de Chirico”, book review

cover de chirico

This dual-language large hardback catalogue for the exhibition “Reading Giorgio de Chirico” at Tornabuoni Art, London (closes 12 January 2018) includes essays, illustrations and plentiful information which throw much light on the exhibition. De Chirico wrote poetry, fiction, memoirs and art criticism. Some of the painter’s thoughts on art were formed in a poetic allusive manner akin to that of prose poems.

The inclusion of much written material is the reason for the exhibition’s title “Reading de Chirico”. Poems and letters exhibited are reproduced in the catalogue and translated. They include and Metaphysical poems and love letters to Cornelia, written at a time of romantic turmoil. The artist had just married his long-standing partner Raissa before separating from her. This period (1929-30) was also when he met his future second wife, Isabella. Two important letters dated from 1910 and 1911 are printed. These establish the date of the foundation of Metaphysical Art. Recent attempts to locate the origins of Metaphysical Art to 1909 – and to attribute the foundational ideas to de Chirico’s brother Alberto Savinio – have not been generally accepted. These letters bolster the case for the accepted history, namely that de Chirico commenced painting in a Metaphysical style in the summer of 1910 in Florence.

The Metaphysical Art journal has been publishing de Chirico’s writing (and writing about him, as well as letters to him) over the last decade in Italian, French and English. This has contributed to a wider understanding of de Chirico as a writer and the links between his writing and art. This catalogue and exhibition further that aim.

There are two articles by the de Chirico on lesser known contemporary artists and other more general pieces on de Chirico’s art. There is an angry polemic against the domination of Modernism. “No one raised a voice in defence of reality with regard to art or to life itself. Fake intellectuals, having renounced truth, which they considered lost, tried to expel reality from all manifestations of the spirit. These fake intellectuals of our unfortunate age…” In another article he explains the persistent melancholy of absence in his art.

I remember the strange and profound impression a picture seen in an old book bearing the title The World before the Deluge made upon me as a child. It represented a landscape of the tertiary period. Man had not yet appeared I have often meditated on the strange phenomenon of “human absence” in metaphysical aspects.

The lithographic illustrations of Mysterious Baths images for Cocteau’s Mythologie (1934) are reproduced in full in the catalogue. (They are displayed only partially visible in the exhibition vitrine.) Illustrations of works such as The Daughters of Minos (Antique Scene in Pink and Blue II) (1933) show just how peculiar they are. In this small painting one sees classical motifs on a generic shore, predominantly blue in hue, with discrete areas painted in monochrome red-pink and orange-pink. Like an optical illusion, it gives the impression of being a classical work or art while aggressively asserting it is nothing of the kind. It exists in two states: classical and Modern. In this instance, the modes are incompatible and contradictory. In terms of figural motifs and iconography it is classical; in terms of handling and palette it is Modern. They fluctuate.  When we consider one the other does not impinge upon us; as soon as we consider the other aspect the first is forgotten (or at least impossible to incorporate into our consideration). Like the famous optical illusion, we can see the old woman and the young woman in one picture but never at the same time. If de Chirico understood what he was doing in this painting (in terms of optical perception and modal schematism) is unclear.

An essay by Gavin Parkinson discusses the reception by the Surrealists of de Chirico’s writing and the artist’s views on Symbolism, Impressionism, Courbet and other art. Parkinson’s mention of the criticism of Magritte, de Chirico and Picabia’s “bad painting” cites de Chirico’s use of bright colour in the post-War variations of classic Metaphysical compositions as a conscious response to that criticism or even a reaction to Pop Art. Parkinson suggests that de Chirico’s “bad” colour was an attempt to combat the fashionable connoisseurship that generated demand for his Metaphysical paintings. It seems much more likely that the artist, bored and belittled by the requirement to paint replicas at the behest of dealers and collectors, was simply attempting to retain engagement during the painting process by exaggerating the colours. The aim was most likely an attempt to see how variation might intensify a feeling or introduce an element of unpredictability into the stultifying work. The powerful palette is an attempt to stimulate the artist himself.

In the Neo-Metaphysical period (1960s-1978) the painter needed to sustain his engagement and bring something new to established compositions. The addition of the Mysterious Baths, sun-on-easel and the sun/moon-cord motifs were a means to provide the painter with a syncretic language, vary his art and summarise his former periods in his last period. It seems a private choice, one detached from consideration of the debate over “bad art”, Pop Art or the expectations of others. The Neo-Metaphysical works are one of de Chirico’s most important achievements. With droll wit and disconcerting mental agility de Chirico reassembled his artistic world in a theatre of cosmological paradox which is deeply unsettling and to this day barely understood.

Katherine Robinson (ed.), Reading de Chirico, Forma Edizioni/Tornabuoni Art, 2017, hardback, 256pp, fully illus., English/Italian, £45, ISBN 978-88-99534-49-3

 

 

(This review will be attached to the exhibition review soon:  https://alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com/2017/11/14/reading-giorgio-de-chirico-exhibition-review/ )

“Reading Giorgio de Chirico”, exhibition review

I. Exhibition

dech4

(Image: “Reading Giorgio de Chirico”, Tornabuoni Art, London, installation view, 2017, image c/o Tornabuoni Art)

“Reading Giorgio de Chirico”, the current exhibition at Tornabuoni Art, London (4 October 2017-12 January 2018) presents 24 paintings, two drawings and some lithographs in an overview of the Italian’s painterly output, with other documentary material. The complexity, accomplishment and breadth of the work here attest to the richness of de Chirico’s achievements.

Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) is best known as the leading figure in the Italian Metaphysical Art movement, which had its heyday during the First World War. De Chirico established the style in 1910. There are two paintings here dating from that era: The Revolt of the Sage (1916; Estorick Collection) and The Great Tower (1915). Though Metaphysical Art was inspired by Italian art of the Early Renaissance (Uccello, Giotto, et al.), these two paintings demonstrate a Modernist audacity – the extreme format (the exaggerated vertical of the Tower) and the extreme close-up (The Revolt’s depiction of biscuits shown in the foreground of an ambiguous architectural setting).

De Chirico had been very familiar with Symbolism, having been a follower of Swiss Symbolist Arnold Böcklin in his earliest years as a painter. This exhibition includes an early painting The Path (Temple of Apollo in Delphi) (1909) which employs the Swiss master’s typical gloomy local colour, flat non-directional lighting and disquieting atmosphere. The cult of Arnold Böcklin was intense and widespread in Europe in 1890s and 1900s, especially admiring of his five versions of The Isle of the Dead, which were best known through numerous reproduction prints and journal illustrations.

In 1919 de Chirico was one of the many Modernist artists who turned his back on the avant-garde and sought the comfort and security of Classical art, part the appel de l’ordre that promised a haven from the alienating modern world that had ravaged Europe. Just as Dada was metamorphosing into Surrealism and at a point when the early Surrealists were about idolise de Chirico’s Metaphysical art, he denounced Metaphysical Art and Modernism more generally and began to paint still-lifes, landscapes, horses, portraits and mythological scenes. He researched the materials and techniques of the Old Masters and Mannerists. He copied Classical art and painted his own mythological scenes in traditional style. A still-life with fish and another with fruit are typical works from the early 1920s. There is also a half-length nude of his wife Isa, painted in 1930.(1) It is complemented by a small self-portrait head.

Later de Chirico’s view on Metaphysical Art softened and he blended his disjointed motifs, Classical imagery and a Renoiresque touch and palette. The resultant beach scenes of nudes, antique figures, horses and ancient ruins are appealing and yet deceptively modern in their disjunctures and unusual colour combinations, including extensive passages of monochrome. However, the nagging suspicion is that the artist was indulging himself – and his viewers – too much. He repeated his motifs and compositions. Luckily, the examples here are varied and the monochrome aspect lends them a certain asperity that can be absent in other versions.

De Chirico became a Mannerist, Rococo painter and Romantic by turns and that shuffling of established anachronism can pall. De Chirico’s greatest weakness was his Old Master complex, the conceit that he only had to paint like the Old Masters to be considered an Old Master. He had skill and knowledge in abundance but it is ironic that the very art that would elevate him to the status of a Great Master was his accomplishments as a Metaphysical painter not as a recycler of Mannerism or Romanticism. The very art that was a unique contribution to Modernism was his entry into Parnassus. Did the artist ever recognise this one wonders?

Yet while de Chirico was indulging his Old Master complex he was also producing some radically modern and very unusual works. Warrior Mannequins (Two Archaeologists) (1926) is one of those experiments. Two fantastical figures fill the corner of a room. They are composed of architectural elements and wild pictorial components. The painting style is rough. There is evidence of radical reworking. It is a hard picture to love or even like but it shows terrific creativity and invention. It is bursting with strange ideas and improvisatory bravura. It will be a hard painting to sell, in many ways it is ugly and untypical, but it is as lively and puzzling as anything here. It is evidence of de Chirico’s mischievous spirit and confidence.

dech1

(Image: Giorgio de Chirico, Bagni misteriosi (Mysterious Baths) (1968), oil on canvas, 28.74 x 36.61 inch/73 x 93 cm, image c/o Tornabuoni Art)

Another group of innovatory works from the inter-war years were the Mysterious Baths. In these paintings fantastically shaped baths filled with monochrome water animated by schematic zig-zag patterns (complete with multi-colour balls and changing huts) are distributed across de Chirico’s characteristic plains and piazzas. They are populated by undemonstrative bather-ciphers. These are more playful, puzzling and less decipherable than the earlier Metaphysical compositions.

Other common themes represented in the selection are mannequins of composite elements, gladiators and horse with rider. De Chirico painted at a general domestic scale; an exception is Divinities by the Sea (1936) at 122 x 244 cm. It shows gods and horses ranged among ruins on a shore. It is painted in near-monochrome with ground and sky in blue, appearing as a giant tinted drawing. The paint is applied very thinly. The use of board as a support is uncommon in de Chirico’s oeuvre.

dech3

(Image: Giorgio de Chirico, Piazza d’Italia con piedistallo vuoto (Italian Piazza with Empty Pedestal) (1955), oil on canvas, 21.65 x 13.97 inch/55 x 35.5 cm, image c/o Tornabuoni Art)

Commercial pressures led de Chirico to start to paint copies, variants and – dare one say it? – pastiches of his classic Metaphysical pictures for the post-War market. Such was the demand for classic Metaphysical paintings that de Chirico even dated paintings with false early dates. One Italian dealer even stipulated in a contract which compositions had to be duplicated and at which sizes. One wonders what de Chirico thought when he was painting these duplicates. How did he feel – humiliated, bored, proud or just numb? Did he derive any pleasure from remaking his youthful works? Did he invest any of himself in these duplicates? How much does any painter invest of himself in anything he makes?

This exhibition includes letters, photographs, lithographic prints and contemporary publications related to the artist, which are presented in vitrines in the two levels of the gallery. De Chirico wrote poems, stories and novels and some of those publications are displayed here in early editions. A catalogue has also been published, which I have not seen. This exhibition provides a fair survey of de Chirico’s art in all its diverse, perplexing and surprising complexity.

(1) The catalogue establishes that the subject of this painting is actually Cornelia not Isa.

II. Catalogue

cover de chirico

This dual-language large hardback catalogue for the exhibition “Reading Giorgio de Chirico” at Tornabuoni Art, London (closes 12 January 2018) includes essays, illustrations and plentiful information which throw much light on the exhibition. De Chirico wrote poetry, fiction, memoirs and art criticism. Some of the painter’s thoughts on art were formed in a poetic allusive manner akin to that of prose poems.

The inclusion of much written material is the reason for the exhibition’s title “Reading de Chirico”. Poems and letters exhibited are reproduced in the catalogue and translated. They include and Metaphysical poems and love letters to Cornelia, written at a time of romantic turmoil. The artist had just married his long-standing partner Raissa before separating from her. This period (1929-30) was also when he met his future second wife, Isabella. Two important letters dated from 1910 and 1911 are printed. These establish the date of the foundation of Metaphysical Art. Recent attempts to locate the origins of Metaphysical Art to 1909 – and to attribute the foundational ideas to de Chirico’s brother Alberto Savinio – have not been generally accepted. These letters bolster the case for the accepted history, namely that de Chirico commenced painting in a Metaphysical style in the summer of 1910 in Florence.

The Metaphysical Art journal has been publishing de Chirico’s writing (and writing about him, as well as letters to him) over the last decade in Italian, French and English. This has contributed to a wider understanding of de Chirico as a writer and the links between his writing and art. This catalogue and exhibition further that aim.

There are two articles by the de Chirico on lesser known contemporary artists and other more general pieces on de Chirico’s art. There is an angry polemic against the domination of Modernism. “No one raised a voice in defence of reality with regard to art or to life itself. Fake intellectuals, having renounced truth, which they considered lost, tried to expel reality from all manifestations of the spirit. These fake intellectuals of our unfortunate age…” In another article he explains the persistent melancholy of absence in his art.

I remember the strange and profound impression a picture seen in an old book bearing the title The World before the Deluge made upon me as a child. It represented a landscape of the tertiary period. Man had not yet appeared I have often meditated on the strange phenomenon of “human absence” in metaphysical aspects.

The lithographic illustrations of Mysterious Baths images for Cocteau’s Mythologie (1934) are reproduced in full in the catalogue. (They are displayed only partially visible in the exhibition vitrine.) Illustrations of works such as The Daughters of Minos (Antique Scene in Pink and Blue II) (1933) show just how peculiar they are. In this small painting one sees classical motifs on a generic shore, predominantly blue in hue, with discrete areas painted in monochrome red-pink and orange-pink. Like an optical illusion, it gives the impression of being a classical work or art while aggressively asserting it is nothing of the kind. It exists in two states: classical and Modern. In this instance, the modes are incompatible and contradictory. In terms of figural motifs and iconography it is classical; in terms of handling and palette it is Modern. They fluctuate.  When we consider one the other does not impinge upon us; as soon as we consider the other aspect the first is forgotten (or at least impossible to incorporate into our consideration). Like the famous optical illusion, we can see the old woman and the young woman in one picture but never at the same time. If de Chirico understood what he was doing in this painting (in terms of optical perception and modal schematism) is unclear.

An essay by Gavin Parkinson discusses the reception by the Surrealists of de Chirico’s writing and the artist’s views on Symbolism, Impressionism, Courbet and other art. Parkinson’s mention of the criticism of Magritte, de Chirico and Picabia’s “bad painting” cites de Chirico’s use of bright colour in the post-War variations of classic Metaphysical compositions as a conscious response to that criticism or even a reaction to Pop Art. Parkinson suggests that de Chirico’s “bad” colour was an attempt to combat the fashionable connoisseurship that generated demand for his Metaphysical paintings. It seems much more likely that the artist, bored and belittled by the requirement to paint replicas at the behest of dealers and collectors, was simply attempting to retain engagement during the painting process by exaggerating the colours. The aim was most likely an attempt to see how variation might intensify a feeling or introduce an element of unpredictability into the stultifying work. The powerful palette is an attempt to stimulate the artist himself.

In the Neo-Metaphysical period (1960s-1978) the painter needed to sustain his engagement and bring something new to established compositions. The addition of the Mysterious Baths, sun-on-easel and the sun/moon-cord motifs were a means to provide the painter with a syncretic language, vary his art and summarise his former periods in his last period. It seems a private choice, one detached from consideration of the debate over “bad art”, Pop Art or the expectations of others. The Neo-Metaphysical works are one of de Chirico’s most important achievements. With droll wit and disconcerting mental agility de Chirico reassembled his artistic world in a theatre of cosmological paradox which is deeply unsettling and to this day barely understood.

Katherine Robinson (ed.), Reading de Chirico, Forma Edizioni/Tornabuoni Art, 2017, hardback, 256pp, fully illus., English/Italian, £45, ISBN 978-88-99534-49-3