The New Painting and Sculpture: The Emergence of Abstraction

by LIONELLO VENTURI

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THE three generations of artists working in Italy today can roughly be distinguished as those of more than sixty years old, those between sixty and forty, and those under forty. The oldest group came to maturity between the two World Wars and is largely interested in problems which are those of yesterday, though the younger men can still learn from them. The middle generation has been working since about 1930, but its value has become evident only since the liberation in 1945; this group is producing the artistic themes of today. Our youngest painters naturally think that their elders have had their day and they follow their own instincts in various new directions. The whole picture is one of tremendous ferment which sometimes, if not always, produces results which arc remarkable and of international importance.

Filippo Do Pisis, who died two years ago, is widely recognized as one of the outstanding figures in Italian painting of this century. He has left us many delightful paintings and, in them, an important warning: he tells us that we must catch the fleeting moment in nature, “the joy as it flies" of Blake, without too much concern for the essence of things, and without philosophical prejudice. Though De Pisis was a very well-read man, when he painted he was spontaneous and free from the shackles of any theory. An admirer of Manet, yet sensitive to surrealism, he created a unique style. The dean of living Italian painters is Pio Semeghini (born in 1878), who even before the First World War was an acknowledged master. At that time it was an adventure to follow the French in adopting an impressionism modified by symbolistic refinements; it was a lyrical way of interpreting nature and giving an adequate form to the delicacies of one’s own feeling. Semeghini’s Chiesa della Salute (Plate 1) is typical of the pictorial ideals of his youth, to which he has remained faithful.

Felice Casorati (born in 1886) has not shared the general Italian interest in French art. At first, he associated himself with the Viennese Secession, and later with the less extreme forms of German expressionism. In his way he has been an innovator, or rather a renovator, through his sense of the constructive exigencies of composition (Plate 13).

Massimo Campigli (born in 1895) has achieved a personal style inspired by the Christian painting in the catacombs, enhanced by a fine decorative taste and a certain light and cultured irony (Plate 3). Working in lithography with the great printerdesigner Giovanni Mardersteig of Verona, he has also made an impressive contribution in the field of book illustration.

Historically, the most important event of this century in the artistic life of Italy was the coming, in 1909, of futurism, which carried our then somewhat backward art to the forefront of the international avant-garde. Futurism infused the disintegration of cubism with a dynamism that made room for a more intense expression of abstract forms. Its influence was world-wide, but was at its strongest in Germany when expressionism became abstract. Unfortunately, futurism was directed toward political ends, and so it did not last long as a valuable artistic movement.

Two of the original creators of futurism, Carlo Carrà (born in 1881) and Gino Severini (born in 1883) are still active. Their careers have been very different. Carrà had already abandoned futurism in 1916, when he became interested in De Chirico’s ideas on metaphysical painting, which he sought to relate to the tradition of the Italian primitives, Giotto, Paolo Uccello, and Piero della Francesca. It was a short step from metaphysical painting to a return to nature — to a purified and contemplative realism with affinities to primitivism (Plate 2). Carrà re-established himself in the old tradition and became almost a symbol of what was called the Novecento style. Though it claimed to be “ twentieth century,” this style was actually a sort of superficial and rhetorical classicism; it won great favor with the Fascist regime. Since then, however, Carrà has moved on to other styles; his work is always well thought out in terms of his ideal of plastic form. His limitation has perhaps been his constant preoccupation with theory.

Gino Severini is a Tuscan spirit, full of humor, always looking for new adventures, clever at foreseeing and assessing new things. He too was a futurist from the earliest days of the movement, but he went to France, absorbed French culture and became an apostle of cubism. His style became a coalescence of futurism and cubism, the product of fine taste and a cheerful and brilliant mind. When, all over the world, the extreme revolutionary outposts of art were abandoned, Severini came to rely more on mathematics than on nature. I think that this temporarily lessened his quality as a painter, but, happily, since the War, he has returned to his earlier style.

Perhaps the only Italian painter to have made great art out of the return to nature of the ‘twent ics was Giorgio Morandi (born in 1890). His genius has been recognized both at home and abroad. The sources of Morandi’s artistic quality are his attention to form and color, and his feeling for the cherished and humble things which bespeak the ambience of his own life. Concentrating on the essence of form and color, he emphasizes the subject as little as possible, frequently reducing it to his wellknown arrangements of bottles (Plate 12). Even when Morandi paints a landscape he does not look for remarkable features; if he were to abandon the representational altogether, his painting would still be much as it is. But the artist does not suppress the homely things which he loves, and that very love infuses the forms with an indefinable quality of purity, of sensitivity, and of a miraculous vision. Morandi leaves his home in Bologna only to visit exhibitions in Rome and Venice, but he has shared in the trends of international taste by instinct.

Quite different is the background of Alberto Magnelli (born in 1888) who was in Paris in 1914-15, associating with the futurists, the cubists, and the poets Guillaume Apollinaire and Max Jacob. Being naturally bold and resolute, he pushed himself at once to the very limits of abstract art. Then, seeing reaction triumphant everywhere, he went into seclusion in his own country until 1931, when he returned to Paris. There he has developed in a most original way, producing dynamic abstractions (Plate 30) which have led the counter-movement of those Italian modernists who wished to combat the excessive rhetoric of the Novecento style.

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INDEED, with the fall of Fascism in 1945, almost all the painters of talent among the middle generation sought new freedom in abstract art. It was a spontaneous movement. The leaders of Fascist culture had supported the Novecento style because it was “in the Italian tradition.” As in Germany, the work of the advanced painters of Paris had been officially ridiculed. But the “healthy realism” which the Fascists approved was, in reality, academic and lifeless. Thus the moment the barriers were lowered our most gifted artists rushed to rejoin the international art community. Abstraction was, at it were, the bridge over which Italian painters returned from exile. Every school of nonrepresentational painting was probed and elaborated. In a matter of months, the climate of art in Italy was radically altered.

Needless to say, the public could not change its taste so quickly. There was a violent resistance to this sudden shift by conservatives who refused to abandon conventional standards of judgment based on long familiarity with traditional art. Many of the new painters won recognition abroad before they were accepted at home. Only gradually have they aroused the interest of our more adventurous Italian collectors.

It is perhaps well to reflect that abstract art began as a concentration on style at the expense of exact reproduction. The degrees between representational art and abstract art are infinite, and those who imagine that there is a clear-cut, blackand-white distinction between the two are wrong. It has consequently happened that certain painters have come to abstraction almost without realizing it, simply because they gave free rein to a very strong personal stlye. This was the case with such transitional figures among our middle-generation painters as Fausto Pirandello, Mario Mafai, and Enrico Paulucci.

Among the leading painters of the middle generation who have confidently turned to abstraction, one of the best known in the United States is Afro Basaldella (born in 1912), who signs his canvases with his first name, Afro. He paints his dreams as if they were memories, enhancing them with such perfect, profound harmony of color, technically so elaborated, and with so much Italian delicacy and elegance, that they cannot fail to charm anyone who is not completely prejudiced against nonobjective art (Plate 14). Afro is teaching at Mills College in California.

Often linked with Afro is Giuseppe Santomaso (born in 1907) who loves his native Venice, and expresses the calm of the city through the magic of its characteristic colors (Plate 15). Looking at his pictures makes one really feel one is living in Venice, even though Santomaso deals more in evocations of mood than in identifiable scenes.

If an artist has a distinct personality, it will assert itself in abstract painting immediately and accurately. Renato Birolli (born in 1906) is seen to be a brave man, an optimist who knows how to overcome anguish, and his pictures are explosions of energy, furnaces of passion, triumphant without being rhetorical (Plate 17). Leonardo Ricci (born in 1918), who has come to the forefront after long years of work, endows his painting with moral strength and a tension that is vitality itself. (Plate 28)

Corrado Cagli (born in 1910) alternates between complete abstraction (Plate 16) and realistic illustration, while Renato Guttuso (born in 1912), a militant leftist, insists on the value of style in the representation of reality and seems, in his recent work, less interested than he once was in expressing political theses (Plate 31).

The painters I have mentioned all have securely established reputations. Looking to those under forty, who are only now achieving recognition, one must be guided more by personal taste. To me, Emilio Vedova (born in 1919) and Mattia Moreni (born in 1920) seem especially gifted. Vedova (Plate 29) was a child prodigy who saved himself from the usual consequences only by discipline and passion. For a long time he painted in black on white, without color of any kind, as if to force the violence of his expression into sackcloth. His style is dramatic and of cosmic proportions, as if he were attempting to plead for all mankind. Recently he has been using a few colors and with them has achieved better spatial effects. Moreni is more limited but also more purely an artist; when he gives rein to his imagination he achieves a happy result.

In so brief an article it has been possible to discuss only a few out of the many Italian painters who are doing distinguished work. And for some of the most interesting, it has not been possible to show examples because their colors and forms are too complex for satisfactory reproduction on highspeed presses. Beyond this, it should be noted that there are still hundreds of painters in Italy who are working in the traditional styles of conventional representation. They are popular with a far larger public than has yet accorded its favor to “ modern ” art. But, as in music and, to a lesser degree, in literature, it is the smaller but more gifted group of experimenters and innovators which has again focused the attention of international critics and collectors on Italy.

In the field of sculpture, we find that futurism has also left its mark. No less than with painting, this movement was the catalyst for a decisive break with the traditions of the past. Among the futurists, Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916) was the first in Italy to experiment with the dissection of the plastic planes — a pioneer step toward complete abstraction.

Influential precursors of other schools were the painter Modigliani (1884-1920), whose work in sculpture has only recently come to be appreciated; the impressionist Medardo Rosso (1858-1928); and the gifted Arturo Martini (1889-1947), who worked in many different styles from primitivism to the baroque, from futurism to the classicism of Munich.

Among living Italian sculptors of the older generation, two have achieved world-wide recognition: Giacomo Manzù (born in 1908) and Marino Marini (born in 1901). Manzù at first drew his inspiration from the impressionistic treatment of surface typical of Rosso, but he later went on to develop certain plastic syntheses of striking and powerful originality. The bronze head of a girl (Plate 25) is characteristic of the brilliant work of Manzù’s maturity.

Marino Marini has been influenced by Martini and many others before him from Romanesque sculpture to that of the Tang dynasty in China. But all these sources have been blended into an unmistakably personal style. Although his work is always figurative, an innate feeling for essential abstraction conditions everything Marini does. His Tuscan spirit gives his work structural certainty and dramatic force. Apart from numerous portraits, Marini’s themes are few indeed: the nude, and the oft-repeated horse and rider (Plate 27). His pieces may be called Pomona or Venus, Nude or Youth, but their differences are incidental; all are alike in the fullness and solidity of the bodies and the gentle way in which the forms emerge from the plaster or bronze.

Among the sculptors who use the abstract to transform the real and the real to vitalize the abstract., I might cite Alberto Viani and Carlo Sergio Signori (both born in 1906), Aldo Calò (born in 1910) and Pericle Fazzini (born in 1913). Viani is noted for his abstract marbles of the feminine nude which he imbues with a mysterious life that reverberates on the surface as a spell of beauty (Plate 20). Signori is more rigorous in his work and at the same time freer than Viani. He has the temperament of a workman and a poet, smoothing his marble like a craftsman, cherishing it like a poet. Calò has abandoned realism to develop a balance of full and empty spaces which he learned from Henry Moore.

Among many of the most talented younger sculptors there is a distinct preference for working in metal. The most famous of these metal workers is Mirko [Basaldella] (born in 1910), the brother of the painter Afro. Mirko designed the huge gate at the Ardeatine Caves Monument outside Rome which symbolizes the martyrdom of the innocent. Like Marini, he admires Chinese sculpture and has romanticized his dreams of the East in all their delicacy and cruelty. His best work, however, is completely abstract, and the reality of the imagination here replaces natural reality (Plate 24). For two years now Mirko has been teaching at Harvard.

Nino Franchina (born in 1912) endows metal with a truly aristocratic elegance expressed with natural ease of manner (Plate 22). Umberto Mastroianni (born in 1910) at one time used to give his dramatic figures heavy, monumental bodies (Plate 26), but recently he has been more concerned with linear values. Franco Garelli (born in 1909), a physician with a thorough knowledge of the pathology and decomposition of ihe human body, exploits certain native affinities for surrealism (Plate 23). The Sicilian Pietro Consagra (born in 1920) was one of the earliest champions of total abstraction. He creates ideal forms which move like the heroic legions of old toward the conquest of the absolute (Plate 21). There is something rational, aware, monumental, even classical in Consagra’s work, which seems to have a great future.

What, we may ask, is the social and economic “climate" in which these gifted painters and sculptors are working? I am afraid that many parents still resist the idea that a child should choose art as a career — unless, of course, it is commercial art in such fields as advertising, decorating, illustration, or film work. The purely creative artist still has to face economic difficulties which, one may say, are proportionate to his distance from tradition and conformism.

The average Italian shows little understanding of modern art. The work of our best contemporary artists is more in demand in the United States, in some Latin American countries, in Holland and in Scandinavia, than in Italy. Fortunately for the artists, foreign dealers have pushed prices for the best Italian work to a high level.

The Italian Government does buy some modern art for museums, but the funds available are very limited. The State also tries to encourage artists with prizes and through national and international art shows. The most important of these are the Biennale of Venice, the Triennale of Milan (specializing in architecture and applied arts), and the Quadriennale in Rome.

Works to be exhibited in these shows are usually selected by a jury composed of critics. The consequence is that these exhibitions, more often than not, reflect the ideological or political orientation of official criticism rather than the living trends of contemporary Italian art. On the other hand, the Biennale and the Triennale are run by international commissions, a system which is far more satisfying to the avant-garde artists.

We have as well a number of privately sponsored shows with prizes attached to them. Among these are the Marzotto prize and the Fila prize, which are awarded to artists and writers in alternate years. These prizes are often quite substantial, and they exert strong stimulus in Italian artistic life — even if they fail to stimulate the local collectors’market. Most important of these prizes are those established by the Feltrinelli Foundation which are awarded annually by the Academy of the Lincei to Italian and foreign artists. This year they were won by the French painter Braque and the sculptor Mirko.

Translated by Patrick Brasier-Creagh