by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |

Italy's 'Return to Order'

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 26 December 1998
Private collection
Silvana Cenni by Felice Casorati, 1922



Having been the country that in 1909 produced the Futurist Manifesto advocating a violent and total break with the past, Italy within a decade became the scene of a radical rethink on applications of the traditional in contemporary art.

The magazine 'Valori Plastici' (Plastic Values), published in Italian and French from 1918 to 1921, was both a reflection of this change in direction, and sometimes a driving force behind it. It was launched by the critic Mario Broglio, who died 50 years ago this month, and his Lithuanian artist wife Edita Walterowna von Zur Muehlen, and the anniversary is marked by an attractive exhibition, entitled 'Valori Plastici,' devoted to the story of the magazine and the works of the artists associated with it, at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni (until Jan. 18).

Well-chosen pieces by all the relevant Italian artists are here, as well as by artists beyond the peninsula representing what Jean Cocteau (a contributor to the magazine) termed a 'return to order': Picasso, Derain, Klee, Kandinsky and Marc and others.

As influential as the magazine was, Broglio's series of small illustrated books on movements in modern art, Old Masters and non-European art, many of them by artists - Carlo Carra writing on Derain, Gino Severini on Manet, Giorgio de Chirico on Courbet and so on. Broglio also organized a touring group exhibition to Germany in 1921 and to Florence in 1922.

'Valori Plastici' broadly advocated a return to 'classical' values rather than academicism, the reinterpretation of traditional art, not its imitation -- and the results took on many forms.

De Chirico and Carra were then the primary practitioners of what the former's friend, the French poet Apollinaire, called 'metaphysical' painting. De Chirico was born and brought up in Greece, and was obsessed with ancient Greek mythology, which had a direct impact on his subject matter, but his eerie, near-empty townscapes were inspired by Italian Renaissance models.

Achille Funi's striking 'Umberto Notari in his Office in Piazza Cavour in Milan' (1921) in his dark suit, tie and stiff collar is posed like a Venetian doge or admiral by Bellini or Tintoretto, but the window at his side gives onto a view not of a distant landscape or galleys at sea, but a modern city square and trams. Severini returns to the image of the Virgin Mary and Child, now stripped of explicit religious symbols and almost voluptuous, in his 'Motherhood' (1916). And Felice Casorati in his brilliant portrait 'Silvana Cenni' (1922) captures the mysterious stillness of a Piero della Francesca in a semi-modern guise. Casorati (1883-1963) is also the subject of shows at the Marescalchi Galleries in Bologna, and in Cortina d'Ampezzo, until Jan. 7.

This year is also the 50th anniversary of De Chirico's move to 31 Piazza di Spagna, where he lived until he died in 1978. The position of this place had for De Chirico, who confessed to an unholy terror of suburbia, an almost mystical significance, as he recorded in his 'Memoirs': 'They say that Rome is the center of the world and that Piazza di Spagna is the center of Rome, so my wife and I would be living in the center of the center of the world, in fact at the summit of centrality and the summit of anti-eccentricity.' The apartment-studio now belongs to the George and Ida de Chirico Foundation and, restored to the way it was at the time of the artist's death, it can be visited on weekday mornings (by appointment only; tel. 06-679546).

With its large sofas, gilded French furniture and Oriental rugs, the apartment looks fairly conventional, but on closer inspection turns out to be a worthy monument to one of the 20th century's more seriously oddball artists.

All the 60 or so pictures on the walls are by De Chirico, covering the full gamut of his styles from his metaphysical works to his neo-Baroque paintings for which he sometimes hired costumes from the Rome Opera to depict himself and his wife in period dress. There is a solitary armchair facing a large television, which he apparently always watched alone with the sound turned down. And his upstairs studio has a Marie Celeste feel to it, with a painting still on the easel that he did not live to complete.

In fact, the collection of pictures here is not only a useful compendium of De Chirico's work, but also a museum of the confusion that it eventually engendered. The examples of his early metaphysical paintings are not 'originals' but copies made by him later in life. He sold many paintings like this, in one case a score of the same one, his argument that since they were his ideas and executed by him the exact date they were done was irrelevant being regarded in the art world as idiosyncratic, to say the least. And he further muddied the waters by, for example, declaring all his works in a Paris show in 1946 to be fakes, some of which in the light of documentary evidence are now accepted as genuine.

Several artists identified with 'Valori Plastici' had previously passed through a Futurist phase, but unlike most Futurists the painter, decorative artist, theater designer and actor Giacomo Balla (1871-1958) remained attached to Futurism until the late 1930s, and to the general notion of the primacy of 'modernity' throughout his career. He was fascinated by fashion to the extent that his paintings were at one point heavily affected by glossy magazines and he was a prolific designer of Futurist clothes and accessories, furnishings and interior decoration.

The fashion designer Laura Biaggioti and her late husband, Gianni Cigna, gathered an impressive collection of Balla's various works, which are on show for the first time en masse in Italy in 'Giacomo Balla: Futurism Between Art and Fashion,' at the Bramante Cloister by the Santa Maria della Pace church, near Piazza Navona (until Jan.31).

This is an enjoyable, sometimes riotously colorful display, including paintings, designs and actual clothes and fittings of a kind that in the metaphysical works of De Chirico and Carra might be viewed as symbolic manifestations of the shadowy, elusive furniture of the psyche, but were clearly regarded by Balla as eminently suitable for everyday use.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024