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Monday, November 5, 2018

Fantastico! Italian Art from the 1920s and 1930s

A dazzling and comprehensive exhibition, Fantastico! at Helsinki’s Ateneum sheds much needed light on the Magical Realism movement that flourished in Italy between the two World Wars. The Magical Realists used extreme realism to depict everyday subjects, conveyed in such a way—using light, space, strange juxtapositions of objects and just plain glorious painting—to endow them with a sense of mysterious power. It was a revelatory show full of ravishing work by artists who, with the exception of de Chirico, were all unknown to me.

Where have Baccio Maria Bacci, Felice Casorati, Bruno Croatto, Antonio Donghi, Ubaldo Oppi and Cagnaccio di San Pietro been all my life? The richness of these artists' oeuvres in terms of subject matter and technique is simply staggering, harking back to a tradition akin to the great masters of the Italian Renaissance. But the Magical Realists put their own spin on painting, using a modern approach to composition, color choice and subject matter, and infusing their work with deep psychological or enigmatic drama, and sometimes, humor.

The very first work, a strange allegory by Felice Casorati, Young Ladies (1912) depicts four women Dolores, Molante, Bianca and Giocanda together with a turkey in front of an expansive pine tree that takes up the background. Three of the women are dressed, one rather plainly (Dolores), but all quite chic (I question the date because the hemlines are way too short for 1912), the fourth (Bianca), a waif-like creature, is nude. She extends her arms in a kind of supplication. Three are solemn and one (Giocanda), a plump blonde, is grinning. Dolores has her hands at her face in either surprise or distress, Molante holds an embellished porcelain or enamel box and gazes shyly sideways at Bianca. At the women's feet various objects—fruit, flowers, small vases and pots, fans, jewelry, a large silver fluted box, books and scrolls of paper on which the women’s names appear—are arrayed across a green blanket. The juxtaposition of objects, moods and dress is ambiguous and the effect is both curious and haunting. 

With their velvety surfaces and palette of rich color, Antonio Donghi’s paintings have a sumptuous quality that is irresistible. He places his highly-detailed subjects within relatively spare compositions creating an otherworldly, dreamlike effect. This is on full display in The Juggler (1936), with its elegantly attired man in purple plus fours balancing a top hat on a cigar in a stage-set of a room. Donghi revels in his textures, artfully rendering the sheen of the patent leather dancing pumps, the silk stockings and the plush knickers, each perfectly keyed to its distinctive material. The background has a peculiar artificiality with stilted table and vase of flowers on the right and monolithic gold-fringed curtain on the left. 

splendid study in the use of color, Donghi's luscious Vase of Flowers (1928), is a tightly packed arrangement of jonquils, narcissus and purple hellebore in an olive glass vase. His Laundresses, a more down to earth subject, features monumental figures that recall Diego Rivera.

In Bacci Maria Baccio’s Afternoon in Fiesole (1926-29), two couples linger around a table after lunch. The remains of their meal, a bowl of figs and peaches, some red wine and a roll sit on the tablecloth. One of the men is playing the guitar. A woman is standing lost in thought before an arched window through which one can see a distinctive Italian landscape. 
In the foreground, the other woman is seated, her back to the viewer, her head inclined towards the music. To her right, the second man is looking with such wounded longing, not at the guitarist, but directly at her, adding a powerful note of romantic intrigue. There is a degree of spirituality and nostalgia to the scene, but with the man's expression and the obscured woman, Baccio has taken an anodyne domestic scene, and imbued it with such mystery and emotional intensity, it piques our interest and stays with us long after we have moved on.

Ubaldo Oppi’s Artist’s Wife with Portrait of Venice in the Background (1921) made me laugh out loud on account of Signora Oppi’s “don’t-give-me-that-again” expression. This is a wife who has been given the run around once too often and I love the fact Oppi captures that. You wonder how she felt about being represented so. Did it land Oppi in the dog house yet again? Or was she dazzled by the beauty of the painting in which she resembles a modern day Bronzino. The striking teal of her velvet, possibly Fortuny, gown matches the canal behind her and provides the perfect tonal contrast to the salmon brick campanile. Once again, the background is spare, but Oppi does a masterful job of conveying Venice with so very little. He doesn't forget the important details, paying careful attention to his wife’s jeweled rings, the elaborate lacing of her sleeves and the fringe of feathers on her cuffs.

Bruno Croatto’s portraits are stop-you-in-your-tracks arresting.The austere and detailed Portrait of Rodolfo Fogolin (1932) presents the architect and friend of the painter on the terrace of his Roman villa with ruins in low horizon line beyond. In front of him lies an open volume of "I Quattro Libri dell'Architettura" by Andrea Palladio. Fagolin has an interesting face (
he bears a striking resemblance to the Shah of Iran imho). It's oblong with soulful eyes, a large, slightly bulbous nose and thin, set lips bracketed by deep lines. Clearly a man of style, he sports an eye-catching saffron colored jacket and a devil-may-care, askew black bow tie against a blue shirt. He towers over his surroundings, Palladio, ancient Rome, a metaphor perhaps of Croatto’s very high opinion of him.

Un "Adagio" de Schubert (1937) is a portrait of Croatto’s wife. He uses the conceit of painting her listening to music as a means to tell us something essential about her. Clearly, she is enraptured by Schubert’s music. She leans in towards it, her bird like fingers in black gloves stretch out to it, their shadows falling on the wall behind. Their expressive shapes provide a counterpoint to the ruffles of the white jabot at her throat. She is painted in profile. An atypical approach that is dramatic and maybe designed to show off her best features: those high cheek bones and perfect nose. Her hair is swept back, held in place by a tortoise shell headband, to further reveal her visage. A handsome woman, past youth, she is serious about music and serious about life and this is conveyed not only by what she is doing but also by the stripped-down composition and monochromatic palette that recalls a Whistler.

Croatto’s intense Self-Portrait in the Studio (1931) 
conveys the gravity with which he takes himself. An odd looking man with piercing blue eyes and exaggerated lightbulb shaped head, he is deadly serious about what he does. He holds the tools of his trade, brushes, a mahl stick and a palette in his left hand, his right arm is gracefully crooked on the chair with a brush held like a pen in his right hand. He is pausing in the act of painting. On the table in front of him, next to a tube of paint, are cigarettes spilling from a package, a lit one is balanced on the table. They are both important to him and add visual interest and a grounding reality to the work. As with the portrait of his wife, the palette is reduced to a minimum. And here, like a low voice that captures your attention in a room full of chatter, the beige and tans add emphasis by virtue of their subtlety.

Cagnaccio di San Pietro’s After the Orgy (1928) (pictured) is a stunner that showcases Cagnaccio’s photorealist style and compositional brio. It’s a titillating subject matter for the 1920s, but it’s more bark than bite. Despite the title and the nudity, the painting is quite tame. Legs are crossed or backs are turned so the naughty bits aren’t visible. And there's something staged about the figures 
passed out on the floor in different posesas if the whole premise for the painting, in addition to conveying some bad boy cred to Cagnaccio, was to provide a means for him to showcase his anatomical knowhow

Texture and hue are used to great effect. Alabaster skin and muscle, bone and sinew have a substance and quality that stands out against the other inanimate materials. Cagnaccio makes such interesting color choices: gray, rust, carmine and a mossy green. Subtle "off colors", they have a depth and intensity that is just gorgeous, which sets the tone for the work and also comprise what there is of the interior decoration: carpet, curtain, blanket, pillows. If we admire them today, just think how fresh, and even bizarre they would have looked when originally painted, when much of the domestic environments would still be in the grip of a heavy-handed 19th decorative aesthetic.

Littering the floor are two champagne bottles and glasses, some cards and several cigarette butts, one with a cigarette-length ash suggesting it was dropped soon after being lit when its owner became, er, distracted. A lone dress shirt cuff complete with cufflink lies amid the disarray, suggesting abandon and haste during disrobing. Neatly placed on a cushion, a man’s homburg rests on a pair of white gloves. It’s all so studied and decorous as to be amusing. Still, it doesn’t detract from the visual power of the painting. Indeed, it provides the magic unreality of the realism.

Cagnacico’s Zoologia (1928),a nude self-portrait with a female nude is more erotic, and disturbing. It’s not just the way he’s pinning the woman down, but the perspective and lighting add a sense of discord. It's also incredibly modern. Though more refined, or romantic than the nudes of Philip Pearlstein (who would have been four when Zoologia was painted), it has his degree of exacting realism, deemed pretty darn daring when he was painting them 40-odd years later (and post-Sexual Revolution). The title refers to the book on the bed, but also suggests our biological drives are no different from those of animals. If you look closely you’ll see that the authors of the book are Adam and Eve and at the bottom the English translation reads: “Edition revised and corrected by modern society”.

There are several striking Cagnaccio still lifes in the show including Still Life with a Spider Crab (1933) and Play of Colors (1941), a study of transparency that features colored liquid in glass containers.

Portrait of Signora Vighi (1930) is a visual delight with all the details—her smart, red gown, her strapped court shoes, the book on her lap, the rings, the armchair and pillows—rendered with precision and flair. Poor Signora Vighi, though painted in oil, is no "oil painting”, despite her elegant clothing coiffed hair and highly plucked brows. She has a rather lost, bovine look about her. 
In an oddball visual flourish that adds a dash of quirk and makes the painting so modern and relevant to today, Cagnaccio has included two funny brightly colored toys, a dog and a chicken on the polished table beside Signora Vighi. Perhaps they're a reference to her maternal status, but judging from Cagnaccio's other works, more likely they're a waggish comment on the sitter. 

Cagnaccio’s Self-Portrait (1938) takes a completely different tact from Croatto. There are no props to tell you he’s a painter. He’s depicted from above with very little extra space around him. He rests his chin on his finger and gazes out with a pensive, almost quizzical look, not sure what to make of what he sees. You’re not sure if he’s about to burst out laughing. It’s an apt self-portrait for the painter of After the Orgy and Zoologia, someone who seemed to enjoy mischief making.

These works provide a delicious window into early 20th century Italy, its people, fashion, domestic interiors, etc. They are also tour de forces of painting: lush, elegant, technically accomplished with narrative aspects that are equally developed. There is intensity, fervor and spirituality with roots that can be traced to the Renaissance and the Catholic painting tradition. Here, the religious dogma has been subverted by the secular, with the focus on psychological and existential concerns. But the same degree of drama and emotion are there, along with the technical bravado that marks them as distinctly and irrefutably Italian.