Italian Painting, Before the Fall

Mario Sironi, “Composizione con elica (Composition with Propeller)” (1919), tempera and collage on board, 29 5/16 × 24 3/16 inches, Mattioli Collection, Italy, © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS) / SIAE, Rome (all images courtesy the Center for Italian Modern Art)

If you plan to go to the exhibition Metaphysical Masterpieces 1916-1920: Morandi, Sironi, and Carrà at the Center for Italian Modern Art (CIMA) — and if you have even a passing interest in this vital moment in Italian painting, you should — I would suggest that you step off the elevator, take a long look at the crystalline Giorgio de Chirico directly in front of you, and then turn right.

The de Chirico, “Metaphysical Interior with Small Factory” from 1917, one of the artist’s paintings-within-a-painting, acts as a kind of avatar for the show: the very term Pittura metafisica, or Metaphysical Painting, was coined in 1913 by the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire to describe his work.

For de Chirico, the style gelled in 1910, during the heyday of Analytical Cubism, when he managed to fuse the dark Symbolism of Arnold Böcklin, the innocent eye of Henri Rousseau, and the radical critiques of Friedrich Nietzsche into a vision of desolate piazzas, vertiginous perspectives, and mannequin stand-ins for a soulless humanity.

As such, unlike later movements associated with European culture’s “return to order” — Neo-Classicism in France, Neue Sachlichkeit in Germany, and Plastici Valori in Italy, to name a few — Metaphysical Painting did not arise from the industrial-scale devastation of World War I. Rather, for a brief period during and after the conflict, it presented itself as a pre-existing philosophical refuge for Italian artists as they shook off their Futurist sugar high and began to rethink whether the glorification of war was such a good idea after all.

Mario Sironi, “Venere dei porti (Venus of the Ports)” (1919), tempera and collage on paper on canvas
389/16 × 284/4 inches, Casa Museo Boschi Di Stefano, Comune Di Milano (© 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS) / SIAE, Rome)

That’s the simplified version. In reality, early 20th-century Italian art-world politics were just as fluid, confusing, and personality-driven as current-day Italian electoral politics, and the career of Mario Sironi, with its fluctuating and at times dubious (read Fascist) associations, is a good example of that complexity.

But it should be spelled out at the onset that all three of these artists were affiliated with Fascism to a greater or lesser extent. Sironi was the most committed, which contributed significantly to his postwar obscurity, while the monastic Giorgio Morandi is the hardest to pin down, having maintained ties to anti-Fascists into the war years, friendships that led to his arrest and brief detention by the secret police.

The CIMA exhibition wraps up its timeline two years before the Fascist takeover of the Italian government in 1922, reflecting a period of interiority on the knife-edge of a nation’s existential crackup. In that regard, the brooding works of Sironi, which surround you if you take that right turn upon entering the gallery, are the most emblematic of the dark undercurrents unraveling the social fabric.

Sironi’s netherworld, rendered in Klieg-light chiaroscuros of chalky whites and sooty blacks, never settles into a single stylistic camp despite the overriding influence of Metaphysical Art, tapping Cubism, Futurism, and Expressionism for its disquieting visions.

His “Composizione con elica (Composition with Propeller)” (1919) is a jumble of mechanical parts, less a celebration of industrialization than the sensation of it blowing up in your face. The painting, done in tempera on board, includes pasted cutouts from the pages of a Spanish trade magazine that reiterate the collage innovations of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso earlier in the decade.

Carlo Carrà, “L’idolo ermafrodito (The Hermaphrodite Idol)” (1917), oil on canvas, 25 9/16 × 16 9/16 inches, Fondation Mattioli Rossi, Switzerland (© 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS) / SIAE, Rome)

This formal device fits the Cubist/Futurist feel of the piece, but Sironi also introduces type-filled shapes into his more representational works, such as “Venere dei porti (Venus of the Ports)” and “Il camion giallo (The Yellow Truck),” both completed in 1919, the same year as “Composition with Propeller.” The collaged passages, in their changed pictorial context, turn the stark illusionism of Sironi’s harshly lit volumetric forms on its head, exciting a disruptive modernity that evokes the anti-art impulse found a half-century later in the Neo-Dadaist Pop of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.

Of the three artists in the exhibition, Sironi goes farthest in admitting the outside world into his work, with paintings such as “Venus of the Ports,” a darkly pessimistic apparition of prostitution along the docks, and “La guerra (The War)” (also 1919), with its blinded, shattered veteran foisted upright like a breathing corpse. He may have agitated for what would become Italy’s dominant power structure for the next two decades, but perhaps his creative core sensed that better days were not ahead.

On the other side of the gallery entrance, you encounter a small but absorbing set of works by Carlo Carrà, including the quintessentially Metaphysical paintings “L’idolo ermafrodito (The Hermaphrodite Idol)” (1917), “Il cavaliere occidentale (The Western Knight)” (1917), and “L’amante dell’ingegnere (The Engineer’s Lover)” (1921), along with the drawing “Gentiluomo ubriaco (Drunk Gentleman)” (1916).

Carlo Carrà, “Il cavaliere occidentale (The Western Knight)” (1917), oil on canvas, 20 1/2 × 26 3/8 inches, Fondation Mattioli Rossi, Switzerland (© 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS) / SIAE, Rome)

Contrasting sharply with Sironi’s night visions, Carrà’s crisp, solid forms sparkle with clear-eyed color and more than a touch of humor. His “Western Knight” is a riveted-together mannequin or puppet, crouched atop his equally faceted horse, which doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. The “Hermaphrodite Idol” looks more mannequin than human, and, despite its presumably pagan pedigree, it raises its hand in a characteristically Christian gesture of benediction, though there is no one to receive the blessing.

“The Engineer’s Lover” is among the most Chirico-esque of Carrà’s images, with its deep blue sky and still life arrangement of a drafting triangle and a pair of calipers on one side and a rod on the other, along with a classical-looking bust of a woman’s head, evidently the eponymous lover, teetering with eyes closed on an unnaturally elongated neck. The big-nosed “Drunk Gentleman,” meanwhile, slips into full-on caricature.

These idiosyncratic imaginings encompass a compact overview of Carrà’s Metaphysical output, the movement’s most salient body of work other than that of de Chirico and his polymath brother, Alberto Savinio, the subject of last season’s exhibition at CIMA. Carrà’s buoyant, fanciful reveries provide an exquisite counterpoint to the studied lucidity that Morandi, whose works fill the gallery’s largest room, brought to the gravity-bound objects of his tabletop universe.

Giorgio Morandi, “Natura morta (Still Life)” (1919), oil on canvas, 22 1/4 × 18 1/2 inches, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, Courtesy of MiBAC (© 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS) / SIAE, Rome)

In these works, we find none of the creamy variations on a theme that emerged in Morandi’s paintings of the late ’20s, whose motifs and methods remained more or less constant until the end of his life. For the most part, other than a trio of flower paintings from 1916, ’17, and ’18, brought together here for the first time, each picture is decidedly different from the rest.

The selections bounce from a still life done in hard-edged, Cubist flatness to another painted with Rousseau-ish naïveté, to a blocky landscape that could have been made by Marsden Hartley — all in the same year, 1916, when he turned 26.

Three years later, he is just as restless: in one exactingly painted still life, indefinable objects sit inside a thoroughly ambiguous, if not illogical, space, while in another canvas, the items are immediately recognizable — a bottle, a compote, and two cylinders alongside what looks like a sculptural mold, laid out in single-point perspective and rendered with a more painterly touch. The latter composition marks the path that Morandi would take to the lush “Natura morta con tavola (Still Life with Table)” of 1920, the centerpiece of his portion of the exhibition, and on to his mature, signature style.

Giorgio Morandi, “Natura morta (Still Life)” (1919), oil on canvas, 23 1/4 × 23 5/8 inches, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, Courtesy of MiBAC (© 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS) / SIAE, Rome)

Another feature that carried into his mature work is the stunning level of luminosity that he infuses into the all too deadly combination of umber, ocher, and sienna, turning his paintings into small miracles of earth tones. While it took about a decade for Morandi to become Morandi, his centeredness as a painter and his preternatural ability to coax the maximum quotient of life from his pigments were there from the beginning.

Morandi’s otherworldly images present nothing as alienated and strange as the dreamscapes of de Chirico, Carrà, and Sironi, but they don’t have to. As de Chirico wrote in his essay, “On Metaphysical Art,” published in the April-May 1919 issue of the magazine Valori Plastici:

The appearance of a metaphysical work of art is serene; it gives the impression, however, that something new must happen amidst this same serenity, and that other signs apart from those already apparent are about to enter the rectangle of the canvas. […] For this reason the flat surface of a perfectly calm ocean disturbs us […] because of all the elements of the unknown hidden in that depth.

The pictures Morandi made under the Metaphysical rubric are derived from neither myth nor Nietzsche; whatever is roiling the depths beneath their serenity is contained in the paint itself.

Metaphysical Masterpieces 1916-1920: Morandi, Sironi, and Carrà continues at the Center for Italian Modern Art (421 Broome Street, 4th Floor, Soho, Manhattan) through June 15, 2019.

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